Dear white fundraisers: Are we only hearing those who look like us? - Generocity Philly


Jan. 4, 2021 12:00 pm

Dear white fundraisers: Are we only hearing those who look like us?

When it comes to addressing the inequities baked into fundraising, why aren't people listening to their BIPOC colleagues? asks columnist Valerie Johnson.

Valerie Johnson.

(Courtesy photo)

Like many of my fellow fundraisers,

I didn’t set out on this career path. I studied marketing in college, because event planning wasn’t a major, and my goal was to be Lorelai Gilmore. I was going to plan weddings and events for a cute little inn (or, more accurately, for a venue in Philadelphia because I am a city girl through and through).

I had a few internships, which course corrected me a bit. I interned for a PR and special events firm in the city that very firmly turned me off of the glitzy side of events. Who cares whether I have makeup on my face or not? Is the event going to be ruined because I wore flats instead of heels? I didn’t think so, but apparently I was wrong. The internship I had after that with a nonprofit felt like a much better fit — we were raising money, not just throwing a party, and no one cared what I looked like.

After a quick stint as a meeting planner, I ended up as an entry level fundraiser with a membership association. This particular organization, at the time, leaned heavily on their very low overhead as a selling point for giving to them. My job was to travel to United Way and other workplace giving events, attend agency fairs, and convince people to give to us while they tested how many pens and keychains they could hold in their pockets.

When you’re very green, and you have to make your case as quickly as possible, you lean heavily on what your bosses have told you works. “We only have an overhead rate of 8%, which means 92% of what you give to us goes directly to cancer research.” Totally worked, too, lots of people pledged on the spot.

The first thing I did when I moved to a new organization was look up the overhead rate. I was not so sure I could work with 18% the way I could work with 8%, so I had to actually work to figure out how to communicate what we did clearly and concisely. I threw myself into professional development and slowly began to figure out what my job actually was.

It took years for me to undo a lot of the things I learned about fundraising when I first started out. I learned about the Overhead Myth. I learned that there are much better ways to spend my time than traveling across the US to go to agency fairs where the pledges (which won’t be fully paid to us for another two years) often don’t cover the cost of my flight, or putting on a huge event that needs 50% of its proceeds to cover the cost of the venue, food, and drinks.

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It took many more years for me to drill down even further and start to recognize how white supremacy has shaped so much of our world, including nonprofits and fundraising. As I got more comfortable putting what I was learning into words, I began writing this column. First, the easier things like voting contests and why they’re a waste of time for most nonprofits, and then the harder topics like perpetuating harm while calling it diversity.

Now, more than three years into writing at Generocity, I’m recognizing that a lot of what I’ve been writing about is not news to BIPOC fundraisers and nonprofit workers. I had the privilege to learn about systemic issues with fundraising on my own timeline, because I have benefitted from this system. I didn’t face discrimination, I didn’t have to overcome extra hurdles to enter this field, and at the end of the day, I could choose to ignore what I’ve learned and my world wouldn’t change at all.

However, much of what I write about is news to white fundraisers and nonprofit workers. I get emails and tweets and reshares from folks who are beginning this journey down the systemic racism rabbit hole in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Folks who, like me, had the privilege to not notice the biases built into our society until they were ready.

A friend recently asked me why it hits differently when I say it. Why don’t white fundraisers wake up to the inequities baked into our chosen vocation when our BIPOC colleagues say it out loud? I’m far from the first to speak out on this, so why are folks only hearing it when I say it?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and examining my own behavior. When I first started to learn, who was I listening to? Was it fellow white fundraisers, or was it BIPOC fundraisers? I can point to examples of both who helped teach me along this journey, but I can’t say which came first. I can’t say for sure that I wasn’t caught up in the same conundrum of only listening to people who looked like me.

What I can say is that I’m paying attention now. I’m being intentional about who I follow, who I read, and who I listen to. People are experts on their own lives, I want to learn directly from those who have been affected by racism in fundraising.

I also want to be intentional in using the privilege and platform I have to help those folks share their expertise. If that’s you, get in touch with me! Let’s talk.


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