White supremacy and the problem with centering donors’ interests and emotions

[Image description: A small boat on calm water, at sunrise or sunset, the skies in shades of orange and pink. Image by Eila Lifflander on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. Please buckle up, because this may be a bumpy ride for many of you. One, because of the topic. But also because a racist misogynist murdered eight people, the majority being Asian women, in Atlanta last week because he had a “bad day,” so I am not in the mood to soften my messaging.

I am exhausted by the cycle of white supremacist violence and denial. I don’t have the energy to find something to say at the moment that others haven’t already said better. Here’s my friend My Tam Nguyen’s reflection, “Asian American Women Are Resilient—and We Are Not OK.” Please read that. And if your org hasn’t condemned the rise in violence against Asians, do that. Here’s an example, with lots of good resources.

But I do have the energy to discuss a related topic: The pervasive, deeply internalized philosophy that as fundraisers, our job is to connect donors to what they care about, make them feel relevant and appreciated, and by doing that we help them realize their goals of making the world better, and everybody wins. It sounds fine on the surface, even noble, and many fundraisers have internalized this message over decades. I find it one of the biggest contributors to the very inequities we’re trying to fight.

That’s right, I know it’s fundraising blasphemy, but if we’re going to advance equity and justice, we need to care LESS about what donors care about and care MORE about what will actually advance equity and justice. (“But Vu, what donors care about DOES advance equity and justice!” Read on.)

Imagine we’re in a boat that’s rapidly sinking. We need to work together to bail out the water, fix the leaks, and get everyone into life jackets. Now imagine there are passengers who want to help. They mean well; they’re just not used to handling buckets or duct tape or whatever. You go to one and he says, “Hi, I know you need someone on bucket duty, but that’s not what I’m passionate about. My passion is to send flare signals!” (Nevermind that flares have already been sent). Another says, “I don’t mind bailing out the water, but metal buckets make me feel warm and fuzzy because they remind me of my childhood growing up on a farm. You only have plastic ones; I’m going to sit this one out.”

Our society is one giant boat sinking under the weight of white supremacy, the water of injustice gushing in through the holes created by capitalism, racism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, antisemitism, xenophobia. Asian people being set on fire, murdered. Black people being killed in their beds, while jogging, while existing. Indigenous women continue to go missing and get killed. Migrant kids are still in psychological and emotional hell, separated from their families, still in detention centers. Hundreds of bills are being introduced to suppress voting by Black and brown people. Our environment barrels towards being an uninhabitable wasteland.

It is harmful for fundraisers to continue to operate as if things were completely normal, to believe that our primary goal remains connecting wealthy people to a salad bar of feel-good dishes, where they can mix and match to their hearts’ delight, spurred on by our gratitude, oblivious to the white supremacy that runs like a knife through every ingredient.

We need to acknowledge that the things that most donors care about, the things that make them feel good, are often the things that will LEAST LIKELY change the systems of oppression and exploitation that make philanthropy necessary. By constantly working to connect these donors to what tugs at their hearts, what will make their eyes sparkle, instead of what will actually effect change, we reward and reinforce their avoidance of thinking about and their complicity in advancing white supremacy.

We need to acknowledge that most donors—the way we currently define them—are white; therefore, even with the best intentions, they have an unconscious desire to not challenge white supremacy. Why challenge a system that rewards you in every single aspect of your existence? Why not select less-contentious causes to support, and have people affirm constantly that you are a good person for choosing those causes?

We must also acknowledge that by encouraging and rewarding donors to follow their interests and passions, we suppress our valid expertise to defer to donors’ self-perceived expertise. We continue to reinforce this message so prevalent in society that if you have money, you are automatically smart and have the solutions. This is problematic. Imagine a dentist deferring to a client to tell them which drill bit to use on a root canal, or the CDC letting donors dictate quarantine protocols. In other professions, it’s frowned on to let the people with the least expertise but the most money determine courses of action, but in our sector, it’s considered best practice.

Last week, I was talking to a colleague about the The Giving Pledge, where billionaires pledge to donate a significant chunk of their fortune back to society. It hasn’t worked, as this article details. Their fortunes keep increasing; they barely “give back.” This paragraph is particularly important:

“it’s the ceding of decision-making power on what to do with that money that these billionaires find so odious. They would rather decide unilaterally where funding is disbursed than have a democratically elected, publicly accountable representative or body make that choice in the public interest. The money is basically immaterial; a minimization of the immense power they’ve amassed, however, might actually be felt.”

The above article is talking about billionaires, most of whom of course are white, who collectively got 1.3 trillion richer during the pandemic yet who continue to fight against equitable tax codes. But it is applicable to donors as a whole, no matter their level of wealth, because rich people as a whole tend to pay lower tax rates than poor people. We train donors to think they should unilaterally get to decide where, when, and how they should spend money, based on their interests and what’s emotionally relevant to them, not what would be most just and beneficial to society as a whole.

For decades, we—everyone in our field, but especially fundraisers—have told rich white donors that they are amazing. We tell them that there are so many great causes out there, and they just need to find something that resonates with them and make a contribution, and we, like humble tour guides or personal shoppers of equity, will help them find just the right fit. This is no longer good enough.

We need a shift in approach. We need a fundamental transformational shift in the world, where solutions do not come from the passions and interests of wealthy white donors, but from the communities most affected by injustice, the racialized and marginalized communities who have been screaming unheard for so long because white supremacy muffles our voices as it kills our people.

Look around you. The boat we are all in is almost completely submerged. We don’t have much time left, and much of the stuff we’ve been doing hasn’t been helping, but instead has often made things worse. We can’t shout slogans like “Stop white supremacy!” while continuing doing things that reinforce white supremacy. If we are to advance a just and equitable world, our sector can’t remain a clearinghouse of extracurricular activities for rich, mostly white donors.

Donate to stop Anti-Asian hate and violence.