Talking to Donors about Equity & Justice

By Chelsey Souza, CFRE

In 2001, when I joined the fundraising profession, donor-centric fundraising was the gold standard. As a development associate who was drafting appeal letters, managing monthly giving, and processing donations; the most effective fundraising strategy was to always center the donor, or so we thought. At that time, from my perspective, ethical fundraising meant being honest, transparent, and accountable in all aspects of our work with donors. Building trusting relationships was paramount. My role was to raise funds from individuals to support our programmatic work, providing food to people struggling with food insecurity. I went on to work in development for several other organizations and was always focused on individual giving. I found this work deeply rewarding. I was enabling philanthropy which meant asking wealthy donors to make a gift to help people in need. It was vitally important to recognize the donor for their altruistic part in addressing this community need. 

What I didn’t realize about my rewarding job, was that by always centering the donor instead of those being served, I was taking part in the very system responsible for the deep social and racial inequities that plague the Bay Area and our nation. Formal philanthropy’s foundation was built on privilege, power, and wealth; wealth often gained by exploiting others in some form.

In recent years, I’ve come to learn that the role of a professional fundraiser is to help create a more just society. Others have also helped me recognize that racial equity and social justice are not just about shared values, but a systemic shift we must work to create with our actions. When fundraisers help resource their nonprofit’s programs and move missions forward, we are taking part in building a more just and equitable society. This extends to how we think about our conversations with donors, particularly around the concept of truth-telling an important and widely embraced social justice principle.* For example, in thinking about income inequality in Silicon Valley, those capable of making the largest gifts may not know that just 25% of the population holds 92% of the wealth (2022 Silicon Valley Index by Joint Venture). 

In addition to conversations, donor communications can be a starting point for truth-telling because as fundraisers, we often drive how narratives and stories about our organization’s work are told. For example, we are often asked to incorporate stories about program beneficiaries into donor materials. Taking steps to engage program beneficiaries in the process of telling their own stories, rather than writing stories about them is a way to ensure that their experiences are truthfully represented to donors. Another example is language choice in donor communications — while it is essential to use asset-based rather than deficit-based language, there is also an opportunity to use plain, direct language to name the root-cause issues, like wealth inequality, that create the need for your organization’s work.

By incorporating equity and justice into our donor conversations and communications, fundraisers can help build awareness and begin to unravel traditional formal philanthropy which has perpetuated the very societal issues that nonprofit organizations are responding to. 

You can learn more about participating in this important fundraising shift through these resources:

Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF)

Justice Funders

The Ethical Rainmaker

Decolonizing Wealth, Edgar Villanueva​

*Miquette A. Thompson, MNA, CFRE Reflections on Identity, Equity & Justice in Nonprofit Fundraising