Hi everyone. I just finished Collecting Courage: Joy, Pain, Freedom, Love, a collection of essays and poetry by Black fundraisers, reflecting on their experiences in our sector. It highlights the many instances of racism that Black colleagues face in fundraising, as well as the white savior complex and other issues with our sector, but there’s also lots of strength and joy. I highly recommend it, especially as August is Black Philanthropy Month, a good time for us to think about Black giving, support Black organizations and businesses, and elevate Black fundraisers’ experiences.
It has been a year since the Community-Centric Fundraising movement launched. I am grateful to see more fundraisers and non-fundraisers across the US and other countries embrace reexamining the problematic philosophies and practices we’ve been upholding, such as poverty tourism, tax avoidance, and the hoarding of wealth that’s been built on slavery, stolen Indigenous land, and other injustices. We have a celebration coming up on August 25th at 11am PT where we’ll reflect on what we learned this year and discuss our hopes for the future of the movement. It’s free; I hope to see you there. Register here.
As CCF grows, we’ve been encountering pushback from colleagues, including the occasional hate message. This is a good sign (although the hate messages might be little too much; come on, at least be more creative with your insults!). We should be having debates and discussions. This is how our sector improves and evolves. Here are some common arguments I and other proponents of CCF encounter repeatedly, both from people who dislike CCF with the intensity of a thousand board meetings, as well as from folks who are genuine in their desire to understand it. I want to summarize and respond to these arguments here so that we can discuss them, but also because some of them are terrible, and we need to reflect on them and then move on, because we have more important discussions to grapple with.
Please keep in mind that Community-Centric Fundraising is a movement, and it is not monolithic. These points below are my opinions based on my experience and on talking to other fundraisers, especially fundraisers of color. But they are just my summary and interpretations, and other CCF practitioners may disagree with various points, and that’s OK.
Argument 1: The way we’ve been doing fundraising works! By “works,” people mean that it brings in money. First, many of us are not arguing that traditional fundraising practices aren’t effective in bringing in money. That’s usually not what’s being debated. We are talking about ethics. Just because something “works” does not mean it is the ethical thing to do. Just because putting a picture of a starving kid of color into an appeal letter “works,” is that what we should be doing? Second, who gets to define what it means when something is “working”? Many traditional fundraisers believe that bringing money is fundraising’s primary goal. I and other CCF-aligned fundraisers believe fundraising’s main goal is to assist in bringing about equity and justice. If something brings in a ton of money but fails to increase equity and justice in the short or long run, or actually decreases it, then it is not “working.” Third, if you insist on sticking to the old definition of what “works,” there’s growing evidence (here and here, for examples) that CCF-aligned fundraising is raising plenty of money.
Argument 2: CCF is an unproven model. It is not based on proven research. CCF is not a model. It is a movement with a set of principles, including the grounding of fundraising on racial and economic justice, the encouraging of donors to examine where their wealth come from and make reparations if needed, the decentering of the appeasement and comfort of rich mostly white donors, and the ending of the nonprofit hunger games. The movement was born out of the recognition that the way we’ve been doing fundraising has been perpetuating the racial and economic injustice we’re raising money to fight. As such, asking CCF to “prove” itself misses the point entirely. It’s like asking the Black Lives Matter movement to “prove” that it “works.”
Argument 3: We rely on rich white donors and if we offend them, they might stop giving: Yes, when we bring up difficult conversations with donors, some of them will be ruffled. Donor fragility is a pervasive thing, and we’ve been trained to coddle donors like tiny delicate baby birds. Some of them will leave, and we will all need to figure the balance of when that is acceptable and when we just can’t afford to take the hit. And some donors may not be ready yet for some conversations right now, but may be later down the line, so we’ll need to figure out what works for different donors. On the other hand, I think we’ve failed many of our donors by underestimating them and their ability to engage in meaningful dialogue. With the protests around George Floyd’s murder by the police and a growing acceptance that systemic racism and white supremacy exist, many donors are not only ready for these conversations but are craving them.
Argument 4: No one is really implementing donor-centric fundraising well! In many ways CCF is a response to current fundraising practices and its hyper-focus on motivating donors to give through emotional manipulation and conditioned rewards. There is an argument that many orgs aren’t actually very donor-centered at all, so what problem is CCF even responding to? Fundraising doesn’t need to be called donor-centered to be mired in white saviorism, poverty tourism, unexamined wealth, tax avoidance, donor dominance, etc. Our entire society has been built on the worship of wealthy white people. This is seen in philanthropy, in politics, in media, everywhere. Whether an organization calls their fundraising donor-centered or not, or attended a DCF workshop or read the book, or have never even heard of donor-centric fundraising, the reality is that existing fundraising is by default problematic and paradoxically perpetuates many of the issues we’re raising money to address.
Argument 5: Why are you vilifying donors?! Of all the arguments, this one is one of the most exhausting and ridiculous. Every time I talk about how we fundraisers need to stop charity-washing and conscience-laundering for donors who really should just pay more taxes, I get accused of being mean to donors. Again, as if donors are fragile little tomato seedlings who need to be protected at all cost. This is a red herring argument, because donors’ behaviors are shaped by fundraisers and fundraising practices that reinforce problematic things like wealth-hoarding and tax avoidance and condition donors to not think about their roles in perpetuating racism and white supremacy. We fundraisers bear a significant portion of the blame to donors’ crappy behaviors. So if anything, a more pertinent (but still ridiculous) argument would be “Why are you vilifying fundraisers?!”
Argument 6: OK fine, why are you vilifying fundraisers?! I don’t engage in these tactics. I’ve never told anyone to hoard money! I never encounter so much fragility in our sector than among white fundraisers when I criticize fundraising. Not among evaluators. Not HR professionals. Not capacity builders. Not even funders (and I criticize funders A LOT!). If you believe that honest, non-personal feedback about how we could improve fundraising as a whole is somehow an indication that you’re being personally “vilified,” please take a moment to examine why you are feeling this way. Our sector cannot improve if we don’t continuously look at ourselves and our practices, many of which are very harmful. Here, read this post on white fundraiser fragility and come engage in the conversation when you’ve managed to de-center yourself. This is about you as a fundraiser, but it is also really not about you at all.
Argument 7: What about this sweet old lady who donates $12 every month, is she hoarding wealth?! Are you really going to use the “Not All Donors” argument? “Not All Donors,” like “Not all men” or “not all white people,” is not a good argument. We are not talking about specific individual donors here but an entire system of wealth inequity and systemic injustice that current fundraising philosophies and practices help to uphold. There are plenty of great white people, many of whom are my friends and mentors; that does not mean white supremacy is not a problem. There are plenty of men in each of our lives who are good; it does not mean that sexism, toxic masculinity, and misogyny are not significant issues in our society. Along those lines, there are plenty of wonderful donors—and almost everyone in our sector is a donor, including me—and that does not mean fundraising, philanthropy, and donors, taken as a whole, are not rooted in white supremacy and injustice.
Argument 8: So-and-so research says getting donors to care about justice doesn’t work: There’s at least one research study that shows that trying to get donors to learn and care about certain things is less effective in motivating them to give, as opposed to focusing on their feelings or other factors like public recognition. This is not really surprising. But again, should “amount of money raised” be the only way we define whether fundraising “works”? Also, I think we fall into this sort of self-fulfilling cycle where we reward donors for certain behaviors so then research confirms the prevalence of these behaviors and then we use the research to justify reinforcing those same behaviors. Decades of us training donors to behave in certain ways or to expect certain things will naturally condition them, and the research would reflect that. It’s time to break out of the cycle.
Argument 9: CCF is starting a fundraising culture war! Can’t we all just get along?! CCF, in its push to ground fundraising in equity and justice, gets accused of being mean and “vitriolic” and starting “culture wars.” I and other advocates of CCF get called difficult because we don’t want to engage in debates and conversations to find “common ground” or whatever. Society’s fixation on both-siding, as I wrote about here, is one of the reasons we have anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and climate change deniers. There is no debate that wealth has been built on injustice, that it is a vehicle to consolidate and retain power within white families, and that many of our fundraising practices allow this to take place. We can have all sorts of debates and discussions on what’s the most effective ways to address these issues, but I’m not going to argue with you about whether these issues exist. We don’t have time.
I’ve started losing patience with the white moderate fundraisers in our sector who continue to be in denial about the harm our existing fundraising practices cause, and who continue to prioritize getting along, making donors happy, and raising as much money as possible, over equity and justice. And if all this means CCF or I am starting a “culture war,” then maybe it’s a needed one.
That was a very long post. There are other arguments, but I will save them for a future installment. Let me know your thoughts. We have a lot of work to do. But many of us wouldn’t be involved in this movement to improve and transform fundraising if we didn’t believe in its potential.
Go here to find and email your elected officials to encourage them to enact legislations preventing foundations and Donor-Advised Funds from hoarding so much money.
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