The Inclusive Fundraiser: Representation Matters!

This article originally appeared in Hilborn Charity eNews.

I grew up in small-town Ontario in the ‘80s and early 90’s, and like many of us coming of age in North America at that time, I was raised on a pretty homogenous media diet.

Beverly Hills 90210. Little House on the Prairie. Dirty Dancing. Family Ties. And yes, though I shudder to think - Sweet Valley High.

If anyone breeched the walls of the white, heterosexual, able-bodied world of books, film and television in that era, it was usually to illustrate an after-school special style storyline that ended up reinforcing negative stereotypes.

While things are still far from perfect, there has been a lot of change – Black Panther, This is Us, Speechless, The Hate U Give, Get Out, and Moonlight are all recent examples of rich, complex stories where people of colour, LGBTQ people and disabled people take centre stage.

But if you have a look at some of the marketing and communications we’re doing in the nonprofit sector, you’d think we’re back at West Beverley High, hanging at the Peach Pit with Brandon, Brenda, Dylan and Kelly.

So, why does representation matter when it comes to fundraising?

When we can see fair and well-rounded representations of ourselves on a screen, in the pages of a book or magazine, or in the headlines of the news, we get a message:

We are valued. Our stories are valued. Our contributions to society are valued.

But what’s the message being sent when we’re missing?

This applies equally to nonprofit organizations, and our marketing and communications.

Do all your donors and potential supporters see themselves and their stories reflected back by your organization?

Or does their absence send a strong message about who and what you value as an organization?

Here’s a quick exercise for you – pick a recent communication that was shared broadly with your stakeholders. It could be an annual report, a video, or a newsletter.

Review it, and pay close attention to the stories and images, and ask yourself these questions:

Who is represented as a donor?

If you’re like some charities, your marketing and communications materials look like the society pages – glittery galas, lots of ladies who lunch, and grip and grin, suit and tie corporate cheque presentations.

And typically, not a lot of diversity of race or ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic status when you’re looking at who is being represented as a donor.

When certain groups of donors are always missing in your communications, we receive a clear message (whether it’s one you intend to send or not):

This organization is not for me.

It doesn’t have to be this way! There are countless amazing donor stories from diverse communities of supporters out there. Make it a priority to look for them, and include them regularly in your marketing and communications.

One of the projects I’m proudest of from my time with Toronto nonprofit The Redwood is this Gratitude Report we developed in partnership with the awesome Agents of Good.

We set ourselves clear goals, and worked hard to find and tell the stories of a diverse group of supporters, representing monthly donors, bequest pledgors, volunteers, local businesses, and community organizations.

You know how you often hear people recommend starting a bank of stories of people your organization has helped? Why not do the same for donors?

So many donors have compelling personal stories to share about what inspired their support of your cause – all you have to do is ask!

Who is represented as a beneficiary?

Sheena Greer wrote a great op-ed for Hilborn Charity e-News last year called Nostalgia and the Whites of our Eyes. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, but I’ll give my own Coles Notes version here.

A legacy giving video out of the UK looks back fondly on the “good ol’ days” – the first half of the video features white faces smiling, dancing, and celebrating.

The second half of the video is filled with images of poverty and suffering – and is entirely populated by people of colour.

The subtext? White folks are donors, philanthropists and legacy leavers. Black and brown folks are the poor beneficiaries of white largesse.

While this is problematic on so many different levels (white savior complex, anyone?), in so narrowly defining who’s a donor and who’s a beneficiary, your organization is excluding a large and growing population of potential donors.

Savvy fundraisers are looking to the future, and understanding that demographic shifts mean we’re going to need to change the way we do things in fundraising – and in the nonprofit sector as a whole.

Take Toronto as an example.

Recently released data from Canada’s 2016 census shows that the majority of people living in Toronto identify themselves as visible minorities – 51.5% of Torontonians, to be exact (and let’s hope this means we can finally officially toss the outdated term “visible minority”!)

If your organization isn’t thinking seriously about diversity, equity and inclusion, and taking it into account during all facets of your organizational development, you’re going to get left behind.

Who is represented on your leadership team?

When you flip the pages of your last annual report, or scroll through the pages of your website, whose faces do you see represented when it comes to your organization’s leadership?

Chances are, your board and senior management team is pretty homogenous.

Data from the Ontario Nonprofit Network report Shaping the Future indicates that 87% of Executive Directors in Ontario are white.

This issue is delved into in more detail in a must-read study out of the US called Race to Lead: Confronting the Racial Leadership Gap.

Similar to Ontario, the percentage of people of color in nonprofit executive director roles has remained under 20% for the past decade.

This study also found that people of colour are just as qualified as their white counterparts, and want to be the CEOs of nonprofit organizations (in fact, more so than white respondents).

The lack of people of color in top leadership roles is a serious structural problem for the nonprofit sector. We are missing out on a massive pool of talent because of systemic barriers and implicit bias.

Before I close, I just wanted to acknowledge that moving towards greater diversity, equity and inclusion is much deeper and more complex than simply looking at who is represented in the pages of your last newsletter. It requires systemic change, both within your organization, and without.

However, I’ve noticed that taking a closer look at the patterns of who you are representing as a donor, beneficiary and leader can trigger an a-ha moment for many organizations, mobilizing them to make change in crucial areas like governance, human resources, and training and professional development.

Representation matters! As an Inclusive Fundraiser, how are you going to take action to make sure your donors feel valued, and see themselves meaningfully included in your organization?

The Inclusive Fundraiser is an on-going series of articles about diversity, equity and inclusion in fundraising. You can subscribe to my updates to have these articles delivered straight to your inbox – and if you have any thoughts or feedback you'd like to share, leave a comment below, or drop me a line at [email protected].

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