We need to have a serious conversation about “Donor Love.”

[Image description: An adorable brown puppy, staring at the camera with soulful eyes. Image by Farzan Lelinwalla on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, this post will likely generate some vigorous discussions, but before we launch into it, I have an exciting announcement. Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) is seeking to form a Global Council to lead the movement. I and other founding council members will step aside and play a supporting role, because it’s important for the movement to have leadership that is diverse in geography and lived experience. Details and application here. Don’t worry, the founding council members are not going anywhere; we will each get a cloak to mark us as elders, and we’ll be around, providing moral support and, when appropriate, snacks.

As today is Valentine’s Day, a lot of us will be pondering the age-old question famously asked by philosopher Haddaway: “What is love?” to which he added as a corollary, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.”

I bring this up because we have a concept in our sector called “#DonorLove.” Going down the hashtag rabbit hole, I encountered many articles about showing donors “love.” Treat them like literal heroes. Cater to their emotional needs. Have an “attitude of gratitude.” Write thank-you notes within 48 hours, and not within weeks as if your donors were common peasants. And stop talking about your organization’s accomplishments, but about what your donors accomplished through your organization, for remember, you and your org are vessels whose only point for existence is carry your donors’ hopes and wishes and well-informed strategies for a better world.

Even without the hashtag, the idea of catering to donors as a guiding philosophy has been pervasive and often goes unquestioned. It involves centering the happiness, desires, and convenience of donors, especially major donors. Over time, it becomes the air that many fundraisers breathe. Many internalize it to the point where they are unable to see the unintended destructive consequences of this form of donor engagement. Then, we pass it on, training fundraisers to act and think a certain way while simultaneously shaping and conditioning donors’ expectations, thus creating a self-reinforcing cycle.

If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at this passage from a fundraising textbook that I saw on Twitter: 

“But if you begin with the premise that your organization can accomplish absolutely nothing without the generous, ongoing support of its donors…if you recognize that you and your colleagues are dispensable, but your donors aren’t…and if you follow that logic through to its inevitable conclusion…then you’ll realize that you’ve been operating in an upside-down or inside-out fashion for far too long.”

Yikes! I haven’t read the rest of the book, so my observations are based on limited information. But I read this excerpt and my stomach felt like it had consumed some questionable leftover community event food. “If you recognize that you and your colleagues are dispensable, but your donors aren’t”? JFC, that’s messed up. How can anyone not see how messed up that is?

Yes, we have been “operating in an upside-down or inside-out fashion for far too long.” But it is not what the author of this book thinks. Chief among the problems with the way we’ve been trained to center donors’ emotions and comfort is the fact that most donors are white, and so much wealth has been built on white supremacy and inequity, and we have an entire field trained to tell mostly white people that they are heroes who should be coddled and “loved.” And over time, rich, mostly white people start expecting and now demanding to be treated this way. How do we mitigate white supremacy when we keep perpetuating it through our every day practices?

It can be difficult to grasp just how problematic this is, so let me put it this way: Imagine there’s a concept called “husband-centric marriage” (HCM). It’s about showing husbands that they are amazing heroes. Whenever a husband does the dishes, the other partner(s) should write a handwritten thank-you note within 48 hours: “Dear husband! Because you washed the dishes, our family is stronger! When you picked up that sponge and started scrubbing the pots and pans, you created a better world! The children and I are so thankful that husbands and fathers like you exist!

Now imagine there’s a concept called “#HusbandLove” to give you tips on how to show love and appreciation to your husband. “Besides leaving thank-you notes everywhere, call your husband up regularly to thank him. Find other creative ways to demonstrate your attitude of gratitude. Does your husband like sock puppets? Maybe do a sock puppet show to thank him for taking out the trash. Above all, don’t talk about yourself and what you did so much; you’re being self-centered and no husband wants to hear about you and your trivial needs. Remember, you are dispensable, but your husband is not.

I’m sure many husbands would respond well to being treated as the center of the universe. Many may do dishes and take out the trash more often. So husband-centrism would seem to be working. But would it? Or would we just be reinforcing patriarchy and toxic masculinity?

Does any of that resemble love? We have watered down the term “love” so much that we no longer understand what it entails. I think in many ways we have been short-changing and infantilizing donors. We don’t “love” them. We find ways to psychologically condition them to give money in the most efficient manner possible. Think about someone you truly love and have a strong relationship with, and reflect on your interactions with them and see if it in any way resembles how we’re expected to interact with donors. When we love someone, we do not constantly barrage them with sweet words and gratitude. We do not incessantly tell them they’re amazing. We do not ignore their faults. We do not prevent them from difficult realizations or growth.

In relationship with someone we love, we don’t negate ourselves or minimize our significance; we embrace our true selves, and through our relationship, we bring out the best in one another. In a healthy marriage or other collaborations, partners have equal footing. They should do their fair and equitable share of the work. They should do it without all the hoops, and sometimes without being thanked. They do it because that’s the right and responsible thing to do. Sometimes they argue and get into fights.

One partner—-the one with less power—-constantly minimizing their significance and catering to another partner’s whims and emotions is not love; it is sycophancy.

It is impossible and inappropriate to “love” most donors. Many probably don’t want it either. They are a vital component of the work, but they are only one component. We need to stop elevating donors above other vital components, including staff, volunteers, boards, and especially the people most affected by systemic injustice that we’re supposed to be helping and working with to undo inequity.

Like with everyone else, we should have respect for donors for when respect is warranted. Respect means we affirm the good they do, and we let them know when they’re wrong about something or when their actions might hurt others. We are honest with them and tell when they’re doing or saying racist or sexist things, because we believe in their potential for personal growth.

To be in respectful partnership with donors, we encourage them to have a more equitable relationship with wealth, including walking with them through difficult conversations such as around how that wealth came about and whether reparations need to occur. We inform and educate them on our work, and tell them to get out of the way when they’re in the way. We help them reflect on white supremacy, white privilege, the racial wealth gap, and other issues around equity, and the role they play in both mitigating and perpetuating it.

All of that sounds more exhausting than what we’ve been trained to do, what we’ve been told “works” to bring in money. But if we’re serious about addressing white supremacy and systemic injustice, our fundraising philosophies must evolve, and it includes changing the way we view and interact with donors.

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