This morning I gave the opening keynote at the Collaborative Virtual Sessions, organized by Classy.
My talk was supposed to be on tactical ways to pivot your fundraising strategy in the light of COVID-19.
But, I had much more to say that I felt needed to be said.
I struggled with the decision to speak at all, due the lack of diversity in the speaker and panelist line-up. It needs to be called out, so that we can do better.
Instead of cancelling a commitment I had made months ago and leaving them in the lurch, I used my platform as a time to educate.
I thought, what if I could say anything right now to 8000 nonprofits, mostly fundraising staff, ready and willing to learn from me?
The reality is that our sector is predominantly white. Nonprofits are still over 80 percent white-led.
That number increases to 90 percent when it comes to the 315 largest nonprofits in the country.
It takes white people to change white people.
I’m ready to do the work, imperfect as it may be.
The full transcript of my talk is below.
What I didn’t include (because I felt that it would be very self-serving) are three actions that I am personally taking right now.
1) I will only agree to speak at and promote conferences that demonstrate diversity.
I will be honest, I am not comfortable stating a percentage. I am learning.
I would encourage other national conferences, AFP chapters, virtual summits, and professional speakers to come together to make this pledge.
2) I will help to educate nonprofits about their choice of event venues, vendors, and corporate partners.
Since I started speaking, I have refused to speak at locations that are not inclusive – country clubs, golf clubs, other venues.
I will not be afraid to openly ask questions of my nonprofit clients around their choice of venues, vendors, and corporate partners.
3) I commit to amplifying the voices of black people and black women especially.
If you are a nonprofit seeking a consultant, or a speaker, and you are worried that you can’t find a diverse variety of speakers for your event – I have names for you.
People I have worked with, I have learned from, and I have collaborated with.
Have you noticed that the same faces and names are hired for so many events? We can do better.
If that means taking a seat and letting a new voice be heard, so be it. I’m ready to make that sacrifice.
None of these are perfect systems! I’m sure I’m getting a lot of it wrong.
But nothing is perfect. This is why things don’t get done.
It’s like I said this morning, quoting an unattributed meme I saw on Facebook: “We don’t need 100 white people fighting racism perfectly, we need millions doing it imperfectly and not stopping until the work is done.”
When I proposed this topic: The future of fundraising where do we go in a post-pandemic world – to the Collaborative all those months ago, I genuinely thought we would be living in a post-pandemic world sooner rather than later. I thought – like many of us – that everything would return to normal, the dust would settle, we would all get back to business as usual, and continue on with the important work of changing the world.
Looking back, I was delusioned, self-righteous, congratulatory, thinking that I’m just going to do my best to “get through this” and hunker down and make some sour dough bread and school my kids and it will all be over soon. (I never ended up making that bread.)
I was so naive. Even having worked in the sector for two decades on issues like domestic violence and rape crisis, having been laid off at 8 months pregnant with my first child, having seen colleagues fired and furloughed, I never pictured the America that we are in today.
This was supposed to be a tactical talk on strategies to pivot your fundraising post COVID-19. It’s scientifically accurate to say that we will be living with this pandemic for months if not years.
But we also know that the story of 2020 is so much bigger than COVID-19, and the issues go even beyond simply being able to raise enough money to solve them.
I hope that we are all here with open minds and open hearts, ready to roll up our sleeves and have hard conversations about the work required to be better people, not just be better fundraisers. We are here to learn. This is not just about listening quietly, sipping coffee, taking down some notes and action items, and getting on with our day.
That’s what I am hoping you will bring to the table, and that’s the expectation that I am bringing this morning.
There are over 8000 of you signed up for this year’s Collaborative. That’s incredible.
I have this platform, and thus, I have a responsibility. So I am going to highlight some things that I think need to be highlighted, things that go beyond tactical ways to adapt your fundraising techniques for year-end. I’ll speak frankly and candidly to you, because I respect you and I want all of us to collectively strive to be better. I encourage open and honest discussion, and I’ll be in the Slack channel after the talk to continue the conversation.
As of last Friday, COVID-19 had killed more than 108,000 people in the United States and infected over 1.8 million, according to Johns Hopkins University. A disproportionate number of those dead are black Americans.
On May 25, 2020 George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street.
Maybe you think that these things aren’t related. Maybe you think that all of this has nothing to do with you as a fundraiser. Maybe you just want to put your head down and get on with calling donors, writing email blasts, and selling sponsorships. That is important work.
But if you are ready to have a hard conversation about the future of fundraising in this sector, rather than a summary of the latest trends or the emerging tech, then join me for the next 40 minutes. I don’t claim to be perfect, or to have everything figured out, or to know what the future holds – no one does, and if they claim any of those things, don’t listen to them.
What I do know is that in order to move forward, we can’t pretend we haven’t witnessed all of these horrors. Trust me, there are many institutions that would love to just sweep it all under the rug and “move on” in quotes.
Can we honestly have a future-leaning conversation about philanthropy and fundraising without questioning what we’ve seen with our own eyes? Without questioning whether or not we are part of the problems that we attempt to solve?
For me, working in the nonprofit sector has always been political. How can it not be? No matter your mission, there are those that would take away your funding, eradicate your programs, and erase the existence of your community. If you run communications for your nonprofit, you know this all too well when dealing daily with social media comments and responses to email newsletters. No issue is out of bounds.
Wearing a mask in public in an attempt to contain a global pandemic is somehow making a political statement at this point. We have officially left the realm of the apolitical. The train is off the rails officially.
Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step to solving it. What has struck me the most about this year is that there seems to be an invisible line drawn. The old way, the before times, the business as usual, the stay silent so you won’t offend anyone let’s not talk about the man behind the curtain – that is over. It’s done. And I say good riddance.
I am here to tell yo what I’m doing personally and professionally as a fundraiser and a nonprofit advocate, and to encourage you to evaluate your own policies, procedures, and systems as we look not only to the future of fundraising, but the future of the sector.
Let’s get started. Here are my recommendations for moving forward in this time of upheaval and crisis:
Stop waiting for things to get back to “normal”.
How many of you have had a boss or a co-worker or a friend say to you – “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.” You may have thought this yourself.
It seems to me that a lot of us are anxious to get back to “normal” and have the “dust settle” – We want to get back to the way things allegedly were, like they were somehow better than what’s happening now.
We want to stop reading articles about COVID, about the protests, about George Floyd, we want to just stop talking about it all the time. “ENOUGH ALREADY! When will it stop with all the Black Lives Matter stuff?” (People have actually said this to me.)
Folks – in case you need someone to break it to you, nothing is going back to normal. What in the world was normal anyway? When was the world normal?? In the 50s? In the 80s? In 2019? What is it that we want to get back to, anyway?
Is it that we want to go back to putting blinders on, not feeling uncomfortable every single morning when we wake up. Back to the conspicuous ways that we are NOT taking a hard look at our staff, our Board, the conferences we attend, the consultants that we hire, the resources that we share, the voices that we amplify?
Our new reality is looking very different. Without sounding callous, because hundreds of thousands are dead: From discomfort comes opportunity.
This unrest and uncertainty represents a real reflection point for the sector. We have to ask: what does this all mean for us, as individuals and as organizations? Where do we go from here? Where do we NEED to go, and how can we get there?
I do want to be sensitive and compassionate to what a lot of us are going through. Many of us are grieving lost loved ones and lost jobs. We are sad, angry, and exhausted.
But for the sake of the missions that we serve and the problems that we are determined to solve, we can’t pretend we haven’t seen what we have seen these last few months. The video of Ahmaud Aubrey being gunned down in cold blood as he was out for a jog. The body bags stacked up outside a NYC hospital. 45 million people out of work. The man behind the curtain has revealed himself. Once you see all of this, you simply can’t pretend it isn’t happening.
That being said, we may need to take some time.
If you know me, I am all about taking action. I like to dive in. I’m a problem solver. I love planning, calendars, checklists, and step-by-step guides. I don’t like waiting, and I have a very hard time going with the flow.
The hardest part of all of this, since I am lucky enough to be healthy and employed, is to slow down. To not know what’s happening next. To not always know what to say and how to respond. To listen more than I talk. (that’s really hard for me!)
Fundraisers are planners. We are action-oriented. We want to do all of the things, but what if we let ourselves take a moment to process the events as they unfold? To truly figure out the best course of action that can be sustainable and really mean something?
On the other hand, taking time to be thoughtful and to process does NOT give you a license to be quiet. It does not mean burying your head in the sand and ignoring the world around you. It just means being more intentional. It means not quickly throwing up a Black Lives Matter sign on your Facebook Page, paying lip service and issuing statements without an action plan to back them up.
Educate yourself and others.
If you are taking some time to process, use that time to educate yourself on how to improve. How to build a more equitable workplace and world. Equip yourself with the tools to have hard conversations.
It’s time to embrace being uncomfortable. The discomfort you are feeling in the pit of your stomach? Like you will say the wrong thing? Like you don’t know where to even start? I feel it too. But we have to start somewhere.
White folks! Yes, I’m calling on the white people listening and watching. I am sure that many of you are white, because the Association of Fundraising Professionals counts only 11 percent of its more than 31,000 members as people of color.
In our sector, nonprofits are still over 80 percent white-led. That number increases to 90 percent when it comes to the 315 largest nonprofits in the country.
The privilege that we have to experience discomfort right now is an opportunity. I know many people bristle at the word privilege. But there is nothing threatening about acknowledging the way that you get to walk through life differently than others. Being more empathetic to the experiences of others is not a sacrifice of your personal politics or lifestyle.
I want to read this quote from Brene Brown, as it perfectly expresses this point: “To not have the conversations because they make you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege. Your comfort is not at the center of this discussion.” In other words, it’s not about you.
We need to stop relying on our black co-workers, our LGBTQ friends, the trans people of color in our midst to do the work for us. Our education is our responsibility. We have Google and access to resources. We need to stop asking people from marginalized groups what to do next and just start making a plan for ourselves.
Of course, nonprofit professionals everywhere should have been doing this work long before coronavirus decimated entire communities. Long before George Floyd had a knee on his neck.
- We say we support gender equality but then we don’t offer or advocate for paid parental leave to our own employees.
- We say we support Black Lives Matter but we still allow that “problematic” corporate sponsor to speak at our Gala.
- We talk a good game about equity but we then offer unpaid internships, which perpetuate financial inequality because low-income students are not able to take advantage.
- We post on Facebook about how EMTs, grocery store employees, and postal workers are heroes – but then we do nothing to fight for equal protections, for adequate health care, for paid sick leave, for a fair living wage.
These are not items on a To Do list. It’s not one training, and one webinar.
All of us need to stop getting defensive around topics that we find difficult. Immediately writing off words like “privilege” and “fragility” is not helpful. I used to get defensive because I always felt that I was doing my part to combat racism and systemic inequality – like it was a group project and others aren’t pulling their weight. But it’s not about me.
Yes you will say the wrong thing. You will feel stupid. You will feel ashamed. Let’s get through it. That is how we learn and how we grow.
On the other hand, if someone doesn’t get it 100% right the first time, please be patient. I’m not talking about sitting down with your racist Trump-supporting uncle and giving him a lecture (unless he’s open-minded). I’m talking about your well-intentioned co-worker who wants to be better, to have a conversation, but may not have the right words. Look for the people who genuinely want to listen, and to improve.
Grieve the past, but release it.
There is a lot to grieve. And I want to be clear here – I am not telling you how to grieve or that you should not grieve at all. Many of us have lost loved ones. For Black Americans, the disproportionate impact of COVID and recent displays of police brutality are making it impossible to carry on with “business as usual.”
The grief I’m talking about has to do with your pre-pandemic life. Your going into an office every day life. Your getting Starbucks and going to Target everyday life. Your life before you watched a 9 minute video of a black man being murdered in the street by a police officer while others looked on.
What’s happened is that many of us have now been forced to slow down enough to see a little bit of the forest for the trees. In his brilliant post Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, Julio Vincent Gambuto writes about how this presents an opportunity. He writes, for those of us with enough privilege to slow down after having had blinders on for so many years, “It’s very easy to close your eyes to a problem when you barely have enough time to close them to sleep.”
An example of the potential that this slowing down provides to us is a new awareness for many people around complex issues they had never considered before. One example comes from a friend of mine, who had previously been too busy to read many of my more political Facebook posts. She messaged me and said that she had never thought about the impact of the COVID-19 shelter in place orders on people in abusive households. What could she do to help them and to work on this problem as an advocate?
Being vulnerable enough to admit your previous ignorance and motivated enough to explore your current curiosity? That’s the spark of change.
The question for us as fundraisers, as agents of change: What’s the new story that we want to emerge?
Do the hard work.
I’m speaking to you, nonprofit leaders – and we are all leaders, if we choose to be: We have to do the hard work. No one will choose us, tap us on the shoulder and say OK now you go lead. Now it’s your turn. It doesn’t happen that way. In many ways, our leaders have failed us. It’s up to us to take charge, to be visionaries, and to execute on our ideas.
So what kind of work? Here are some ideas:
Don’t stop communicating with your supporters right now.
Communicate openly and honestly. Throw out your agenda, your promotions calendar, and all the other stuff you feel like you need to tell your donors. Ask them what they want to hear from you. What do they want to learn more about?
Your donors and supporters want to know where you stand and the actions you are taking in relation to current events, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter. Do not do anything that is tokenized or bland. Make it yours, and make it personal. The worst thing you can do is be silent when voices are rising in a crescendo – lend your voice, your platform, however small! Ask for help if you don’t know where to start.
Take a side.
Yes, I mean it. A word on getting political and offending people – too late. It’s just too late to worry about that. Like I said before, the act of simply existing for some groups, such as trans people and black people, is political. Your mission and the reason you exist is political. Raising money – asking people to put their money where their values are – is political! I don’t mean you have to say I’m a Democrat or I’m a Republican. That’s too simplified.
Political to me means standing for something worth fighting for even if you will turn others off. In fact, the more you share what you stand for, what you believe in, what you are fighting for, the more likely you are to attract the right kind of audience who will love you and support you for the long run.
Tell your supporters what you are feeling and speak from the heart. Tell them how hard this is, how you are worried about saying the wrong thing, and about how you need their input and feedback to improve and get better.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Write up a statement and communicate it to your supporters. Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org – I would be happy to review it. I have collected some of my favorite examples in a shared Google Drive: bit.ly/NonprofitBLM I’ll post that link in the Slack channel after this talk.
Create policies at your workplace that reflect your stated values.
Now the hard work begins – going beyond statements and social media posts!
In a Facebook Group I manage, one of the members wrote: Don’t stop at a statement. Look at your organization. What is your organization doing to address racism? What work are you and your staff doing to educate yourselves on racism? Black folks can’t end racism alone, white folks need to step up and educate ourselves and learn. There’s a ton of books and trainers available to come in and help you do this work. I guarantee any nonprofit group you are in would be willing to help you learn what steps to take first if you are unsure.
Get training. Read books. Watch movies. Have open discussions about hard issues frequently. If you need help starting, Google can help. I can help where I can, even though I am not an expert on these topics, just a white woman trying to learn herself. This conference can help.
Have hard conversations around entrenched bias at our organizations.
We all have problematic people associated with our organizations, whether they be donors, board members, co-workers. Are you giving them a pass for their words “because that’s just how he/she is” or “they grew up in a different time” or you don’t want to “ruin the relationship?” Take a look at your institutional processes and systems.
Is there a safe and secure process in place at your organization to report complaints? Harassment? Discriminatory practices? We have to look at what we are doing internally before we can criticize external policies.
Are we actively:
- Creating a welcoming and supportive environment for these conversations.
- Educating co-workers on their own biases and how it affects all staff
- Engaging board members and donors in the work as allies
- Holding our professional associations and affiliations accountable
- Helping and supporting nonprofit professionals of color gain access to opportunities, and amplifying their voices
Lead with compassion and kindness.
For some of us, getting through the day is hard enough. Everyone is on a different journey. We are told to always be available to our donors, to thank them and to love on them – but what about our co-workers?
Create space for employees to get together, grieve, and heal. Your co-workers, your donors, your volunteers – they are on their own path to healing, navigating the news cycle, taking care of their mental health, and sometimes simply trying to get through another day.
As fundraisers, with a responsibility to bring people together to support our cause, we can lead this change. We can have an open door policy and an open mind.
We can encourage policies at our organizations that allow people to take time off to recharge, protest, or for any other reason.
We spend a lot of time working on the perfect appeal letter. We need to spend just as much time fostering a culture of belonging, acceptance and love.
We can maintain an open dialog and help everyone feel safe in sharing their experiences.
We can ensure that our co-workers feel heard no matter how they prefer to communicate.
Stay connected, get feedback, and act on that feedback.
Most importantly: Be willing to fumble, and to get called out on it, and to improve.
I am not perfect! I’ve been called out on using the wrong words in my blog posts over the years – I’m thinking specifically of the terms “tribes” and “spirit animal” – and I am willing to listen. Getting defensive and starting fights on Facebook does not help. If you had a chance to be better, and not to hurt others, wouldn’t you take it?
I believe that people CAN change. They can. But only if they are willing. Are you willing to roll up your sleeves, get vulnerable, and do not only the hard work of changing systems, but the truly hard work of changing yourself?
Yes the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, so the saying goes. But the next best time is right now. Start where you are and do what you can.
These past few days have been weeks, the weeks have been months, and the months have felt like lifetimes. People are sick, they are overwhelmed, they are exhausted from having to take care of their kids and look out for their elderly relatives and wipe down their groceries and work in jobs that don’t provide PPE or other safety precautions.
People are hungry for justice, and they are demanding accountability from their government, from their communities, and even from themselves. If you remove yourself from the vitriol and the comment section of Facebook and Twitter then hopefully you’ve seen what I’ve seen in these past few months – Americans helping each other and standing up for one another.
There are good stories out there: Landlords waiving rent payments, food trucks in LA giving out water to protesters, Neighbors making lunches. Look for these headlines, these news stories. They are all around us.
In terms of the fundraising profession, even though we are entering a recession – some may argue we are already in one – people are giving right now. They want to help. A recent survey conducted by Mark Phillips at Bluefrog Fundraising found that donors do see charities as part of the solution to current problems, and they do understand that there is an increased need to give.
This survey found that donors want their community to come together and they are concerned about the vulnerable. In times of great uncertainty, giving offers people a way of taking back control. It is empowering, and we can’t forget that.
Of course many people are frightened about the impact on their finances. But others who are financially secure and spending much less on themselves would like to volunteer and to give.
Some much that is good and powerful is happening across the country at the community level, the grassroots level. I think it’s encouraging.
That being said, much, much more needs to be done.
The global pandemic completely changed the way we work, the way we parent, the way we send kids to school, the way we manage relationships with loved ones. Black Lives Matter protests have revealed a gaping wound in America that band-aid policies and photo-opps are not going to heal.
2020 has shone a spotlight on some of America’s most deeply disturbing and entrenched problems. Systemic racism, child hunger, disparities in education, a safety-net full of holes.
As agents of social change, we already knew that these problems existed. Now we need to prepare ourselves for a world that is beginning to wake up to these problems as well.
Read, share, educate, enlighten someone else. Here are some resources to get you started:
- Brandi Riley on How to Show Up For Black Women now and everyday
- Anti-racism resources google doc
- 75 things white people can do for racial justice
- UN resources on fighting racism
- 10 simple ways white people can step up to fight racism
- How to be an anti-racist ally
- Support bail funds for protesters: https://docs.google.com/document/u/0/d/1X4-YS3vFn5CLL9QtJSU0xqmTh_h8XilXgOqGAjZISBI/mobilebasic
- 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
- How to Support the Struggle Against Police Brutality
- “How do I make sure I’m not raising the next Amy Cooper?” a conversation
- How to support the protests if you can’t go out and protest
- Tips for when you’re checking in on your Black friends
- Anti-racism resources for spiritual white people
- Know your Black colleagues are not okay
- If you’re Black & hurting, remember this is what Audre Lorde’s original version of self-care was meant for
- Join The Great Unlearn and work your way through the syllabi
- 75 actionable things to do for racial justice