An apology to everyone I harmed with my insensitive words regarding donors and philanthropy

[Image description: A light brown dog, lying on the floor, look remorseful, as if they too had said some offensive things on a webinar on systemic inequity. Image by Pexels on Pixabay]

To my esteemed colleagues,

On a webinar about Donor-Advised Funds that took place on October 19th, 2022, with Susannah Morgan, Ray Madoff, and Chuck Collins, I used words that were deeply offensive and hurtful. Words that included “the rich,” “white,” “hoarding,” “equity,” “SkyMall catalog,” and, most egregious of all, “hobby.” I am here to apologize, take accountability for my thoughtlessness and insensitivity, and humbly ask for your forgiveness.

During this unfortunate presentation, I said something to the effect of, “Philanthropy has often become a hobby for the rich, and it should not be.” I also said that I considered a “family legacy of philanthropy” to be “gross.” I am truly sorry that I uttered such unconscionable words and brought trauma to you, your donors, as well as to anyone near you who may have accidentally caught glimpse of these vile invectives.

On two LinkedIn threads that ensued, dozens of you, 98% white allies, did the emotional labor to call me in to see the errors of my ways. The vast majority of you did not attend the webinar and had not seen the recording, and yet you still found the grace and energy to give me generous feedback and to advance a necessary discourse in our field with thoughtful comments such as “I get the heebie jeebies thinking about this session […] Also, ew.”

I am very sorry. I was asked to speak on systemic inequity, but because of my “presumptuous nature wrapped in righteousness,” as some colleagues painfully but accurately pointed out, I did not consider the feelings and humanity of individuals donors. The effect is the same as if I had brought up a donor and punched him in the face during the webinar while screaming “You are a terrible person, Brayden! Pay more taxes!”

One colleague lamented, “That’s very sad and surprising coming from Vu Le, whose work with CCF I have long admired.” I am sorry to have saddened and surprised you and diminished your trust in me. It may seem hollow to say at this point, but it was a lapse in judgment. Those who have been kind enough to follow my work know that I would never express these sentiments. That is not who I am.

It has been a period of discomfort and reflection for me. Some of my best friends are rich, and the thought that I may have hurt them brings me feelings of shame and remorse. A few kind colleagues, such as Liz LeClair and Rickesh Lakhani, tried to defend me in the LinkedIn threads as well as on Reddit, but after much soul-searching and after talking to my friend Patrick Kirby, who encouraged me to send this message to the entire sector so that this may be a learning experience for everyone, I realize now that what I said was indefensible.

At least one person demanded that I apologize. To be honest, I bristled at first, wondering why my many critics were not at least equally enraged by the knowledge shared on the webinar that over a TRILLION dollars are sitting in foundation endowments and DAFs while there is significant rise in fascism, racism, antisemitism, transphobia, misogyny, and global climate disasters and people are starving and dying. Or why no one expressed even slight concern that taxpayers subsidize up to 74 cents for each dollar “donated” by the wealthy.

However, I now understand that those minor facts do not matter as much as what is most important in fundraising and philanthropy: The potential feelings of donors.

Because of your comments, which several of you deleted to spare me the embarrassment, I finally received the message that some of you have been trying to get me to understand not just during this recent regrettable incident, but across the years: NOT ALL DONORS! I should have learned this lesson from the equally important NOT ALL MEN movement.

Not only are not all donors terrible as I made them out to be, but most are wonderful human beings. Many, MANY of you recounted #NotAllDonors stories of kind and generous individual donors, like the one who rescued a puppy from a burning house, and the one who spends every birthday serving nutritious gruel to orphans. As the colleague who started one of the threads on LinkedIn eloquently put it: “They share our foibles and failings yet, through philanthropy, discover the ‘angels of their better nature.’ They are the best of us; they make us all better.

You are right. Individual donors are the best among us and should never be exposed to even the mildest of criticisms when we discuss systemic inequity. My remarks that a growing number of donors put money into DAFs, take an immediate tax break, then trickle out small amounts into causes they care about, without any legal requirements compelling them to do so ever, and that our sector often turns into a SkyMall catalog of causes for donors to pick and choose from like a “hobby”—were out of line.

I caused indelible harm to donors and fundraisers by bringing up tactless and insensitive points such as that significant wealth has been built on slavery, stolen Indigenous land, worker exploitation, environmental degradation, and tax avoidance, and that nonprofit and philanthropy often serve as a conscience-laundering mechanism for the very inequity and injustice we are raising money to fight. I can imagine donors, each as pure and fragile as a newborn baby bird, hearing these cruel words and weeping for days.

I now see that wealthy people are, too, a marginalized community. As one colleague suggested, before they too so graciously deleted their comment, we should stop saying “the rich,” the way we would never say “disabled people” or “women of color” with such disdain. It is demeaning. As part of the repair for the harm I did, I will lobby Congress to add “wealthy individuals” to the list of protected classes so that they can no longer be disparaged or discriminated against by me or anyone else. I will start a petition to change BIPOC to WBIPOC, with the W standing for Wealthy. I encourage everyone reading this to also get into the habit of using WLGBTQIA.

Besides insulting donors, I also undermined our field. One colleague rightfully observed, “I am all for rooting out inequities in fundraising and donors who try to buy influence through donations, most fundraisers are. But Vu’s starting premise is that our industry shouldn’t exist.”

I regret I gave that disrespectful impression. I very much believe that fundraising and philanthropy should exist in perpetuity, for if systemic injustice were solved and such issues as poverty caused by unfettered capitalism and wealth hoarding were eliminated, what would we fundraisers do, find other jobs? And more importantly, without poor people for donors to help and demonstrate their generosity to, how would we be able to identify those who are “the best of us”?

Despite my failings, so many of you have been so patient with me. One colleague said, “I see him as young, but could be a bit more wise.” Another expressed frustration and disappointment that our sector often invites people who have little fundraising experience to comment on fundraising. Those are very generous assessments of my blasphemous words and sentiments; I certainly and obviously am very unwise and have much growing to do. I was arrogant to believe that having only 18 years of fundraising experience gives me any credibility to opine on subjects that I know nothing about.

One colleague gently asserted that I do not have expertise in DAFs and should not have given input on the matter. He is also right; I should not have commented on DAFs when I don’t have a degree in Wealth, Taxation, and Finances (WTF), or at the very least a certificate in Wealth Hoarding and Institutional Tax Elusion (WHITE). From now on, I will spend more time listening and reflecting, and if I should ever talk publicly again, I will stick to topics I am qualified to speak on, which include “how to avoid exercise,” “where are my glasses oh I am wearing them,” and “dairy-free flan.”

Again, from the bottom of my heart, I am so very sorry. I let you down. I let myself down. I let Brayden down. I will work on my journey toward being a better person and will try my best for as long as it takes to atone for not just my words, but also for selfishly spending time with my children instead of engaging with you all on those two threads that first weekend, which caused some of you frustration and bewilderment, which was understandable when you were so kind as to do the emotional and physical labor of helping me with my personal growth and to advance our profession.

Thank you for all you have done to try to educate me, and for reading these ineloquent words, which do not convey the depths of my sorrow for the pain and anguish my careless remarks unleashed upon many of you, your loved ones, donors, humanity, and also any extraterrestrial aliens who may receive the webinar’s signal in the distant future. I hope that you will accept the good intentions behind them, and that you will find room in your hearts to forgive me, though I will completely understand if, having given me so much grace already, you cannot spare more at this time.