Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Generosity consists not the sum given, but the manner in which it is bestowed.” Last week, we looked at how modern fundraising tactics can cultivate paternalistic attitudes among donors and devalue those we desire to serve. When our organizations use rhetoric and imagery that infantilizes the marginalized or portrays them as primitive people who need our help, we encourage donors to give out of pity or a sense of superiority rather than a spirit of humility and love. How can we practically reject paternalism and promote partnership? What action steps can we take to build a fundraising culture that celebrates marginalized groups and elevates positive narratives about them?
1. Build relationships with those closest to the need.
Nonprofit leaders, particularly those at the highest levels, don’t usually have proximity to people on the frontlines. They may understand how direct services fit into the organization’s strategy or know the demographics of program recipients, but they lack the bandwidth needed to develop relationships with clients. Layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy can reduce vulnerable human beings to lines on a budget or, even worse, a caricature based on the stereotypes decision-makers have in their heads. Leaders should intentionally set aside time to meet with both direct service workers and beneficiaries as well as study the cultures, history, and current events shaping the community in need. It is only then that they will be able to really understand their fears, hopes, passions, talents, and values.
2. Plan fundraising events with the client in mind.
Don’t be confused - this does not mean that fundraising messages must be identical for every audience. It does mean, however, that you should create pitches with program clients in mind. If one of your clients was sitting in the back of your audience, would they feel seen, honored, and cared for by the words you use and the stories you tell? Do you share with potential donors the valuable assets already found in the marginalized community? Ask yourself: If I was in a similar situation, would I want someone else to portray me this way? Any part of the message you’d be too ashamed to say to the client directly should not be shared with potential donors.
3. Give community members seats at the decision-making table.
While many leaders in the nonprofit community are speaking up about racial disparities and economic inequality, few minorities ever make it into real positions of power within these organizations. This is a huge problem. Valuable voices are being left out of the conversation, and the preconceived notions of more privileged executives are being left unchallenged. Clients and direct service providers should be given some decision-making capacity and the ear of the organization’s top directors and officers. Without this representation, leaders will likely defer to the preferences of the donors, governments, and foundations - entities that can value short-term wins at the expense of long-term development.
4. Reevaluate the images, language, and narratives used on your materials.
The visuals and rhetoric you use make all the difference in the world. They can be used to elevate and empower or disparage and devalue. The Bible tells us that we will be held accountable for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36) and implores us to build others up with the stories we share (Ephesians 4:29). One great way to vet your fundraising ideas and content before sharing it is to leverage focus groups comprised of marginalized people and community members. This group will help minimize your blind spots and give you the feedback you need to deliver more thoughtful content. Your team should also design a rubric or list of questions that must be answered for each piece of communications collateral produced. Below are just a few questions that should be asked as you prepare to launch a new resource or host a successful fundraising event:
- Who has spoken into the resource development process? Do these individuals represent a diverse group of backgrounds and perspectives?
- What person or group does the resource suggest is the hero? Is the nonprofit’s success celebrated or the accomplishments of clients and community members the nonprofit has served?
- How can our wording and visuals better elevate positive community narratives and present locals as partners to donors instead of projects or problems to be fixed?
- Does this misrepresent the larger group being discussed? Am I purposely choosing the story I think will evoke the greatest amount of pity?
- Am I telling the truth in a way that is honest about areas of brokenness while still dignifying those impacted by it?
5. Treat donors as partners, not as parents.
Philanthropists provide the capital your organization needs to keep pursuing its mission and vision, but to what extent should they be able to shape its programs and initiatives? Nonprofits feel intense pressure to accept feedback from their largest donors and cater to their desires. While some donors will have amazing insights that help your team, others have very little understanding of what’s actually happening on the ground and are unfamiliar with local partners and cultures. Because of this reality, nonprofit leaders must assertively but lovingly engage donors with the truth. “I don’t think we can make progress in many of the issues we’re tackling if we cannot build true partnerships with donors,” writes Vu Le from NWB Consulting, “which includes pointing out, respectfully and at the appropriate time, when donors are in the wrong, and helping them shape their thinking and actions.”
With input from important community stakeholders, your team should develop needed expertise, develop a long-term strategy for development with local partners, and work to convince donors and funders to partner with you to bring that vision to fruition. Your fundraising materials should communicate that those that give are not to dictate the plan but to collaborate with experts and clients to determine what is in the community’s best interest. Treating donors as partners will mitigate the prevalence of a “savior” complex and promote an environment in which everyone comes to the table as equals. Nonprofit leaders should encourage their donors to contribute as saved sinners, not as saviors.
6. Collaborate with other nonprofits doing great work, particularly those led by marginalized groups.
Fundraising events and donor literature should also highlight the success stories of other organizations on the ground. Does your nonprofit work with other local ministries that have been doing incredible work? Are there any churches nearby that have stepped up and seen human flourishing as a result? Publicly celebrate their progress, even if your organization isn’t directly responsible for the gains. Small local organizations, typically run by disadvantaged members of the community itself, often lack the resources needed to operate on the same scale as America’s biggest not-for-profits and parachurch ministries. However, this does not mean that they are any less important to the work God is doing. Recognize the contributions of other groups, and promote them when you can. This is one of many ways your organization can use its clout and engagement with donors to bring attention to the unsung heroes in the community.
In our flesh, we find our identity in our possessions and achievements (1 John 2:16) and strive to obtain the approval of others by doing the “right” things (Luke 16:15, Galatians 1:10). Nonprofit leaders may be tempted to take advantage of this desire, and donors are often happy to give when they feel they are “saving” or “fixing” others. However, without true love—love that only those transformed by Jesus can show to others—we cannot model God’s heart for others as He intended. “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love,” Paul writes, “I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3 NIV).
How can we authentically promote human dignity through fundraising? By loving others as ourselves and affirming the equal value of every human being. The Lord has placed His image onto every donor, every funder, every nonprofit employee, and every marginalized person. He has given each of them unique resources, passions, and insights. Each stakeholder is essential in the fight for human flourishing, and our fundraising efforts must reflect this reality.
Garrett serves as the Lead Data and Research Analyst and joined For the City in February 2018. He helps volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. Garrett earned his master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continues to live in North Austin.