7.22 What are We Afraid of?

In my direct fundraising and also my fundraising consulting work, the majority of nonprofits that I work with see themselves as social justice groups, and of those, many see themselves as racial justice organizations. The staff, board and member/client base of most of these groups, for obvious reasons, are usually made up of mostly people of color. Except—and this is a notable exception—for their fundraising and administrative staff.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that white folks shouldn’t be working in racial justice organizations. Quite the opposite. But when they are relegated to development and / or finance/admin positions, it makes me wonder why. I’m going to focus on the fundraising component of this, since this is the GIFT blog and we’re all about fundraising. And I have to say, that it has become the sort of accepted norm amongst even very progressive, if not radical, social justice and racial justice groups, to be content with hiring White folks as their primary development staff.

I’m no stranger to mostly-White environments. I worked for several years with progressive media organizations that were predominantly White (although the good folks there always pined about how they wanted to create more diverse environments), and as a fundraiser, it’s sad but true that many conferences and professional development events I attend are predominantly White. The fundraising profession, at least in the United States, is predominantly White. That’s changing slowly but surely—recently I presented a workshop at the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Fundraising Day in San Francisco, and there were many more people of color than I have seen at past events—but right now the status quo is clear.

Groups tend to hire White people for development positions because that’s who applies and who is looking for this type of work. Having hired a few development staffers myself, I can say that having a strong affirmative action orientation going into the hiring process—putting out the job announcement to a diverse network, encouraging people of color to apply—hasn’t resulted in more than a few applications by people of color, and usually folks who have little to no experience. GIFT and other groups are trying to increase the number of people of color out there who can do fundraising, but there is lots more work to be done.

At the same time, I feel like there is an undercurrent of internalized racism going on in our own organizations. I wonder at times, do we trust ourselves? Do we wonder if a person of color can do just as good a job ‘handling money’ as White people, who have sometimes (though not always) had more life experience dealing with money and having access to wealth than people of color in our organizations? Why do we prioritize program positions for people of color and not development or administrative positions? Do we see those latter positions as ‘less important’ and therefore suitable for White folks who may not have the lived experience to relate to our grassroots members, etc?

I pose these questions because, quite honestly, these conversations rarely, if ever, happen within our organizations. At best, they happen in small, off-to-the-side gossip sessions between fundraisers or other nonprofit staff, but the double taboos around talking about race and talking about money often keep us from bringing these discussions to the full organization. As a nation, our willingness to have these kinds of discussion is non-existent or at best, fraught with resistance, muddled analysis and tension. We only need to look at the recent controversy over supposedly ‘racist’ remarks that were made by former USDA official and African-American woman Shirley Sherrod which ended up getting her unceremoniously fired by the federal government. The NAACP even had jumped on the anti-Sherrod bandwagon until they actually checked the facts and realized they were wrong. And in our social justice nonprofits, I have to say, the ‘race’ conversation when it comes to our own hiring of fundraising staff, isn’t too much further along.

My question is: What are we afraid of? What do we have to lose? Many White people I know who are working as development staff would welcome the chance to discuss these issues, as they feel them keenly, but often feel awkward bringing them up since they want to respect and follow the leadership of the people of color in the group. So I have to wonder, then, as people of color, are we letting our own fear of change, or our own internalized oppression, keep us from having honest conversations about the role of White folks in our work, and more significantly, the importance of people of color learning about and claiming fundraising as a legitimate and necessary part of our movement-building work?

I hope that these and other thorny, not-often-discussed questions will be part of the collective conversation at the GIFT conference in August. If these are the kinds of things you think about and want to talk to like-minded people about, if you want to make our organizations more thoughtful, strategic, effective and well-resourced, come to the conference and join the conversation. If you see me there, please introduce yourself to me and let me know what you think.