White development colleagues, we need to talk about fundraiser fragility

[Image description: Two fluffy yellow baby chickens standing in the grass. So cute! So small! So fragile! Image by Lolame on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. This post today will likely ruffle some feathers. I only ask that you read it with an open mind, and maybe while eating a bar of dark chocolate (it reduces stress). If you’re a regular reader of my ramblings, you know that I frequently point out various flaws in our field. I do this because I love our sector and the people in it, and I believe in our potential to be truly transformative, to be able to help create the kind of inclusive, equitable world we know is possible. We cannot achieve that potential if we become complacent or self-satisfied with the way things are.

Most of my criticisms have been met with openness, even in disagreement. When I point out how evaluation is so white and problematic, (for examples here, here, and here), colleagues in data and evaluation engage in thoughtful and constructive dialogs. When I provide hard feedback about capacity building (here, here, and here), colleagues in capacity building welcome the discussions.

But when I talk about fundraising, especially when it comes to donor engagement, and how it’s centered on appeasing rich white people who often intentionally or unintentionally avoid paying taxes and hoard wealth, and how we as a sector are complicit in conscience-laundering and charity washing, the response from a lot of fundraisers is…disappointing. Yes, there is an increasing number of people who are thoughtfully engaging with the issues highlighted by Community-Centric Fundraising (thank you!). But there are still lots of colleagues whose response has been along the lines of “How dare he say these blasphemous things! Burn his house down! Salt his fields so that no crops shall grow again! Steal his WiFi so his TV shows will have to buffer all the time!

OK, I’m exaggerating a little bit. But not really. I can’t find the tweet, but I remember someone literally saying “his views are dangerous!” when I first published this article. Only a few months ago, when I asked a colleague to help spread the word about the CCF launch event titled “Let’s Make Fundraising Less Racist,” (here’s the entire recording), I got a rambling defensive email back that included the words “Fuck you, brother. You know what your waffle sounds like to these ears? Positioning. The fastest way to position YOUR product is to DE-position some other known product.”

Oh crap! You found our agenda! The goal of the CCF movement is not to push for our fundraising practices to be more aligned with equity and justice, but to sell Community-Centric Fundraising as a product! For $299, YOU TOO can be a CCF-certified fundraiser! Call within the next 10 minutes, and you can get TWO certifications, one for you, one for a friend! BUT WAIT, you also get these nifty CCF logo T-shirts for JUST the price of shipping and handling! They are 100% cotton and smell like equity!

Fundraisers, I love you, but we need to talk about fundraiser fragility. The doubting of motives, the fear-induced panic responses, the ironic calling for us to rise above a “culture war,” the cult-like pedestaling of donors, etc., it’s all exhausting. If we’re going to advance our work and improve our field, you all need to consider the following:

Most of y’all being fragile are white: Fundraiser fragility is very much tied to white fragility because most fundraisers are white. And most donors are white. If you’re offended that a bunch of people of color are pointing out that traditional fundraising has been too centered on the comfort of white people whose wealth may have been built on slavery, colonization, and other injustices, reflect on how your white privilege may be affecting your feelings and perspectives. Also, a lot of fragility I’ve seen are from white men. If that’s you, reflect on your white male privilege.

You’re being affected by donor and funder fragility: I wrote about funder fragility earlier, and I first heard the term “donor fragility” being used by Edgar Villanueva, who wrote Decolonizing Wealth (which I recommend you read if you haven’t). People who have a lot of wealth have a lot of power in our world, sadly, and their egos are easily bruised. So much of fundraising involves protecting wealthy people’s ego so they will keep giving. We are terrified of offending them. Over time, this fear gets internalized and becomes fragility.

You may have Fundraiser Stockholm Syndrome: In a nutshell, Stockholm Syndrome is when hostages identify with, and even help or protect, their captors. For example, random people on the internet defending billionaires and mega-corporations from criticisms that they should pay more taxes. Our sector trains and conditions fundraisers to empathize with and protect people with wealth, who, let’s be honest with ourselves, have held a lot of progress hostage in our society, and we fundraising professionals have been complicit in helping them maintain the status quo.

You’re treating donors like toddlers: The protectiveness that many fundraisers have toward donors is that of a mother bear guarding her cubs. For all the talk about building relationship with donors, being authentic partners, not treating people like ATMs, etc., we continue to patronize donors. We do treat them like ATMs; we’re just very nice to our ATMs; we give our ATMs cookies and handwritten thank-you notes and shield our ATMs from “dangerous views.” If we want to be authentic partners with donors, then we need to stop treating them like children who can’t handle difficult conversations and actions around addressing white supremacy, reparation, wealth inequity, etc. that this work requires if we are to do it well.

Stop thinking in binaries: A lot of the fragility I see among fundraisers is because so many continue to think in binaries. We need to accept and work with the fact that things are complicated, and multiple seemingly-conflicting things can be true at the same time. We can respect and appreciate donors AND push back when they’re being racist or egotistical. We can write handwritten thank you notes AND understand that handwritten thank-you notes are a very white way of showing gratitude. We can thank foundations and donors for funding our work AND acknowledge that philanthropy results from and perpetuates inequity.

There are so many things we need to address to strengthen our collective work. Again, I and many other people (both BIPOC and white), point out the inequities in fundraising and in our sector not because we want to cause trouble or engage in shenanigans (Although, I do love me some shenanigans!). It is often because we believe in and respect our profession enough to want it to improve and evolve. We believe that the community we serve deserves the best from us, and the best from us requires that we examine our many philosophies and practices to see how they may be furthering the very injustice we are raising money to fight.

But we cannot have these conversations if so many fundraising colleagues, especially white fundraising colleagues, continue to get their feelings hurt and start ad hominem attacks or creating false narratives about the motives of the people pushing for change whenever donors are criticized or white supremacy is mentioned in conjunction with fundraising.

I’m thankful for colleagues who get it, and who use their privilege to speak up against inequity. A lot of racialized and marginalized people are exhausted, not just in dealing everyday with oppressive systems, but also in spending emotional energy convincing fragile white people that these systems are oppressive.

Please reflect on your privilege and fragility. Otherwise, you continue to be unable to perceive, much less mitigate or fix, the flaws and inequities within systems and in the world.

Sign the charitystimulus.org petition to get Congress to enact legislation requiring foundations to double their annual payout rate.

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