How Much Privilege Is There in Purpose?

From diversity and inclusion to belonging*.

von The tbd* Team, June 10, 2020
Neon Sign The Journey Is On

Many of us in the social impact sector consider ourselves to be “woke”. We see ourselves as the “solution”. But, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, that is a problem. Because it makes us complacent. We do not see our own blindspots. Although you might share childcare equally with your partner, you might not realise how certain behavioral norms which you share with the other male founders of your social business are making it difficult for your female colleagues to see themselves in a leadership position, or to have the energy to even try. Or that the uniquely white faces on your website mean that people of colour do not even think about applying. We might find a good excuse for picking the office with stairs rather than a lift, because it has the pretty wooden floor and the beautiful high ceilings. Or only run meetings or events in which extroverts feel comfortable. If you are an impact investor, or grant-giver at an NGO or foundation, you might not realise that your assumptions about what makes a good founder or organisation are primarily based on your own experiences and biases.

Biases in Funding

In 2019 a study at Stanford University found that professional investors rate white-led teams more favorably than they do black-led teams with identical credentials.

In startup pitching Q&As, funders (of both genders) are more likely to ask men about how they will promote success and women about how they will prevent failure, contributing to a significant gender gap in funding allocation. 

Regardless of how woke you are, there is work to do. 

We are the first to admit that our own team is representative of nothing but our own biases. And when we look around us at the rest of the sustainability and impact sector we see many, many other white, middle-class, university-educated, able-bodied people. And whilst there are plenty of women doing the work on the ground, there is largely male leadership. Moreover we see neocolonial, patriarchal, heteronormative and disabling systems and structures. 

Today we are proud to birth a movement that we have been working on – quietly and with a lot of introspection, reading and listening – for over a year. We are calling it “to belonging*”.  What is it? It is a space for marginalised voices, for allyship and for experimentation with what it means to build an organisation with purpose. It is the next level of our Purpose Journey. It is creating a blueprint for the workplace of the future, a workplace that prioritises purpose, people and belonging for all, with an acute sensitivity for the role of gender, skin colour, disabilities, or sexuality in employee's lived experience. It is bringing together the largely white, privileged voices leading the conversations around impact, New Work and purpose with experts on anti-racism, feminism and the many otherwise marginalised voices. It is finding out how each of these silos can be enriched by the integration of “the other”. How necessary it is to do so and, indeed, how urgent. It is, above all, a (sometimes painful) deconstruction of everything we think we know, and a process of relearning. It is everything we are longing for in the world (of work) in order to feel whole. 

What do we mean by “to belonging”?

Our goal is to move towards a new status quo for the impact sector centred around “belonging”, around “welcoming”, around “power with” rather than “power for” and, indeed, “power over”. We recognise the need for more diversity and inclusion in the impact sector but we don’t want to make the same mistakes as the corporate sector. Which is why we speak of “belonging” and not “diversity” and “inclusion”. Where diversity and inclusion in the corporate context centre on the premise of problem-solving, hierarchies and othering, of management and efficiency, “belonging” will have the same goals but different motives. “Belonging” will be guided by social justice and equity. It will not deny but rather confront the painful experiences of racism, sexism and discrimination that so many people make on a daily basis, and take these as its justification, rather than a need to tick boxes or increase revenue. It will not try to fix injustices with the same systems and processes that created them. It will not be a role, or a workshop but rather a deeply embedded and never-ending process of learning, embedded into our organisation and beyond. It will be… who knows? 

More than 5 million people have taken Harvard's Implicit Association Test (IAT), which aims to help people identify their unconscious biases. Among those who have taken the test:

  • 80 percent of people prefer younger people over older ones.
  • 75 percent of the people prefer white people over minorities.
  • 45 percent of the black people taking the test also favor white people over people of color.

If you don’t think you are biased, take the test and find out. You may well be surprised. 

Why us? Why now?

Female leadership is embedded into our company. We were founded by three women and are by now a self-organised group of eight women who work non-hierarchically and follow principles of feminist leadership. Yet whilst we have always been a female-led team, it took some time to get to where we are now. We had to learn how to build a business without adapting ourselves to society’s expectations of what it means to do business and to do “work”, but rather to follow our intuition and look for alternative role models. The experience of founding our company and looking for (impact) investment – where we were often the only women in the room – helped us to appreciate what it means not to “belong”. Although we were “invited to the table”, the rules of the game were such that we felt like we either had to adapt ourselves or leave. We are grateful to have been able to access the physical and psychological resources to create something new. But it has taken a great deal of energy to unlearn and relearn what it means to build and grow a company outside of patriarchal structures. And, of course, we are still learning.

Whilst we were fortunate enough to make this experience from the very privileged position of being white, young, cis, able-bodied and university-educated, it brought home to us on a very real level what it might mean for those who are not. We know from recent scandals that there is outright sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination at play in our public institutions and civil society organisations; macroagressions that serve to oppress or exclude people. And this should be reason enough to care. But if we only look at these extreme examples, then we risk missing the point. Because it is the unconscious biases, the “doing nothing”, and the “invisible” structures and systems within the patriarchical and neocolonialist framework of our economy and society that play out through each of us, and within our organisations, whether we like it or not. “Invisible” to the privileged, but painfully visible to the marginalised. These “invisible” structures prevent a large number of people from reaching their potential and stepping into their power. They hide in our policies, our organisations, in our language and in our thoughts. And acknowledging and working actively to overcome them is the responsibility of each and every one of us. Especially those of us determined to create a better and more equitable world through our work. 

«"Happyland" means that people reproduce racism without being aware of it. They are not aware of being part of the problem and therefore cannot become part of the solution.

How do white people manage to leave "Happyland"?

By taking an honest look at themselves and their socialisation. What does "being white" mean? What are the privileges of white skin colour? How do white people reproduce racism in everyday life, consciously or unconsciously? These are good first questions. And it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that antiracist thinking is a finite process. It is a lifelong task.»

Tupoka Ogette, Author “Exit Racism” im Interview

It is not enough to think of ourselves as “not racist” or “not sexist”; we must be allies: proactively anti-racist and feminist, pro-trans and pro-homosexuality. And we need to actively not disable people, if we are to create a culture in which everybody feels like they can belong without hiding part of themselves or adapting. And we must not just “be” it, we must “do” it. 

«The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist”. It is “antiracist”. What’s the difference? [...] One either allows racial inequalities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequalities, as an antiracist. There is no inbetween safe space for “not racist”. The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.»

“How to be an anti-racist”, Ibram X. Kendi

When we realised our own biases, and the broader significance of these for our individual and organisational purpose - what we stand for - we finally leapt into action. We put increasing the diversity of our team and embedding diversity into our outward-facing work (in helping individuals and organisations to work with more purpose) into our Company Goals for 2020. We did not rush into anything but rather took our time. Over the last year we have had many many conversations with marginalised people, done anti-bias tests and workshops, have read many many books and done some serious navel-gazing. We were extremely happy to be able to welcome Dr. Hedda Ofoole Knoll into our team, an expert on intersectional diversity, CSR and supply chain management, who has helped us to move forward in our thinking and our doing in leaps and bounds. Without her, we would not be anywhere near here. 

Thanks to Hedda, we can acknowledge that if we really want to build a new economy (and we do), we have to build it upon the very foundation of belonging. Diversity, inclusion and belonging are not the icing on the cake, they are the cake. They are not a side-project or an HR employee, they are the foundations of the system which we are building. The organisations we build reflect the society we create. If we do not build organisations and businesses in which everybody feels a deep and authentic sense of belonging, in which each and every person can be their full selves, without having to hide or adapt, then how can we expect to build these societies?

What is to belonging*?

to belonging* is not just another project, it infiltrates all of our work, both externally and internally, and we hope that it might infiltrate yours too:

to belonging* is to ask yourself at the start and end of every project; at the start and end of every meeting; at the start and end of every recruitment, investment round, or fundraising process: “how am I contributing through this work to upholding racist and patriarchal structures or marginalising somebody in another way? How can I change my project to be actively anti-racist, feminist and anti-discriminatory? How do I center people and purpose? What do I need to unlearn here? How can I do better?”

We are currently working on several ideas that will flow into “to belonging*”, which we will be building upon, in co-creation with as many people and organisations in our community as possible. If what we have written here resonates with you, please let us know. If you are on a Purpose Journey, if you are trying to figure out how your organisation can be both more inclusive, more feminist, more anti-racist, can centre people over profit, can put purpose first, then join us. Let us know who you are and what you need. Come with us on our Purpose Journey to belonging*

«We need an awareness of our own fallibility. And we need places where we can try out the future, where we can practice a new way of speaking: doubting, pondering, questioning, sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly - and always with goodwill.»

Kübra Gümüsay, Sprache und Sein (own translation)

Please contact Hedda directly via