“If you are getting that feedback, then you shouldn’t hire me.”
I was recently a finalist for a director of development position with a national nonprofit that has a satellite site in the 9th ward of New Orleans, which works predominantly with young Black high school students. In my final interview with this organization — and after discussing my support of the CCF model, the disruption of philanthropy and the dismantling of white supremacist systems in non-profits — light topics for a job interview — the chief development officer asked the following:
“We have received feedback that it’s problematic that the majority of our programmatic staff that works with our students are BIPOC but that the majority of our outward facing (development, partnerships, marketing) staff are white. As a white-presenting woman, what are your thoughts on that and how would you solve this issue?”
I took a beat and answered: “If you are getting that feedback, then you shouldn’t hire me.”
A maddening cycle: repeating my actions and expecting a different result
I have been working to raise funds for nonprofits for almost twelve years. The majority of that time has been spent raising money for public schools in New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve bounced around to several organizations over the years, never spending more than three years at any one place because I couldn’t put up with staying longer than that.
I remember, one time on the job, I listened to our students’ families and alumni when they said they felt unwelcome at our fundraising events. In response, I recruited Black gala co-chairs as well as a significant number of BIPOC committee members and worked with them to create an event where our community felt welcome and engaged.
And despite record attendance, I was told on two different occasions by both my white executive director and a white board member that they felt like it was a “Black event,” where white people weren’t welcome. (For the record, attendance at the event was still 80% white.)
I remember instances such as when young Black teenagers were made to submit their parents’ tax returns so that groups of white donors and white board members could pore over the returns and discuss whether or not they should be required to pay $20 of $1600 in school fees (these fees came from a “free” public school, too) to ensure that they have “skin in the game.”
My suggestion that we cover all fees for all students without an application were completely rebuffed as too expensive and met with the charge that it created an opportunity for students to “take advantage” of the program (I still have no idea what this meant — students taking advantage of their actually-free public education? The horror.).
I have to be willing to transfer my power to BIPOC folx if there is any hope of affecting real change.
As a compromise, my director moved forward with a program name change (as if referring to it as “financial aid” was the undignified part) and a commitment to stop pulling students out of class to write thank you letters to donors.
(But we somehow found the money to host a catered cocktail party after each of our monthly board meetings.)
Looking back, it’s unconscionable that, despite the fact that 91% of students in New Orleans public schools are BIPOC, I have never worked within a reporting structure that had meaningful BIPOC leadership in real positions of power either within the organization or on the board of directors. Yet, the organizations I have worked for have considered themselves very “progressive.” (I know this because I spent a lot of time managing the hurt emotions of leadership who felt personally victimized when white supremacist structures and practices were pointed out.)
And for years, I raised millions of dollars for these institutions that still persist in victimizing the community they purportedly serve. The white supremacist machine would churn on, I would get burnt out, and then I would move onto the next white liberal-run nonprofit.
What is it they say about repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome?
A little over a year ago my friend, artist, and activist Ifátùmínínú Bamgbàlà Arèsà posted on social media that in order to dismantle white supremacy, white people need to be willing to give up their power. Her statement has followed me since, reminding me that it’s not enough to leverage my power for good. I have to be willing to transfer my power to BIPOC folx if there is any hope of affecting real change.
Here are 11 ways white nonprofit workers, foundation directors, and donors can give up power:
You read that right! Are you a white C-suite or D-suite professional at a nonprofit in a white-led organization? Are you on the all-white (or nearly all-white) executive committee of a predominantly white board of directors? Resign.
(Also, before you resign, put a succession plan in place that will transfer leadership of your organization to multiple BIPOC folx.)
2. Abolish compensation and other organizational structures that disproportionately benefit management at the expense of staff.
Are you an executive director that makes $250,000 a year with program staff that makes $45,000? Well, then it’s time for you and the rest of your leadership staff to take a pay cut to ensure that there is an equitable distribution of capital among all staff members. Also, you should ensure that you and all of your leadership staff are examples of good work-life balance. Plus, eschew reporting structures that keep decision making and strategic planning within organizational leadership.
3. Remove law enforcement and armed security from your facilities and events.
Law enforcement and armed security only serve to make white folx feel safe. They have the opposite effect on our BIPOC colleagues, clients, donors, and event attendees. Additionally, we should avoid calling law enforcement to intervene in any issue that happens at our facilities and events to the greatest extent possible.
4. Don’t apply for or accept job offers from organizations that do not have significant BIPOC leadership.
The idea that a white supremacist structure can be changed from within if enough “woke white people” are working there is a naïve fantasy that I lived in for over a decade. If an organization doesn’t have multiple BIPOC leaders throughout the staff — specifically executive staff — and board of directors, then accepting a position at this organization is only going to reinforce a white supremacist structure.
5. Decline leadership positions on projects and support BIPOC colleagues in managing projects that will propel their career growth and advancement.
Has your manager asked you to take the lead on re-imagining the fall fundraising drive? Suggest that this is a better opportunity for one of your BIPOC colleagues to take the lead on. Take a back seat.
If you take stock of the percentage of projects in your organization that are managed by white folx, that number is likely to be pretty high. It’s also just as unlikely that you are more qualified to run this project than one of your BIPOC colleagues.
6. If there is limited funding for staff development training, decline to use those funds on yourself.
Encourage your organizational leadership to budget for all staff to take advantage of continuing education opportunities and to earmark additional funds specifically for BIPOC staff members. Continuing education helps to propel people forward in their career and makes them more qualified for leadership positions. If the goal is to make more power available for BIPOC folx, then that includes making training available for them to wield that power.
7. Don’t force yourself into BIPOC spaces.
A friend that teaches at a local elementary school told me that her principal (a white man) became offended when a group of Black teachers and para-professionals formed an informal potluck lunch group. This principal demanded that they disband. He claimed that they were “excluding” their white colleagues.
Sometimes white colleagues need to be excluded though. We must give up the idea that we are entitled to be in every space, and we need to stay out of spaces where we will cause harm.
8. Decline to apply for funding you don’t need and encourage funders to support BIPOC-led organizations instead.
In May, the Bridgespan Group together with Echoing Green published a report that echoed what BIPOC nonprofit leaders have known for decades: BIPOC-led organizations are awarded less grant money with more strings attached than white-led organizations doing work in the same fields. In fact, according to Edgar Villanueva, only about 8.5% of philanthropic money goes to BIPOC-led organizations.
White-led organizations need to decline funding that is not critical to their work and must educate funders on the need to directly fund BIPOC-led organizations (as opposed to large white-led pass through organizations), the need to reduce onerous application and reporting requirements, and the importance of multi-year general operation dollars (which Vu Le has dubbed MYGOD!).
9. Give away more than the federally required minimums for foundation giving and make a plan to spend down the corpus of your foundation’s endowment.
Last month, I was lucky enough to participate in a town hall entitled “What’s Broken in the Foundation and Donor Landscape?” While it was made clear that there is no substitution for a fair tax structure that supports the social safety net and services for all American residents, the moderators sent out a call to action for foundations to spend more than the 5% required by law (which can also include operational overhead) and to form a plan to spend down foundation endowments so that the money that they earned through the exploitation of BIPOC folx over hundreds of years is returned to those communities.
Those of us at foundations need to make a commitment to not exist in perpetuity.
(Also, if you haven’t already done so, please sign on to the charity stimulus petition urging Congress to change the distribution rules for donor-advised funds and private foundations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
10. Decline recognition and don’t attach other strings to your philanthropy.
Stop requiring organizations to shout your name from the rooftops or to dance for you in order to get your support. Supporting a cause you believe in with money that would otherwise be going into the public tax system should not require that your name be attached to a building, a specific number of impressions on a website, or access to BIPOC youth for exploitative photo ops.
(The fundraiser in me must point out that recognizing and publicly thanking donors can be mutually beneficial when leveraging those donations to attract more donors from their social and professional networks. However, this recognition should be initiated by the grant recipient and not a requirement of the funder.)
11. Publicly advocate for and participate in reparations.
It’s not enough to just read The Case for Reparations, white folx must use their political capital to ensure this happens in our lifetime. You should be contacting your lawmakers and supporting candidates that support reparations. Ensure that the organization you work for has a clear public stance on the need for reparations and talk about it with your donors.
And not all reparations must come directly from the United States government. You can participate in reparations right now: In addition to the ten other suggestions above, you should support Black and Indigenous owned businesses, make a personal and organizational plan to make land reparations, offer discounts on your services to BIPOC folx and BIPOC-led organizations, and get involved with local grassroots opportunities for reparations.
Some of these suggestions are going to feel uncomfortable to contemplate — and that’s okay! This is uncomfortable work. If it feels easy, then you aren’t really doing the work. We do community and nonprofit work because we want to be a part of solving serious issues. It’s easy to get so involved in the minutiae of our work, that we forget that the root of nearly every problem that a nonprofit is attempting to solve is white supremacy. White supremacy cannot be dismantled if white folx do not step aside and cede power and resources for BIPOC folx to guide their own communities.
It is up to each of us as white allies to examine how we can give up our power.
How will you give up yours?
Sarah Stickney Murphy
Sarah Stickney Murphy (she/her) is a queer nonprofit consultant and recovering opera singer. Sarah is the founder and principal of Stickney Murphy Consulting, LLC. She lives just outside of New Orleans, originally called Bulbancha, on land stolen from the Houma with her husband, three children, three cats, two turtles, and innumerable fish. Sarah loves to cook ridiculously elaborate meals and runs a small home-based food business where she makes her own cheese. She can be found on Instagram at @smurphycooks, on her website smurphynola.com, and via email at email@example.com.