By Tanya Rumble and Nicole McVan
If you missed Tanya and Nicole’s webinar on January 21st, Power and Privilege in Fundraising, you can watch the recording here.
Privilege is a loaded word especially when it comes to securing and stewarding major gifts from companies and individuals. Donor relationships are rife with power dynamics that almost always put the fundraiser in a position of weakness; however, this weakness is not an individual fault, but rather a larger structural and systemic issue that we can dismantle.
One issue related to power and privilege is the myth of meritocracy, which reinforces the belief that those with wealth attain it based on merit, but fails to consider how race, gender, social status, and pre-existing wealth influence access to opportunity. It’s the story that we tell ourselves that hard work is the only factor in a person’s success and the false narrative that everyone can achieve by just pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. It doesn’t account for the systematic oppressions like racism, ableism, and homophobia in our structures, our institutions, and our everyday behaviors that continually hold people and communities in oppression. Exposing and dismantling this myth and acknowledging the role of privilege in inequity are essential steps toward closing the gap.
The other important ‘universal truth’ we should ask ourselves is if the donor is, always right? This is a core tenant of our training as professional fundraisers, but it perpetuates the inequity that so many of us are trying to dismantle. By holding a donor above others, we uphold the power imbalance that we find so challenging. We are creating our own problems by not reframing the donor relationship to be one about knowledge exchange and mutual benefit. We should focus on educating our donors. This is the greatest engagement and stewardship we could ever possibly provide. Instead of holding them up and separate, we can bring them into the conversation in a way that does not place them above others, but rather in service of others.
It can be overwhelming to think about the systems of oppression that are in play with philanthropy. A good place to start is to look at specific situations you have been in through two different lenses – interpersonal and systemic. The interpersonal lens is about how your beliefs, values, and areas of privilege show up and how they interact with others. It’s the cultural norms that you uphold or dismantle in your interactions.
The systemic lens is a broader view of the interactions you have with donors and stakeholders. It’s becoming aware of the larger policies and ways in which institutions uphold an intersecting array of oppressions. How are these ways of operating affecting you in your role? How do our laws, institutions, and professionalized philanthropy uphold the myth of meritocracy?
We often face situations in fundraising whereas a result of power imbalances it can be challenging and oppressive to respond from a place of integrity. Let’s look at a few examples that listeners wrote in during the webinar.
Q: What happens if the donor gets defensive in conversations about equity and privilege? What if they feel insulted? The power dynamic still exists and in the end, your job is to close a gift and build a relationship with that donor.
A: Regardless of how prepared and strong you are feeling, there is almost always a power imbalance in your work with donors. Thinking about the interactions as knowledge exchanges can help with this imbalance. A donor has come to your organization because they see value in the work and are asking for something. The something is often that intangible feeling of doing good and being part of a like-minded group of people that care enough about your cause to do something – i.e. donate. In that regard, you are a gatekeeper for building their knowledge and helping them do good in the world.
If you are in a challenging situation with a donor where they bristle at the topic of equity you get to decide how much you engage. If you are feeling unsafe, you can always back away.
Don’t underestimate the power of someone feeling uncomfortable; that feeling lingers and can affect us for a long time thereafter. There may not be a resolution, a total agreement, or much conversation. Much of this work is bringing issues and insights up for others to consider. People will react in different ways and they own their reactions. Also, so much of how you choose to reach in that situation will be colored by your personality, style, lived-experience, AND your organizational culture and values related to staff safety and anti-oppression. Protecting yourself is the first thing to consider, and then shaping your reply comes next and it is never too late to follow-up as responding to something challenging or offensive in the moment can be incredibly difficult to do with both professionalism and authenticity.
Q: What do you suggest we do as a staff if certain board members and major donors don’t think that we need to discuss diversity, inclusion, and equity? What if they threaten withholding funds if staff continue down the path of being a more inclusive organization?
A: We would be very concerned if a major donor or board member were able to influence a charity’s operational work such as developing a more inclusive culture. Both stakeholders should not have purview over this type of organizational work that should be led by the charity’s paid leadership and implemented by staff. This situation signals a potentially dysfunctional relationship between the stakeholders and I would probe more into why they feel that being more inclusive is a threat to your organization. Depending on your level of comfort; you may want to do this directly with the stakeholder or escalate to another colleague that may be better placed to have the conversation. I would start by asking the very simple of questions to help coax the underlying issues: Why they see this as a threat? What exactly is the threat? Why would they withhold funds? This may help to surface the issue a bit more clearly which would then help with solutions.
Q: Could you say a word about how we might respond when someone criticizes us personally for actions that have negatively impacted others and may have oppressed them in some way.
A: Two words: acceptance and gratitude. If others trust you enough to tell you when you have made a mistake you are responsible for accepting that feedback without going into a dialogue about your intentions. The impact of our words and behaviors are more important than our intentions. We are all going to make mistakes and creating a culture where people are willing to give and receive this feedback is a gift. The next very important step is what you are going to do with this feedback. If you are actively working from an anti-oppression lens you know that you need to continually learn and improve. So, this feedback is a gift that you can use to improve. To quote the late great Maya Angelou “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”
“When you know better, you do better” should apply to us. Consider creating a community of colleagues and peers to help you work through difficult situations. Make time to learn about this work from others through reading, webinars, and podcasts like The Ethical Rainmaker by Michelle Shireen Muri. And a reminder that reading about mountains does not make you a mountaineer – this work is immersive, ongoing, and part of a daily practice that revolutionary if you commit to it. If you have insights and strategies to share about your experiences with power and privilege in fundraising we encourage you to connect with us on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/trumble/and https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicolemcvan/.
Tanya Hannah Rumble, CFRE is a racialized settler of multi-ethnic origins living in T’karonto. She is a fundraising leader who has raised millions for some of Canada’s largest charities including Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society, and now McMaster University. She graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from McMaster University, and earned a Masters Certificate at New York University in Marketing Communications in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Tanya has also completed numerous professional certificates including Not-For-Profit Governance Essentials (Rotman School of Management, Institute of Corporate Directors) and Truth and Reconciliation Through Right Relations (Banff Centre). Tanya has been a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) since 2017. Tanya is an active leadership volunteer in the philanthropy and non-profit sector: Board Director with the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Canada; Board Committee volunteer with AFP Canada-Foundation; Executive Committee volunteer with the Canadian Association of Gift Planners; Vice-Chair of the Board and Chair of the HR Committee with FindHelp Information Services – operators of 211 Toronto; Board Director with Native Child and Family Services of Toronto; and Walk Leader with Jane’s Walk Toronto. As a racialized philanthropy professional Tanya is honoured to share her influence and insights with students, emerging professionals and peers in the sector. Tanya regularly writes articles on the topics of inclusion, equity, and access; and power, privilege and fundraising for industry publications and speaks to professional audiences at learning events regularly. In addition to sharing her knowledge, she is committed to lifelong learning – she is a graduate of the 2017 Association of Fundraising Professionals Inclusion and Philanthropy Fellowship, and 2010 DiverseCity Fellowship. Tanya gratefully acknowledges the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations, whose traditional territory she lives and works on with her husband and infant son.
Nicole McVan is an early riser, glass half-full, occupier of the uncomfortable spaces in between, true believer in the goodness of humanity. Nicole has been in the charitable sector 20 years, and as a white settler, transgender, non-binary professional, they have been carving a path forward in fundraising roles locally and internationally. They are currently the Director of Donor Relations at United Way Greater Toronto, an organization that is at the core of improving the region to the benefit of all its people through the generosity of thousands of donors and volunteers. Nicole is privileged to lead a team of development professionals who work with hundreds of companies and organizations across this region to raise millions annually through strategic partnerships, workplace giving, employee engagement, volunteering, and events to fight local poverty and ensure that the systems and structures work for everyone in our community. They hold a Master’s degree in Non Profit Management from Cass Business School in London, UK.