Budgeting ain’t no April Fools Joke, Where’s the Equity?

6675892_origIt’s April 1. No joke and no joking about budgeting season budgeting season at my organization. Last year I put together my organization’s budget based on a lot of assumptions, sort of like April Fools but more serious. I was new to the job and our work had shifted so much the previous year’s budget was a decent frame, but didn’t provide the clarity needed to build a beautiful budget. This year’s budgeting process will be much more reflective of our racial equity lens and goals. Where we place and spend our money says a lot about our priorities and commitments. Martin Luther King Jr. said “budgets are moral documents,” and our budgets should reflect our commitments and accountability to our priorities.

Budgeting isn’t an activity I love. I didn’t get into nonprofit work saying “I’m so excited to change the world through budgets,” some may say this, but not me. I view budgets as a necessary part of being accountable and making sure we are doing what we say we are supposed to. I’ll admit sometimes I like to geek out with Excel and see what fancy formulas I can come up with; right after geeking out I freak out when my budget is horribly overdrawn because I created too fancy a formula and double counted an expense, not a great joke to play on yourself.

Get the Infrastructure Right, Get our Work Right
Quoting another great leader, Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink, said “Get the Infrastructure Right, Get America Right.” If we think of a budget as part of the important infrastructure of our organizations and our racial equity work, then it needs to reflect our commitments to racial equity. I see it as part of my job to have our organizational commitment to racial equity reflected in our budget and organizational infrastructure.

So how does equity and budgeting go together? On the simplest level where you put your money and where you spend money should reflect our priorities. On my personal budget I really value eating so there are a lot of charges to small restaurants serving pho, tacos, bun bowls, and the likes. I should probably start valuing working out and cooking more too.

At an organizational level our biggest expense is staffing. Our staff make our work possible, and as such we need to pay them. This is why hiring is so important around racial equity. Majority of an organization’s budget goes to staffing cost and as such the staff need to be reflective of an organization’s commitment to racial equity.

Other places where our racial equity priorities are easily identified in our organizational budget:

  • Program Stipends: Stipends are important to honoring people’s commitment to the work.
  • Interpreters and translation: We value inclusion and participation of community members who need language support. Adequately budgeting for translators and interpreters is important.
  • Child care: For our larger events we often provide child care to ensure parents can participate.
  • Food: Majority of my receipts are for food. For me food is essential to building strong relationships and for getting to know our coalition members. I also try to use neighborhood, people of color, owned businesses as a way to continue to deepen our commitment to racial equity.

On more than a few occasions we’ve provided gift cards as a way to say thank you, or a nice staff lunch, or even better a trip to the ice cream store (they also have pinball and video games) to celebrate a milestone. A thank you can go a long way in relationship and community building. Allocating funds under appreciation or whatever the category code for your organization is important.

Where we spend money is as much a reflection on our commitment to equity and community building. I do my best to hire consultants of color who also share our values and invest back into the community. I also shop and spend our limited dollars in the neighborhood and with community minded business owners; can’t do this all of the time but where possible we do. Spending power is important and can amplify work in different ways.

How does your budget look?
Does your budget reflect your organization’s commitment to racial equity? Are you allocating dollars in a way that supports racial equity work? I hope so. When we get our infrastructure right our racial equity work moves a little faster.

Some suggested steps:

  • Ask your staff where they would allocate funds when using their racial equity and community building lens.
  • Is your budget flexible to allows for community driven program work and adjustments? Can you build in a little room to allow for changing communities, new work, and sometimes fun or “passion projects.” (Passion projects are projects we get excited about and keep us in the job.)
  • Ensure allocations drive and support racial equity work – are adequate funds budgeted for translations/interpretation, food, child care, professional development.
  • Where are you spending your dollars? Are they supporting people of color owned businesses, is the money staying within your community?
  • If you were to share your budget with your community and constituents what would they say? Does it match their views and visions for the organization?

Want to go deeper?
My black year, TEDxGrandRapids talk by Maggie Anderson. She spent a year living “exclusively off of Black businesses, professionals and products for an entire year.”

Posted by Erin Okuno, who is on the lookout to make sure she doesn’t get pranked this April Fools Day

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