By Dustyn Addington and Whitney Johnson

Vu Le asks if those in the non-profit and philanthropic world can agree on his simple definition of equity:

“Equity is about ensuring the communities most affected by injustice get the most money to lead in the fight to address that injustice, and if that means we break the rules to make that happen, then that’s what we do.”

This is a helpful account, bringing three issues to the forefront:

A.  The concept of equity includes an ethical motivation to triage the most adversely-affected communities.

B.  Commitments to equity tend to be about verbal commitments, rather than funding commitments.

C.  There is an important tension between the work and outcomes non-profits and philanthropic organizations seek on one hand, and the norms of the status quo on the other. Vu connects this idea with rule breaking.

While all of these points deserve discussion and analysis, the concept of rule-breaking in Point C is especially interesting, in that it suggests the definition might not be so simple.

First we must ask what rules we are discussing. If rules means the norms of society (the implicit rules and patterns according to which we behave), then the claim appears intuitively correct. If the world is inequitable, we must behave differently in order to achieve equity. Vu points to the small percentage of philanthropic funding given to organizations led by or embedded in communities of color and other marginalized communities, despite the growth in popularity of equity language within the field.

This extends to the “racial leadership gap” in non-profit and philanthropic sectors and other ways that non-profit and philanthropic organizational structures and investments mimic, rather than combat, inequitable patterns, and practices. A 2016 report from the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy reported that “only 1 in 10 of the largest foundations devoted 50% or more of their grant dollars for the direct benefit of underserved groups”. It might be the case that organizations and individuals are less likely to break from the norm, even when they know it is ethically right to do so.

The rules, if interpreted to be laws and regulations, have some amount of authority connected to them. It’s important to society that people generally believe in the power and authority of the law, as we work to make our civic structures more equitable, transparent, just and fair. However, it seems obvious that not all laws are just or equally applied, and not all just actions are lawful. Questions about what rules are permissible to break, for what reasons, and in what contexts are central to liberal democracies. For equity work to be successful, the following questions must be confronted:

Are the laws and regulations we abide by working to benefit those we serve, or do they harm them?

Are we willing to break laws and regulations in order to achieve more just outcomes for those we serve?

The above questions are premised on the assumption and acknowledgment of the power dynamics inherent in the relationships and commitments of non-profit organizations to their communities. We explore these questions in order to both illuminate the boundaries that structure our work (often invisibly) and to seek a path in which we can both work more equitably and achieve more equitable outcomes.


Are the laws and regulations we abide by working to benefit those we serve or do they harm them?


To answer this question, one must first understand the laws and regulations at play, and determine how to appropriately evaluate their actual (or potential) harm. Additionally, it may be helpful to analyze the common practices and processes that structure how non-profits and philanthropic organizations function to determine if and how these norms further inequities. Are these inequities linked to larger institutional pressures such as federal laws and regulations? Or do they reflect only the organization’s choices? This may help to highlight those behaviors that can be improved internally as well as those that can be targeted for change via advocacy, political action and systems change efforts.


Are we willing to break laws and regulations in order to achieve more just outcomes for those we serve?


Breaking laws and regulations are ultimately counter to the mission of philanthropies and non-profits by threatening the ability and functioning of the organization. With rare exception, the penalties for non-profits and philanthropies for breaking laws and regulations that proscribe their governance and functioning would undermine the finances, operational efficacy, and reputational status of the organizations (and on a broader scale, the field). These losses would likely, over time, be insurmountable barriers to achieving the stated equity goals of these organizations. Rare exceptions to this rule may be organizations focused on acting out or supporting with material resources, acts of civil disobedience targeted at emphasizing laws and regulations that are harmful and unjust.

Thus, there are patterns of behavior that are not codified that are often treated as a legal requirement, which may just be norms of the sector. And there may be laws and regulations that run counter to equitable process that can be best countered through political advocacy and legal action. However, if we start from a place of just outcomes, we can trace the non-codified aspects of philanthropic and non-profit practice that are counter to equitable practice as defined by Vu, and also increase barriers between communities and all kinds of capital (human, social, financial).

Vu’s definition is both interesting and helpful, but it might not be as simple as initially framed. There are important, difficult, and consequential conversations that must be had within and across non-profit/philanthropic organizations. What must be done? What are you willing to do? Are they the same?