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Do fundraisers have privileged solutions and strategies?

Get that money. May 2, 2019 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPurpose
I recently read an article about Solutions Privilege, which was defined as “the privilege of expecting easy and instant solutions that would align with one’s worldview and not challenge one’s privilege.”

A colleague who also read the article asked me if fundraisers have privileged solutions and strategies that we favor in our work. The short answer? Yes. We do.

Statistics show that, contrary to popular belief, giving is not impacted by ethnicity. Millennials give to charity at a higher percentage than Boomers (84% of Millennials give vs. 72% of Boomers). Six out of ten U.S. households donate to charity in a given year, and the typical household’s annual gifts add up to between two and three thousand dollars.

And yet, fundraisers are taught best practices that cater to the privileged.

We’re taught the importance of an annual fundraising gala, a place to see and be seen, an opportunity to engage folks who otherwise may not engage with your work. It should be big, it should be glamorous, and it should be classy.  Remember, you’re trying to attract people of a certain caliber (also known as: wealthy white people).

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We’re taught that event success is determined by the honorees, co-chairs, and volunteer committee members that are listed on your event program.  If you recruit the right person to be honored, they’ll bring their friends and colleagues with them to the event. Their reputation will precede them and money will just flow.

Co-chairs and committee members know the unwritten rule: in exchange for your name to be listed here amongst the other notable people in our community, you need to make a large donation to the event or convince your company to do it instead. That’s your only responsibility as a committee member.

If you don’t run in the “old boys club” circle of CEOs and socialites in Philly, you would never be considered for one of these coveted positions. Didn’t know that you had to donate to be on the committee? No worries! You wouldn’t have been asked anyway.

With the intense focus on diversity right now, this rule has been relaxed ever so slightly to include non-white people who have achieved an incredible amount of notoriety and success in an executive role. As a result, the same dozen people are now being honored regularly by different organizations all riding the diversity wave. I am in no way stating that these folks don’t deserve all the recognition – but I am saying they’re not the only ones out there crushing it and should be honored for their work.

Sure, this all makes sense on paper. And it does, for the most part, result in a whole lot of money being raised. It can lead to building stronger relationships with major donors who will continue to support your organization after the event, but more often than not the only way to keep the sponsors and donors coming back year after year is to continue to honor the same people at an event co-chaired by the same people.

Along those same lines, this is also how board members are chosen. It’s why so many of them are older white men. There’s an inability to see or recognize the things that people of color can provide on a board, and further there’s the assumption that people of color can’t make large gifts. No one asks; they just assume.

Most fundraisers get stuck in this cycle. We’re told that the only way to achieve our fundraising goals is to follow this formula. Everyone expects us to follow this formula. We’re not given the opportunity to try a different way – in fact, we’re just as often told NOT to try a different way because we lack time and resources for trial and error. But, this formula is good for only one set of donors: the white, privileged donors.

Of course, this is not the only way to raise money. People of color can make large gifts. Non-white people have large networks and community support that would make an event successful – but that event may look a lot different than the traditional fundraising gala.

And that’s where fundraisers ultimately need to make a choice: fight this fight, point out the inequities, take the time to explore what an event would look like that caters to a different demographic, OR put your head down and do your job. Fundraising is hard enough without having to fight systemic racism.

Most of us fundraisers have the privilege to be able to make that choice because fundraising is a white dominated field. We’re mostly straight white women and gay white men. We can opt out without backlash because we blend right in – who would notice that we’re not seeking solutions for people of color when we report to white people, are governed by a white board, and are accountable to mostly white donors?

This is a question I am spending more and more time contemplating, and I’m making a conscious effort to push myself outside of this privileged bubble I live in as a straight white woman. I’m lucky to work with an organization that doesn’t necessarily subscribe to these privileged solutions to fundraising – we don’t honor anyone at our fundraising event, and our board is much more diverse than any I’ve worked with previously. And yet we have a lot to do in order for our donor base to look more like the participants we support every day.

How can I invest the hard work, effort, and time it will take to make that happen without sacrificing our existing donor relationships? I don’t have the answers just yet, but I’m committing to working to find them.

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