Money is powerful.
By powerful, I don’t mean necessarily corrupt or abusive. Too often, power and abuse get intertwined, but it’s important to separate them out because power can be used in liberatory and restorative ways. More on that in a bit, but first let’s start with defining power.
I am fond of Julie Diamond’s definition of power: the ability to impact and influence an environment. When we understand power this way, a lot of things are powerful – parents, managers, friends and coworkers, words, art, design, and yes, money.
In my keynote talks about power, money, and time, I talk about how there are many types of power (e.g., positional, social, informal, personal, etc.), but mainly two ways to use any type of power: in a supremacist or a liberatory fashion. Supremacist uses of power are about control, domination, exploitation, extraction, oppression and abuse. Liberatory uses of power are about using power to connect, heal, repair and empower all members of a community. (Major credit to Cyndi Suarez and Edgar Villanueva for these definitions of power.)
The nonprofit sector is often obsessed with the ethical use of money and power when it comes to spending – from Guidestar to grantee reporting, there are all sorts of metrics for tracking and evaluating how you use the power of money on behalf of beneficiaries. But what the nonprofit sector doesn’t often discuss is how nonprofits use their power when it comes to earning money – a.k.a. fundraising.
Many nonprofit employees, even those working in fundraising, think and talk about money as a “necessary evil.” I think that’s because supremacist uses of money are prevalent in our society, even in the nonprofit sector. When nonprofit organizations write job descriptions that are five pages long and then want to pay the lowest possible wage for someone to do three people’s jobs, that’s using money to extract work at the cheapest cost. When donors tie strings to how we can use money, that’s using money to control people and systems. When we as a society make laws and policies that tie healthcare to employment, that’s oppression (particularly since being sick is what keeps people from working).
Supremacist uses of power are also present in approaches to fundraising, whether it’s through the design of fundraising collateral, how development staff are expected to act, or how gift acceptance policies are designed and enforced. These are just some examples of supremacist uses of power in fundraising I’ve heard of in my years working in or consulting with nonprofits:
- Fundraising appeals that were intentionally designed to look like pink slips. The appeals were used in a community with a high immigrant population, and people would call the nonprofit organization in tears, terrified they had just lost their job. Talk about taking all the joy out of giving!
- A philanthropic donor would write a large check every year on the condition that a young woman would come to his house to pick it up.
- An international reproductive rights organization would accept donations from donors who stated that their reason for giving was to “control the African/Black population.”
However, this is not the only option. Fundraising can be done in a manner that connects us to one another, repairs harm, heals our societal wounds and empowers all members of an organization – from staff to the communities we serve.
Inclusive fundraising starts with inclusive design. There are a lot of ways in which fundraising appeals – particularly the imagery and graphic design of those appeals – hold up white supremacist ideals. Recently, Doctors Without Borders created a video about how their fundraising imagery often perpetuated white saviorism, and then challenged donors to disrupt their own unconscious bias in giving by presenting them with positive images of Black and Brown people being the helpers, not the helpees.
Brevity & Wit’s Creative Director Acacia Betancourt routinely holds workshops for design and communications teams about how to select inclusive images. She begins the workshop by discussing how much White centering is perpetuated in images, from stock photography to popular media. It’s more subtle than just creating a catalog or annual report full of photos of White people (though that does still occur from time to time). More often, it’s how White people are lit compared to people with darker skin, or how the composition conveys a subtle hierarchy about importance. It can also manifest as a nonprofit’s annual report where the (mostly White) leadership team have glossy headshots with extensive bios and the (mostly Black and Brown) “beneficiaries” have grainy candids and are not identified by their name – not because of concerns about confidentiality, but because the photographer or staff were either too lazy to get their names or told to prioritize leadership instead of equitable representation.
Our friend Trabian Shorters talks about asset-framing in communications: talking about people in terms of their assets, not their deficits. There’s a corollary to the communication through images. When you make a fundraising appeal, are your “beneficiaries” photographically framed with dignity, not deficiency?
For example, Brevity & Wit recently designed the collateral for DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Momentum for Change campaign. Intended to benefit the Black and Brown communities of DC, where their political, social, and economic power is often stifled, the design intentionally uses positive stock imagery of Black and Brown folks in a way that is uplifting, dignified, and centers their lives. The materials are not littered with logos of partnering organizations or glossy headshots of leaders, but focuses on the substantive points of the campaign and stock image representation of the people who should benefit most from the campaign.
Inclusive fundraising should also be accessible. That means ensuring all visuals are visually accessible, and all text is screen-reader compliant when delivered electronically (i.e., don’t embed text in an image, unless the alt text includes the text, too). If you’re creating video appeals, is there good quality captioning? (Note: Automatic captioning is often terrible.)
Inclusive fundraising also goes beyond visuals and protects staff from abuse by donors. That requires brave leaders with backbones. Leaders, whether they are CEOs or Executive Directors or Chief Development Officers, can play a significant role in ensuring nonprofits are earning, not just spending their money in ethical ways.
Recently, a client told us about a time at an event where a major donor asked the CEO of an organization trying to racially diversify its audience, “Are you still helping those people?” The CEO responded, “I’m not sure who you’re talking about but I can tell you we don’t want your money.” She then checked to make sure her Development Director, standing next to her, heard her correctly. By doing so, she used her power as CEO for good and made sure her Development Director did not need to engage in any hand-wringing about whether to accept money from a racist donor.
Leadership can also help shape gift acceptance policies to reduce racism and other forms of discrimination and oppression from donors. Gift acceptance policies often already have clauses to prevent the organization from taking or keeping money from convicted predators. One nonprofit public media CEO simply extended this practice to include donors who called the station with racist complaints about Black music or hosts. That’s using your power for good by ensuring people of color are included in policies meant to protect people and the brand.
I know these can be revolutionary acts. We are not used to creating boundaries around receiving money. We’ve been socialized to believe that we should never say no to money. But never saying no means we’re allowing money to be our oppressor when it could be our medicine. We could choose to use it to repair our organizations, heal past and current harm, and empower leaders, staff, and beneficiaries. It takes courage, but so does everything worthwhile in life.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. Whether it’s partnering with us or reaching out to other nonprofit leaders who are re-imagining philanthropy and our societal role with money, there are creative, brave people pointing the way forward. And what we need now to solve our big societal challenges – from climate change to racial justice – is not more human productivity but more human creativity. Use your power creatively and for good, and you can create a more equitable world.