8 donor-related philosophies and terminologies we need to change or abolish

[Two brownish-grey bunnies, standing on a blue blanket, looking nonchalant. Image by irmelinis on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. I just found out, thanks to messages from several of you, that email notices of new blog posts have been sent out to very few people since the beginning of January. I had just assumed the sudden sharp decrease in traffic was because a lot of people hated me. But now, I know it’s because a lot of people hated me AND because of tech issues. Thank you for your patience while the problem is being resolved. In the meantime, there’s a new blog post every Tuesday, so please create a recurring appointment on your calendar called “latest NonprofitAF masterpiece drops.”

This week, we talk about a few philosophies and terminologies related to donors. As a field that is dependent on the largesse (and sometimes smallgesse and mediumgesse) of donors, we’ve developed our own mental models and language around them. As our practices advance and evolve, thanks to movements like Community-Centric Fundraising, we need to examine what still works and what needs to be changed or phased out completely.

Read more: 8 donor-related philosophies and terminologies we need to change or abolish

Think about the “donor pyramid,” for example. Remember when we couldn’t go to a fundraising conference without hearing some mention of the Pyramid? Now we hardly hear about it at all, probably because there’s general agreement that it sucks. Which is too bad, because it always conjured for me a cheerleader-like pyramid composed of donors, standing on one another’s shoulders, maybe holding pom-poms, forming a human triangle, which was a fun image to have.

Below, in no particular order, are a few other things I think we need to reconsider. As usual, this is just my opinion, though some of it may be blasphemous and cause some of you to be very vexed. Please feel free to disagree and add to the discussion.

1.Donor intent: The wishes of donors is something we’ve been trained to hold sacred. But there are some serious issues around it. In general, usually donors have less expertise in addressing the problems they’re donating to nonprofits to address, so it makes little sense that we prioritize their intent so highly. And donors who are now in the Great Country Club in the Sky, I’m sure many of them were lovely people, but why should they be allowed to control things from beyond the grave, especially as their intents don’t evolve with the times and the needs of the community and thus often becomes more and more irrelevant and possibly nonsensical? “This fund is only to be used to help children escape the life of chimney sweeping by training them to be cobblers.”

2.Donor engagement: It can be great when donors are fully engaged with nonprofits and are present and helpful. But “donor engagement” has often been warped into this philosophy that donors deserve to be entertained and to receive meaning in exchange for their donations, with terrible consequences, such as donors being involved in things they have no expertise on. The more we train donors to think they deserve to be involved, the more they expect it. How much time should we spend “engaging” donors when there are so many issues that need nonprofits’ attention. As a donor myself, I would rather the nonprofits I donate to focus their attention on meeting their missions than to show me a good time.

3.Donor as hero: Maybe because it “works” to bring in money when we lavish praise on donors and center them in the narrative in the fight against injustice. But it’s problematic for many reasons, including allowing donors and everyone to gloss over the inequitable origin of a lot of wealth (slavery, stolen Indigenous land, worker exploitation, environmental degradation, tax avoidance, colonization, imperialism, etc.). It also reinforces this individualistic savior mindset when what we need to address injustice is a collective, communal way of thinking. So, let’s stop saying we should treat donors like heroes. In fact, let’s just stop it with the hero narrative altogether. Contributing to making the world better does not make anyone a “hero;” it’s the baseline for being a decent human being and community member.   

4.Donor passion: “Our job as fundraisers is to connect our donors to what they’re passionate about.” This is a refrain we hear all the time. As I wrote in “White supremacy and the problem with centering donors’ interests and emotions”,” donors can be great, but what they care about and what is needed to achieve equity and justice often do not align, especially when most donors are white and privileged and often don’t have an equity lens. This is why certain causes get a lot of support, while others barely get a few cents on the dollar, even if the latter are more urgent. “I know democracy is in peril and abortion rights have been gutted, but my passion is horses!” Like with donor intent, we need to stop thinking of donor passion as some sort of sacred and immutable factor we can’t influence. Nonprofit leaders need to do their jobs, which includes educating people on the issues they’re trying to address, and not simply contort their work to meet donors’ whims and passions.  

5.Donor as customer: I’ve seen a few posts from fundraising experts recommending think of and treating donors as “customers” of nonprofits. This is a cynical framework grounded in capitalism, a force undergirding almost all the societal problems we’re trying to fix. It’s rife with issues, among them this philosophy that “the customer is always right,” which is erroneous, as a lot of customers—and donors—are complete assholes. Worse, though, the “donor as customer” philosophy reinforces a transactional mindset where nonprofits are there to “serve” donors, instead of what we need right now, which is everyone—donors, staff, volunteer, funders, boards, clients, etc.—all working together collectively to solve entrenched issues affecting all of us.  

6.Major donor: The idea of “major” donor, just like the idea of “high net-worth individuals,” is grounded in how much people donate, with the higher the amount, the more “major” they are. This has conditioned our sector to treat better and with more deference those with more money. Which leads to all sorts of problems, including concentrating power and influence among folks with wealth. It’s past time to redefine “major donor,” because people with lower incomes—such as students, retired people, children, unemployed people—who give $20, for example, should be considered as much if not more generous than a multi-millionaire who gives $5,000. But maybe it’s time to phase out this term and framework completely and treat every donor of any amount equally.

7.Donor wall: Along with phasing out “major donor,” we should reconsider how we recognize donors. Right now, those who give more money tend to get more recognition, such as their names being listed more prominently in annual reports, they get special titles based on the level they give, and they get immortalized physically through things like donor walls. Again, we need to think about how this trains not just the donors to behave, but also how we perceive them. I’m not opposed to a wall of names, or a garden path of bricks with names or whatever, but it should include everyone who contributed to an org or a project’s success: not just “smaller” donors, but staff, volunteers, board members, etc. After all, without these folks, nothing would have gotten done.

8.Donor love: This basically encompasses everything that’s problematic above into a single gross term and concept. I am not sure the term “love” should be applied anywhere in our sector, except as a grand encompassing sense of love for humanity and community, the way that MLK imagined it. To apply it to any single group, whether they are staff or leadership or donors, makes it weird and reinforces sycophantic dynamics. So let’s knock it off. And we can also cut out related terminologies and philosophies like “dating” or “courting” donors, too, because ew.

Let me know your thoughts. And if there are other donor-related stuff we need to reconsider. As our field evolves, so should the terms and concepts we use. If you’re still using any of the above, discuss with your team what they actually mean within the context of your or your org’s work, and whether it’s time to change things up a bit.

Please continue speaking up for a permanent ceasefire and a free Palestine

What is a codpiece, and should everyone at your organization wear one?

[Image description: A painting of Henry VIII in an ornate outfit with long puffy sleeves, a dagger, and a prominent codpiece. Image by 12019 on Pixabay]

This week, we talk about fashion in nonprofit and philanthropy. As a sartorial icon and expert on style, I must say, we need to step up our game. That includes bringing back the codpiece, which has a fascinating history. Basically, according to several minutes of research, the codpiece was invented as a practical solution for preserving people’s modesty as well as to protect armored knights’ nether regions. It then became very fashionable, with Henry the VIII wearing these flamboyant accessories. For a while, you couldn’t step outside without seeing people wearing codpieces, including ones with intricate designs and possibly hidden compartments for keys and maybe a dram of arsenic.

After a while, like many fashion trends such as hoop skirts and giant wigs and bell bottoms, the wearing of codpieces was ridiculed, and the people wearing them were driven into the woods, where they lived a life of shame and contemplation for their horrendous fashion choices. And now, hundreds of years later, no one wears them except maybe at Renaissance fairs and possibly, I imagine, at gyms (I’ve never been to a gym, so I don’t know what people wear there).  

Read more: What is a codpiece, and should everyone at your organization wear one?

Why am I talking about codpieces? First, because “codpiece” is fun to say, and one can’t have too much knowledge about medieval fashion. But more importantly, the codpiece serves as a great metaphor for our sector and its many practices that were once prominent and even practical, but now should be reconsidered because they are archaic, plain silly, or harmful to our work. Here are a few of them, and if you or your organization or foundation still do any of these things, you might as well have all your board and staff wear codpieces as part of your formal work attire, because you already look ridiculous:

1.Asking the sustainability question: “How will you sustain this program when this grant we give you ends?” I thought this question had been phased out completely because it’s so nonsensical, but apparently not. Last week, the Crappy Funding Practices (CFP) team had to call out a foundation for asking it on their grant application. Funders, if you’re still asking this question, you are as silly as an inebriated goose and should wear a codpiece. For everyone else, if you ever encounter this question, report it to CFP, and then just copy and paste one of these standardized responses I’ve come up with (Seriously, several colleagues have copied and pasted one of the more serious responses, and received funding!)

2.Not disclosing salary range on your job posting: We’ve made tremendous gain in this area, and I hardly ever see a job posting that doesn’t have salary information on it. This is an amazing accomplishment we achieved by speaking up and giving feedback to organizations over the years, so go us! But it does make it more glaring on the occasion when we do see a job listing without the salary. It’s jolting to see a nonprofit or foundation, especially if it professes to believe in equity, to still be engaged in this very backward practice. If you still don’t disclose the salary info in your job postings, everyone at your org should wear a codpiece. And if you also ask for job candidates’ salary history, wear a large powdered wig each because you are acting extra goofy and clueless.

3.Having unpaid internships: Unpaid internships are inequitable, for many reasons. These include punishing people from marginalized backgrounds, rewarding people who are privileged such as having their family support them so they can work for free, harming the career of the unpaid interns, and helping perpetuate the underpaying of nonprofit professionals. They were common in the past, but now they’ve been tapering off, thank goodness. But I just last week encountered an org that was offering them. If you’re still offering unpaid internships, make plans to convert them into paid ones. And immediately pay your interns, including back pay for all the work they’ve already done. Otherwise, wear a codpiece.

4.Not having captions in your videos and image descriptions in your pictures: There are lots of things we can do to be more disability-inclusive. And two of those things are so obvious that if you’re not doing them consistently, you should wear a codpiece. When you have a video, or you’re running a webinar, make sure captions are available for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. And for all the pictures you have on your website, event invitations, social media posts, etc., have image descriptions so people who are using screen readers can access them. Otherwise, have everyone wear a codpiece, take a picture, and I’ll write the image description for you.

5.Your board being all or almost entirely white: With all of our talks on DEI for years, and all the trainings and white papers and articles, it is very weird that some boards of directors are still predominantly white. I know, some organizations are in communities that are very white, and boards often reflect that demographic (although, we may need to examine the factors that lead to these communities being so white in the first place). But if that’s not your situation, then something is seriously amiss. Whether you are a nonprofit or a foundation, if your geographic area is diverse but your board is mostly white, you should wear a codpiece. Have it tailored in glaringly white satin.

6.Still having a 5% payout rate: If your foundation believes in Santa, flat earth, or perpetuity, you should all wear a codpiece. Not just because this is a silly and archaic philosophy, but your reticence in increasing your endowment payout rate to tackle inequity and injustice perpetuates or worsens these issues, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. You would make horrible firefighters: “Yeah, we know the fire is spreading rapidly all over the city, but we are only using 5% of the water we have to put it out, so that we have water to put out future fires.” Get thee to a codpiece!

7.Using “he/she” gender binary languages: “We treat every person who comes to us with respect, whether he/she is enrolled in our programs.” This is not the 80s or 90s, when we got yelled at by our teachers for not using correct grammar. The rules have changed. The singular they/them is not only acceptable according to APA style, it should be common usage by now, not just because it sounds more natural, but it’s also more inclusive of nonbinary colleagues. Change all your “he/she,” “s/he,” or just using “he” for communication purposes, and just use “they/them,” OK? Or, I guess, wear a codpiece.

8.Shutting down grantmaking for a year to do a strategic plan: Many moons ago, it wasn’t uncommon for funders to just pause giving out money for a year or two so they could take that time to develop a strategic plan for their giving. This practice faded out as people realized how indulgent, out-of-touch, and privileged it is for funders to do that. After all, few nonprofits ever suspend all the programs and services so they could do a strat plan. If your foundation is doing that, please make sure to include in your new plan “have every board member and staff wear a codpiece.”

9.Still perpetuating the harmful myth of overhead: Remember those years when everyone was focused on making sure overhead was low? Charity watchdog organizations gave low ratings to nonprofits that had high overhead rates. Funders and donors fainted upon seeing an indirect rate above 15% and had to be revived with smelling salts? I thought those days are over because we all wisely recognized overhead as critical for nonprofit effectiveness, but apparently some people didn’t get the message. If your organization still boasts about how low your overhead is, or that 100% of donations go to programming, everyone at your org should wear a codpiece. And if your foundation still imposes strict limits on what your grantees can spend on overhead, you should also wear a codpiece, but preferably over your face, because that makes about as much sense as your policies do.

10.Asking your staff to donate to your organization: This is probably the one that will generate the most pushback. Over the years, we’ve had this intense debate about whether it’s ok for employers to ask their employees to donate back to the org. After much serious consideration of all angles, I am even more renewed in my perspective that it is an archaic, inequitable, and unethical practice, rife with unavoidable power asymmetry and hidden racial, gender, and socioeconomic dynamics. And besides all those things, it is also bizarre. I mean, having an employee giving campaign so you can proclaim “100% of our staff gave back a portion of the money we (under)pay them,” a statistic that no one cares (or should care) about. If employees donate, then great. But asking them puts you into codpiece territory.

Let me know other ancient, silly practices that we need to call out. Meanwhile, if you’re doing any of the above, please immediately knock it off. Otherwise, start wearing a codpiece, possibly with a powdered wig and long pointy shoes, because if you’re insisting on following old-fashioned, out-of-date, laughable, and harmful practices, at least also look the part so people know to avoid you.

Please continue speaking up and calling for a permanent ceasefire

Funders: Do a better job of protecting and supporting leaders and organizations who take risks in standing up for justice

[Image description: People marching on the streets, the ones in front holding Palestine flags and a large sign that says “STOP GENOCIDE, FREE PALESTINE.” Image by Janne Leimola on Unsplash.]

Over the past few months, people and organizations who have been public in supporting a permanent ceasefire and an end to Israel’s US-funded genocide of Palestinians have been experiencing consequences. I know colleagues who have faced harassment and intimidation at work for wearing a keffiyeh. Others whose organizations have been losing funding from existing funders because they put out a statement calling for a ceasefire. A colleague told me a donor who had committed to hosting a fundraising event pulled out last minute because one of the org’s founders and board members have been vocal in condemning Israel’s genocidal actions. I’ve lost a few thousand followers, had keynote invitations rescinded, and have had to deal with online harassment since my post on October 17th.

None of this, of course, is going to stop us. The things we face are nowhere near the horrors Palestinians are experiencing right now, and we all need to be even more forceful in speaking up. Israel is now carpet-bombing Rafah, where Palestinians civilians had been ordered to evacuate to. All of us in the US are funding it, as our elected officials get ready to approve sending more than $17B dollars to Israel to continue its genocide of Palestinians. It should horrify all of us in this sector that we could solve homelessness and have universal healthcare and education, but instead, our tax dollars are being used to massacre children and civilians in Palestine every day.

Continue reading “Funders: Do a better job of protecting and supporting leaders and organizations who take risks in standing up for justice”

The Year of the Dragon and what it means for nonprofit and philanthropy

[Image description: A colorful, lit-up sculpture of a dragon with a long, wavy tail. Image by RM on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, before we get to today’s topic, if you’re free next Tuesday, February 13th, at 10am Pacific, please join me and the ED of Future of Good, Anouk Bertner, for “Cutting through the BS so we can actually prioritize workplace wellbeing.” It’s free; captioning available. Register here.

This week, Saturday specifically, marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year, ushering in the Year of the Dragon, widely considered the most powerful of all the Chinese Zodiac animals. Dragons are apparently smart, creative, persistent, visionary, and talented. Which is why some people—don’t ask who—would consider me a Dragon, instead of my actual sign…the chicken, known for occasionally crossing roads.

Continue reading “The Year of the Dragon and what it means for nonprofit and philanthropy”

10 boring, predictable responses often made by enablers of crappy funding practices

[An adorable raccoon, their head resting on their paw, which is resting on a tree trunk. This raccoon has nothing to do with this blog post, but the inclusion of this picture makes people more likely to click on it. Image by Chalo Garcia on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. Before we start this week’s topic, check out Memphis Music Initiative’s latest hilarious and catchy music video, “I Hope Like Hell We Get This Grant.”

Crappy Funding Practices (CFP) has been building momentum. Join in the fun on LinkedIn! This is the movement where we call out foundations publicly and by name who engage in practices that waste nonprofits’ time and energy when there are so many societal issues to tackle. Making a grantee write a quarterly report for a $2500 grant? We’re calling you out. Telling grant applicants they can’t spend more than 10% on overhead? We’re calling you out. Making grant applicants use your budget format, which is in Word? We’re calling you out.

Declaring a grant application deadline but then saying you’re only going to review the first 100 submissions? We’re calling you out and likely also bestowing upon you a Ghost Orchid Award for Rare but Super Crappy Funding Practices, which will come with press releases and probably an award ceremony where your team will be invited to dress up in evening formal wear and explain how you came up with such a clueless and heinous decision.

Continue reading “10 boring, predictable responses often made by enablers of crappy funding practices”