Leading with humility: how consultants can support disability inclusion in philanthropy


Seema Shah


As a nonprofit and philanthropy consultant whose work centers on equity and inclusion, I am keenly aware that humility is a core competency and that the learning never ends.

So, when the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers asked me to write a working paper on how consultants can support disability inclusion efforts in philanthropy, I was at once nervous and excited – nervous that, as someone who is not a member of the disability community, I would make missteps. At the same time, I was eager to expand my knowledge and understanding of a topic that I knew relatively little about.

In developing Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy: A Working Paper for Grantmakers and the Consultants who Support their Work, I found myself engaging in the very same process we ultimately recommended to consultants supporting the philanthropic sector.

First, do your homework. The onus of ‘teaching’ someone about a particular community shouldn’t belong solely to that community. We need to take responsibility for own education. I sought out first-hand testimonials, like Judith Heumann’s TED Talk on disability rights and the stories and experiences shared through Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility Project. I reviewed the excellent resources on the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion website, where I was able to ground myself in the basic tenets of disability inclusion and disability justice, as well as getting a sense of philanthropic leadership on this topic – from the work of large foundations such as the Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation to smaller foundations such as FISA Foundation and WTH Foundation.

Second, partner with those who have content expertise and lived experience. This lesson was reinforced in a couple of ways as I worked on the paper. As part of the research, I distributed a survey to collect data on consultants in the field but became aware that I was not fully attentive to web accessibility considerations, making it difficult for some to complete the survey. I course corrected, but this misstep underscores the importance of partnering with those who already have expertise in the field, especially those with lived experience.

Once the initial draft of the paper was complete, we vetted it with consultants who had extensive experience around disability inclusion and disability justice, including those living with disabilities themselves. In addition to integrating their feedback into the body of the report, we included several first-person essays in the paper, adding nuance and wisdom to the working paper.

Third, engage in ongoing professional development. In tandem with the launch of this working paper, NNCG created a disability inclusion work group, a learning community for consultants who are both new to disability inclusion as well as those who have longstanding experience. The workgroup now meets quarterly, providing an important space for building our collective knowledge and capacity as consultants. As a member of the work group, I am grateful for the opportunity to share resources and continue expanding my own understanding of how disability inclusion is an essential component of the larger equity and inclusion dialogue in philanthropy.

These lessons also apply to funders as they look to incorporate disability inclusion into their grantmaking portfolios as well as their internal practices. As both grantmakers and the consultants who support them engage in collective learning around disability inclusion, success will mean that we reflexively incorporate disability inclusion into our work, recognizing that by being humble about what we don’t know and taking the initiative to engage in our own learning that we can strengthen our commitment to equity and inclusion.

Seema Shah, Ph.D. is the founder and principal of COMM|VEDA Consulting and a member of the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers (NNCG). She is also a member of NNCG’s Disability Inclusion Work Group.

If you are a philanthropy consultant and would like to join NNCG’s Disability Inclusion Work Group, please contact NNCG at lori.jane@nncg.org with Disability Inclusion Work Group in the subject line.

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