Beware that your relationship with donors isn't sabotaged by unconscious bias - Generocity Philly


Mar. 7, 2019 2:04 pm

Beware that your relationship with donors isn’t sabotaged by unconscious bias

A recent Twitterstorm from Stephen King was a useful reminder for fundraisers: Do not make assumptions based on binary gender stereotypes. Full stop.

The power of the internet.

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

You may have seen a headline bouncing around social media recently that referenced a gift made by Tabitha and Stephen King that was reported in the media as a gift by “Stephen King and wife.”

Or, you may have seen the clapback that Stephen King posted to his social accounts that admonished the media for not even reporting Tabitha’s name, despite the fact that Tabitha was the main driver of the gift.

Perhaps you even saw Tabitha King’s letter to the editor of the first outlet (of many, may I add) to misreport the gift, which included a reminder that “Wife is a relationship or status. It is not an identity” and an amazing list of similarly condescending alternatives, including OfStephen, His Old Lady, His-Ball-And-Chain and Mother-of-Novelists.

My first reaction was to feel the pain of the fundraisers who solicited and secured that gift. The press release from the recipient organization correctly identified both Tabitha and Stephen, and the Kings squarely placed the blame on the media outlet and not the organization receiving their gift. However, not many people will take the time to look into who made the mistake and I’ve already seen lots of people online blaming the fundraisers.

Despite the fact that the fundraisers weren’t at fault for the way the media chose to report the gift, it got me thinking because there IS a lot of unconscious bias in fundraising. In my experience, fundraising in a lot of ways is set up to abide by binary gender stereotypes.

Our donor databases automatically name households after the male contact in that household. Sometimes, the male contact in a household isn’t the primary contact for the gift. Sometimes, he’s not relevant to our fundraising strategies at all — our relationship is 100 percent with his female partner, but the database still defaults to listing his name first.

Another issue I have with households in databases is that they’re not always set up to accommodate partners with different last names. The autofill options for formal and informal greetings get confused and I end up with a letter addressed to “John and Jamie Smith Jones” rather than “John Smith and Jamie Jones.”

Or “John and Jamie Smith-Jones.”

Or, sometimes, separate letters for both John Smith and Jamie Jones at the same address.

Either way, it means I need to review every single letter and label after a merge to ensure that there are no weird things happening — and it’s almost always an issue where two people with different last names are in the same household.

Building strong relationships with donors will become more important than ever, and that includes not making assumptions about donors based on binary gender stereotypes.

Not only that, but they don’t recognize duplicates if there are two contacts at the same address with different last names. Sure, sometimes it’s a roommate situation, but sometimes it’s two people in a committed relationship with different last names. I’d love to get a notification either way so that I can determine if there’s a duplicate or not, but most databases won’t flag these contacts for review simply because the names don’t match.

Many templates and databases for letters and labels require you to choose Mr./Mrs. salutation. They don’t have options for Mx. and won’t allow you to not choose a salutation at all. What I’m seeing among donors more and more often is a preference not to use salutations at all, yet they’re still included (and in some cases required) in our various fundraising software and databases.

Moving away from the technology that supports us as fundraisers, another common bias is to assume that the man in a household is the decision maker. I’ve actually read several books and articles about making the ask that say “be sure to let the donor know that, if needed, he is welcome to take some time to discuss the gift with his wife before making a commitment.” These resources also assume that the donor visit is taking place at the [male] donor’s office, during business hours.

How can we as fundraisers work past our unconscious biases to build better relationships with our donors? This question is especially important as generation X and millennials are progressing in their careers and being targeted for larger gifts. Generation X is a much smaller group than baby boomers, and millennials are struggling with student debt. Both of these factors will likely mean that giving will decline rather than grow as the baby boomer generation ages.

Building strong relationships with donors will become more important than ever, and that includes not making assumptions about donors based on binary gender stereotypes. Take the time to get to know your donors and how they like to be addressed: what pronouns they use, what name(s) they want to use when being recognized for a gift, what formal and informal greetings they prefer when receiving communications.

Hopefully, fundraising databases and other technology will catch up to us to provide the tools we actually need, but for the time being make sure you’re checking (and double checking) your data before it gets to your donor. The one time you don’t check is the one time you’ll miss an important salutation, and it may just cost you a donor.


From our Partners

Opinion: Funders can do better, but so can nonprofits

From top to bottom, the way we do what we do in fundraising is designed to uphold the status quo. How do you change that?

Nonprofit AF: We need to support legislation on philanthropy’s crappy, inequitable practices


Generocity Philly

On June 17, First Person Arts and EMOC launch a virtual event they hope will shatter misperceptions of men of color

2950 Potshop Road Worcester Pa 19490

Variety – the Children's Charity of the Delaware Valley

Director of Development

Apply Now

Playworks Education Energized

Development Operations Associate

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA

GreenLight Fund

Program Associate, GreenLight Fund Philadelphia

Apply Now

What does allyship look like in the workplace? Join us for a Slack AMA on June 25

Bridging the digital divide: An equity saga

When it comes to data, let’s just agree to disaggregate


Generocity Philly

Good food + good people + good cause = good times

West Chester, PA

Friends Association for Care & Protection of Children

Chief Operating Officer

Apply Now
West Chester, PA

Friends Association for Care & Protection of Children

Advancement Associate

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA

Fairmount Ventures Inc


Apply Now

Sign-up for daily news updates from Generocity