February Fun: Five Fallacies of Fundraising

Guest post by Tanya Rumble (she/her) and Nicole McVan (they/them)

On February 24th we were fortunate to offer a free webinar hosted by iWave on the five fallacies of fundraising that limit authentic relationships with donors. Over the last year, we have done a lot of thinking and writing about some of the ills of fundraising that we have personally experienced and witnessed that we believe our hindrances to the inclusion and equity that many in our sector purport to want to champion. In fact we even created a Community of Practice as a dedicated space for collective wisdom focused on dismantling the harmful aspects of philanthropy.

To be clear, we LOVE fundraising as a profession and wholeheartedly believe in the positive impact that philanthropy has in our communities and societies. We also believe there are a number of harmful ‘best practices’ that we have been taught and continue to be perpetuated in fundraising and philanthropy. They have been developed from collective learning in a colonial and capitalist system that oppresses entire communities and values wealth creation over equity, our natural world and safety for everyone.

These ‘best practices’ deepen inequity, create harm, and weaken our effectiveness and happiness in our roles. They hold us back from real and authentic connections with our donors and hold us back from creating a relationship that invites the donor into the work in a meaningful way. They restrict our ability to make real and lasting change for our causes. In this webinar we focused on unlearning these ‘best’ practices and discussed ideas to re-imagine philanthropy as an anti-oppression practice that centers our communities, and is more effective at engaging and inspiring our donors.

The five fallacies of fundraising as we see them are:
1. Wealth is built by the smartest and most capable people.
2. The donor is always right.
3. Donor centricity should trump everything else.
4. Beneficiaries are deficient and need a donor to save them.
5. Resources are scarce and we must fight each other for funding.

Here are some of the questions we received during the presentation, and our responses to them:

I’ve heard that portraying recipients as victims is a form of “poverty porn”. How can we be respectful of describing needs without further victimization?

Telling someone else’s story without their input, without acknowledging the assets they have, without talking about why they face the challenges they face is dehumanizing and wrong. A common narrative is that success is based on effort alone; the myth of meritocracy when there are structural disadvantages and advantages that have nothing to do with the amount of effort someone gives – like where you are born, your race, your gender, your abilities, etc that has substantive impact on your outcomes in life. When you are telling stories in aid of raising funds, rethink what and who you center, how you tell them, and who tells them to move away from the old binary narrative of victim and hero and into a narrative that is centered in societal reality of what different groups of people face.

With the level of censorship facing progressive / radical efforts right now, this can be so challenging without industry-wide support or solidarity. The nonprofit I work at is being banned on IG right now (we’re expressly abolitionist).

For every action there is a reaction and we will feel the reaction in our work so heavily right now because of the societal upheaval of the last two years. While we are pushing for justices like abolition, climate justice, indigenous sovereignty and transgender rights we can expect backlashes like censorship and this can make our the work so difficult. This is a reason to double down on not remaining neutral and by working on the deeper systemic barriers that our communities face. The overton window is a range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. So in moving upstream to discourse about the work systematically we are creating an opportunity for the overton window to shift – for that which seems far-fetched today to become acceptable tomorrow.

What is the buddy system?

The buddy system is being in relationship with another person or people who are committed to anti-oppression, keeping each other safe, and providing support to each other in this work. This is especially effective for folks with intersectional identities that face micro-agresssions and oppressive behaviours more often; like racism, homophobia, ableism and xenophobia. Having a person or a small group of people that you can talk to about these issues and who you know will support you when they happen is a powerful way to avoid burning out in this work and creating more protection for yourself. The buddy(s) can help you role play before potentially problematic conversations, can disrupt harmful comments when they are happening, and be there to support you after the fact. They can also hold you accountable for your own behaviour and help you work through issues and fragilities you may have. Finding a buddy inside or outside your organization is a way to help you sustain this work.

How do we balance these issues about saviourism with the fact that those practices are effective and raise more dollars?

That is the big question and the opportunity we have ahead of ourselves. We are often asked for case studies of organizations doing this work well and truth be told, while we know some of them are out there, it still feels like we don’t hear much about this. Savourism starts with ourselves and our organizations, and it ripples out to how we manage relationships with our donors. So to combat savourism in our communications and relationships look for practices you are currently doing and consider how to dismantle the savourism from them. For example with an appeal campaign, audit the language and imagery used and then build into your budget and timeline a better approach for the next one. Weave in asset based language and content, move beyond the personal story to be able to talk about systemic issues, and pay for photography, stories and content from the communities you are raising funds for instead of telling a story on a behalf and without input of people. We don’t think this will result in less funds, quite the opposite it opens up a conversation with donors that is based more in reality and truths than the typical bland savourism narrative that has been used for decades.

So what’s next for you? Understanding this work is important and there is plenty more information, a conversation and an internet search away, but please don’t forget to take action. Reshaping our sector to be more anti-oppressive and just takes a sustained effort by many people. While you can learn from people that are already doing this work, you can make changes in your work immediately. You don’t need to know it all to try out some new ways of working. You are going to make mistakes and that is a part of this work. Learn from them and keep going. Action by action, day by day you will build your equity muscle and you will see the change in yourself and your practice.

Watch the webinar: Five Fallacies of Fundraising 

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