When I was younger, one of my favorite things was the Skymall catalogue, which some of you may remember. It was a catalog that every airline had at every seat, and it was a glorious collection of some of the coolest stuff ever. I couldn’t afford the life-size gorilla lawn statue, or the fountain pen filled with tiny Swarovski crystals, or a lamp made out of pink salt that generated negative ions, or whatever. But it gave me a small measure of happiness to flip through the catalog and learn about the wacky products and what they did and how much they sold for.
Why am I bringing this up? I’ll get to that in a moment. A few weeks ago I was invited to give a keynote on the joy of fundraising. Now, I know at least a handful of people in the sector are rolling their eyes. That’s like inviting a teenager to deliver a lecture called “The Importance of Listening to Your Parents and Other Authority Figures.” Over the past few years, I have criticized many aspects of the way we do fundraising, and have been helping advance a movement to change it. So there may be this perception that I hate fundraising, fundraisers, and donors.
That is not true; I point out the flaws in various aspects of our sector because I believe in our work. And I genuinely believe there is joy in fundraising. It’s just that I think the way we’ve been conditioned to understand and experience joy needs to be explored deeper, and with a lens of equity and justice. We have been told, for example, that connecting donors to wonderful causes is joyful. That helping donors feel like they made a difference is joyful. That having a sense of gratitude (mostly to donors) is in itself a form of joy. That meeting our annual goals is joyful because it means we are helping further our missions.
But are those things really “joyful”? And does everyone experience these joys, or is it reserved for certain people in our sector, namely white-privileged donors and fundraisers? I can’t speak for all fundraisers of color, but I interact with enough, and being one myself, I can say that fundraising is often devoid of any semblance of true happiness for many of us. If fundraising is actually joyful the way many development colleagues and gurus keep insisting it is, why aren’t there more fundraisers of color in the sector? Why do the few we have keep leaving? Why do diversity efforts often fail? “We have a scholarship program to support fundraisers of color to get their CFRE,” a colleague told me, “but we struggle to get anyone to apply.”
Yes, there is a diversity problem across the entire sector, but I see unique aspects of development that are driving people of color away. It is a special sort of stress and dissonance for people of color to have to cater to donors, who are mostly white. There are plenty of wonderful and well-meaning donors. And there are also endless stories of racism, white saviorism, poverty tourism. There’s the perpetual codeswitching we have to do, the conforming to white-people-determined standards of professionalism in how we dress, talk, behave. There are problematic and unethical things we are asked to gloss over, core values we are made to suppress, in order to meet our fundraising goals. To be told over and over that all of this is normal, that this is the most effective way to raise money, that this is “joyful” if we just create an entire culture around it, it destroys morale and makes many of us question reality.
It’s not just fundraisers of color though. Many white colleagues have also been disillusioned. Fundraising, the way we’ve been taught to do it, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, is often soul-crushing for anyone with any accurate analysis of systemic inequity. Charity has become a warped manifestation of capitalism. Traditional fundraising and philanthropic practices have turned our sector into a Skymall catalog of causes and issues, all competing for the attention of donors. And we fundraisers have become salespeople and personal shoppers who often delude ourselves into thinking that our fundraising work, at its worse a form of conscience-laundering for capitalism’s many inequities, is somehow fun.
So yes, maybe fundraising is joyful—in the way some people find joy when they go shopping and can afford stuff that pique their interests or brighten someone else’s day, and in the way a kind and dedicated salesperson may find joy when they help a customer find the perfect present for a loved one. But does this type of joy serve the purpose of our sector, or can it be distracting us from it?
I think genuine, authentic joy in our sector comes from being in alignment with our values and in advancing the primary reason for our existence: to build community and to create a just and equitable world. If we can unlearn many of the philosophies and practices we’ve been taught, and if we can be guided by the true purpose of our work, I think we can achieve a much deeper, more meaningful level of joy.
Here are some examples of what authentic equity-aligned joy looks like in fundraising. Some of these are examples I have mentioned before, but I want to run through them with an analysis of joy:
The joy of being alignment with our values: After George Floyd’s murder by the police, one nonprofit in Seattle sent out a statement in support of Black lives and defunding the police. They knew this may result in some donors leaving. And indeed, several sent in scathing comments and pulled their support, and a couple of board members focused more on the negative comments than the robust outpouring of support that the letter garnered.
“White people always say we should be uncomfortable and that we must center the voices of those most impacted by injustice,” says the former ED, “and if the staff, many of whom were BIPOC, were strongly in favor of this public stance, why wouldn’t the organization follow their lead?”
I asked him what it was like. “I won’t lie, it was uncomfortable,” he replied, “But that was the most joyful fundraising I’ve ever done, because we weren’t dancing around with donors and shit. We were talking about our anti-racism values with every donor. We led with what is right, for the right reasons – and the money followed. It was so powerful, and truly joyful.”
There is intrinsic joy in being in integrity with your values and moral compass. And there is joy in seeing how it could be a spark for others. It turns out it was one of the most successful efforts in terms of fundraising for the organization. “For every angry person who was turned off because we were supporting Black lives, I swear at least ten people took their place. They got energized because we were living our values. Alumni, donors, funders, job candidates, board prospects—it was beautiful.”
The joy of advancing justice: “Sara,” another donor and a friend of mine, attended a donor engagement event where people were asked to examine their family’s wealth and where it came from. There she discovered the land her grandparents farmed, the land on which much of her family’s wealth has been built, was originally stolen from Indigenous people. This did not sit well with Sara:
“When I reflect on my forthcoming inheritance, my values insist that I make some small reparation. I’m going to give that money, my share of the inheritance, back to the tribe who historically lived on the land my family lives on now.”
I recently met Sara to catch up, and I asked about this decision and how she felt about it. “Well, it really doesn’t matter how I feel,” she said, “this is about starting to right an injustice, so my feelings aren’t relevant. But since you’re asking, I feel…more at peace.”
There is joy in peace, in knowing that our conscience is clearer, and that we are helping to restore a bit of justice in a world that’s full of injustice. And there is joy in being an element that helps someone walk the path that’s true to them, as the organizers of this workshop did for my friend.
The joy of working in community toward a common vision: At the beginning of the pandemic, a foundation in Seattle gave $50,000 grants to several nonprofits, without the requirement of a formal proposal, understanding that many nonprofits were hurting. This in itself was joyful, that a funder was thoughtful enough to do this. What added to the joy was that several nonprofits declined the funding, saying that they were doing ok, and asking for the foundation to give the funds to other orgs that were more in need.
Meanwhile, on our annual day of giving here in Seattle, nonprofits tend to bombard donors with emails, saturating their inboxes with appeals for different orgs and missions. A few nonprofits, though, sent blasts to their donors asking them to donate to OTHER organizations.
When there has been so much competition among nonprofits, it is joyful to see organizations not just refrain from competing with one another, but actually asking existing donors to give to other orgs, knowing their missions intertwined, knowing they belong to and are serving the same community. Donors find that surprising and joyful too.
The joy of authentic engagement with our donors: “Joe,” a former major donor to my previous organization, and now a friend of mine, told me once that he didn’t need these handwritten thank-you notes we were sending and we could just stop with the formality. I asked what he would like instead. He said, “I hear you and the team are attending a two-day workshop on undoing institutional racism. Can I join?” He joined for the full two days. That workshop was challenging and brutal for everyone, especially the white attendees, including Joe.
That was years ago. I checked in with him this week to get his reflections on the experience. “A part of that workshop that stayed with me was when the facilitators asked ‘why are there poor people?’ And one of our colleagues, her answer was pretty succinct: ‘so there can be rich people.’ That wasn’t comfortable for me as a rich person. But it was a moment for me of clarity and truth that I wouldn’t otherwise achieve.”
Joe went on: “There is something in our being together—really being together—in solidarity, that I think brings joy. It doesn’t have to feel easy. Being in solidarity is not the easiest. But it’s meaningful. Trusting one another to be that authentic was its own reward. That workshop was an opportunity for us to grow together.”
“That was better than a thousand handwritten thank-you notes,” he added.
Traditional fundraising has been primarily about raising as much money for our own organization as possible, and the best way to do that is to have the best marketing and customer service for our “product” in the Skymall catalog of causes. We compete to persuade the donors, the customers, buy our goods and services and to feel good while doing it. Many of us have internalized this so profoundly that we don’t even realize it, much less question it.
But what are we raising all this money for? Why are we trying to get donors to donate to our missions? Is it not to make the world better? And if what we’re doing may be making the world worse—by perpetuating saviorism, poverty porn, a lack of reflection on systemic causes of inequity and the reparations that’s needed, cutthroat competition among nonprofits, conscience-laundering for tax avoidance, charity-washing of heinous atrocities, and a steady exodus of fundraisers of color—then is our work actually joyful, or have we just convinced ourselves that it is?
I think fundraising can be joyful. Genuinely, authentically joyful. A sort of joy that embraces the full complexity required for our sector to achieve its primarily goal of creating an equitable world. But to get there, we have to reexamine our current definition of joy, align our words and actions with our values, support one another to work as a community toward a shared vision, genuinely engage with our donors including having some very uncomfortable conversations, and push ourselves and our world toward justice whenever we can.