Most nonprofits need to fundraise in order to continue serving vulnerable populations in their communities, and social sector leaders need charisma and compelling stories to convince businesses, foundations, governments, and individuals to support the organization. Historically, the gala—the annual dinner hosted by nonprofits—has been a popular way to recruit new donors and re-engage old ones. These kinds of fundraising events are usually held for good reasons. Organizational leaders want to put the social and economic problems at hand in front of as many people as possible by exposing them to the suffering experienced by others. Most are genuinely motivated by compassion for the hurting and desire to see pain and anguish put to an end. 

The reality is that fundraising is a numbers game. Nonprofit executives are under intense pressure to keep expense ratios down and reduce the cost of donor acquisition. Consequently, these leaders are forced to assess the likely return on investment for each potential fundraising event and plan accordingly. For many faith-based organizations, the math is clear - the biggest financial returns are almost always going to come from the affluent suburban church. These congregations simply have bigger budgets and members with larger discretionary incomes than most other American churches. Fundraising among these groups certainly has some advantages. It invites people with significant amounts of money and robust social networks into the conversation, bringing greater resources to bear against the marginalization at hand. Exposing comfortable Christians to the poverty and hardship of others is usually the first step to long-term engagement - it was often after seeing distress and affliction that Jesus Himself was moved to compassion (Mark 6, Matthew 20, Luke 7). Sadly, many believers are moved to action not by a spirit of humility but a desire to “fix” or “rescue” others rather than come alongside those that are hurting as equals.

Nonprofits can promote this worldview through the stories and visuals they use to communicate the problems faced by marginalized groups to potential donors. Though they may be entirely unaware of the motivations that animate their work, some executives believe that disadvantaged communities are wholly incapable of achieving progress without the unique insight and resources their organization can provide. Other leaders may recognize the harm such pride causes in the long-term but mistakenly believe they must continue to use undignifying language or pictures to get donors in the majority culture to care enough to get involved. 

PATERNALISM: A POWERFUL FUEL FOR FUNDRAISING

Affluent Christians can do incredible kingdom work with their donations. Their resources can help organizations get food into the hands of the hungry, deliver medicine to the sick, and shelter those who have nowhere safe to lay their heads. While the power of this giving should not be discounted, the stories we tell to encourage people to give may be doing more harm than good. Believers are moved to tears by images of tiny African babies with protruding rib cages and flies on their faces. Our hearts melt when we hear stories of inner-city minority children from drug-ridden, single-parent homes struggling to read in the sixth grade. We feel compassion and want to do something about it. In our flesh, however, we may want to do something because we want to be needed. Blinded by pride, Christians and social sector leaders may serve others in a way that is actually self-serving. Nonprofits tell these stories to inspire giving, and the donor is permitted to walk away feeling good about the “difference” they have made. When our hearts are wrongly postured in this way, we serve to give ourselves a sense of purpose and to make ourselves look righteous before others. We are parents taking care of helpless infants - people we believe have no chance if we don’t step in. 

At its worst, the power of narratives promoting paternalism and stereotypes make the marginalized themselves feel like they have to exaggerate their helplessness in order to receive assistance. Christian rapper Propaganda coined this phenomenon “performative hoodness” - the “amping up” of “hood narratives” to gain access to the much-needed resources white Christians possess. “I know you’re going to cut a bigger check if I fit a story...that sort of matches what you already think of black people,” he noted in a 2018 episode of The Red Couch Podcast. One of his guests, Pastor Rich Perez, said that “performative hoodness” was the only way he could raise the money he needed to plant Christ Crucified Fellowship in an economically depressed part of New York City. 

When planting the church, I realized how much people wanted there to be a story, and I put that in quotes, ‘a story’. There has to be this narrative that paints the underdog, like you can clearly see that there’s damage, there’s the brokenness...It was very incentivized, you know, for us, like, how are we going to paint this story? How are we going to talk about our need in a way that...what’s the word...strokes the egos of power and privilege and affluence?

“You could take it and push it global,” suggested Propaganda later in the conversation, “so like, photos from Haiti, you know, or Guatemala, of these, you know, starving brown people... to invoke this sort of emotion in these affluent churches to....invest in these philanthropic projects…” Dr. Brittany A. Aronson, an assistant professor at Miami University - Oxford, is also concerned about how kind-hearted whites may unintentionally dehumanize the very people they are trying to love and dignify. In a journal article titled The White Savior Industrial Complex, she writes, “The rhetoric around how Americans often talk about Africa—as a continent of chaos, war-thirsty people, and impoverished HIV-infected communities, situates these countries as places in need of heroism,” she writes. “This mindset perpetuates the need for external forces to come in and save the day…”

This approach to fundraising may seem harmless, but this is not the case. While subtle, the impact such narratives have on the nation’s culture is significant. Talking about marginalized groups as uncivilized and unsophisticated —communities of people fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God — strips them of their humanity. When we see marginalized people both abroad and domestically so one-dimensionally, we are unable to appreciate all the other true narratives about them. We are blind to the positive and valuable aspects of their cultures: namely their industriousness, intelligence, innovation, and creativity. We strip them of all the other characteristics that make them complicated yet invaluable image-bearers like us. “Shallow understanding from people of good will,” wrote Martin Luther King from a Birmingham Jail, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

EXCHANGING PATERNALISM FOR PARTNERSHIP    

This is not as it should be. Christians were not saved because of their skin color, bank accounts, nationality, or good works. The Apostle Paul warned Christians not to think of themselves as more important than they ought but to reflect on their own sin and thank God for His mercy (Romans 12:3).

Nonprofit leader, before you decide to show that disturbing picture, screen that unsettling documentary, or share that jaw-dropping statistic, think about how it will influence the thoughts and opinions of audience members. You play a huge role in shaping the narrative around these issues, and this privilege comes with incredible responsibility. 

Christian brothers and sisters, we must take stock of what is really motivating us to get involved. We owe it to those with whom we want to partner and labor alongside. Below are just a few reflection questions we can ask to better assess the state of our hearts:

  • Am I getting involved because I believe I can be their savior instead of Jesus? 
  • Do I believe they are helpless without my resources and solutions?
  • Do I believe that all members of [insert marginalized group here] look and live like the images or information being presented to me? What does this cause me to believe about them and their way of life? 
  • In what ways am I wrongly believing I’m superior to the people I’m helping? What truths from Scripture should humble me and remind me of my own brokenness?

On some level, every nonprofit employee wants to feel important and needed. In our pride, we can portray others as helpless so we can become the heroes bringing restoration and redemption. In reality, we are unable to make even ourselves right before God (Romans 8:7). It is only by Jesus’s atonement for our sin and the power of the Holy Spirit inside us that Christians can reject self-aggrandizement and care for others with true dignity, compassion, and respect. “Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do more harm than good,” write authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts. “I sometimes unintentionally reduce poor people to objects that I use to fulfill my own need to accomplish something. I am not okay, and you are not okay. But Jesus can fix us both.”

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Garrett Clawson

I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help 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. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.