Nonprofit and philanthropy and our bad habit of “both-siding” inequity and injustice

[Image description: A small statue of Lady Justice in front of a window with blinds down. She is blindfolded and holding scales and a sword. The statue appears to be on a desk along with four books standing upright and a globe. Image by jessica45 on Pixabay]

Happy Monday, everyone, or as happy as it can be given that it’s 2020 and we’re all likely in a computer simulation run by a sadistic toddler. An announcement before we begin today’s serious post: The Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) Slack community is growing and now has over 800 members. People are connecting to one another and starting to form local CCF groups across the world. So join, and I hope to see you there!

Speaking of CCF, since the launch of this movement last month, I’ve been getting requests to be on panels or write articles to defend the community-centric approach against folks who hold traditional donor-centered fundraising philosophies and practices. The framing is that there are two sides to this “debate,” with community-centrism being an uppity challenger to traditional practices so it is time to duke it out Mad Max Thunderdome-style (I may have exaggerated a little).

Sorry, I am not interested in these debates. There are no two sides. Traditional donor-centered approaches have revolved around the comfort of white donors and thus have been allowing them to avoid grappling with systemic injustice rooted in slavery, colonization, and capitalistic exploitation of the poor and marginalized that perpetuates wealth and power hoarding among rich mostly white people, which fuels many of the problems we’re trying to fix. Let’s not waste time with back-and-forth over whether that’s true. There is also no argument that this works to bring in funding. In fact, the issue is that it “works” TOO well. But just because something “works,” doesn’t mean it is the ethical thing to do. We need to collectively explore ways to evolve our fundraising practices to be more ethical.

What I am interested in is dissecting this bad habit that our sector has of “both-siding” injustice and the harm that this causes, the above issue being one example of it. What is both-siding? It’s the belief that there are equally valid perspectives to every issue and that they all deserve the same amount of time and attention. Unfortunately, this has had terrible consequences in our society. For example, the climate-change “debate.” Scientists are overwhelmingly in agreement on the issue, so to give any air time to those in denial is to give validity to fringe beliefs, and over the past several years this has caused untold destruction to our planet. Besides climate change, both-siding has led to the rise in anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, Covid-impact-minimizers, and violent white supremacists.

Both-siding happens because we think we’re being fair and intellectually curious and encouraging “diversity of perspectives,” etc. But many perspectives are awful and should never get any exposure. This is not to say we should no longer hear different sides or have rigorous debates. But those should be designed to engage with essential truths, not to argue about whether an overwhelmingly proven fact is valid or not. For instance, we can debate about how to respond to human-created climate change, NOT debate whether humans create climate change. We can argue about Kamala Harris’s records, NOT do what Newsweek did, which is give racists a platform to advance their birther conspiracy theory, in the name of “diverse perspectives.”

In nonprofit and philanthropy, the both-siding we do is more subtle, but it is pervasive. For instance, a colleague tweeted asking an organization to put a salary range on its job posting. There is so much research on how the lack of pay transparency disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, women, disabled people. It also wastes everyone’s time and is a clear signal that your organization is stuck in the past.

A leader at the organization tweeted back: “This is an important issue. Do drop me a line so that we can have a wider chat about it & perhaps look to organize some sort of session/forum to facilitate a conversation?” The colleague wrote back, “I don’t really see what there is to talk about. Not publishing salaries increases the gender pay gap. Your agency agrees to do this.” Other folks chimed in with “no need for talk, just update your policies and job postings” and “seriously, read the room.”

That is an awesome collective response, and one that I wish we would use more. Whatever arguments you have to conceal salary range or ask for salary history have been thoroughly considered. The threshold has been reached to conclude that disclosing salary in job postings is an equitable practice. Either you change your practice when it is well-proven to be harmful and inequitable, or you are in denial about the harm you are causing.

When it comes to race, equity, access, diversity, and inclusion, we often engage in both-siding without realizing it, in the process allowing toxic and uninformed views to cloud discussions on racism, ableism, misogyny, etc. It is important to recognize it so we can put a stop to it. A colleague doing a racial equity training opened with remarks along the lines of “We are not going to spend time and energy debating whether white privilege is real or if white supremacy exists or whatever. You’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn that stuff. If you’re still in denial about it, this is not the space for you to work that out. We are here to agree to actions we need to take.” Let’s all be more like that.

To do our work well, we need to recognize and uphold some essential truths, and protect them from getting derailed. I am not an arbiter of what those essential truths are, but from my perspective, here are a few of them, in no particular order:

  • racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and toxic masculinity exist;
  • Black, Indigenous, and women of color are most affected by systemic injustice;
  • those who are most affected by systemic injustice are most qualified to lead in addressing it;
  • when we focus on helping those most oppressed, the entire society benefits;
  • marginalized-communities have been under-resourced;
  • they are under-resourced not because of their lack of qualifications or “readiness” but because of the pervasive whiteness inherent in philanthropy;
  • traditional capacity building has been designed for white, mainstream organizations;
  • the way we currently fundraise perpetuates white saviorism, poverty tourism, and the Nonprofit Hunger Games
  • providing multi-year general operating funds is the best way to help nonprofits be successful;
  • progressive funders are less effective than conservative ones;

If you disagree with any of these, don’t argue with me, just google.

Both-siding is a habit we’ve adopted, and all of us do it. So, let’s be more critical as we work to address inequity and injustice. Here are a few things we can each do to prevent the both-siding of injustice:

Reflect on what essential truths are and what your relationship to them is: Essential truths are present in our sector, but depending on our experiences and level of privilege, we may not be able to see them, or we don’t see them fully. White folks, for example, may not be able to fully perceive essential truths about racism and white privilege. Neuro-typical people may not register things that are obvious to neuro-diverse folks. It is important for all of us to constantly consider how our own experiences and privileges may help or impede our perceptions of reality. For instance, before you defend the atrocious practice of asking job applicants to spend hours on an assignment tailored to your organization (such as write up a fundraising or communication plan), consider how your position as a person with privilege and power may be shaping your view, and whether you may have the same view if you were the job applicant.

Analyze the characteristics and demographics of who has what perspectives: Who are the folks defending something? Are they mostly white or BIPOC? If the majority of the people who are denying the existence of the gender pay gap are cisgender dudes, or if the vast majority of disabled people say something is inspiration porn and it is a problem while those who disagree are abled, or if most people defending the practice of asking staff to “donate” to the organizations that employ them are higher-income white folks while those against it are mostly folks of color who are or have been lower-income, are there actually two equally valid perspectives in each situation? (No).

Refuse to engage in both-siding: Do not indulge harmful views in misguided attempts at displaying intellectual rigor and curiosity. Don’t create debates, forums, town halls, or other opportunities for them to proliferate. If you are invited to be on a zoom webinar to debate things where the evidence is overwhelming and there’s no need to further discuss, don’t participate. Your very presence and willingness to engage, even to counter, only help to validate the legitimacy of these views.

When you see both-siding, divert it or shut it down: Our sector is mired in toxic intellectualization, with both-siding a manifestation of it. But because we tend to be very nice people who are often conflict avoidant (a topic for another post), we often let it go on unchecked. Let’s be more assertive now in challenging it. Both-siding wastes so much time and often derails conversations. When someone is like “I don’t understand why we’re talking about race; I mean, I’m white and I grew up poor,” instead of debating with them, just say something along the lines of “There is overwhelming evidence that racism and poverty are linked. Please get caught up so you have the context to engage in this conversation.”

Help people catch up when you have the time and energy: I am not saying to never engage with people who mean well and want to learn. But for some issues, we should help people catch up, like a friend providing lecture notes to someone who missed a class. Let’s not, as we currently tend to do, allow those who miss class to then dominate the following class demanding the entire room spend time and energy arguing with them when they don’t have the knowledge to engage on the same level and their ignorance only lowers the quality of the discourse.

Let me know your thoughts in the comment section. However, if you start arguing against vaccines, defending flat-earth theories, justifying not disclosing salary range on job postings, denying the impact of racism, your comment will be deleted.

support Black Lives Matter