How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising

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[Updated 6-8-2020 to move more important points to the front]. Hi everyone, this is a lengthy and serious post that I wrote after a period of thinking, and I hope it will lead to some vigorous conversations. Two years ago, I wrote a post called “Winter is Coming and the Donor-Centered Fundraising Model Must Evolve.” Since then, I’ve had more conversations with colleagues and donors, attended more conferences and workshops on fundraising, and did some more reading. Also, I donate to several nonprofits, so I can also draw from my own experience as a donor.

From all this, I think we have a serious problem with the donor-centered approach. Namely that the pervasiveness of this model in our sector may be perpetuating the very inequity that we are seeking to address as a sector.

I believe in many of the tenets of donor-centrism—don’t treat donors like ATMs, appreciate every gift of any amount, don’t take donors for granted, build relationships, be transparent, etc. I just don’t believe that donors should be in the center of nonprofit work, or even the center of fundraising work. Yes, the pervasive donor-centered concept is more nuanced than that, but the name itself, donor-centered, intentionally puts donor right in the middle. And many fundraisers have unconsciously or consciously taken this into account, insisting on treating donors as the most important element of our work. There is so much language now about treating donors like “heroes” or even “superheroes.”

An argument can be made that the donor-centered model has been so prevalent in our sector because it works. There are lots of data showing that different donor-centered strategies work. But just because something works does not necessarily mean that it is intrinsically good. Think, for example, of fishing. Data may show that a certain bait works really well. If you use this bait, you will catch more fish, guaranteed. So everyone who can afford it starts using it. What happens then to the fish population, to the pond, to the ecosystem? Just because you can catch a bunch of fish, does that mean that you should?

Of course, that is a very simplistic analogy, and insulting to donors. But in many ways, fundraising in our sector has become like fishing. We treat donors like fish, and we try our best to find the strategies that work, that nets our organizations the most fish/dollars, without worrying about the consequences. But our sector is interconnected, a complex system of interrelated missions. This is a major difference between our sector and the for-profit sector. Cupcakes may have very little to do with shoes or software, but early learning definitely is related to youth development, housing with employment, education with food security, etc. Everything is interrelated in our sector, but we have behaved as if each mission is its own self-sufficient silo, a philosophy that has been reinforced by donor-centrism.

And because of that, a host of unintended problems are created, some of which may be actively preventing us from advancing an equitable society. At its worst, Donor-Centrism:

Perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games: It seems Donor-centrism has resulted in many of us being in competition with one another, using the latest data, to see who can thank people fastest and in the most effective ways, who can tell the best most emotional impact stories, who can be most “accountable” in terms of “overhead” rates and stuff, etc. I’ve seen workshops like “25 Creative Ways to Thank Your Donors” and “How to Make Thank-You Videos that Stand Out.” Has it reached a point now where the iconic handwritten thank-you note is no longer be enough? Meanwhile, I attended a workshop where a presenter said, “Most importantly, make sure you have four stars on [charity watchdog site], because donors are comparing you to other nonprofits, and they won’t be impressed if you don’t have four stars.” This is crap, for many reasons, some of which I’ll be expanding on in future posts. All of this competition perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games, where instead of working together to solve issues, we nonprofits are forced to fight with one another, resulting in all of us and our community losing.

While those are all serious problems, there are several even more serious issues that our sector and the fundraising field in particular has not really talked about. Without intending to, Donor-Centrism:

Proliferates the Savior Complex: The constant inflating of donors’ egos through tactics like the usage of “you” in everything and narratives painting donors as protagonists and heroes saving the day may make them feel good and donate more, but is that what we really want in the long run? Do we really want to further this philosophy that donors are heroes and saviors, that they get nothing in return except appreciation and feel-goods? What is the cost to society when we reinforce the notion that some people are saviors and others are there to be saved, versus getting everyone to understand systemic inequity and their role within it, and how they themselves also benefit from creating a strong community that they live in?

Fuels systemic injustice: So much of our work is to address the challenges caused by wealth disparities, much of which is built on historic and current injustice. To constantly put donors in the center and appeal to their emotion and ego means there is less time and energy devoted to helping our donors understand and navigate the systemic injustice that they may be inadvertently contributing to. By fueling our donors’ egos, we unconsciously tell them it’s OK, that they don’t have to think about the hard stuff, about privilege, about disparities, about racism in the education and criminal justice system contributing to the wealth gap that they may be benefiting from.

Perpetuates the othering of the people we serve: An insidious effect of the Savior complex is that people see other people as “others.” “Others” exist in our minds in a binary state, either as enemies, or as those to be helped, never our equals. With this current political climate, we’ve been seeing a lot of people perceiving and treating fellow human beings as “others/enemies.” But the “Others/People-to-be-helped” mindset is also destructive. I mentioned the analogy earlier of donor-centrism being like us standing by the shores of a lake telling donors “You helped us buy bread to feed these ducks. Because of you, 50 ducks didn’t go hungry! You are a hero!” instead of getting donors to understand they too are ducks and that their lives and happiness are tied to all the other ducks and to the pond that they share. We cannot build a strong and just society if we reinforce in donors the unconscious perception of the people we help as merely objects of pity and charity to be saved.

Crowds out the voices of people served: As I mentioned in “The Infantilization of marginalized communities must stop” and other posts, there is an assumption that the people receiving services don’t know what’s good for them or what solutions would work. There is a dissonance in that those we consider “major” donors are often not the people who are experiencing the challenges we are trying to address, but donor-centrism gives them a level of credibility and belief that they hold the solutions. The more we reinforce donors’ sense that they are experts when they are not, the more we diminish the voices of those who are most affected by injustice and who thus may have the best solutions to address it.

Further marginalizes already-marginalized communities: As I’ve mentioned before in “Time Inequity” and other posts, a significant number of organizations led by communities of color, LGBTQ communities, communities of disability, rural communities, etc., are small. They are unlikely going to have as robust a development department as larger organizations. But they do some of the most critical and urgent work, often with some of the smallest resources. The more we reinforce in donors’ minds that they should be thanked immediately, that they should be communicated with based on their preferences—“I only want newsletters to be emailed to me in November, preferably on a Tuesday”—the more they, and we, see it as normal and expect it. There is no way many organizations led by marginalized communities can meet these expectations with the limited resources they have, which means that the donors may see these orgs as disorganized or incompetent. Larger, more resourced organizations, using principles of donor-centrism have trained donors to expect handwritten thank-you note followed up with phone calls within a day or two of donations. So when a small organization doesn’t contact you until two weeks later, it’s understandable if donors are not impressed. It doesn’t matter that this small organization may not have any development staff, and that it has been using its limited time and funding to prevent people from getting deported or to have conversations with kids of color or people with disabilities about how to protect themselves from bullying and hate crimes in this terrifying political climate.

Reinforces money as the default measure of people’s worth: Whether we intend to or not, we still value people who donate more money more. We define “Major Donors” as people who give a certain level, not according to their personal context but according to set thresholds. These donors get extra attention. It’s understandable; we need to keep the lights on. But it does unconsciously perpetuate society’s ingrained notion that people who have more money deserve special treatment. But what about the smaller gifts? What about the $10 from a student or a $5 from a colleague who is between employment? Are those not considered major gifts? Donor-centrism would say that we appreciate these smaller gifts just the same. But is that really true?

Minimizes other elements needed to do this work well: We know that our work cannot be effective without volunteers, staff, strong board members, funders, consultants, other nonprofits, etc. Placing donors in the center means everyone else must be on the peripheral. Take volunteers, for example. Many of us rely significantly on volunteers, especially around fundraising events. Why don’t more organizations have volunteer coordinators? Why does it seem like an expectation for us to send handwritten notes to donors, but it’s more a sweet afterthought if we remember to write notes for individual volunteers? The argument that donors don’t benefit from donating (but volunteers do benefit from volunteering) is BS and another sign that we have failed to effectively communicate the impact of our work.

Furthers the idea of transactional charity: A tenet of Donor-Centrism, at least of some of the blog posts I’ve read, is the idea that we need to be accountable in reporting to donors exactly what their donation went to. “Your $1,000 helped 10 kids go to summer camp” or “your $50 bought 20 containers of hummus and five pounds of baby carrots for our preschoolers” or whatever. This is an illusion we tell donors, because the combination of hundreds of elements is needed to make programs successful. This reporting practice allows donors to feel a false sense of cause/effect and accountability, but at the cost of furthering their ignorance about nonprofit work, which is holistic and requires so much more than a single donor’s contribution. This ignorance perpetuates the overhead myth and other barriers and harms us and our community in the long-run.

Prevents honest conversations and true partnerships: I’ve gotten into a couple of friendly arguments on Nonprofit Happy Hour and ED Happy Hour Facebook groups (which you should join, since they’re filled with brilliant people) over giving feedback to donors who do or say ridiculous things. Some colleagues, with good reasons, believe we should be very careful about “educating,” providing feedback, or outright pushing back when donors say or do things that harm our work or our community. The power dynamics between nonprofits and donors is not as strong as the dynamics between nonprofits and funders, but it is still there. And the more donor-centered people are, I’ve seen, the more likely they are to believe that it is not our “place” to have honest conversations with our donors. But I don’t think we can make progress in many of the issues we’re tackling if we cannot build true partnerships with donors, which includes pointing out, respectfully and at the appropriate time, when donors are in the wrong, and helping them shape their thinking and actions.

Short-changes our donors: I know, donor-retention rate is still pretty dismal in our sector. But I’m not sure it’s because we’re not donor-centered enough and that we need to double-down on it. It might be that donor-centrism might work in the short-run, but in the long run, fails to truly inspire our donors. Think about relationships. The best and happiest ones, the relationships that last, are never ones where one partner is put in the center and constantly heaped with attention and catered to. The best marriages have strong communication, a strong belief in the future, and shared values, but also vigorous, challenging conversations and disagreements and occasional explosive but cathartic arguments.

Our sector has been talking a lot about equity, diversity, and inclusion. But not so much in the context of fundraising. As a colleague of mine, James Hong the ED of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, says,

“We rarely talk about race and equity in fundraising. We always talk about race and equity in the context of programs, services, advocacy, etc., …never fundraising. Right now, this donor-centered model of fundraising isn’t designed to build power. It’s designed to make money. And frankly, you can double the revenues of an organization, increase donations, staff, etc., and still fail horribly at your mission.”

And this is the critical missing conversation within the work of fundraising through individuals. With a few exceptions such as the awesome Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) and Social Justice Fund Northwest (SJF), we lag behind in having these discussions, so strong is the drive to increase revenues. The majority of the conversations I’ve been a part of around equity, diversity, and inclusion still focus on how to get people to give: What strategies do we need to use to get diverse communities to give? How do we attract diverse development staff…who have the skills and connections to get diverse people to give? Rarely has the conversation been about the wealth gap, systemic oppression, and how we can use fundraising principles and practices to build the power and voice of our community. And this may be a reason why there are so few development staff of color and why the ones that we have may be burning out. It’s exhausting emotionally and spiritually to constantly have to ask the people who may not be aware that they benefit from injustice to contribute to help end it.

Of course, this is not to say that all aspects of donor-centrism are bad and contributing to injustice. But as our demographics change, as our society’s problems become more numerous and complex, we must look at our fundraising philosophies and practices through a lens of equity and social justice. We need a model where we respect donors and build strong relationships with them, but where they are not in the center. They cannot be in the center. None of us can be in the center, for all the above and other reasons. The community we serve and benefit from must be in the center.

I am working with some colleagues to develop a set of principles for what I’m calling Community-Centric Fundraising, a model that is grounded in equity and social justice, prioritizes the entire community over individual organizations, fosters a sense of belonging and interdependence, presents our work not as individual transactions but holistically, and encourages mutual support between nonprofits. This set of principles will be presented in a future post.

I know not everyone will agree with all the points in this post. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Please provide your comments, suggestions for principles, and feedback in the comment section.

(And also, RVC is looking for a Development Director, who will help us to create a strong and equitable community. We have awesome snacks!)

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