Legacy reimagined: moving donors from ego-driven to justice-centered philanthropy

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Hi everyone, I’m still working on fixing the email notification system, since it has been sending out notices of new posts to only 12 or so people each week. Thanks for your patience. Before we get started on this week’s topic, please join me at the Nonprofit Marketing Summit, which is going on this week March 5 to 7. I’ll be on a panel with Stephen Gyllenhaal (producer of the documentary Uncharitable) and nonprofit leader Dorri McWhorter on March 6 at 2pm PT to discuss overhauling the nonprofit sector. The summit is FREE. Register here. Auto-captions will be available.

This week, for all 12 colleagues who got notices of this post, we talk about the idea of legacy. This is a word we use a lot in our work, especially in fundraising. For instance, talking to donors about what kind of legacy they want to leave. And last year, I got into trouble because someone asked what was wrong with a wealthy person hoarding wealth away in order to create a “legacy of philanthropy” for their offspring to engage in, and I called it gross. Because it’s gross. (Lots of people were offended. I had to write an apology).

Like with many other concepts in our sector, it’s time to examine our definition and ideas around “legacy” and how we engage donors around it. Currently, the way most of us think of legacy is very narrow: It’s basically what people will leave behind when they die, and how other people will remember them. It is one of the tools we fundraisers use, and it can lead to donations. For instance, someone donating a large sum and getting a building named after them, a legacy that will last long after they’re gone.

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

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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.

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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

Why I’m no longer donating to your no-good, very bad nonprofit

[Image description: Two human hands with gold rings and a gold watch, holding a dozen or so US dollar bills, most of them in denominations of $20, with at least one $100. Image by Brock Wegner on Unsplash]

I am a generous and humble man who wants to help sad poor people. This is why I give money to charity. If you help sad poor people, I might also give your organization money. But I have high standards, so I usually give initial donations to test organizations’ responses. Sure, $100 may not be much, though I believe one should be able to purchase at least 10 bananas with that amount. After making the initial donation, I wait in the shadows like a philanthropic hawk to see how charities treat me, which will determine whether I will give them more in the future.

I have been very disappointed to say the least. Some nonprofits don’t respond at all. Some wait excessively long periods of time before getting back to me. One time I had to wait a whole month like an animal for a handwritten thank-you note. Another organization received a huge grant from another donor, and I expected them to know immediately how that money would affect their operations, and more importantly, how it would affect me. My various attempts demanding answers were met with silence. In fact, across multiple charities I donate to, all seem to be avoiding communicating with me, which can only mean they are all no-good, very bad.

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

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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 my uttering these vile invectives.

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

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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.

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