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AS A WHITE WOMAN, DO I HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO DISRUPT PHILANTHROPY?

Recently, I was given a task by a mentor. My assignment was to ask others to describe me. (Super cringy exercise, but personal growth is uncomfortable, right?) Of all of the many ways I was described by old friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, no one — not a single soul — called me a quitter. The results were a variety of flattering, feel-good adjectives. There were multiple references to me as “joyful” — clear evidence that none of my children or loved ones were participants.

One person even offered: “Has a LET’S DO THIS attitude.” That is the one that really resonated with me because I am a fundraiser and fundraisers get shit done.

But this is the third time that I have taken — and then quit — a fundraising job. And every time I have done so, I swore it would be my last.

What does the quintessential nonprofit fundraiser look like? (Spoiler: like me)

More than 70% of all fundraisers are female and 82% of all fundraisers are white. The average age? 42. For many foundations and individual donors of wealth, the image of the development director is a middle-aged white woman who has at least one ‘gala’ outfit in her closet. That, in a nutshell, is me.

I let my hair go silvery gray when I turned 50, and I wear a silk scarf when I go to grownup meetings to signal that I belong — and to cover up the increasingly crepe-y skin on my neck. I am a “liberal do-gooder,” and yet I never had an authentic conversation with a Black person until I was 21. So yeah. My actual name is Becky and I am WHITE. All caps.

I first dipped my toe into the world of stewardship at a prestigious private prep school over a decade ago. I did not really feel qualified (imposter syndrome, anyone?) having been out of the workforce for 10 years at the time, but I was newly divorced with three young kids and I needed a job immediately. I saw the job post, cashed in on a personal connection, and jumped in.

(I would later learn that the job was about to be offered to someone else [I suspect a more qualified woman of color] but at the last minute the decision was overruled to ensure it would be my spot.)

I was out of my comfort zone in many ways, but I quickly morphed and adapted with my improvise-your-way-out-of-anything strategy honed during my previous life as a theatre artist.

During my time at the fancy prep school, I was a sponge; I did online classes, webinars, read about “best practices,” and watched and learned from my colleagues who were pros. Stewardship (which is code for donor-centric ass-kissing) taught me to cram my head full of minutiae and trivia. I knew the names of donors’ dogs and grandchildren. I knew where they went on their last vacation: “Tell me all about your trip to the Galapagos Islands!” I knew that The Donor Who Shall Not Be Named only liked turkey sandwiches, didn’t drink wine, and expected that his signature cocktail would be waiting on the side whenever he arrived at an event.

I learned that donors were always right and I constantly worried about making a single misstep.

I knew what was happening. I mean, I really knew. As the newbie on the team, I was relegated to the task of taking notes at the top-secret meetings. The board chair, the Donor Who Shall Not Be Named, and the other power players on the development committee — these people were philanthropists! They were generous! They got medals and fancy parties and big buildings named after them!

And they were also engaged in the long-held tradition of ensuring that the elite class maintained their power by “investing in the next generation.”

They were consolidating their wealth by feeding a massive endowment that we were all tasked with growing, to ensure that the rich prep school kids could grow up to be rich prep school alums who would perpetuate the cycle. And of course, they spoke with deep pride about “our financial aid kids” because not only were they generous, these extra-special philanthropists were white saviors!

At the time, I didn’t yet have the language to express what I saw happening but I knew it filled me with secret shame. As a single mom of three, walking away from a “good job” was terrifying, but I began to feel sick to my stomach every morning as I stepped foot on campus. After three years I called it quits.

When white people do ‘good work’! (AKA dancing with white saviorism)

I wanted to find work grounded in meaningful relationships and social justice, so I searched for a place where I could do fundraising work that had a mission more in keeping with my values. I used my connections yet again and began my ‘good work’ helping refugees and immigrants. I networked tirelessly, soliciting my affluent white neighbors and friends to help raise funds and grow the organization’s base. We hosted house parties that brought refugees into the living rooms of white wealth to “share their stories.”

It was a successful model and white people loved those house parties! The more horrific the story, the better! Yes, it felt wrong and weird, but it was for a really wonderful and amazing cause!

As a fundraiser I know that emotions motivate donors, and these donors were feeling all the feelings — and giving — so clearly I was doing great work!

But I know now the names for what I was doing: Exploitation. Victimization. Poverty tourism.

After that, I took a break from fundraising. When I started my most recent nonprofit job, I announced, “I will do anything you want. Anything. Except development work.”

I was tasked with organizing events, which is my superpower. It was a dream job. The board was diverse and hardworking, my colleagues cared deeply about race and equity — and the mission was perfect — providing arts access — primarily for communities of color in my own city.

But in no time at all, there I was: the old scarf-wearing white lady, creating collateral content, identifying top prospects, organizing the annual appeal and guiding the board and the leadership through the ins and outs of cultivation, solicitation and stewardship.

Despite emphatically denouncing this work, I found myself driven to do it, time and again.

So what kept pulling me back? Is this my own endless dance with white saviorism? What kind of power do I derive from having proximity and access to people of wealth?

I was looking for answers: I was reading Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva, Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, and participated in an Undoing Racism workshop led by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. I was tangled in knots trying to deconstruct my relationship with fundraising and the way that it overlaps with race and power.

I knew that everything I had learned about successful fundraising was ‘working’ (for donors and white people), but by now I was finding the words to describe my negative experience with it; this was not just me — it was an entire system that was toxic and broken. I just didn’t know what to do about it.

This awakening was significant, but I was still feeling lonely in my work, slipping back into a familiar cycle of self-loathing, and more uncomfortable than ever in my job. I knew I needed to find like-minded folks who were feeling what I was feeling.

Who are my people (and where the heck are they)?

I was a regular attendee at the quarterly development roundtable hosted by our local community foundation. At our last meeting, I summoned up the courage to ask if others were interested in engaging in a candid discussion around the challenges and discomfort of being a white fundraiser for an organization that serves communities of color.

The topic was quickly shut down by the moderator. “We would need to have an expert come in if you want to talk about that. We aren’t equipped to discuss that.”

The foundation had just launched its five-year strategic plan outlining its two main goals, one of which was: Create opportunity, promote inclusion and reduce inequities through inclusive growth. And yet we were discouraged from having a conversation that addressed core issues of inclusivity and what that looks for many of us who are doing this work.

I felt deflated and despondent. I was struggling with my mental health. I needed to be done with this fundraising bullshit — and this time I quit for good.

As luck would have it, I cleaned out my office on Sunday, March 8, and two days later everything began shutting down as COVID-19 changed the world. I was unemployed and quarantined.

So I decided to commit time and space to my own personal race work. I continued to read, protest, Zoom — and I continued to meet regularly with my mentor to sort out where I wanted to land next.

“Anything,” I said emphatically. “I will do anything except fundraising.”

My inner monologue ran like this: Maybe I am too old to unlearn everything I was taught. Maybe I will never make an impact. Maybe it is time for me to take a step back into a quieter job and make room for younger people of color to lead.

A whispering voice challenged me with a rebuttal: Or maybe this work is just too uncomfortable for you, Becky?

If I really believe that change must come, and it must — then I have to do the hard, uncomfortable work. That much I know, but this is collective work and I need not — in fact, cannot — do it alone.

I was spending hours a day scouring LinkedIn in search of co-conspirators and reading Vu Le’s blog NonprofitAF. I started using the hashtag #disruptphilanthropy, hoping others would find me and began putting out feelers in my community.

And then I stumbled across the Zoom launch of Community-Centric Fundraising. I was pumped with anticipation — and anxiety. Would I be the only white person? Would I be welcomed? There were thousands of people online and for the first time in a very, very long time, I did not feel alone. My story did not have to be a shameful secret anymore.

I am inspired by the groundwork CCF has already done. I have found BIPOC who are leading the way and like-minded white folks who understand that it falls on us to do some heavy-lifting. Our donor-centric mindset has led us down a path that has caused harm. We are complicit and we must speak up and stand up. We know the rules and if we are going to create a new system and a new set of rules, it will take all of us — together.

The more I learn about who I am, who I strive to be, and what I seek in this world, the more I see that my work must be to disrupt philanthropy. I cannot un-see everything I know to be true about income inequities in our world and the out-of-whack power that white philanthropists wield. If not me, then who? Who better to challenge white folks about their privilege than another privileged white person?

What I don’t know yet is what this work looks like for me in my community. Or what it looks like for you within yours. Maybe I will get involved with a CCF group in my city. Maybe I will continue planting the seeds for community-centric practices in quiet conversations with leaders, donors, and board members. Maybe I will find a job where I can begin to disrupt philanthropy. Maybe I will take to the streets and organize a protest. There is no playbook for this, and change will not come easily or quickly. But for now, I know there is work for the Beckys of the world to do, and we don’t have to do it alone.

So, perhaps trying to out myself as a “quitter” was premature. Because fundraisers get shit done. See you out there.

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