10 Signs You Might Have Fundraiser Stockholm Syndrome

[Image description: An adorable fluffy yellow duckling with dark eyes and an orange bill, staring at the camera, being held gently by two hands. Image by jjheinold on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, before we get started, here’s a conversation on Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs) taking place on April 21 at 10am PT. It’s free, and auto-captions will be enabled.

Some of you may remember #DAFHobbyGate, where many, many fundraising colleagues got very upset because on an earlier webinar I mentioned that “philanthropy has often become a hobby for the rich and it really shouldn’t be.” Dozens of indignant people told stories of the wonderful donors they encountered who would die before they thought of their charitable work as a hobby. Others called me pretentious, self-righteous, and ignorant. A few demanded I apologize for my thoughtless and insensitive words (which I did, very sincerely).

Here’s the thing, though: Not a single donor indicated they were offended. Or certainly no one expressed they got offended in their role as a donor, as I suspect all of us in the sector are also donors. The folks who were bothered expressed their rage as fundraisers, wealth advisors, and fundraising thought-leaders.

In an earlier post (“White development colleagues, we need to talk about fundraiser fragility”) I mentioned Fundraiser Stockholm Syndrome, this primal urge among fundraisers to protect donors from any and all criticisms and discomfort, as if donors were perfect beings immune to committing any wrongdoings, or fragile baby birds who cannot fend for themselves. It is preventing us from having deep, necessary conversations that would advance our field.

But Fundraiser Stockholm Syndrome may be hard to recognize. So here are some signs you may be afflicted by it, because the first step to solving a problem it to be aware that you have one:

1.You believe donors are somehow superior to everyone else: During #DAFHobbyGate, one colleague waxed rapturously about donors, including these words: “[Donors] 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.” Many chimed in to express agreement. Yikes! Only a few people—namely Lizzo, Malala Yousafzai, Dolly Parton, and Keanu Reeves—deserve this level of fawning adoration.

2.You feel a visceral response whenever donors are disparaged in any way: Whenever you see donors being talked about negatively in any way, your heart races, your face gets flushed, and your hackles are raised, even though I’m not sure anyone actually knows what a hackle is. (OK, I just googled it: hackles are the hairs on the neck or back of an animal, which are raised when the animal is in danger or something, to make them seem bigger and more dangerous.)

3.You often interject with “it’s their money,” especially combined with “hard-earned”: You are indignant that anyone dares to say something negative about how people spend “their” money, something they earned through “their” own hard work. You don’t think about, or refuse to acknowledge in any meaningful way, the fact that significant wealth has been built through inequitable means like slavery; genocide of Indigenous peoples and theft of Native land; tax avoidance; worker exploitation; and environmental degradation.

4.Words like “wealth hoarding” “taxes” “white supremacy” “slavery” “stolen Indigenous land” etc., push your buttons: Words like these threaten the image of donors and philanthropy as benevolent or neutral, and so every time you hear them, you go immediately into fight or flight, like a mama bear getting ready to protect her delicate donor bear cubs from predators called “truth.”

5.You feel the need to attack anyone who leverages even mild criticisms of donors or philanthropy: Mild criticisms (“philanthropy has often become a hobby for rich people”) are a slippery slope. They could lead to more serious criticisms (“philanthropy is a system many wealthy people who are mostly white use to justify the further hoarding of wealth and the consolidation of power”). So you have the urge to put anyone in place who brings these things up.

6.You instinctively use #NotAllDonors stories: Whenever you hear criticisms of donors or philanthropy, you immediately think up stories of individual donors being awesome, as if that somehow negates the systemic issues we’re dealing with. Just like people using #NotAllMen stories to counter the systemic issues of misogyny and toxic masculinity.

7.You deploy social justice concepts and terminology to defend bad donor behavior and inequity: For instance, when white colleagues point out something inequitable, you may bring up the fact that people of color are not involved in shaping the criticism or the proposed solutions, which may be valid. However, when people of color are involved and are leading in similar efforts to point out inequity, such as what the Community-Centric Fundraising movement has been doing, you also dismiss it.

8.You oppose any action to keep donors accountable that might make them uncomfortable: For example, you’re not against privately dropping a donor who did something racist, per se, but you would oppose asking donors to sign a preemptive agreement to not be racist. Because that might make donors uncomfortable, and how dare we even suggest donors be made uncomfortable for something they haven’t even done yet, even though donor-inflicted racism, sexism, etc., are very prevalent in our sector.

9.You truly believe that donors are heroes and don’t see why this is an issue: Donors are one among many elements that are needed to make the work of creating a better world possible. And yet, there are more articles about treating donors as “heroes” than treating anyone else with any similar degree of deference (just ask ChatGPT to give you a list). You don’t seem to see that there’s anything wrong at all with this donor-hero worship, and in fact, you’re kind of confused why this is an issue.   

10.You are more upset at criticism/critics of inequity than you are at inequity itself: While reading this blog post, you may be simmering with annoyance and/or rage. This is fine, except that you seem to be way more offended by this mild article than you are at the more important facts mentioned above, such as that so much wealth has been created through historic and current inequity and injustice, or that donors being racist or sexist is a serious issue in our line of work.

There are others signs (“you’re excessively worried about ‘alienating’ people with money; your “attitude of gratitude” tends to only apply to donors; etc.), but I’ll stop here for now. Please list other things you can think of and share your thoughts in the comment section.

A reminder: any and all of us can have Fundraiser Stockholm Syndrome. Our sector, and fundraising pedagogy across decades, have trained us to think this way. We need to be aware of and start examining whether these philosophies and actions are serving our work, or if they’re preventing deeper, more meaningful engagements with donors and more effective partnerships.

In a future post, possibly next week, we will talk about what to do if you find yourself afflicted with Fundraiser Stockholm Syndrome. In the meanwhile, repeat this mantra: “Donors are human beings. Not heroes. Not angels. Some of them are great, and some of them are assholes, just like everyone else.”

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