Vaccines for major donors, and how our fundraising practices perpetuate unethical behaviors and inequity

[Image description: A syringe filled with a green liquid, labeled “vaccine,” its long needle with one droplet at the end, hovering over a spread of $500-bills. Damn, this is a great image for this post! In case you’re curious, it takes me 15 to 45 minutes to find the right picture and caption it for each post. This image is by geralt on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, quick announcement before we begin. BIPOC fundraisers, join Community-Centric Fundraising on Thursday, February 11 at 2pm PT for conversation and camaraderie. This is the second of a three-part monthly series. Register here. The series is for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, thanks white allies for understanding.

This post will likely upset many people, so please take a CBD gummy or make some calming tea or something before you proceed further. By now, you may have heard about the Overlake Hospital scandal where donors who gave $10,000 or more were offered appointments to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, this is happening across the country, including in Rhode Island, Kansas, New Jersey, Virginia, and Florida. These breaches of ethics are absolutely infuriating, especially considering the inequity. White people are immunized at greater rates, even though Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people have been dying at significantly higher rates.

Donors getting special treatment is not new. Last week I asked colleagues to send me stories. Here are a few of the many replies, with minor edits for clarity and length:

  • “A major cancer center that I used to work for had a dedicated state member in the capital gifts area for making sure major donors got priority treatment.”
  • “At a prior job, my boss, the VP of Development, used to routinely get donors into better hospital rooms, speed up the care in the emergency room and push doctors for quick appointments for those major donors.”
  • “I was told that although donors don’t ‘jump the queue,’ it was quite common for docs to go to donors’ houses privately on their days off… presumably offering them treatment ‘outside of the queue.’”
  • “[I was] asked by the development team to create a handicapped parking place/placard/etc. for a guest who wasn’t happy with her farther-away parking at a very popular event where parking was a premium. This person didn’t have a disability as far I know.”  

Anecdotes also abound of donors being given a pass for sexual harassment, nepotism, ableism, etc.:

  • “I once worked at a major national org that had HIGHLY competitive internships—and one of our biggest donors asked if her son could have an internship. And of course, he got it.”
  • “Someone who donates to many other local orgs cut a check and then indicated that more would come if he could have a threesome. He is in his 80s and married.”
  • “Annual gala. I’m the DD for the org. Donor and friend of a board member drinks too much. I offer to call him a cab. He corners me, aggressively yells at me, grabs my ass and then…a week later, refuses to pay the $5,000 he racked up that night. Worst of all of it—board member friend and ED would do nothing to address his behavior either that night or in the time following. They said I misread the situation. I quit before I ever had to be in a room with him again.”

These stories are numerous. But how can they not be? Our donor-centered fundraising practices are grounded in two toxic philosophies: 1. The goal of fundraising is to raise as much money as possible for our individual missions. And 2. To do that well, we need to make sure donors are happy.

These deceptively simple philosophies, ingrained over decades, naturally lead to the above situations and exacerbate the inequity we’re trying to address. The first forces us into a deadly hunger games competition with one another to see which organizations can get the most funds. When we talk about what “works” in fundraising, this is what we mean: Does something “work” to bring in as much money for the organization as possible. In the pursuit of raising as much funds as we can, we often throw ethics out the window, or consider it a nice-to-have. We’ve learned to brush aside the tiny voice of conscience that tells us that just because something “works” to bring in money, doesn’t mean it is the ethical and right thing to do.

This hyper-focus on getting as much funding as possible leads us to doing shady things that we may not even realize or acknowledge are shady, like asking traumatized clients to share their stories with hundreds of strangers to make them cry and open their checkbooks, or asking nonprofit staff to donate to their own orgs in a weird symbolic gesture of self-sacrifice as proof of dedication.

Meanwhile, making donors feel appreciated is one thing, but as a field it’s gone too far, to the point where I see a Stockholm-Syndrome-like effect where any criticism of donors (or donor-centrism) leads to anxiety and defensiveness. For some reasons, donors can do no wrong; it is never their fault for anything. As some colleagues have put it, we treat donors as “customers” and the old adage is that “the customer is always right.” But carried to its logical conclusion, this means that donors can get away with terrible behaviors all the time, and not only do we not discourage it, we often reinforce it, fearing the wrath of donors and the loss of funding for our missions.

What we also often fail to examine are the equity implications of these philosophies and practices. Organizations are not equally affected by the cutthroat competition for funding, it is the ones led by marginalized communities that continue to be under-resourced. It’s not just traumatized people telling stories in front of strangers, it’s often traumatized Black, Indigenous, Latinx, POC people sharing painful parts of their lives in front of white strangers. Staff are not equally affected when asked to donate to the organizations that employ them, it is always lower paid-and-thus-BIPOC staff who will be most negatively affected.

Traditional fundraising has operated with a “colorblind” lens, and this is a huge part of the problem. Most donors, especially “major” donors, are white. That’s who we are catering to; that’s whose attention and money we are in competition for. Traditional fundraisers (who are also mostly white) keep refusing to acknowledge this. Just change “donors” to “rich white folks” and you can start to see how problematic it is. Rich-white-folks retention. #RichWhiteFolksLove. We are appealing to rich white people to keep our organizations afloat. We are conditioned to ensure rich white donors are happy. We not only let rich white people get away with terrible stuff but we actually facilitate it, like allowing them to get vaccinated ahead of more vulnerable Black, Indigenous, Latinx people. “Donor-centric,” if we are honest with ourselves, is “rich-white-people-centric.”

And alongside all this, we neglect to acknowledge painful truths like the fact that all this wealth is concentrated in white people because of white supremacy, colonization, slavery, and other extractive practices. We ignore the systemic causes of wealth inequity, then train one another to appeal to the people who benefit most from wealth inequity, and by doing so we constantly perpetuate the very injustice we seek money to fight. It’s a mess.

It is not one bad hospital, or one bad executive director, or a rogue development director who are to blame for the shady, inequitable, unethical stuff that happens in our field. It is the natural, logical consequence of how we’ve been taught to do fundraising over years and years.

It’s time for our sector to grapple with this and decide if we’re going to keep fundraising the same way. A way that centers the comfort and happiness of rich white people. A way that ensures white fundraisers retain the most power and influence in the sector. A way that preserves status quo, capitalism, and white supremacy. Many of us have decided there must be a different way, which is why the Community-Centric Fundraising movement was started.

But so much of our sector is still stuck. These fundraising philosophies and practices have been deeply absorbed by not just fundraisers, but everyone in the sector: board members, senior leadership, foundation staff, program staff, etc. Like white supremacy, toxic masculinity, ableism, etc., they are embedded into everything we do. If we are going to see changes for the better, if we’re going to stop fueling the injustice we’re trying to fight, it will take intentional focus and some serious and uncomfortable soul-searching. Among all of us, but especially among white colleagues.

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