June 24, 2024

evolving our DNA

a few apples still on a tree next to a utility pole
photo caption: seattle once again beating the rainy city allegations. an apple tree next to a utility pole under a deep blue sky streaked with clouds. a few bright red apples peek out from the peak of the tree.

How do organizations change? Why is it that most organizations can set goals for racial justice and then never achieve them? What’s so difficult about doing things in different ways? Equity filters can be clunky. They can be hard to integrate into an existing decision-making process. I want action for racial equity to feel natural, like it’s infused into an organization’s DNA.

The equation is pretty simple. The decisions we make, and the people who make them, are responsible for the outcomes we get.


Organizations make decisions every day. Some decisions can be as simple as choosing how to spend tens of thousands of dollars in the new budget. Others can be difficult or even wildly contentious, such as which type of pens the office should buy. Future Emergent only stocks these pens in quantities I can’t lose.


Who makes the decisions I wrote about above? Most nonprofits operate a top-down hierarchy. The decision-maker depends on a few factors, such as cost or potential consequences. These decisions move up the chain until someone decides. The pen inventory might be a CEO-level decision in, say, a scrappy consulting firm with visionary ambitions and a relentless drive to transform systems. In a larger organization, anyone with a company card might be able to make that choice.


These decisions, no matter how large or small, add up. Each one contributes something to the overall trajectory of a company. Do we buy the staff lunch from a place that is actively hostile to our values? Do we spend more at a local restaurant that could always use more business? Decisions happen so often, sometimes without even thinking. The impact of these decisions adds up over time.

Who makes those decisions matters even more. Everyone has biases. Sometimes they hide in plain sight as unconscious choices, or get called “instincts.” Other times they live in structural biases of the policies we inherit from someone else.

Decisions and decision-makers. Those drivers of change are clear to me. How can we do something different?

change who makes the decisions

This doesn’t mean we have to do away with the top-down hierarchy, at least not today. Instead, we could use practices that distribute power to more people. Unions work great for this. For smaller decisions, I love using the advice process whenever I can.

It can also mean hiring different people to make those decisions. People don’t like talking about this, but it’s a reality. Not everyone is willing to make different decisions. For so many roles, the qualifications of those jobs must change. Lived experience is a qualification I write about all the time. That experience can for sure come with its own biases. At every organization we need a broader mix of people empowered to make decisions.

change the decisions

No matter the industry, we have to find new ways to bring people in who that industry has long excluded. We need to offer people jobs to effect change while earning a paycheck. Not everyone needs to work there, though. Everyone should be able to find a level and type of engagement that meets their needs. People with lived experience are their own subject matter experts. We need to find ways to compensate that expertise.

However we may act, we should strive to disrupt business as usual. How long has your nonprofit industry been trying to solve this problem? If it’s been a while, it might be time to try something new. Focus on your north star. Who is this work for? How will these decisions help or harm them? How do we know? Not knowing the answer may be a sign we should wait before we cause more harm.

witness the outcomes

When we change the ingredients of a recipe, the dish changes. It’s true here as well. When the decision-makers are different, the decisions they make are different. We start to see different outcomes, and even different options that we have to choose from later.

Different choices may change who we partner with or who sees us as an ally. The options we have before us may change as well. We can build structures of accountability, and trust, in places where there are none. We may even realize that the changes we sought were right there in our DNA.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space