Over the past year, Thread has seen one conversation finally begin to get the serious consideration it has long deserved but not gotten: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in fundraising specifically.
Included in the job responsibilities of a fundraising consultant is the expectation to stay current on the conversations, trends, and challenges shaping the nonprofit sector. Over the past year, Thread has seen one conversation finally begin to get the serious consideration it has long deserved but rarely gotten: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in fundraising specifically.
Now the nonprofit sector has certainly acknowledged DEI previously, but usually quickly and incompletely. There has long been some recognition about the White-Savior Complex in philanthropy (this 2012 article from The Atlantic is a common reference), but after an initial flare, those debates tend to quickly go quiet again.
Nonprofit insiders may also be familiar with the ongoing argument over power dynamics between grantees and foundation funders (The Stanford Social Innovation Review did a big series on this in 2016). Yet the loudest point of contention here has revolved more around logistics such as stringent overhead requirements, restricted grants vs. general operating support, and multi-year funding – not DEI as such.
Vu Le of Nonprofit AF has long tried to elevate the discussion of DEI and lopsided power dynamics in the nonprofit sector. But while he has many loyal followers of his work, he’s not had much company as a leadership voice of hard truths.
Then came George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and America’s overdue public reckoning with the countless Black lives unnecessarily cut short over our nation’s history. Following the social uproar, there was a tangible shift in the DEI conversation universally, as well as specifically within philanthropy. Whereas white people once dominated what little conversation there was, now people of color and other minorities are holding the microphone and inviting the rest of us to listen.
And Thread has been doing our best to do exactly that. One of our listening exercises was to join a webinar hosted by the African American Development Officers Network called “Our Collective Courage” in which Black female fundraisers recounted their experiences of mild bias to outright discrimination. As an all-female team at Thread, some of the stories had the twinge of familiarity, but most of them were a gut punch of disappointment at what our Black colleagues have suffered that we haven’t as white women.
The Thread team has also been closely following new questioning about who the most important person in the room is when it comes to fundraising. The quick and conventional answer is the donor. Yet that assumption quickly proves problematic when also considering historical issues of race, power, and money.
The biggest and most dynamic response to who counts and how in fundraising has been the launch of Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF). CCF proposes a revamped approach to fundraising, one that shifts the locus of attention from the donor to equity and community collaboration. Donors are still important to CCF, but they are not glorified heroes. They are simply members of a cooperative ecosystem that requires commitment to 10 Core Principles to work successfully and productively.
Thread’s interest in listening and learning to the evolving conversation about DEI in fundraising is just a start. Like so many individuals and organizations across the nonprofit sector, we’re having both informal and official internal conversations to name what concrete actions we can take right now to help push fundraising to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
To begin, Thread is working through three points of action where we can start to make an immediate impact:
1.Community & Allyship: We want to formalize our place in ongoing conversations about DEI that invite more fundraisers and consultants to question their practices and seek opportunities to do better. Loree has been representing Thread at Allies in Action Membership Network, which convenes allies in the effort to make fundraising a more welcoming and equitable profession for women of color. Similarly, Tracy has joined the Association of Philanthropic Counsel (APC)’s DEI Committee. APC is a peer community for fundraising consultants, and the DEI Committee is playing a role in ensuring that APC’s membership has better access to new standards and best practices around DEI.
2. Writing: Fundraising copywriting has been a big culprit of perpetuating White Saviorism through donor-centric framing. Think about all the times you’ve been advised to position the donor as a hero in your messaging (we may even have told you to do that! We are expanding the way we think about donor-centric language now). The subtext is that donors – and their money – are powerful and agentive, while your nonprofit’s constituents are weak and incapable. Such deficit-based framing of your community is harmful.
In a move away from donor-centric writing, Thread is really leaning into Big Duck’s articulation of values-based copywriting, in which statements about the kind of people we want to be in this world anchor the message. The hero thus isn’t a specific person. It’s a set of shared beliefs about what it takes to advance opportunity and goodness in this world. Donors are invited to give not because they’re heroes, but because doing so is a demonstration of their values and the type of person they believe themselves to be.
3. Hiring: DEI is all about real people and their experiences, and so is hiring. We support a lot of hiring processes, and we know this is an area where we can help our partners proceed with a more eyes-wide-open approach. As some examples, we advocate listing salary ranges on job postings. When we design job descriptions and hiring guides, we’re committed to upfront, frank discussions with partners about what they actually want when they say they want a “diverse candidate pool.” We ask partners to question what they really mean by “fit.” We’re committed to transparency with candidates so that no one becomes tokenized just to say it was a diverse search. We know we have more research and refinement to do around DEI and hiring, and we’re learning and doing the work.
And no matter what turns the conversation on DEI in fundraising takes from here, we think this is the most important point: to keep doing the work. To keep learning and changing and acknowledging past blind spots. We will keep up with our duty to know more and to grow, and we certainly hope you’ll join us.