Fundraising and the problem with “you”


[Image description: A pink water lily, sitting on some lily pads floating on the water. The water and lily pads are in black-and-white. Image by pixel2013 on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. This post may be shorter and more disjointed than usual. Like many of you, I have been affected by all the human rights violations in Palestine, including the murder of Palestinian children. Here are some ways you can help. If you need more information, Decolonize Palestine is a great resource.

I’ve also been thinking of the CDC’s recommendation that fully vaccinated people can go mask-free. While this seems like progress, it moves us out of a “we’re all in this together” mentality and back into an “individual choice” sort of deal, which will endanger more lives. It furthers the issue identified in this article, which highlights how the CDC switched its messaging from how wearing masks protects others, to one that emphasizes individual self-protection.

I’m bringing this up because it seems that as we scramble to get back to some semblance of The Before Times, we are losing our tenuous grasp on some critical lessons that we should have learned from the pandemic. One of those lessons is the danger of individualism, and the connection between individual well-being and community well-being.

Unfortunately, our sector often reinforces individualism. This is particularly true in traditional fundraising practices, which has focused so much on making donors feel special. We try to customize our acknowledgments to be personal to each donor. We break down our work so that it could be digested at the individual level: “$100 helps 10 families” “$500 allows 4 kids to go to summer camp,” etc. (which is a lie, and we need to stop doing it).

And we are told to use the word “you” as often as possible in communications with donors: “Because of you, 500 kids didn’t go home hungry all school year! You made the world better! You’re a hero!”

I guess research shows that this works, that donors give more when we use “you” all the time. But is this what we really want? I know that the emphasis on “you” is in response to organization-centric messaging, where nonprofits boast about themselves and their accomplishments, often leaving out the donor. But the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, where donors are told repeatedly, by every nonprofit they engage with, about how awesome they individually are, how they are individually making the world better. In the long run, our entire sector is helping to entrench individualism, which often makes the world worse.

One of my favorite shows growing up was “Married, With Children.” In one of the episodes, Kelly, the not-too-bright-on-the-surface teenage daughter, was told by a forest ranger “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” And Kelly looked serious and said something like, “Wow, that’s such a big responsibility.” She thought that literally she was the only one who could prevent forest fires. This is kind of what we’ve been doing with donors through our various donor-centered practices: inflating their egos and sense of self-importance, and in the process, furthering the othering of the people we serve, setting up a dichotomy of “you,” the savior, and “them,” the people being saved.  

We need to move away from “you” and toward “we.” In Vietnamese culture, there are two forms of “we,” one that excludes the person you’re talking to and one that includes. “Chúng tôi” excludes and “chúng ta” (or, less formally, “chúng mình”) includes. This can be really helpful and clarifying. For instance, if you and your partner are hanging out with someone, and at the end of the hangout you say, “we’re going to this bar down the street,” the form of “we” you’re using will instantly tell the person if they’re invited to come with you or not.

It is this second, inclusive form of “we” that we should be using. It indicates all of us are included in something together. I’ve been seeing a lot more of this in political fundraising, which has its own annoying quirks (Among them, ridiculous hyperbole: “Jeff, we might as well punch ourselves in the face and pack up. It’s hopeless. Hate wins. Unless we raise $50,000 by midnight!!!”). One thing the political fundraising emails do well, though, is use the inclusive “we.” I always feel like I am on the team, and we’re fight alongside one another to make a better world. Yes, they keep calling me Jeff, but I still feel that we’re all in it together.

It’s not that “you” should be forbidden. We just need to be more thoughtful about when we deploy it. Toward those with privilege, like donors, we need to deemphasize it. Meanwhile, those with less privilege—POCs and other marginalized people—could probably benefit from hearing it a little more often: “you are brilliant,” “that point you made earlier was extremely important.”

At this point you may be thinking, “you, we, who the hell cares?! It’s just semantics!” Sure, that’s true, in a way this is a relatively minor problem in our sector. But it is indicative of how we perpetuate individualism, and that is a much bigger problem. We can only solve entrenched problems in society by believing our fates are tied to one another’s and to the entire local and global community. Therefore, one of our sector’s more important roles is to build a sense of connectedness, of collective interdependence.

And we, chúng ta, can’t do that if we don’t snap out of the individualistic mindset that we have not only internalized but are constantly instilling in others.