I’m sitting in an exquisitely appointed waiting room in midtown Manhattan prior to an enormous solicitation when my phone starts blowing up. My dean’s flight to JFK is delayed. She will not be making it to midtown for said enormous solicitation. But cool, I think to my clueless 27-year-old self, I can totally do this solo. I can build all the rapport, I can say all the talking points, I can listen twice as closely. It will be just like when my dean is here!
When I am ushered into the Devil-Wears-Prada-looking office, the donor is eyeing me suspiciously. There’s a huge ashtray on her desk – the size of a serving platter. Of all the intimidating things in this scene, the ashtray got to me. It said that rules and norms for mere mortals/fundraisers don’t apply to her.
She took a dramatic drag off her cigarette, continued to eye me, and then exhaled as I stood there like a dork, watching her.
“Had I known it would just be YOU, I wouldn’t have taken this meeting,” she said.
As fundraisers, we find ourselves all over the power spectrum in the nonprofit sector – including sometimes being at the lower end. What do we do next, though? Do we blow it off like I did that day in midtown? We’re mission-driven professionals, which can cloud our thinking about how power is wielded … and sometimes … we accept that it’s part of getting the gift.
Does that make it okay?
I’m rethinking that last one. A) I’m not sure it’s okay; B) I know we can make it better; and C) now is the time to do so.
To help support our professional well-being and the health of our organizations, I propose is that it’s time to rethink how we navigate our relationships with three of our stakeholders: our own nonprofits, our donors, and our beneficiaries.
- Rethinking Our Relationship with Employers
We identify with the work that we do, which is why it is so destabilizing when things go horribly wrong at our organizations. And they do. It’s unavoidable–no matter where one works, there will be disruptions, challenges and even scandals that make us question our career path.
And in higher ed, things do go wrong: We’ve got sex abuse, we’ve got Title IX violations, we’ve got the Student Loan Crisis, a record number of university presidents stepping down, civil rights violations and the challenges that go along with college athletics. It’s enough to make a development officer stop and think, “Am I in the right place?” Here we are, doing important work, feeling good about it, and suddenly we realize that we are working dangerously close to a lot of ugliness. Our thoughts and feelings are in conflict with reality. Cognitive dissonance causes psychological stress. This is worsened when we stifle it. In most of our workplaces, we don’t have a framework for processing bad news.
I reached out to a few of my respected leaders in the advancement space, asking them to share advice on what development officers should do if they have mixed feelings about negative events at their organizations. Here are a few gems they shared:
- “Remember the big picture; the impact your work is having on society in general rather than the institution in particular.”
- “Our job is to promote the organization we work for. If we disagree, or if we feel out of alignment, we have to make a choice: support leadership’s position or move on and do something else.”
- “The more you can be centered, grounded and calm working with your staff, the easier it will be for them to be less stressed. At the same time, it’s important to allow them to feel what they’re feeling and to express it (appropriately and within a limited timeframe as you’ve got other business to conduct).”
That advice covers a lot of territory. It’s a reminder to me that we always have choices, even when we feel stuck.
2. Rethinking Our Relationship with Donors
Just as we experience cognitive dissonance about our employers sometimes, we also create it with our donors.
Some of this is due to the Bubble of Positivity. I first heard of this in the book Giving Done Right by Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and it made so much sense to me. The Bubble of Positivity is when we wrap donors in a cocoon of positive experience. Possibly because we feel that we have to please our donors, or believe in their power, we may downplay certain realities of gift administration, impact, or effectiveness. And we may choose to share only delightful information even when it’s not actually going so great.
The Bubble of Positivity ruined my relationship with a leadership gift donor. She and I worked together on a scholarship gift for community college students transferring to the university where I worked. This gift aligned with the university’s mission, aligned with the donor’s goals, and it would help so many students succeed in the next phase of their education. It seemed like a match made in heaven, and I treated it as such.
When the gift was not spent during the first year, I had established enough goodwill that we could discuss the issue and move on. When it wasn’t allocated for the second year, I started scrambling to convince academic colleagues to use the gift. Sadly, still no spending. When the third year rolled around without any improvement, the donor began making noises about taking us out of her estate plan. I was losing sleep over it, and I knew that my hyping the gift up was in part to blame. The relationship was crashing and burning.
If I had to do it over again, I would approach it very differently. I would have learned more about the potential pitfalls of the gift and I would have engaged academic partners in forthright conversations with the donor. I would have toned down my enthusiasm and ramped up the transparency. I would have tried to stand side-by-side with the donor to explore all the successes and potential deal breakers of the gift, rather than feeling like I had to convince the donor.
3. Rethinking Our Relationship with Beneficiaries
I’ve chosen to approach this section about how we relate to beneficiaries through the lens of race and philanthropy, beginning with white saviorism. This is the worldview that regards white people as saviors and other groups as needing to be saved by them. It maintains and embodies white supremacy, framing the white outsider (donor) as the savior and hero and the people of color (beneficiaries) as too oppressed, too downtrodden, too powerless to help themselves.
All over philanthropy, but certainly in higher ed, we work with a lot of white donors who are making gifts specifically to benefit BIPOC communities, and it’s imperative that we manage the perception or reality of white saviorism in this dynamic. As we launch DEI initiatives, are we creating a channel for white saviorism? Or are we bringing donors, beneficiaries, and nonprofits together on common ground to chart a path forward and identify the resources to do so?
What can we do about this as fundraisers to avoid promoting white saviorism? Two ideas are to: 1) Rethink – or be super intentional in our thinking – about how we are positioning our BIPOC recipients in relationship with donors as part of the stewardship process; and 2) Ensure that the stories we tell about beneficiaries are their stories, not ours and not our donors’.
Systemic racism exacerbates the power imbalance between donors and BIPOC beneficiaries –independent of whether white saviorism is part of the equation. It’s important to consider whether we are putting beneficiaries in a subservient position by asking them to express gratitude in a way that is outside their comfort zone. We should be asking our beneficiaries what’s comfortable for THEM rather than asking our donors what they want to experience. Whether it’s thank you letters, meet-and-greets, events, articles, or other stewardship products, the beneficiary should have a say in how their gratitude is expressed.
Using an example of a student who received a scholarship, Caliopy Glaros of Philanthropy Without Borders recommends a litmus test of “Am I telling the story in the same way I would if the student was sitting one table away from me at an event?”
We can support a culture in which we can talk about power imbalances without stigma by creating psychological safety. It’s not about who did what, it’s about respect. This allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking one’s mind, and creativity. It’s essential to success in uncertain environments like ours.
I hope that we can honor one another’s experiences, while navigating the complicated world of philanthropy. The opportunities to deliver on the promise of a better world are immense if we rethink our old ways of doing business, and I hope you’ll join me on that journey!
Anne Murphy, Sr. Director of the Division of Business and Engineering at Oregon State University Foundation, is a leader in higher education advancement, having begun her journey as a development intern and mentee 25 years ago. She is also the founder of Fundraise Without Fear, working with nonprofit founders, leaders, and volunteers who know they need to fundraise but don’t know where to start. She’s an avid backpacker, traveling the world to find the best trails, vistas, and waterfalls. She lives in Oregon with her two teens, husband, and the people in charge: her two dogs.