Dear Kim:

I am part of an organization where the board of directors is elected by the (active) membership. We have gone through a long and (I thought) productive process of defining just what we want from our board, as well as more thoroughly acquainting them with what the law requires. One of the policies we adopted is that board members are expected to participate in fundraising activities. Everyone already makes their own gift because to be a member of the organization, they have to pay dues. Now someone wants to run for the board and he has amassed three or four people who are sending around e-mails saying that our fundraising requirement is “classist” and needs to be dropped in order to have a diverse board. He and his small band of followers are actually creating a real stir in the organization, and since none of the board members are comfortable asking for money, they are half hoping that there is some truth in this accusation and then they won’t have to do it. Of course, no one is proposing how the money will get raised if the board doesn’t at least help with some of it, but that’s another question. How can we respond to this charge?

~Just When I Thought Things Were Settled

Dear Thought Things:

I imagine it will be of small comfort for you to learn that this is one of the oldest tricks in the book to get out of having to do fundraising: name a very real form of oppression and claim that fundraising falls under it.

Over the years I have been engaged in persuading board members to do their job (or else not serve on the board), I have had people tell me that because fundraising isn’t in their culture, the requirement is imperialist, or because corporations have much larger numbers of men than women in positions of power, that making women do fundraising is sexist, and of course, because poor people have less access to rich people than other rich people, fundraising is classist.

First, we must recall that “fundraising” isn’t one thing. The word is short hand for upwards of thousands of ways to bring in money to a nonprofit organization. Undoubtedly some of those ways are oppressive and we need to be on the alert for them. However “fundraising” is not classist because it is not anything until it is discussed strategy by strategy.

I learned most of what I know about money from women I worked with in the early days of the domestic violence movement. I volunteered in a shelter and women who were fleeing violent abusers told me over and over how they would like to leave for good, but they had no access to money. We, their counselors, didn’t either, and we didn’t have any knowledge about money. We didn’t know how to help women get credit in their own name, or what benefits they might be entitled to from the government, and, because we were very nice women, we certainly didn’t know how to ask for money and build our domestic violence programs. The women I worked with sometimes returned to men who sometimes beat them to death, and one of the reasons they returned was because they didn’t know enough about how to make it on their own – which included how to get enough money to live on their own. All of us who worked there realized very quickly that if we didn’t learn everything we could about money: who had it, who gave it away, how to budget, how to spend, when to borrow, and how to talk about it, we would collaborate with the very system that the rest of our work was designed to change.

The fact is that refusing to be involved in fundraising supports a class system. Let’s take another example: we have all been taught that it is rude to ask someone what how much they make, but if I can’t ask someone what their salary is, I will never find out that I am paid more because I am white or less because I am a woman. Our inability to discuss salaries in open and transparent ways simply conceals a widespread pattern of discrimination. There are many examples of this, but space precludes giving more.

A board member must be involved in fundraising because his or her job is to set an example, first by giving, and then by helping raise money. “I’ve made my own gift” is the most powerful testimonial a person can provide to someone else. “I am not asking you to do anything I haven’t done” is very reassuring to prospective donors. Then the board member also tests his or her own commitment by being willing to do something hard: ask for money. How they ask—letter, phone call, face to face, special event, on-line, or whatever—will depend on the board member and the organization.

The people who want fundraising dropped from the list of requirements for board membership are probably good and sincere people, but they are seriously misguided and if they do become leaders in your organization, you will gradually watch your group go down the drain.

~Kim Klein