A chance to atone for bad strategy

Written by: Jeanné Lewis

Date: September 18, 2018

A few years ago, after I’d carefully planned and marketed a webinar, one of our board members notified me that the date conflicted with Rosh Hashanah.

A colleague working with me on the project advised me to cancel it, but I hesitated. How many people would we really lose if we moved forward with the date we selected?

Ultimately I cancelled it, but I have seen this scenario play out over and over again.

This year a Jewish colleague was invited to an event important to our work, but the date conflicted with Rosh Hashanah. When she brought it to the attention of the organizers, their response was similar to mine several years ago.

“Others can’t come either for a variety of reasons,” they said, “but we will move forward with our existing plans.”

When she posted about her experience on social media, many other Jews who work in progressive circles echoed her frustration and shared similar experiences. Muslims, Hindus and others who observe non-Christian religious holidays have shared similar experiences with me.

Decisions like this are more than a faux pas in diversity and inclusion practice; they reflect strategic oversights that progressive organizations and funders have been making for years.

By failing to accommodate or consider the practices and priorities of faith communities that share commitment to our issues and our work, we exclude key constituents that can help us be successful.

My hesitation was partially due to my privilege as a Christian, whose major holidays are acknowledged nationally. I didn’t have a full understanding how important Rosh Hashanah is to some of NCRP’s key constituents.

Instead of taking the word of a respected board member, I wanted more proof or data about how this would affect people before I changed my well-thought-out plan. This is textbook power and privilege.

But given the prevalence of the incidents like this, I think there is also some implicit bias at play. And that bias has larger repercussions than events scheduling. 

In 2016 NCRP hosted a webinar about the historic and present role of faith communities and faith-based movements in advancing social justice. A common theme was the decrease in foundation funding for faith-based social justice work. NCRP nonprofit members echo the same feedback.

In short, funders with explicit faith-based values aren’t funding social justice work. And social justice funders aren’t funding faith-based work.

In numerous conversations with funders who follow this trend and grant recipients who experience it, none can give a clear answer about why it’s happening. Some funders, like Marguerite Casey Foundation, and Proteus Fund and its partners, defy the trend, by there are very few.

Thankfully we in the U.S. have the freedom to practice religion as we choose, or not to practice at all. I have been in dialogue with movement leaders, and others, who reject institutional religions for sound reasons.

But it is irrational for highly inclusive and strategic institutions to make choices that exclude people of faith who are allies and constituents. 

While it is silly to do it in acute ways, like scheduling an event on a holiday, it is dangerous to do it in systemic ways, like excluding faith-based social justice groups from funding strategies.

Systemic change requires movement and coalition building, and we cannot afford to dismiss existing and active allies.

My colleague and my board member challenged me to not only check my privilege as I decided what was important, but also created space for me to consider the implications of excluding core constituents from a strategic discussion about how we can advance common goals. 

This year, on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), social justice organizations and philanthropy can take the opportunity to apologize for our oversights and commit to more inclusive practices that are not only right, but also necessary for our collective victory. 

Jeanné Isler is the VP and chief engagement officer at NCRP. She also serves on the board of Faith in Public Life and is a former faith-based community organizer. Follow @j_lachapel and @NCRP on Twitter.

Image by Alex Proimos. Used under Creative Commons license.