What can funders do to be part of a much-needed transformation in the philanthropic sector? Professional fundraisers Tanya Rumble and Nicole McVan offer three practical steps.
As professional fundraisers, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to do things differently from our side of the table to make a meaningful difference in our work. We know that people and organizations are fundraising not for the sake of it, but rather in service of something bigger – systemic change that builds our communities and the world. And funders and donors are giving and investing because of their belief in that change, and the responsibility they feel to be a part of it.
The philanthropic sector is in the midst of much-needed transformation, and we hold ourselves accountable for being part of the shift to bring in more anti-oppressive fundraising. We do that by attempting to dismantle the five fallacies of fundraising that we have codified in our work (i.e., the myth of meritocracy, the donor is always right, we must remain neutral to secure funding, donors belong on a pedestal, and beneficiaries need saving) as a way of opening the door to authentic relationships between funders and fundraisers, and the organizations they serve.
How do we represent our organizations and beneficiaries in respectful ways that are not focused solely on deficits? How do we balance the opportunity to recognize and celebrate philanthropy while not centring the donor as hero and saviour in our communications?
So, how do we develop authentic donor relationships that are built on acknowledgement of the systems we operate in? How do we represent our organizations and beneficiaries in respectful ways that are not focused solely on deficits? How do we balance the opportunity to recognize and celebrate philanthropy while not centring the donor as hero and saviour in our communications? These are weighty questions. As leaders of a community of practice focused on philanthropy and equity, we are often asked what funders can do to be a part of the change, so in this article we explore some opportunities for funders to be more inclusive and anti-oppressive in their approach.
Fundraisers are often asked by funders to be more transparent about organizations’ work, to stop gatekeeping and provide a better line of sight to how philanthropy is playing a role in the change. To this end, charities provide extensive reporting, attempt to quantify and systemize the impact seen, and spend countless hours in meetings and program visits to provide more connection for the donors.
This transparency is not often returned by those funders or potential funders. There are philanthropy forums and conferences that do not allow fundraisers – who work with funders more than probably any other collaborators – to attend. There are many funders who will not take meetings with prospective fundees, who are slow to respond, or do not respond at all. The closed door prevents fundraisers from understanding more about the funder’s world and what they are trying to achieve. There are thousands of charities and even more non-registered groups that are seeking funds, and without this two-way communication and better access, power imbalances are perpetuated and more work is created on both sides of this equation.
What would we ask funders to do to be an active part of this change we all wish to see in philanthropy? We offer three practical invitations for funders to consider in building stronger, more authentic relationships with charitable organizations and fundraisers and the communities and missions we serve:
- Acknowledge the power imbalance
- Un-restrict funding
- Spot the “saviourism”
Acknowledge the power imbalance
The charitable sector is set up in such a way that it is forever dependent on securing funding. This ongoing need to secure funds has led to a scarcity mindset. One of the biggest stressors is the worry about securing enough funding now and in the future, because it is a perpetual issue. That is why we have a fundraising profession; we have deemed it important enough to need people dedicated to it (if your organization is large enough). As a result of this scarcity model, the funder–fundee relationship has an inherent dynamic of the funder holding most of the power. This imbalance is felt long before you walk into a meeting or review a proposal; it is built into the transaction of giving.
We hear countless stories of the oppression that fundraisers experience when working with funders.
We hear countless stories of the oppression that fundraisers experience when working with funders. For the most part, these transgressions are never reported, and in the rare case that they are, the likelihood that they will be addressed with a funder is minimal; the chance that a pattern of oppressive behaviour on the part of a donor will be confronted or the relationship with that person severed even rarer. We have both experienced countless oppressions throughout our careers – sexism, racism, transphobia, et cetera – working with funders, and in service of our ambitious fundraising goals, we often stuff these experiences down, rationalize them, console one another privately, and ultimately accept the money. Depending on the extent and compounding effect of these experiences, we may discuss them in therapy, leave toxic work cultures where abusive behaviour from donors is permissible, or leave the sector altogether.
As a funder, you need to be aware of this imbalance and what it means for the relationship. We can no longer afford to ignore it, because it has damaging consequences for all parties in the relationship. There are quick, simple things that funders can do to acknowledge and rebalance the equation to be more equitable and equal.
For example, increasing communication and being transparent throughout the process allows an organization to understand what is happening and where they are in the process. This helps them spend less time wondering and more time focused on their core work. As institutional funders, have a code of conduct that you make publicly available. Most charities adhere to the Donor Bill of Rights and the fundraiser Code of Ethical Standards, but there are no codified protections for fundraisers. And what can fundraisers and development staff expect when working with institutional funders? In our experience, deadlines for hearing back from funders on letters of inquiry are regularly missed; however, we seldom receive clemency in submitting grant applications even a day or two past the deadline. Also, simply by acknowledging the power differential, you can create a more honest dialogue and build trust. If both parties know the other is aware, this can go a long way in developing a relationship that is mutually beneficial, open, and honest.
Recognize as funders that what you ask for carries more weight and authority than you may expect. A simple suggestion or question could make an organization spin on its head trying to satisfy you and meet your needs. Why not be transparent to avoid folks pretzelling their submission to fit what they think you want or will fund? This is an issue because you are typically not the expert in the field (or you may have significant experience but are no longer directly involved in implementation), but rather come to the organization with good intentions and looking for their expertise to guide you.
Many funders do a terrific job of researching the organizations they would like to support, including doing the necessary due diligence, understanding organizations’ priorities, and determining if their work and values are aligned. This preparatory work is the responsibility of the funder. Once completed, the restrictions have to loosen to allow the organization to do its work.
Funding an organization’s core work – the reason it exists, the future it is working toward – is a critical aspect of the relationship. This means funding all the costs associated with that work, including staff time, administration, and project management – all an essential part of running a successful organization that focuses on its mission mandate. For example, if an organization’s mission and core objectives and programs are aligned with your funding priorities, it is a registered charity in good standing, and it has the capacity to do the work, why layer on requirements such as it must have at least one other funder of the program? Grant application deadlines, competition for resources, and funds being allocated to different projects are all valid reasons that a charity may not have another funder – why should it be penalized for this?
Funding an organization’s core work … is a critical aspect of the relationship.
One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate trust is for a funder to offer unrestricted funding. It allows an organization to put funds toward the most pressing needs, and it fosters nimbleness. Many organizations have to pivot based on evolving needs, whether it be a refugee crisis, an environmental disaster, or a pandemic. An organization that has unrestricted funding and the trust of its funders can pivot much more easily and quickly, to get to the issue at hand as soon as possible. Liban Abokor put it aptly when speaking to a group of students in Carleton University’s Master in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership program in 2021: funders and funding applications reward expertise and an organization’s demonstrated commitment to a particular issue; however, the funding regime that exists through philanthropic and government grants essentially causes charities to paddle from one island of funding to the next, leaving them marginally closer to their desired destination at best, or their proverbial boat spinning in circles and taking on water.
Restricting how funds can be spent creates an additional layer of burden and complexity for an organization and takes energy and focus away from its core mission and toward you the funder. It means an organization spends more time internally and with the funder demonstrating how funds are spent in their restricted way.
Learn to spot ‘saviourism’
The non-profit sector is rife with “saviourism” – from its staff, its volunteers, and its funders. “Saviourism” happens when we centre the helper instead of the beneficiary and create a hero narrative around the person or organization doing the “helping.” This is common practice in charities and in fundraising because it is a way to both raise funds and recognize the donor. It satisfies the need for continued funding and perpetuates the scarcity mindset.
‘Saviourism’ happens when we centre the helper instead of the beneficiary and create a hero narrative around the person or organization doing the ‘helping.’
Case in point: most foundation boards are made up of experts in the fields that the foundation grants in; seldom are those experts representing communities impacted by the field, or more specifically, beneficiaries. Lived experience is one component that is imperative to dismantling colonial and Eurocentric approaches to addressing our societal and environmental challenges – as has been documented previously in this publication.
It is not that we should not recognize and thank people and organizations that give their time and their funding; it is that we over-tilt in their direction and can cause harm to the beneficiaries. We have to recognize this bias in our work and dismantle it each time we see it.
As an example, it is not “only because of the donors” that organizations can do their work. The donor is a part of it, but so are the staff, volunteers, community members, et cetera. By recognizing this narrative, you can stop it and build a new narrative that is far more equitable and inclusive for everyone.
The development of authentic and powerful relationships that can have real impact in our world requires both funder and fundraiser to work together. The best relationships are built on trust, transparency, and the occasional difficult conversation. It requires hard work on both sides of the so-called equation, but we have seen it firsthand and heard about it from other colleagues in the sector and know that it is within reach if we are willing to do the work.
Tanya Hannah Rumble, CFRE (she/her), and Nicole McVan, MA (they/them), are professional fundraisers who lead a monthly community of practice and have facilitated workshops for more than 4,000 fundraisers across North America and Europe on the topics of power and privilege; equity, diversity, and inclusion; and fundraising. To learn more about the community of practice, visit recastphilanthropy.ca.