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Supporting Organizational Capacity for DEI: Lessons From the DEI Expert Hub

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Earlier this year, we kicked off a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative here at Catalyst:Ed. NewSchools Venture Fund had been hearing from leaders who wanted to build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations, but needed help getting started or advancing this goal. In response, they approached us to design, build, and launch the DEI Expert Hub, so these leaders could connect with experienced DEI coaches, consultants, and technical assistance providers.

Six months in, we’ve provided hands-on guidance to over 30 schools, nonprofits, and foundations as they’ve navigated the process of articulating their DEI needs, scoping their projects, and identifying expert supports. Hundreds more have used the website to explore project options. Over the course of our expert intake process, we’ve also got to know over 70 DEI coaches, consultants, and technical assistance providers. Through each of these conversations and interactions we’re gaining insight into the drivers and barriers for organizations and experts taking on this work. We share a few of these lessons below:

On the demand side

There is latent demand for DEI work

The organizations that have reached out to us for hands-on guidance have ranged from school systems to nonprofits to foundations [1]. They include:

  • a national foundation that wanted to build staff capacity to engage in and advance racial equity work,

  • a large urban school district that sought to understand how they could incorporate an equity lens in how they designed and used student, teacher, and school-level evaluations,

  • a charter management organization that wanted to train its teachers on how to incorporate culturally responsive and inclusive practices in their teaching, and

  • a national nonprofit that supports school systems that needed support developing and implementing an organization-wide equity plan.

In most cases, the desire to take on DEI work was driven by the organizations’ growing awareness that they needed to be more intentional and explicit about how they approached diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many leaders referenced the current political climate as a moment of reckoning for themselves as well as their teams. Some spoke to how recent conversations within their teams had lifted a veil on the experiences of their staff of color. While in many instances the leadership was taking the lead in putting DEI on the organizational agenda, in others the staff (and often teachers) were the driving force in demanding that their organizations do more.

But leaders often need help getting started

Typically when organizations reach out to us at Catalyst:Ed for more general projects like strategic planning or evaluation, they already have a pretty clear sense of their needs and their project budget. For our DEI Expert Hub work, we’re seeing leaders reach out to us for guidance much earlier in their decision-making process. Many are just starting off on their DEI journeys. Many are unsure about what the path will entail, and some have doubts about their readiness to take on the work. Where should we start? How should we prioritize between all the things we need to get done? When is a good time to bring on an external consultant? How prepared do we need to be internally? How much should we budget for this work? These are all questions that surface repeatedly in our initial conversations with leaders. We sense their urgency to take on DEI work - and we also hear their concerns that they are not fully prepared to do so.

Organizations are starting the work at different places

One of our goals with the DEI Expert Hub was to highlight all the ways in which organizations could start infusing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work, and we’re seeing the different paths that organizations are taking reflected in the projects listed so far. While some organizations are starting with an assessment of where they are and charting a path forward from there, others are starting with workshops to help their teams build a shared understanding of this work. Still others feel like they need to dive headlong into technical solutions, such as training their teachers to implement culturally relevant and inclusive curriculum and instructional practices.

Resources are a real constraint

Any organizational shift requires an investment of leadership time, attention, and resources. Yet DEI efforts are often under-resourced—and through our work, we’re seeing how the resources allocated by organizations to this work fall far short of what’s needed to realize their intent. Few organizations have specific budgets for DEI. Even when they do, the funds are often meager. In most cases, organizations are repurposing a part of their professional development budgets and leaning on staff volunteers to help them move the needle on this work. As a result, organizations are often signing up for one-off workshops instead of investing in the deeper work needed to enable organizational shifts.

On the Supply Side

Significant expertise exists in this area

As we went through the expert intake process for the DEI Expert Hub, we learned that a deep pool of expertise already exists in this area. In all, we’ve identified 72 individuals and teams who work on DEI. This includes large organizations like the National Equity Project and Promise 54, collaboratives like Becoming Better Together, smaller teams like PeerConnect and oneTILT, as well as individuals like Caroline Hill and Joanna Scott. We also came across organizations like Charter Board Partners and NYCLA that are primarily known for their broader work in areas like governance and leadership: recognizing the importance of imbuing greater diversity, equity and inclusion in their programmatic work, these organizations have been intentionally investing in developing their DEI expertise. While all providers in our sample had some experience working with education organizations (K-12 and higher ed), several providers also had experiences from outside the sector, including from the corporate sector, healthcare, city governments, and faith-based organizations.

The depth of expertise varies across areas

DEI strategy, organizational culture, and building staff DEI capacity are areas where we see the greatest number of providers. Areas with a relatively low density of providers include applying an equity lens to designing edtech product and grantmaking programs, infusing more equity in schools and school systems, and codifying DEI knowledge. Taken together, these seem to indicate a greater need for providers who can translate equity principles into programmatic work.

A lack of resources constrains the growth and sustainability of providers

Most providers are small in size. The small size of projects, low margins, fluctuating revenue streams, and high business development costs are some of the possible factors behind the fragmentation in the DEI provider market. There are also limited funding sources available to providers interested in scaling up so they can invest in a team, manage working capital constraints, and do the outreach necessary to build a project pipeline. As a result, providers have limited capacity to do R&D or codify their practices, and they constantly face the risk of burn-out.

Questions We’re Asking

  • How can investments in DEI be increased and sustained? For instance, can funders provide DEI capacity building grants to education organizations or increase funding to DEI overall? Equally, how can we encourage education leaders to allocate more funding for DEI from within their existing resources?

  • How can we encourage more leaders to see DEI as core to their work? What conditions are needed in order to push leaders to integrate DEI into their existing initiatives rather than just add it on as a new one? Are there lessons to be gained from other domains (e.g., like data and evaluation), which have similarly moved from the fringe to the center of organizational work?

  • How do you grow, support, and build capacity among providers? How do you increase the scale and reach of promising DEI providers? Can we help them access start-up and growth capital that will help them grow their organizations? Is there a need to create incentives that will bring in new providers into the market for current and emerging areas of need? Are there ways to help providers reduce their costs through operational efficiencies and low-cost service delivery models? Is there a need for more structured professional development opportunities? Should providers who are already collaborating closely with each other start exploring consolidation?

  • How can we build our collective will and capacity as DEI leaders? What stories should we be sharing to instill greater clarity, courage, and confidence among leaders? What lessons emerging from the projects themselves should we be capturing and sharing? And finally, recognizing that each DEI project is just a milestone along each organization’s longer DEI journey, how do we translate project-level successes to overall DEI outcomes?

What’s Next

Over the next year, we’ll continue to expand our work to support more education leaders nationally and explore the questions we’ve highlighted. We’ll also be sharing insights from our work to spark more ideas, initiatives and partnerships. Stay tuned for more on this!

We’d love to hear your ideas. Add to the comments below or email us at info@catalyst-ed.org.

[1] Interestingly, two of the organizations have been nonprofits that work outside of education in community mobilization and youth leadership development.