Moving Beyond Donor-Centric Fundraising to Prioritize Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Dignity

Over the last few weeks there has been consternation from White, male fundraisers [specifically, Tom Ahern] about the Community Centric Fundraising movement, implying that those who support CCF’s methods are “wanna-be fundraisers” or “novices.” This year marks my *cough* 20th year in the nonprofit field, and I have spent almost as long within the fundraising field. The early aughts were when the donor-centered mindset hit its stride and authors churned out books about how to retain your donors and raise more money from those same donors.

White woman in an SUV getting a carwash from three young people and making a donation to a young woman for their service

The donor-centric model makes a lot of sense within America’s capitalist framework – since nonprofits are not “selling” a product to a consumer they instead “sell” an experience to encourage donors to “unleash” their philanthropy at a much higher level. The model itself is not inherently bad; it prioritizes relationship building, encourages donors to see themselves as philanthropists, centers transparency, and helps nonprofits see fundraising cost as an essential investment in a sustainable future. However, donor-centrism is often taken to extremes within organizations that insist on treating donors as the most important element of our work. When we center donors above our missions and the communities we seek to serve, we actively support an inequitable power differential that prevents us from advancing to a more equitable society.

Donor-centrism is effective, but it comes at a cost. Vu Le wrote a nuanced article several years ago, How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising. He outlines the costs as:

  1. Perpetuating the nonprofit hunger games

  2. Proliferating the savior complex

  3. Perpetuating the othering of the people we serve

  4. Crowding out the voices of people served

  5. Further marginalizing already underserved communities

  6. Reinforcing money as the default measure of people’s worth

  7. Minimizing other elements needed to do this work well

  8. Furthering the idea of transactional charity

  9. Preventing honest conversations and true partnerships

  10. Short-changing our donors

To this list, I would like us to consider adding:

  1. Prioritizing development staff as “superstars” of an organization

  2. Creating staff burnout with unachievable fundraising goals and sponsor/donor benefits, particularly among fundraisers of color

  3. Perpetuating racial inequities within the fundraising community to make donors “comfortable” with White development officers.

  4. Limiting the ways in which we interact with donors to a fundraising model that inherently centers Whiteness

  5. Ignoring how donors’ wealth is derived, particularly for those whose wealth can be traced to practices that perpetuate racism, inequity, and potentially undermine the mission of the organization

Prioritizing development staff as “superstars” of an organization.

Two boys wearing superhero outfits and reaching toward the sky in an attempt to fly

Cause Effective’s Money, Power and Race: The Lived Experience of Fundraisers of Color 2019 report found that fundraising is where the narrative of organizations is shaped, development professionals are entrusted with representing their institutions to individuals with the ability to make a game-changing difference in their constituents’ future, and fundraising carries the power to bestow resources and enable programming. Often fundraisers hold more power than other employees and are afforded a “seat at the table” with those in power – board members, major donors, and community leaders. This paints fundraisers as heroes saving the day, raising money to support programming, and further the mission of the organization. They are often provided higher salaries, benefits packages, flexible schedules, bonuses, and opportunities for advancement.

Do we really want to hold fundraisers above other staff members who are providing equally as important mission-driven work? What is the cost to an organization that under-compensates non-development staff positions? How do we understand and work to overcome systemic inequity if we perpetuate it in our own staffing structures?

Creating staff burnout with unachievable fundraising goals and sponsor/donor benefits, particularly among fundraisers of color.

Young Woman in a blue buttondown shirt with head in her hand, leaning on her desk in frustration or worry

Often, organizations create lofty fundraising goals that overlook the amount of work that goes into each ask and then expect the fundraiser to fulfill on donors’ expected benefits. When I worked at a high-profile arts organization, I regularly made five and six-figure asks of corporate donors and sponsors while also being required to coordinate, manage, and attend sponsor receptions, hand-deliver performance tickets to corporate offices, set up donor meet and greets with prominent artists, write grants to corporate foundations, regularly attend events to connect with donors, and in the case of an official vehicle sponsor, drive cars in and out of the lobby of the building on performance nights.

I was burned out. The staff turnover was around 150% (primarily within the fundraising and marketing teams). The fundraising staff was berated when we did not meet grossly over-estimated fundraising goals. I was considered a troublemaker when I brought up inappropriate donor behavior (e.g., the husband of a corporate donor grabbing my thigh under the table at a black-tie donor dinner) as the organization prioritized donor comfort over the staff’s right to dignity and equity. My performance was evaluated on the amount of money raised, the success of corporate events (even when outcomes were outside of my control), how I dressed, what I said in conversation, and how much I smiled and engaged with donors. These issues were even more compounded for my colleagues of color. Many were required to “code-switch,” the act of changing behaviors, speech, dress, and mannerisms to conform to a different cultural norm than what we do authentically in our personal spaces. Furthermore, they endured explicit and implicit bias and microaggressions, were questioned about their fundraising knowledge and felt isolated because of a lack of organizational mentorship and professional development opportunities. Do we really want to prioritize fundraising through whatever means possible with complete disregard for the potential harm? Do we want to perpetuate a fundraising process that burns out and disillusions good fundraisers? What are the organization’s responsibilities to protect and ensure a safe and healthy working environment when donors have an outsized power differential over fundraisers?

Perpetuating racial inequities within the fundraising community to make donors “comfortable” with White development officers.