So You Want to Hire an Equity Consultant:

A Guide for Leaders and Organizations

By Kerrien Suarez with contributors Ericka Hines, Andrew Plumley, Kate Loving & Seana Jean

This content was originally published as a Woke@Work blog series designed to help nonprofit and philanthropic organizations engage consultants to build a Race Equity Culture

We could not have foreseen the historical course of 2020 and the exponential increase in demand for race equity training and capacity building following the murders of countless Black and trans individuals— Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Michelle Michellyn Ramos Vargas and many others— sparking Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide. To address the urgent need organizations have expressed for support in navigating how to begin building a Race Equity Culture, we’ve republished our 2018 “So You Want to Hire an Equity Consultant” blog series as a guide for leaders and organizations seeking to begin this work in earnest. 

For additional context on how leaders and organizations can navigate the profound issues of racial and health inequity that have converged in 2020, see the following: “Do Black Lives Matter in Your Organization: Living into the Values of Your Public #BLM Statement,” “Centering Race Equity and Thinking Strategically in a Long-Term Crisis: A Discussion of Organizational Responses to COVID-19” and “COVID-19: Using a Racial Justice Lens Now to Transform Our Future.”   If your organization released a public statement earlier this year, and seeks to engage a consultant to begin living into the values it articulated, see the following: “What Big Business Said in All Those Anti-Racism Statements: Not Much, Says Our Analysis,”“Is Your Company Actually Fighting Racism or Just Talking About It,” and “Toward a Racially Just Workplace.”

Downloadable version coming soon!

Guiding Principles and Tools

Budget Wisely

Building a Race Equity Culture requires a significant investment of time and financial resources over years.

Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture includes some cost benchmarks:

Allocate Enough Funding

Allocate enough funding to cover a consultant’s support for at least a year, and include it in the organizational budget.

Intentional, sustained work (at the four levels on which racism exists: personal/internalized, interpersonal, institutional, structural) over 12 to 18 months drives a depth of action and change that can yield meaningful shifts in culture. Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, negotiated an arrangement with a team of consultants who designed a timeline and action plan that spanned two calendar years, but was funded across three budget years to manage costs

An equity line item in the organizational budget can fund external consultant support as well as training from race equity capacity building organizations (such as Race Forward, Interaction Institute for Social Change, People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training or Racial Equity Institute). Doing a training to establish a shared language and context on race and structural racism is generally a precursor to engaging a consultant whose support will help the organization prioritize equity as a sustainably funded initiative within a multi-year strategic plan.

Project Types and Process

Do your homework on the equity project types and processes consultants support.

Talk to colleagues whose work with consultants has yielded measurable action and culture change on race equity, and get their input on project goals, scope and pacing. Review this tool from the Denver Foundation’s Inclusiveness Project, which was designed to help nonprofit organizations scope a project and hire a consultant. It includes the following:

  • Exercises to help organizations decide the project elements for which they require support
  • Guidance on hourly pricing and overall time commitment by project type
  • Potential interview questions for consultants
  • Recommendations for developing a consultant evaluation process

A note on traditional RFP’s, which EiC recommends against:

Fakequity highlights they can be a “waste of time and money”, especially for consultants (often of color) asked to submit detailed plans from which ideas are extracted and used to inform work with someone else. White dominant organizational culture dictates that RFP’s are frequently a requirement for expenditures over a certain dollar amount, or for processes outside of the organization’s previous project experience.  Doing racial equity change work fundamentally challenges white dominant culture, and forces an organization to consider how the RFP timeline and process, as well as how relationships built with potential thought partners as part of it, must shift to center people and communities of color, and accountability to them. Think critically and intentionally about expanding your network to ensure you are sourcing consultants with the equity expertise and lived experience that will mitigate white dominant culture in your work together, not replicate it. This list of Global Majority Education Consultants and Vendors is an excellent example of a resource organizations can utilize to identify consultants who otherwise would not be surfaced through typically homogenous personal and professional networks.

Budget and Timeline

Be realistic about what you can accomplish within your budget and timeline.

Often, when organizations seek consultant support for this work, the scope is not realistically aligned to the budget or calendar. The work almost always costs more and takes longer than organizations expect or would hope. There is a sense of urgency around achieving measurable “outcomes,” which takes years in race equity work, and this characteristic is a core component of how white supremacy culture manifests in organizations. The desire for urgency (and its origin) should be explicitly named as part of a process to intentionally socialize the length of time the work will take, as well as the amount of discomfort individuals, the organization and funders who so often push for “results” will experience. Use this worksheet to help your team navigate discomfort and begin naming how an organizational culture that centers “something different” than urgency, results, power hoarding and other white dominant norms could look. (Get used to being uncomfortable -individually, within teams and across the organization. Discomfort, and the self-reflection it compels, is a critical component of the work, and a key reason why organizations need the support of an external consultant to facilitate a race equity process and the progressive dialogues it entails.)

When scoping the project, consider what it takes to go from lifting a five pound weight to bench-pressing 100. The Denver Foundation tool or the Purpose Outcomes Process (POP) planning model can be helpful here, as can feedback from colleagues on their project scope/goals, and whether they were ultimately accomplished on budget and in what period of time. During the interview process, it is also advisable to ask candidates how confident they are in achieving the desired scope on time and budget, and which potential challenges they foresee (consider it a red flag if someone says they don’t foresee any).

Research Consultants

Do your homework on the consultant and understand their values.

Check with colleagues for referrals to consultants they trust, then check their references and ensure they have a proven track record of leading engagements of the type, scope and length you need. Review this list of sample interview questions to ask consultants created by the Denver Foundation to begin formulating what is important to evaluate in a company that is going to be supporting your DEI and race equity efforts. Ensure you have a clear understanding of the lived experience that brings the consultant to this work and of the values that ground them in it. Be aware of how those values align with those of your organization. RoadMap, a national team of 76 social justice-minded consultants, articulates key values and principles that both guide their work and support learning, quality and client satisfaction.  

As part of the dialogue to understand a consultant’s values, clarify their definitions of and approach to diversity, inclusion and equity versus the work of race equity and racial justice. Often referred to jointly as DEI, diversity, inclusion and equity are distinct concepts that engage different sets of personal behaviors/beliefs and organizational policies/processes to drive different outcomes. The distinctions between diversity, race equity and racial justice approaches are deeply connected to values, and speak to whether a consultant will take a transactional or transformational approach to shifting a white dominant organization’s status quo. These will also indicate whether the consultant centers people of color and accountability to communities of color as critical principles underlying not only the engagement, but organizing and movement building for equity and justice (ABFE’s framework for Responsive Philanthropy in Black Communities and the Anti-Racist Principles from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond are examples). For more context on the distinction between race equity and racial justice, and the role philanthropy has played in cultivating an environment in which many nonprofit and foundation leaders are scrambling to build capacity for the internal work, read this