Does Donor-Centrism Perpetuate Inequality?

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I am a big proponent of donor-centered fundraising. I like helping nonprofits show donors how they are an integral part of the mission.

To be contrarian, or perhaps to be a disrupter, Vu Le of Nonprofit AF claims that nonprofit donor centered communications hurt us in these various ways. I really like his blog, and so this post surprised me-What is the deal with Vu Le’s post on how donor-centric fundraising hurts us?

Mr. Le has made a number of points, and I’ll respond to them here. He says that donor centric fundraising hurts us because it:

  1. Reinforces money as the default measure of people’s worth – I don’t think donor centered fundraising does this. To try to focus more effectively on our many donors, we look at RFM. Recency. Frequency. And Monetary Value. That is one out of three criteria. We should also be looking at their volunteer history, the history of being served by nonprofit programs, how we’re connecting with them at events, online, and other connections to our mission. So that means if there’s a widow who has been giving $10 per month for 3 years, she would be held up as a donor to cultivate rather than a person who gave $1,000 once 4 years ago.
  2. Minimizes other elements needed to do this work well-I agree there. We should be focusing on how we treat our nonprofit workers, and make it better for them, get them to stay and treat them as well as we treat our donors, or better.
  3. Furthers the idea of transactional charity – Does it really though? How does saying “You helped us achieve this” make the donor just a transaction? You could also say this to board members or other volunteers. You could say this to people who get the word out about what you do in the community. I know some nonprofits who say it to everyone who subscribes to their newsletter. Most of those people are not donors.
  4. Prevents honest conversations and true partnerships – There is an element of truth in this. We could do a better job of holding up program staff as heroes, and helping donors appreciate our program staff more. We could have a love fest, instead of just focusing on donors. We need to say, “We accomplished this, together, with your help” not just “Donor, you are the only one who made this happen.” Let’s face it. A lot of our social service nonprofits would survive on government grants and contracts without individual donors. But helping donors feel thanked and needed is important. I’ve honestly never seen a nonprofit that ONLY thanks donors without also highlighting the volunteers and staff who get things done. Feel free to correct me on this Vu.
  5. Short-changes our donors. I can see how this could be true, if the goal with donors is to help them see program staff as community members, and become part of a community instead of just holding them up as heroes. A true equal relationship does mean appreciating both sides, not just one side. We don’t have to put them on a pedestal. But neither do we have to assume that putting them first in our communications means putting ourselves down.
  6. Perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games -Where we try to get as much attention as possible to get more people to help us get through the games? May the nonprofit who communicates the best win? I see why you’d have a problem with this. But honestly a lot of the nonprofits that Don’t Communicate Well are not doing it well because they keep firing people or having them quit because they don’t pay them enough. So, we as nonprofits have to look back at ourselves and ask, if we’re not communicating enough, is it because we don’t treat our staff well enough? You mentioned that we have to get star ratings from CharityNavigator, GreatNonprofits and GuideStar, but how does this apply to donor centered communication? It seems like a separate issue. People are used to rating products and restaurant service online now. I don’t think we should commodify nonprofit service like that, it’s true, but… if we’re sticking with the issue of donor centric communications, I don’t see this as being a part of that.
  7. Proliferates the Savior Complex – I can see this being true. We can’t do it without you! But what’s the alternative? We CAN do it without you, so you know what? Never mind! I mean, I do believe that we should educate our donors on what it means to do this work, the amount of resources it needs- BUT at the same time-I wish more nonprofits advocated at the government level for the government to take on more of the social service work that we do. Because it is hard to offer consistent services when our funding is inconsistent. Which is another reason why we should be trying to help fundraisers grow within our organizations, and help them stay.
  8. Perpetuates Othering the people we serve- I see this stemming from the savior complex, so yeah. This is true.
  9. Crowds out the voices of people served-Why should you not have donor voices as well as the voices of people served? I know a nonprofit in LA that focuses on people served as well as their monthly donors in their communications. They have videos with both kinds of people. Maybe other nonprofits are ONLY focusing on donor stories at the expense of other voices? But I haven’t seen this. If anything, I see mostly people copy-pasting grant proposal language into their communications- And let’s face it, donor-centric writing, even a small amount of it, is better than that.
  10. Further marginalizes otherwise marginalized communities- I can see this actually-when people don’t have time to get back to you right away-you shouldn’t penalize or punish them for that. They are doing their best.

You know, I was going to start out refuting these points- but he’s essentially correct in many of them.

Thank you Vu, for making me re-think donor-centered communications. We could do a lot better in appreciating and supporting program staff to do their work each day. Maybe with an internal newsletter with one sweet thing about each staff member once a month?

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