Nonprofit AF: It’s time to expand our perspectives and conversations in fundraising - Generocity Philly

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Sep. 28, 2020 1:52 pm

Nonprofit AF: It’s time to expand our perspectives and conversations in fundraising

"We need to think not just about the nonprofit and philanthropic ecosystem, but also about how the entire community may be affected by our actions," says Vu Le.

In his column, Vu Le encourages nonprofit pros to start examining "what perspectives you have been highlighting."

(Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)

This guest post was written by Vu Le, the founder of the blog Nonprofit AF.
Over the past few weeks, it’s been nice to see the Community-Centric Fundraising movement growing. The Slack channel has been increasing in numbers, along with the Facebook pageTwitter, and Instagram (I am not sure what Tik Tok is, but I think we have that too).

What I am especially thankful for is the content Hub on the CCF website, which produces new thought-provoking articles, podcasts, and videos each week, curated by colleague Stacy Nguyen. Last week, I read “8 ways to make fundraising more accessible for people with disabilities” by Elizabeth Ralston. One of the tips was “Include a physical description when you first introduce yourself […] this can really help a person with low vision have an image of who is speaking and in turn make them feel included as part of the festivities.” This was something I had never considered before. Thanks to what I learned, I have started describing myself in virtual events: “Mid-age Asian man with short unkempt black hair, thick black glasses, wearing a blue button-down shirt, and surrounded by a pervasive aura of vegan sexiness.”

We need to be honest with ourselves (and no, not about the pervasive aura of vegan sexiness). The conversations we’ve been having in the field of fundraising need to change. They are dominated by topics along the lines of how to retain donors, show more gratitude, increase planned giving, write better grants, which CRM is the best, etc. Often these can be boiled down to the overarching topic of “Tactics to help you raise more money for your organization.”

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Our conversations (and workshops, keynotes, panels, research, etc.) have centered the perspectives of abled, neurotypical, cisgender, heteronormative white colleagues and their philosophies and practices, which serves to ensconce these philosophies and practices and creates a self-fulfilling cycle. I’m starting to see more development colleagues tackle issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. But again, it often is about how organizations can diversify their donor base, board, and staff to ultimately raise more money, not necessary to break out of the status quo.

Our sector — nonprofit and philanthropy — faces a necessary existential reckoning, where we examine how we may be causing harm to society (through charity-washing, conscience-laundering, etc.) instead of automatically assuming that everything we do is net positive. This may seem terrifying, but I think it’s also exciting. It will allow us to be more effective, and to be more aligned with the primary purpose of our sector, which is to advance social and economic justice. It’s why many of us got into this work. But in order to do that, not only to do the topics of blogs, workshops, keynotes, panels, podcasts, white papers, etc. we engage in need to change, but even how we’re presenting and consuming information. Here are a few shifts we need to make, moving forward:

From what will help raise the most money, to what are intrinsically the right things to do: The belief that fundraising is all about raising as much money as possible is pervasive and guides all our conversations. It’s time to free ourselves from this rigid philosophy. We should foster accessibility — such as having captions on our videos, describing our physical appearances when we present, ensuring event spaces are wheelchair accessible, etc. — not because it may help to bring in more funds, but because we are all working toward creating an equitable society and accessibility is intrinsically the right thing to do. Sometimes doing the right things, such as openly challenging racism and white supremacy, will likely lead to loss of funding. We have to be OK with that.

From what is good for individual organizations to what is good for the entire community: I remember attending a conference workshop once, where attendees were eagerly taking notes as the speaker discussed how to increase ranking on a charity watchdog rating website. Sure, if you get four stars or whatever, you may get more donations. But how does this affect other nonprofits, maybe grassroots BIPOC-led orgs who may not have capacity to compete in this ranking system? How does it further the misconceptions that donors have of our work as a whole? So many conversations, workshops, articles, etc., on fundraising are still very much focused on how to make individual organizations more effective and successful. We need to think not just about the nonprofit and philanthropic ecosystem, but also about how the entire community may be affected by our actions.

From “best practices” to practices initiated and supported by the people most affected by systemic injustice: When we say “best practices,” what we usually really mean is “white practices.” This is particularly true in fundraising, where the vast majority of traditional donors and fundraisers are white and thus the conversations, narratives, and perspectives that are advanced are by-default white. As an example, I wrote about how the handwritten thank-you note is not how many communities give or receive gratitude, yet we assume that this is a best-practice. As demographics change and we seek to be more responsive to society’s growing diversity, we need to shift from centering whiteness to ensuring the perspectives and solutions brought forth by folks most affected by injustice and inequity take priority.

From topics that are comfortable to those that are uncomfortable and possibly unnerving: It is far easier to talk about how to start a monthly giving program than to talk about slavery, colonization, and reparation. It is more fun to lead a workshop on how to better thank donors than to facilitate a discussion on how we are complicit in helping donors avoid taxes and hoard wealth. Our sector will be in better positions to achieve its mission if fundraisers, the folks who often have the strongest relationships with donors and thus the best chance of getting them to change their thinking and behaviors, start embracing these difficult topics.

From upholding traditional means of communication to respecting diverse ways people communicate: I do a lot of writing and speaking, and luckily for me, these are probably the two means of communications that are most respected in our society. But this is limiting to the colleagues who work with visual art, dance, music, photography, theater, poetry, etc. In the middle of a powerful panel I watched last week featuring movement leaders, Vijay Gupta performed a two-minute raga on his violin. It was moving and evocative, and jostled me out of complacency. We need to stop thinking of writing and speaking, especially writing, as the default respectable communication styles, and other forms of communication as artistic flourishes there only to enliven things.

I know this is a lot to think about. But I hope you are as excited as I am about shifting the conversations we have, who we center in these conversations, and by which means of communications do we engage with one another. Check out the CCF Hub if you are looking for inspiration. Elizabeth’s essay on making fundraising more accessible is just one of the many pieces on the Hub. Others include “White supremacy culture in professional spaces is toxic — to dismantle it, we must first be willing to name it!”  by Ashley Lugo. Melia Smith writes an essay titled “Why Being Gaslit by White People Isn’t Just Emotionally Violent, It’s Racist.” I also appreciate thoughtful reflections by white folks on their own complicity in perpetuating inequity, such as this post by Rebecca Paugh called “As a white woman, do I have a responsibility to disrupt philanthropy?” and Hilary Giovale’s piece, “Reparations: How we white relatives must try to pay back the unpayable debt.”

Meanwhile, Shanaaz Gokool presents an argument for radical transparency in nonprofit governance. Phuong Pham lays out an argument for ending tiered event sponsorship levels. I love all the things I learn from the Hub, things that challenge my conceptions of how things are or should be, including this piece by Isabella Lock on the Ori’ Dance; this podcast episode by Tykee James that weaves birding, environmental justice, and interpersonal fundraising; this spoken-word poem by Ali Ali, called “Philanthropy;” and all the episodes of The Ethical Rainmaker, hosted by CCF Co-Chair Michelle Muri, including an episode called “White Women as Gatekeepers.” There are lots more, and more is coming. Apologies to all the colleagues whose work I did not mention here. And if you are interested in creating content for the Hub, please read through these editorial guidelines.

But CCF is just one platform. We need to shift the conversation everywhere. We have lots of brilliant fundraising professionals in the sector, many of whom have their own blogs, podcasts, columns, and social media channels. We have fundraising conferences and events that include keynote speakers, panels, and workshops. We have researchers who can focus on lesser-discussed elements of the work. I encourage everyone to start examining what messages you have been delivering, what perspectives you have been highlighting, what topics you may have been avoiding, and consider that maybe it is time to expand the breadth and depth of what you, and the rest of our field, talk about.

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Thank you to the 1400+ colleagues who attended last week’s webinar “What’s Broken in the Foundation and Donor Landscape?” put on by CalNonprofitsCommunity-Centric FundraisingNonprofit AFInstitute for Policy Studies, and Inequality.org. We discussed wealth hoarding, tax avoidance, and the problems with Donor-Advised Funds. You can see the full video here.

Next week, 10/5 at 11 a.m. PT, we have the second part of the series, focused on solutions, including potential policy changes. Speakers include Farhad Ebrahimi, founder and president of the Chorus Foundation; Ellen Dorsey, executive director of Wallace Global Fund; Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland). The legendary Jan Masaoka of CalNonprofits will be the moderator. It will be good! Register here.

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