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Words Matter: Defining Sustainability and Equity for a More Just World

Date: February 7, 2023

Gabriela Alcalde

Executive Director, Elmina B. Sewall Foundation

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For some time now, I have been thinking about how we can be clearer with the terms we use in philanthropy and nonprofit circles. We seem to adopt new terms without much thought about what they mean, or the implications of adopting them as part of our programs, strategic plans, or “branding” efforts. Two frequently-used terms without sufficient clarity, reflection, or accountability are sustainability and equity. These two concepts are intricately connected and deserve our attention.

At the Sewall Foundation — led by the mission to improve the wellbeing of people, animals, and the environment — we work from the belief that equity is only attainable when we fully engage with our social, economic, historical, and environmental context. In our work, equity and sustainability are central guideposts we strive toward. In this piece, I lay out initial thoughts and questions to guide a needed exploration of the relationship of two concepts. My hope is to invite reflection and dialogue, and thus move us towards greater transparency, intentionality, and accountability in the use of these two critical concepts.


Let’s start with sustainability: while generally used to refer to the ability to maintain a certain rate or level of operations, or, not depleting natural resources, sustainability has long been understood to be a more complex and nuanced concept than either a purely ecological or economic perspective provides.

In the nonprofit context, sustainability primarily focuses on “the concepts of financial sustainability, as well as leadership succession planning, adaptability, and strategic planning.” According to the Council of Nonprofits, “for charitable nonprofits, the phrase ‘sustainability’ is commonly used to describe a nonprofit that is able to sustain itself over the long term, perpetuating its ability to fulfill its mission.”

In adopting such a narrow use and application of the term sustainability, we miss out on an opportunity to bring a more cohesive approach to how we work and plan for the future in nonprofit and philanthropic contexts. Furthermore, the term sustainability, as used by funders, has been weaponized to essentialize nonprofits to their financial well-being and deepen the harmful proselytization of wealth as wisdom and financial success as the best indicator of doing good work.

Despite climate change being an indisputably real and current threat to all life on our planet (and the planet itself), our nonprofit and philanthropic sectors remain shockingly aloof in crafting a viable and appropriately urgent approach to integrating planetary survival into our operating considerations. Common sense and shared instinctual commitment to survival would indicate that this is something we must change now. To do this, nonprofits and foundations must transcend the limited and limiting understanding of sustainability as either financial or environmental, and embrace a multi-dimensional definition of sustainability that engages across all aspects of the organization — from finances to strategies, operations and culture to programming — recognizing the full social, economic, and environmental dimensions of the term. Importantly, this understanding of sustainability must acknowledge the deep relationship between sustainability and equity.


Equity can be generally understood to be the fair distribution of opportunities, resources, and power, with consideration of current and historical contexts. An important aspect of equity, which distinguishes it from equality approaches, is the recognition that we are each situated differently in society as a result of the interaction of social, economic, and political systems, and we must therefore tailor approaches (equity as process) to achieve equity for all populations (equity as outcome). Simply put, equity is about justice and fairness and about how power operates within a particular society or institution.

There has been an increasing adoption of the term equity by many in the nonprofit and philanthropic fields. More frequently seeing the term show up in program names, websites, events, training workshops, and job titles. But a closer look at this phenomenon fails to evidence a true change in how work is being done, in funding directed at organizations working to change inequitable systems, or in the percentage of recipients or funding dollars directed to efforts led by those who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. If the term equity is to retain the integrity inherent in its meaning, then organizations need to ground their claims of working toward equity in changes to their structures, practices, policies, and leadership models. Connecting equity to our current context of planetary devastation is one such necessary step.

How does sustainability intersect with equity?

Equity and climate change are inextricably linked; from the roots of inequity and climate change (colonization, being a principal perpetrator) to the reality of who is disproportionately harmed by climate change (people of color in the U.S. and countries of the global majority contribute significantly less to climate change, benefit less from the exploitation and extraction of the earth and its resources, and suffer inordinately from current climate change consequences).

What’s more, planetary destruction is made possible by alienation from each other, from other living things, and from the very ecosystems that make our existence possible. Alienation, in turn, is enabled and rationalized by reinforcing systems of supremacy, oppression, and monetization. Whether approaching it from a pragmatic, existential, or ethical lens, the sustainability of our planet is dependent on our ability to translate our stated commitment to equity into real and transformative actions.

Sustainability, just like equity, refers to both a process (the how) and an outcome (the what). Both concepts are intrinsically about interconnectedness and intersectional and long-term thinking. Given the multi-dimensional nature of both equity and sustainability, neither can be accomplished in short-term or fragmented ways. Rather, equity and sustainability are concepts and practices that require a deep holistic engagement; and engagement with these two concepts is a relationship that requires time, patience, openness to learning, and commitment to ongoing change. Meanwhile, fragmented and short-term is an apt and accurate description of U.S. nonprofit, philanthropic, and policy systems.

I believe that coupling these two concepts in how nonprofit and philanthropic entities work with each other is necessary to bring about real change in how we operate in the world in a positive way. For a good relationship between these two concepts, they must be mutually reinforcing, and each must be informed by the vantage point made available through the other.

Where do we go from here?

How can we bring a more cohesive and complete understanding of sustainability and equity into our work? What might an exploration of the relationship between equity and sustainability lead us to understand? And how might we engage with nonprofits, funders, and with community leaders, if we understood sustainability to entail social, economic, and environmental dimensions and recognize the inequitable ways that climate change is already affecting the communities and issues we work with?

I leave you with an invitation to explore how you might integrate equity and sustainability in their fullest and most embracive forms in your work. As you consider this invitation, a few final thoughts that I and my organization continue to grapple with:

Embrace a cohesive definition and application of sustainability and equity that recognizes their dynamic relationship.

Integrate environmental/climate justice into all work — regardless of what your mission is, climate justice affects and is affected by it. (If you don’t know how it affects or is affected; find out.)

Broaden your understanding and application of equity; it is all about context and history, and the natural environment plays a central role in both.

Integrate equity into systems, processes, and policies, not just programs. (This is one way to build sustainability).

Sustainability depends upon an active and ever-adapting equilibrium. The current state of inequity we live in is the most egregious manifestation of being out of balance and outside of sustaining equilibrium. Seek balance by repairing the harms of inequity.

Remember that sustainability is also about being kind, respectful, and in relationship with our collective future selves.

More specifically:

Funders: Consider equity when requiring or even asking grant-seekers and grantees about sustainability. How are you depleting the grant-seekers sustainability through your imposed processes and requirements? Are you contributing to sustainability by making supports beyond the grant check available? What is your responsibility for the sustainability of the grantee organization? Of the field? Contemplate the relationship between power and responsibility.

Funders: Ask yourself about sustainability when picking a new priority area or issue: how long will we fund in this area? How will efforts that are started or grown continue once you shift or stop funding?

Nonprofits and funders: Think about how sustainability applies to people, too. Don’t burn the most valuable organizational resource — people. As you work on equity, pay attention to extractive and exploitative practices. That means:

  • Pay attention to the assumption and expectation that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color carry the primary responsibility for leading and teaching the learning/unlearning required for a sustainable and equitable future.
  • Pay attention to the assumption that climate change is best tackled by technocrats and technology.
  • Pay attention to who carries the bulk of equity work; pay attention to who leads environmental work; pay attention to who leads at the intersection of equity and climate.
  • Ponder what attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions made it possible for people to devastate natural environments; are any of these attitudes, beliefs, or assumptions present in your staffing or human resources approaches? In your funding approaches?
  • Ask yourself: what may be the unintentional consequences of your interventions on both the human communities involved and the broader natural ecosystem?

Equity and sustainability must become central values in our work cultures to create transformational change, and this will take time. Bringing these two values in relationship with each other into our work requires that we become more aware of how we work and the consequences of those approaches. The sustainability of our planet, and the realization of justice for all who live on earth, is dependent on our ability to translate our stated commitment to equity into real, sustainable, and transformative actions.

Gabriela Alcalde is executive director at the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation. Find her and the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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