Undoing Racism in Fundraising and Philanthropy

by Meg Butterworth

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, now release it. Relax. Let’s imagine a time in the future where the philanthropy, nonprofit, and fundraising sectors are more focused on equity and justice. What does it look like to live in a world beyond nonprofits and foundations — a world with abundance and adequate care for all, where wealth has been redistributed?

This was the experiential exercise in which attendees of a recent webinar hosted by Community Centric Fundraising (CCF) were asked to participate. CCF was formed in 2017 by a group of Seattle-area fundraisers whose goal was to re-examine long-held fundraising philosophies and practices and create a new model grounded in equity and social justice. These young professionals of color are all too aware that the very sector they work in was created in part by what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called, “the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

CCF, along with forward-thinking local philanthropists such as Social Justice Fund NW (SJF), a foundation with a forty-year history of promoting social change throughout the Northwest, are working to change their sector from its long held white- and donor-centric narrative to a more diverse and representative sector that is community centered.

“The development team is usually the whitest part of a nonprofit organization,” says Mano, the Donor Organizing Manager for SJF. “There’s a lot of power in the development teams … power in the control of money. Budgeting is where moral decisions are made — where your values are. If you can control that, you can shift the focus and mission of the organization.”

According to the 2018 Demographic Report of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), of its more than 31,000 members, fewer than 10% are professionals of color.

Democratizing Philanthropy

As Mano describes it, SJF was started in 1978 by a group of “young, idealistic white people” from the five-state region of WA, OR, ID, MT, and WY. Originally called A Territory Resource, the group saw a need to fund more grassroots organizing and formed a giving circle with the purpose of awarding small grants. Certainly, giving circles weren’t new, however what set SJF apart was the founders’ early realization about how decision making in philanthropy can be white-centric. As its website says, SJF “has always believed it is important to reflect the diversity of our society in our own organization.” The organization has made intentional strides over the decades to be more racially, ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse. In 2003 the minimum membership contribution was lowered from $1,000 or one percent of an individual’s annual income to $240 or whatever amount is considered to be a “meaningful gift” by an individual. Its staff and board have comprised a majority of people of color for some time. Inclusivity also extends to the foundation’s membership.

Mano, himself, is an Angolan refugee who came to the U.S. as a child. He was attracted to SJF’s inclusive approach to philanthropy and fundraising, joining the organization as a practicum student in 2015 before being hired in 2017 and moving into his current position in 2019.

SJF’s effort to democratize philanthropy is demonstrated by its Giving Projects, its primary mode of grantmaking since 2010. Each year, SJF organizes groups of roughly 20 donors who engage in a six-month long program designed to make philanthropy more accessible. Many of the participants do not have prior philanthropic experience and come from communities underrepresented in philanthropy. According to SJF’s website, approximately 75% of participants are under 35 and 50% are people of color.

Over the course of the six months, the group participates in workshops to learn social and racial justice analysis, leadership, fundraising, grantmaking, and grassroots organizing. In addition to their own monetary contribution (for which there is no minimum or maximum requirement), participants use the skills and knowledge gained in the workshops to individually raise funds that go into a collective pool. They review grant proposals from grassroots organizations working for social change in the five-state region and make grant awards from that collective pool. One hundred and eight people participated in Giving Projects in 2018, awarding seventy-one grants totaling $1.12 million.

Addressing Anti-Blackness

Despite this successful approach, SJF has been doing a lot of self-reflection over the past four years. “We’re realizing those workshops aren’t enough, especially as it relates to anti-Black racism,” says Mano. SJF found that Black people were not responding as well to Giving Projects as other people of color. They were dropping out at higher rates than other members. When asked why, Mano recognizes that there were likely several contributing factors but suspects that part of the problem has to do with how “anti-Blackness operates as an added drag in a multiracial space.” He acknowledges that perhaps Black participants were not experiencing the same reception in their fundraising endeavors as non-Black participants. SJF staff have been meeting monthly to talk about how anti-Blackness shows up in the fundraising space.

“Racism is really selective,” explains Mano. “The way fundraising is difficult for me is different for another person of color.” Fundraising is based on building relationships, making calls, meeting with donors, making asks. Referring to findings from a 2019 report by Cause Effect called Money, Power and Race: The Lived Experience of Fundraisers of Color, Mano says that individuals often engage differently with white people than with people of color and that’s especially more acute for Black people. Donors feel uncomfortable sitting across from a Black person in financial dialogue.

This is echoed by Birgit Smith Burton, a development professional and founder of the African American Development Officers Network. In an article she wrote for the Association of Fundraising Professionals in February, she recounts a story that involved a fundraiser who was continually passed over for a promotion to a frontline development position. When the fundraiser inquired why, she was told major donors would not want to engage with a Black person so there would be no reason to promote her if she couldn’t be successful in her job. This is one story among hundreds Burton has collected in her work.

“Even with people who are progressive, there’s a subtle level of distrust, ‘What are you doing with this money, what’s actually going on with this work?’ I have to back up my work with facts and figures that my other colleagues don’t have to because of trust,” says Mano. Anti-Blackness in fundraising shows up in other, more subtle, ways as well. Mano describes not being asked to do other work, like grant writing, despite being qualified.

“If we’re not dealing with that then we’re not dealing with the full totality of racism.”

One way SJF is addressing this reality is by creating a Black-centered space through its new Black-Led Giving Projects. As Mano describes, “We see exposing our Black participants to work that they are usually passed over for as a net positive.” Open to descendants of the African diaspora, the group raises funds and distributes them to Black-led community organizations working for Black liberation in the five-state region. This fall they will coordinate a Black-Led Giving Project in Portland, Oregon. Meetings and training will be held virtually over five to six-months. Fifteen to 20 donors from the Portland area will engage in political education, skill building for grassroots fundraising, and a democratic grantmaking process that will award approximately eight grants to Black-led organizations.

SJF’s ability to reorganize itself has been one of its enduring strengths. Still, Mano is quick to say, “We’re not perfect.” He stresses that SJF continues to ask, “What can we do to make sure we better ourselves and look at ourselves with clear eyes, while also moving as much money as possible to groups making the largest systemic change possible.”

Hard Conversations

The ability to self-reflect and ask hard questions is something CCF talks a lot about in their work to change the fundraising sector. It’s what Michelle Shireen Muri, an Iranian-American, found herself doing after leaving her role as the Development Director for the NW Immigrants Rights Project. Like many exhausted and burnt-out nonprofit professionals, she decided to take time for herself. She came across a 2017 article titled  How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising by Vu Le, the former Executive Director of the nonprofit Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) and creator of the blog nonprofitaf. In the article, Le lays out key ways to address equity in fundraising. Something clicked for Muri. She always felt something was off in her work, and Le’s words made her realize what. Similar to SJF’s founders, she realized the fundraising world operates in accordance with the white dominant culture. Not only are most donors white, many nonprofit boards are primarily white along with staff and even volunteers. This lack of inclusion and representation, along with existing power dynamics and dependency on generational wealth and grantmaking to solve world problems ultimately harms the core of nonprofit work aimed mainly to counter systems of oppression.

For example, Muri says, “In fundraising you see a lot of wealthy white women, especially older women, who want to volunteer. That’s wonderful but it’s also not helpful to have people who are distant from the communities you’re serving.” Muri suggests it is the responsibility of the volunteer to make sure that the organization “is in the right relationship with the community they’re serving.” Is the organization’s staff primarily white or are they representative of the community, do they engage the community in their program planning? These are the questions volunteers should ask.

Then there’s the disconnect with donors. James Hong, a CCF leadership member, notes, “We’ve been taught to make donors feel comfortable.” But this simply perpetuates the problem of “unexamined wealth.” Fundraisers and donors need to consider how wealth was created and at what price. Hong says, “It’s incumbent upon us to lean into these conversations with courage.”

Muri once met a donor at an event who had inherited her wealth from the creation of a harmful, lethal chemical. “Blood money,” as Muri referred to it. The donor was going to give most of her wealth to her children when she died and some to a community organization that had nothing to do with how her family built its wealth. As Muri said, “She wasn’t having the conversation about where her money should go to repair the harm.” Muri suggested she reconsider where she was giving her money and maybe give even more of it away. It was an exercise in patience for Muri, who initially felt rage about how the woman intended to spend her wealth. “I needed to tone down my outrage … We have to approach conversations from a place of starting to build trust. That means a lot of listening.”

Pushing the Boundaries

Muri wasn’t alone in her realization. Le’s article prompted other local fundraisers to meet regularly. In August 2018, they organized a summit that drew 90 fundraisers of color to share their experiences working in Seattle’s nonprofit sector. Many said they had never been in a room with so many fundraisers of color. Not long after, CCF formed as a fiscally sponsored entity with Muri as its co-chair. Its website lists the group’s 10 Principles of Community Centric Fundraising, along with resources, data, articles, and ways for professional fundraisers from across the country to converse and support efforts to push the boundaries of fundraising.

In May 2019, CCF conducted a survey to gauge perceptions of current fundraising practices. Over 2,100 nonprofit professionals responded, the majority of whom were from the US while some respondents came from the UK, Canada, Australia and other countries. Findings magnify both the lack of diversity in the sector as well as troubling perceptions. Only 14% of respondents were Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). Closer examination found that BIPOC fundraisers tend to be 35 years or younger, have fewer years of experience, and are typically from a less-wealthy socioeconomic group than their white counterparts. Slightly more BIPOC identify as LGBQT and slightly more identify as living with a disability. Seventy-three percent of BIPOC respondents felt current fundraising practices increased “poverty tourism,” where impoverished communities are exploited for attraction purposes without receiving monetary compensation. Eighty-four percent of BIPOC respondents felt practices contributed to “white saviorism,” which refers to rescuing People of Color from their situation while taking away their sense of agency.

Surprisingly, the survey found that 66% of all respondents (white and BIPOC) were unhappy with how fundraising is being done. Nearly all respondents wanted more training on race, disabilities, and LGBTQ issues. Education around oppressive systems may be a good first step but, “let’s be real, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainings are not going to win the revolution,” says Anna Rebecca Lopez, a professional evaluator and CCF leadership member. She points out that trainings themselves are not enough, and findings from the newest Race to Lead Revisited report, an initiative of the Building Movement Project, show that increased awareness about diversity and equity issues is not leading to measurable change.

Many organizations already have a devoted staff member who conducts DEI workplace training. In some cases, there may not be a formal job description for the position. DEI is often separated from other divisions and roles in an organization and viewed by workshop participants as a mandatory requirement to be endured. Lopez says, “Organizations need to engage in racial equity at various levels. Whether that’s an individual level, department level, organizational level, all levels have to be addressed in this.”

Findings from CCF’s survey can help inform nonprofits about the need and desire to more fully intersect fundraising and social justice: the very reason why people, particularly People of Color, enter the profession in the first place.

As Mano from SJF says, “I didn’t get into fundraising to be a good fundraiser. I think of myself as an organizer. We don’t want to exist forever. We want to make sure organizations have resources to make larger systemic change.”

CCF and SJF are building on the transformational moment we find ourselves in, calling out racism in their own sector and making change. Both organizations are attracting the attention of fundraisers and philanthropists beyond Seattle. CCF’s mailing list has grown from zero to nearly 10,000 since July and the group working to create chapters in other cities. SJF’s Giving Project model is being replicated in different parts of the country. Perhaps, with their influence, the hoped-for revolution in philanthropy can be won and that future world beyond nonprofits and foundations brought closer to reality.

Meg Butterworth is a Seattle based freelance writer with a background in nonprofit development.  

Featured image by Vlad Verano