Director’s Desk: December

The Equity and Core Mission Support at the Heart of our Organization
Karie Herrlinger

Last month, over 300 people convened to hear Dr. Darrick Hamilton share key ideas about Economic Justice, in an event Neighborhood Partnerships was honored to support with Meyer Memorial Trust. If you were not able to join us, you can watch the recording here. Dr. Hamilton articulated important points about the ways our economy has been designed to concentrate wealth and resources, leveraging race and social identity as arbiters of worth, and raising core truths that demand we move boldly to advance an inclusive economic bill of rights.

I have been ruminating on one particular statement Dr. Hamilton made: “Budgets are moral documents.” I find deep resonance with this statement. I have been in my seat at Neighborhood Partnerships (NP) for almost 16 years and have spent a lot of time developing proficiency at navigating the rules and norms of nonprofit financial management. I am a rule follower from way back. However, as NP moves deeper into our equity work, and me along with it, I have been feeling squeezed by the structures and institutions within which we operate. I am curious how we can do it differently. Dr. Hamilton’s statement shines some light on a path forward for me.

We at NP are already on our way to soaking equity deeper and deeper into our culture, practice and organizational systems. Some of our work has been detailed in previous newsletters. This year, one of the things we are endeavoring to do away with is the term “Admin” in how we think about the work of the team that keeps our organization running. We have begun to call it Equity and Core Mission Support. And here I must pause and give acknowledgement and apology: I borrowed this terminology from someone further ahead of me in equity work and neglected to honor their labor by remembering their name. I am sorry and I am grateful for receiving their light.

In shifting to Equity and Core Mission Support, we are acknowledging that we must call out equity in our budget. Integrating equity into everything we do is both a moral imperative and makes our workload bigger. We must slow down to have time to ask hard questions, hear from everyone, try new things, and integrate our learning into our individual bodies, into the body of our organization, and therefore into our programs. This takes time, committed staff, and funding. We have explicitly added organizational responsibilities to all job descriptions which include time devoted to equity learning and implementation, and we are keeping our equity work front and center. All of these humans must be sufficiently supported and . This calls us to envision new ways of looking at how we fund this foundational work.

With Equity and Core Mission Support we are also pushing back against the traditional nonprofit Admin paradigm which says that a well-run nonprofit organization will keep its administrative expense percentage very low. This narrative declares that most of an organization’s funding should go to the delivery of its programs, to the furthering of its work. It sometimes includes coded words like “lean” and “efficient,” two words that do not go with equity. This Admin narrative also falsely segregates the administrative work from the program work, as though the latter can function well without the former. In doing so, it creates a false dichotomy that some staff’s work is more important that other staff’s work. Our program work would grind to a halt without the work of our Equity and Core Mission Support team.

Dr. Hamilton’s statement that budgets are a moral document invites us all to continue to investigate the many ways we make choices with our fundraising and our spending. At NP we have more work to do which will include pushing against existing norms around compensation, the ways that benefits and raises are traditionally weighted in favor of higher-earning staff, and how we select our contractors and vendors. We are looking carefully at how we spend those precious “admin” dollars to have the greatest impact in economic justice terms, right at the heart of our organization.

I will leave you with two more of Dr. Hamilton’s statements: “Lead with your values” and “find some joy in this work.” I hope some joy finds you in this season of lights.

Karie Herrlinger

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