Targeted Universalism Step 3: Identify groups and places that are performing differently with respect to the goal and disaggregate them

a wooded area covered in a light layer of snow. grass and twigs peek out from the ground of a narrow clearing. thin trees and brush are all covered on one side with snow. on the branch closes to the camera, green moss and the brown of the tree are faintly visible. it probably won’t snow this year like it did in this photo. luckily, hot chocolate doesn’t care how much snow is on the ground.

Every now and then I write about testing the use of Targeted Universalism. I’m using the Othering and Belonging Institute‘s primer on the subject. There are five steps.

Over the past few months I’ve been making my way through the Targeted Universalism primer. In Step 1, I defined my goal statement for the project.

Everyone should have access to food that is free. The food should be nutritious and appropriate to them. The food should be accessible within a 15 minutes walk.

In Step 2, I learned that 23 million people in the u.s. have to travel more than 15 minutes to find a grocery store. Access to appropriate foods depends on the area where you live. And 849K people in Washington state (35.2M nationally) don’t have the food they need to thrive.

In Step 3, the goal is to group and then disaggregate people into smaller categories. This creates a granular assessment of how each group fares with food access. We then compare that group’s performance to how the general population performs. If this were real life, by the end of the process each group would design its own targeted strategy.

The primer lists a few examples of groups that may apply to this review, so I’ll start there. Those are

  • rural or urban populations
  • racial, ethnic, or religious minorities
  • LGBTQ+ persons
  • people with disabilities

making assumptions

We can’t use assumptions about a person or a category that they might be in. Any time you make an assumption about a group, you risk helping them in a way that won’t help or they don’t want. For example, many organizations speak to serving Latine populations. They may identify this group as needing extra language support. But the Latine category would include me, and I speak english as my primary language. In another scenario, I could be the only Latine person in your focus group. I’m not going to be able to speak to the needs of all Latine people. To use another identity example, I as a cis queer man in a city may not end up in the same targeted group as a trans person in a rural area.

As the primer notes, “Black children growing up in an affluent suburb may have different needs or confront different challenges than Black children growing up in a low-income urban neighborhood or inner-ring suburb that has suffered decades of disinvestment and poverty.” You can use broader demographics as a starting point for discussion. Rarely will they be the final groups that need targeted strategies.

For the purposes of Targeted Universalism, race and ethnicity are a good place to start. There will be a wide variety of needs within any one group. A few could be differences in education, ability, geography, even the hours they work in a day. Remember, race and ethnicity matter because we live in a society of built white supremacy. These artificial divisions created almost all the gaps that Targeted Universalism can solve.

how many groups is too many?

Group specificity exists to identify a strategy that meets the needs of that group. My recommendation is to create as many groups as remedies needed. For instance, some groups could be

  • “People who are most comfortable communicating in Spanish”
  • “People who have food allergies”
  • “People who don’t have a car”
  • “People who can’t drive”

Consider the last two examples as a guide for combining groups with context. If our goal was to remedy joblessness, a person with a license but no car could borrow or buy a car to get to work. But that same car would not solve the problems of a person who isn’t able to drive.

For food access, a person who can’t drive and a person who doesn’t have a car may be similar enough to use the same strategy. They both may rely on walking or public transit to receive food.

conclusion: what I would do next

Once we create the categories, it’s time to understand them. We’d calculate their relative food access compared to the baseline. We would also want to vet the information we’ve collected. Join discussions with people from the affected groups. “What data rings true for your experience? What does not make sense? What does this data leave out about you?” This will help create more targeted strategies.

I would also lead a community canvas to identify even more access barriers. Even after we start to create strategies, we’d have to stay in contact with the community. New barriers may arise, or an existing barrier may have been misunderstood.

Disaggregating in this step helps us understand the complex issues each group faces. One individual may receive many strategies based on the groups they’re in. That puts them in a much better place than if we tried a one-size-fits-all strategy.

There are two more Targeted Universalism steps left to go! I’ll address them next.

start the future: understanding 501(c)(3)

a photo of a canal in a neighborhood in Venice, California. the canal is in the middle third of the picture, stretching vertically from the bottom to the center of the photo. the blue sky with streaks of clouds is reflected in the still surface of the water. a few palm trees and hedge rows line the right side of the canal. on the left is an apartment building separated from the water by a medium-sized tree. small boats are moored to the sidewalk in the distance. you can barely see a metal bridge just beyond that. it’s nice that there are so many different ways to get to the same place.

Organizations built in systems of racism are difficult to transform into something anti-racist. It’s so easy to remain stuck in what’s come before. Some systems are so dysfunctional that they won’t reform without dedication and resources. The ideal organization might not exist yet. Chances are that I won’t be able to create one, either. I carry with me all the lessons I’ve learned throughout my life and career. The same would be true for all my colleagues, co-founders, advisors. That awareness can help us spot easy patterns and avoid them whenever possible.

With all that in mind, I want to try creating a new organization that serves a public good. I can be intentional about my goals and work with people who align with these intentions. I’ll start by researching different organization types in the united states. Each type I’ll review ostensibly exists to serve the public good.

Caveat: I’m doing the research but I’m not a lawyer (my first draft misspelled “lawyer”). This is a post about starting a 501(c)(3) written by someone who has never started one. It’s important to me to state this caveat up front.

my organization goals

Here are a few thoughts I have about the type of organization I want to create.

  • I want the organization to be worker-led or employee owned
  • I want the organization to exist within the community it wants to support
  • We’ll use many Teal Organization principles at startup. We’ll be free to adapt our approaches considering a pretty basic “do no harm” principle
  • I want the people or teams to function in cooperation or collaboration
  • The organization will run without a hierarchy. This does not mean flat or directionless! Everyone has distributed decision-making authority within their area of work. We’d discuss larger decisions as a collective and choose a person to make the decision.
  • We’ll use the advice process for all decisions. That means anyone can identify a problem and come together with others to solve it. Consensus is not necessary
  • The organization will be explicitly anti-racist

That’s a good start for now.

501(c)(3)—what is it?

Most organizations in the united states that serve the public good do so as a non-profit. The IRS designated these organizations as a 501(c)(3) in their tax code. Most 501(c)(3)s operate as a public charity or private foundation. There are a handful of other options that don’t apply to this exercise.

Charities with a religious affiliation are exempt from filing here. The same goes for charities that receive less than $5K per year.

how do you do it?

Starting a 501(c)(3) means completing IRS form 1023, plus related paperwork. The steps below come from that massive form and from a page on donorbox.

1. Organize – establish as a corporation. Register with the secretary of state as a non-profit. File the IRS paperwork. Establish a board of directors. Create bylaws for how the board will operate. Write a narrative of the activities the 501(c)(3) will perform.

During the process of incorporation, these sources recommend a few other steps. These steps are not required at first but will be good to document. Define the organization’s mission and purpose. How will you generate revenue?

2. Operate – once you’re up and running. You can’t intervene for or against a referendum, initiative, or political candidate. Routine reviews and audits could happen throughout the life of the non-profit. This depends on the size of the organization, the activities, and any financials.

what’s good

The 501(c)(3) is a common approach to a non-governmental organization. The startup costs are nominal and the application is 28 pages long. The most common sources of revenue for a 501(c)(3) are grants and donors. Solving a well-understood problem or doing good work can help drive donors to you. There are plenty of grants offered by the government, foundations, or other non-profits. Grant funding usually requires a skilled grant writer or prior connections to the funder.

what’s good to avoid

Non-profit organizations are a capitalist approach to good works. Even though profit isn’t their goal, they need large and recurring sums of money to operate. This can create an unhealthy relationship between the 501(c)(3) and their donor class. Philanthropists can hide their money in a pet project instead of paying taxes.

Non-profits often replace functions that the government should be doing. This phenomenon is sometimes called the non-profit industrial complex. In the world of food access, food banks and SNAP perform similar roles. But even with multi-billion dollar food bank networks, SNAP helps 9 times as many people. It’s also much more convenient. With more funding, a system that people already use could be made more useful. I’ve heard of legislators try to pass SNAP cuts by sending some of the cuts to food banks. They might pose at a food bank to pretend they aren’t heartless.

Conventional wisdom on good governance means recruiting board members from related for-profit industries. Their guidance may not apply, but they fit the goal of running a non-profit “like a business.”

Another area of criticism is the outdated focus on overhead. These are costs like staffing, supplies, and other resources. Intuit recommends a 501(c)(3) spend less than 10% of their revenue on overhead and no more than 35% of their receipts. Donors shopping for a good cause might find themselves comparing charities. They may assume our high overhead means we spend their donations on bloated salaries. Community-Centric fundraising described this in a recent article that I liked.

Finally, 501(c)(3)s can’t advocate for or against a referendum,  initiative, or political candidate. Doing so could jeopardize their tax status and make all donations non-tax deductible. This seems easy enough to follow, but support for people with low or no income is now a political issue. I don’t want to limit strong positions as a policy briefing or neutral press release.

closing thoughts

When most people think of public service, they’re thinking of a non-profit 501(c)(3). The donor and board centered approaches I described are pretty common. This is especially true among well-established or long-running organizations. It will be easy to happen into those traps.

As I get started I will have to custom-build every policy and approach. When the organization grows, we may hire workers from other non-profits. That means they might infuse outdated practices or approaches from white-dominant culture into this new system. We would need to create strong foundations and clear values to nudge staff away from these practices.

well, actually

a photo from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kandy, Sri Lanka. a grove of palm trees line a brown gravel path in two neat, orderly rows. green grass covers the ground wherever there isn’t gravel. the sky above is cloudy, with blue skies tinged with yellow from the heat and humidity. a group of five or six people are walking away from the camera, on the path, towards the distance. the framing of the photo, the path, the people, would all have you believe that this is the direction we should walk. but the truth is, we could move in nearly any direction. why shouldn’t we try?

2021, right?? What a year it’s been. In our first full week, Georgia is sending two new senators to congress. Trump supporters / white supremacists (redundant) attempted a coup on Wednesday. Who knows what else will happen before this post goes up?

Last year felt like a never-ending processional. I found a joke 2020 calendar, long since gone from my archives, that started out looking like a normal web calendar. Until you scrolled down past January, February, and finally to a March that never seemed to end.

After all that, though, 2020 ended. A new year is upon us. And every single day is the best day to end the brutal capitalist white supremacist patriarchy we’re all mired in. So how do we do that? I have a few goals for the coming year. I’ll start by reclaiming “actually” for the forces of justice.

actually be in community

Here’s a thought question. All things being equal, whose approach should an organization want to fund?

  1. Someone who lives this work every day. Someone who is part of the community in focus. Someone who is a subject matter expert and applied practitioner. Someone who came to their ideas in conversations with their peers.
  2. Someone in a pinnacle position of leadership. Someone who is not used to having their ideas challenged. Someone who had fifteen minutes between meetings to come up with the first draft. Someone who jotted down their notes but didn’t have time to collect feedback before turning it in.

The reality is that everyone in a PWI has been guilty of being the latter. Those of us who met PWI-established demands during the deadliest event in our century (to date) know what I mean. There’s not enough time in the day to do everything we’re often charged to do.

It’s also true that many funders can’t tell the difference, on paper, between approaches 1 and 2 above. They both look like proposals. So they trust the people and relationships that they already know. Even when those are the people who have tried and failed to solve the problem for decades.

Some leaders join in community with a goal of advancing only their agendas and ideas. They operate under the flawed ouroboros-like belief that their ideas are the best because they are the ones who get funded. This dynamic means that their ideas may be crowding out true subject matter experts. And the problem is never solved.

Giving myself a break here means that we and our organizations don’t have to do it all. I can give my outsize power to the communities and ideas that need it. I can take the time (on my time!) to learn about why they came to the solutions they did. I know I will learn something. In 2021, it’s time to stop holding listening sessions. Instead, let’s turn over the keys.

actually connect

Last year was a big one for feeling helpless or isolated. There have been times when I’ve felt like I was stuck in a box. I have an above-average level of institutional power in my medium-sized industry. I still spent time spinning my wheels against forces I didn’t agree with.

I will devote time this year towards putting that torque towards better causes. I’m going to be launching a few new writing series (and finishing the first one) to explore some of these ideas I’ve had.

Right now I’m searching for a mentor or two. This means deciding what I might want to do next in my career. I didn’t get positive responses to my first three attempts at finding a mentor. The fear of rejection is real but it’s one that can be overcome.

My goal this year is to connect with people who do work that I admire. I will do research on what I appreciate about them before I reach out. I’ll create a list of questions for them. I’ll try to answer those questions based on what they’ve already written or said on the subjects. When I do reach out, I’ll have better questions that I hope they won’t be tired of answering.

I keep doing what I do because I want things to change. I want these explorations to lead to something.

actually do things differently

Actually do things differently, though! This seems like an easy or glib commitment. But look at last year. I grew tired of the “is it April yet?” jokes in March. We had entire days, like this past Wednesday, that felt like an entire week.

It’s easy to get caught in the motions, rush to complete something, swat it away, and move on. I’m working with a colleague on a project to release grant funding to our partners. In the project workgroup, we found ourselves reviving the same widely-used traditional methods of funding. We found ourselves absorbing and reflecting that same staid approach to grantmaking.

My colleague has been learning more about transformational capacity building. We realized that if we want to do things differently, (big emphasis) we actually have to do that! So, we did. We pumped the brakes and reimagined the project. It will take more work because we’ve never tried this before. There are unknown obstacles ahead. We’re moving with a little more caution, but that’s not a bad thing.

The old ways are how we got to where we are. We have to reject the patriarchal white dominant culture within ourselves. We can start by choosing one project out of our stack, and testing new approaches with it.

If you are seeking equity but operating in the exact same way, then you might be doing it wrong. You might not notice if you are moving at the same pace you always have been.

actually 200000000021

The goals I’ve set for myself above are not new skills for me. They’re underused. We need to practice before we can do them on instinct. Our workplace habits are from years of bad approaches that have gone unchecked. In the paper above (and again right here), the authors list seven approaches to transformational capacity building. Approach #2 is Address underlying patterns of behavior rooted in history and culture. There’s so much that we can untangle from that sentence to find meaning within ourselves.

It’s critical that we recognize our own roles in how we got to where we are. It’s critical that we flex these muscles and prepare for the aches that often follow any new exercise routine. Like those new motions, you have to move slowly at first to get it right.

Take your time. Never stop moving.