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 Kellman

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 Philanthropy News Digest interview with the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.

Identify Organizational Needs

Identify the skill or expertise your organization needs at this particular time.

It will be different at the very beginning of this work (when you may need foundational training to develop a shared language on race) than one year into the work (when you may need a one to two year action plan with clear learning goals and tactical priorities) than three years into the work (when you may need to ensure that organizational behavior/beliefs and policies/practices are aligned across functions to maintain momentum in building a Race Equity Culture). The Denver Foundation tool referenced above can support organizations in outlining the specific consultant skills needed to achieve immediate project goals.

There Is No “Perfect” Fit

Understand there is no consultant who is the “perfect” fit for your organization.

Perfection is an unrealistic goal, yet organizational culture (built on white dominant standards) prioritizes it. Organizations often get caught in a loop of searching for the “right” consultant and not finding them, which leaves the work at a stand-still. Engaging a firm, a team of independent consultants, or an individual consultant who pulls in colleagues with specific skills and experience for collaboration at key points, is worth considering. Each consultant will bring a set of race, gender, sexual orientation and class (among other) identities to the work, which moderates how they give feedback and facilitate discussions with individuals and groups during an engagement. For example, white team members are often best able to “hear” direct feedback on how microaggressions and white fragility show up in their interactions with colleagues from a consultant who also identifies as white. Similarly, people of color are often more comfortable expressing (and publicly processing) experiences of race-based trauma inside and outside of the organization when the dialogue is facilitated by an external consultant who is also of color. Also, many organizations engage a consultant to lead their race equity initiatives and hire coaches to help managers and senior leaders process its personal, interpersonal and institutional implications for their daily work. Consider it a red flag if a candidate is not able to articulate how the multiple identities they hold play out in their work as a consultant/facilitator, or if they say that, as an individual, they have “everything you need” to successfully accomplish the challenging, nuanced race equity work before your organization. 

White Culture and Privilege

Pay attention to white culture and privilege and how it shows up both internally and externally during a race equity process.

Hire a consultant who can call out and explicitly mitigate these dynamics, which often comprise a missing link in the process. In addition to establishing intentional group norms that promote explicit reflection on white culture and privilege, and how they manifest inside and outside of organizations, a skilled consultant will utilize caucusing by racial identity to surface implicit dynamics around white culture, privilege and whiteness. Caucusing can be an effective strategy for surfacing issues of white culture and privilege (as well as internalized and interpersonal racism) among white people and people of color. The Transforming Organizational Culture Assessment Tool specifically addresses white culture as part of an organization’s efforts to advance racial equity.  Use these reflection questions to guide white team members in discussing how they can disrupt white dominant culture, dismantle anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity and build organizational culture and practice that advances racial justice. 

It is important to note the role that chief executive officers, 90% of whom are white according to a BoardSource study,  play in establishing and enforcing white dominant standards within organizational culture. CEOs of color, many of whom have assimilated white dominant standards to ascend the professional ladder, play a similar role in upholding white dominant standards whether the organization is predominately people of color or not, which highlights the critical work senior leaders must do to interrogate how biased beliefs and behaviors operate at the personal, interpersonal and institutional levels.

Do an Equity Self-Assessment

Before bringing on a consultant, complete (or at least review) one of the many self-assessments available to support organizations in developing a cross-functional picture of culture, policies and practices.

These self-assessment tools help organizations reflect on everything from staff and board diversity to processes for strategic and budgetary planning; support leaders in evaluating what skills and experience best align with their organization’s needs and goals; and assess an organization’s readiness (leadership commitment, budget, staffing, et al.) to successfully engage a consultant around specific goals. Consultants generally conduct an assessment during the first phase of a race equity engagement, but having some baseline data from an organization’s self-assessment positions them to more effectively prioritize areas of focus and make progress toward goals as they begin work. It is important to note that, as part of self-assessment, organizations should be mindful of who is involved in the process, creating space to elevate diverse perspectives within the organization, and ensuring that the voices of staff and leadership of color (at all levels) are centered. 

This Race Matters assessment takes less than five minutes, and will help your organization understand whether it is taking the steps that are usually needed to achieve equitable results. CHANGE Philanthropy has a quiz that grantmaking organizations can use to assess where they are in their equity journey, and receive a set of curated resources (drawn from their library of publications, tools and resources focus on intersectional equity) to guide them in planning next steps. National Center for Responsive Philanthropy released a set of Power Moves tools to help grantmakers assess how power drives equity in their funding policies and process. And, Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training has the Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization, which outlines a range of characteristics that define how actively inclusive and anti-racist an organization is. And, the Organizational Strengthening Equity Audit tool, collaboratively developed and curated by TSNE MissionWorks, The Social Sector Accelerator and St. David’s Foundation is designed for grantmakers seeking to increase their race equity capacity. 

Before bringing on a consultant, or while evaluating one, it can also be helpful to review a Race Equity Impact Assessment (REIA) tool to gain insight into how your organization’s policies and practices for making decisions, launching programs, et al. will shift when applying a race equity lense in the future (here is one developed by Race Forward). While the race equity self-assessments in the previous paragraph provide insight into an organization’s current cross-functional policies and practices (and performance) on equity (a “state of the house” so to speak), a REIA is a systemic examination of how a proposed action or decision (budgetary, programmatic or operational, et al.) will impact different racial or ethnic groups in the future. If you are not familiar with the REIA process, and aren’t sure where to begin or how to apply it,  check out this Pocket Guide for a brief introduction. As part of a race equity engagement, a consultant will support an organization in determining how to thread the key questions in a REIA into cross-functional policies and practices (and organizational culture overall). Race Forward’s one-pager on its Choice Points approach includes helpful questions on how to apply a race equity lens in organizational decision-making. For additional detail, see the REIA tool and user guide that SAGE created as part of their work to build a Race Equity Culture. You can view EIC’s video case study featuring SAGE CEO Michael Adams to get insights into the years-long process that yielded this tool.

Disaggregate Data by Race

Where possible, disaggregate staff engagement data by level, compensation, promotion, retention, performance and professional development and race to identify disparities. 

This will support leadership and a consultant in identifying priority areas for an engagement’s focus by highlighting gaps in culture, practice and policy. Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead series highlights the racial leadership gap in nonprofit organizations. Disaggregating data by race allows leaders to see if and where the racial leadership is manifest inside their organization. Data for external programs should also be disaggregated to see where gaps and opportunities for improvement exist in partnerships with communities and other stakeholders. Annie E. Casey Foundation has developed extensive resources that operationalize equity with a focus on cross-functional disaggregation of internal and external data. Ford Foundation published a Center for Effective Philanthropy blog on how its approach to data grantee collection has changed, and how that connects to their growing internal capacity to gather, analyze and track diversity, inclusion and equity data.

Building a Race Equity Culture™ is a years-long process of intentional, focused work that is deeply challenging and nuanced, both in theory (“making the case” for it) and execution (the “how” of doing it) for organizations. It is work on which organizations will need to maintain the sustained, intentional focus traditionally dedicated to strategy and mission. The support of expert facilitators and consultants is a critical element of doing the work in a manner that yields meaningful, measurable and sustainable transformational change. Equity In the Center research found that this change is not catalyzed, and is not sustained over years and, in some cases, decades, in the absence of consultant support at pivotal points in an organization’s journey. Demos published a detailed case study of their race equity work, which includes excellent context on how they leveraged an external consultant to build capacity and transform the organization. Lucy Mayo, former senior vice president of organizational development at Demos, led its race equity work and narrates its transformation in an EIC video case study. She also discussed it during the “View from the C-Suite: Moving from Awake to Woke to Work in National Nonprofit Organizations” panel at the 2018 EIC Summit (View the video here: Part One and Part Two). 


Along with Demos and SAGE, Leadership for Educational Equity and Year Up (the latter two of which participated in the EIC Awake to Woke to Work®: Building A Race Equity Culture™ publication) detail their respective race equity journeys, and outline the role that consultants played in transformation, in EIC video case studies

Additional Resources

As you plan next steps for your organization’s work, following are helpful resources for connecting with consultants:

The Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) connects funders to consultants who are values-aligned with their framework for Responsive Philanthropy in Black Communities.

The Philanthropic Initiative for Race Equity provides technical assistance to grantmakers, and has developed numerous publications and resources focused on centering racial justice in philanthropy.

The National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, which published The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit for Consultants to Grantmakers maintains an online Directory of Philanthropy Consultants, a searchable database of vetted consultants with range of expertise, including racial equity, diversity and cultural competency.

The National Center for Responsive Philanthropy has an advisory cohort of independent consultants with experience implementing its “Power Moves: Your essential philanthropy assessment guide for equity and justice” set of tools. 

Members of the United Philanthropy Forum can access an inventory of racial equity speakers, facilitators, and trainers here.

Catalyst:Ed manages a DEI Expert Hub, an online platform that connects leaders with consultant experts who can assess, design, plan and implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and race equity initiatives, to serve a broader range of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders. 


Equity In The Center thanks Leniece Flowers Brissett, Yolanda Caldera-Durant, Caitlin Duffy, Carly Hare, Monisha Kapila, Kelly Opot, Maggie Potapchuk, and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, as well as its Resource Mapping Working Group, for their feedback and resource recommendations when this document was first published in 2018, as well as for their continued support and partnership.