Sometimes the best thing we donors can do to advance social justice is to just write the check and get out of the way

[Image description: A super adorable little fluffy brown baby bear cub clinging to a tree and looking directly at the camera! Awwww, what a sweet little baby bear!]

Hi everyone. This post will likely be controversial, so grab a bar of dark chocolate, or, if you are in Seattle, a warm cup of hemp milk and some kale chips. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about our philosophy on donor engagement, and I think we need to have a serious discussion. Honestly, I am starting to believe that the way we engage donors, and habits and patterns of thinking we reinforce among ourselves and our donors, are possibly damaging to the work and to communities.

But before we go further, I want to try something different. I often speak from the nonprofit perspective, because I love nonprofit work and I love the people who choose to be in this beautiful and frustrating sector. But I also donate to several organizations; with two small kids, it’s not always as much as I would like, but I still donate. In fact, I am willing to bet that everyone who works in nonprofit also donates to other nonprofits. That means all of us are also donors. So instead of speaking from the nonprofit perspective, for this post I am going to speak from a donor’s perspective. It might be a little weird, but bear with me (here’s a picture of a baby bear for being awesome).

Over the past few years, I’ve read and heard things from fundraisers like:

  • “We nonprofits are just vehicles through which donors can do good in the world.”
  • “People don’t just want to give money; they want to be involved and engaged.”
  • “We should talk about what donors care about, not what our organization cares about.”
  • “Donors and funders should be leading equity work.”
  • “We should ask our donors advice on how to build a strong organization”
  • “Our donors want to feel great. Engaging our donors make them feel good.”

But do these philosophies make sense? In what other professions would we say things like this?

  • “Our dental patients don’t just want to pay for a root canal. They want to be engaged in the work. Maybe they can hold the drill.” (Paraphrased from an earlier post).  
  • “We firefighters are just the vehicles through which taxpayers can save the houses and forests that they are passionate about.”
  • “Our investors should lead the way in the design of the next iPhone.”

I know those analogies are simplistic. But we need to acknowledge that commonly-held and often unchallenged donor engagement beliefs and practices have negative side effects, including:

Possible harm to the work: Nonprofits all have horror stories of donor intents and engagements gone awry, from donors who have no understanding of nonprofit finance becoming board treasurers and causing problems, to donors who buy and donate useless items when cash would have been way more helpful, to corporate colleagues who attend one or two meetings and then provide completely ineffective advice in a glossy recommendation report, to volunteers who swarm into other cities or countries after natural disasters trying to help but really just getting in the way.

Possible harm to marginalized communities: Because we care about injustice, many of us donors want to be engaged with organizations that are led by and serving marginalized communities. But if we have little lived experience and we have not done the long and challenging work around concepts like racism, our actions may harm more than they help. For example, many donors are white, while many of the people nonprofits serve are people of color. I know from talking to many POC-led organizations that white volunteers and donors who have had few or no trainings on cultural dynamics, historical trauma, systemic injustice, privilege, implicit bias, etc., often unintentionally say or do things that set the work back or actively hurts community members.

De-valuing of nonprofit skills and experience: Many nonprofit leaders spend years educating ourselves and acquiring the skills to effectively do this incredibly complex work, and even then they face constant challenges. It is somewhat insulting to nonprofit professionals to assume that we well-meaning donors who may have no relevant training or education on issues like homelessness or immigration or advocacy or nonprofit management and who see 1% of the work would somehow have equally valid opinions.

Reinforcement of money as power: If we donors do not have relevant education, skills, and experience, why are nonprofits so deferential to us? Let’s be honest, it’s because we have money, and nonprofits are reliant on our donations to do their work, so the more money we give, the more power we have over our nonprofit partners. But is this a good thing for our society that money automatically means a degree of knowledge and expertise, and thus power and influence? Has this worked well in other areas, like politics?

Cost of time and energy catering to us donors: What do we donors prioritize? That our nonprofits partners get their critical work done, or that we feel good about ourselves? Because let’s face it, it’s often one or the other, but because of power dynamics brought about by money, nonprofits are terrified to upset us donors by being brutally honest. We might get our feelings hurt if we ask nonprofits what they need and they say, “We really just need money. Especially unrestricted money so we can pay the rent.” We might feel sad if we acknowledge the truth that many nonprofits may not really want us to be involved, because it often takes time and resources and energy that they do not have to bring us up to speed. But how relevant are our feelings in the fight for social justice?

All these above things are not just contained to individual donors, but are applicable to foundations as well. A colleague who is a foundation program officer recently told me she is starting to see that our sector’s philosophy of donor engagement as applied to foundations may be a significant barrier to advancing social justice. For instance, trustees at foundations determining giving priorities based on issues they are most engaged in, though that does not mean they have any knowledge on these issues or how to best address them, or if there may be other issues that are more critical. I am inclined to agree. We need to redefine what we mean by donor engagement and set some parameters, and we need to acknowledge that donor engagement is not always good, and sometimes is actually bad.

Before you become dejected or angry, I am not saying that we donors should never be engaged in the work, or should never give advice on how nonprofits should run. My own organization has several donors who have been vital to its founding and effectiveness precisely because they have been heavily engaged on our daily operations and strategies. If we donors want to be involved, our skills, experience, and connections can provide significant benefits to our nonprofit partners. But to do that well, these are some things nonprofits need from us:

Do self-work on anti-racism, privilege, fragility, and other relevant concepts: Nonprofit work is difficult enough without our partners having to spend additional time explaining to us donors why “color-blindness” is not a good thing, or why “all lives matter” is problematic, or comforting us when someone calls us out on something and it hurts our feelings. Attend trainings, read some books, google “how to be an effective [white, male, cisgender, straight, able] ally.”

Be humble; listen and learn: I am pretty well-versed in nonprofit, and even so, I know that the staff at orgs I donate to are vastly more knowledgeable than I do about the issues they’re working on. Because they’ve been working on these issues every day for years! If we have no experience on homelessness, education, mental health, housing, journalism, capacity building, fundraising, nonprofit finance, etc., and even when we do, let’s assume our nonprofit partners would know way more.

Take time to do it right: Listening and learning, though, takes a lot of time and energy to do well. Let’s not attend one meeting or community event and think we know enough to actually give advice. It may take weeks or months or even years to have not just the understanding of basic nonprofit operations, but also community politics and dynamics around disability, race, class, gender, LGBTQ, [edit: also age], etc. Let’s determine if we can commit to that; if we cannot, then maybe a lighter form of engagement or just cutting a check might be the most helpful.

Set aside ego and do not think certain tasks are beneath us: Sure, we may be brilliant strategists, or graphic designers, or marketing gurus, or whatever, and we should let nonprofits know our skills are available, but if they currently really just want us to stack chairs after an event or work the registration table or sweep the floor, let’s do that with enthusiasm.

Be cognizant of power dynamics: Because of the gravity of money, we donors may wield more influence than either we or our partners realize. This may mean that nonprofits may be reluctant to give us constructive feedback, to push back on things they may disagree with. We should help balance this out by being aware and taking actions such as soliciting feedback and encouraging honesty.

Take a backseat on certain things: We donors and funders should not be taking lead on things like equity, diversity, and inclusion work, even if we are asked to do it. We are the least knowledgeable about these areas. For the same reason we should in general refrain from directing nonprofit work through actions such as providing restricted funding or selecting which issues nonprofits should focus on.

Remember this is often not about us: Sure, nonprofits may send us handwritten notes and call us. They are really nice (and brilliant, extremely good-looking) people who are grateful for our various forms of support. But let’s remember that all of us are focused on addressing a host of issues that hurt a lot of people. When nonprofits can’t engage us in the ways we want to be engaged, they may have good reasons, such as limited time or resources and must prioritize other critical things.  

Accept that our most valuable contribution may be in fundraising: It may hurt to recognize this, but often the resource that nonprofits most need is money and our skills and connections to raise more money. Not advice. Not technical assistance. Cold hard cash. Sure, no one wants to nor should be treated like an ATM or a purveyor of other ATMs; we all want to feel seen and valued. But often, especially when we work with marginalized communities with limited access to wealth, fundraising is the biggest challenge, and the best thing we donors can do to advance the work is to help with fundraising.

We donors are critical to the work, and we should be engaged, as often our skills and experience and connections can be valuable and much appreciated. And we should all also acknowledge a fundamental truth and something that most of our nonprofit partners may never ever say to us to our faces: We donors and foundations do not have the same level of expertise as nonprofits in addressing societal issues, and sometimes the best thing we can do as partners is simply cut an unrestricted check, get others to donate, and get out of the way.

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