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By Rebecca Paugh, Nonprofit Fundraiser

Dear Donor,

Hi! This is a message from your friendly, eager-to-please nonprofit fundraiser. All of us got together, and I drew the short straw … and I now have the task of telling you the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I have been summoned to pull back the curtain and reveal everything. Everything we want you to know — but are afraid to say — about philanthropy.

How can we help you understand when and how your donation helps — and also when your donation may, in fact, be unhelpful?

First and foremost, if you are currently giving money to a nonprofit organization, we want to genuinely thank you. Without funding, it is difficult, and — in most cases — impossible to do the work that needs doing. We understand that donors like you give for all kinds of reasons, and the choice to share your money is admirable. You could be spending all of your money on the latest iPhone, saving it all for your offspring, or buying a yacht. (I imagine that most of us fall within the first or second scenario, but still – we are all making a choice.)

Us fundraisers are not here to deny you your right to choose. You should get to call the shots and make decisions about what you are going to do with your money. As fundraisers, we can say with confidence that everyone has a complex relationship with money (especially us!) — and it gets trickier once we acknowledge that money is power.

Just sit with that. If you have the ability to make a donation — of any size — you are in a position of power. You have power!

And typically, more money = more power. Sometimes we use our money/power with good intentions. And sometimes there are unintended consequences to our good intentions — and that is what we want to talk to you about.

How can we help you understand when and how your donation helps — and also when your donation may, in fact, be unhelpful?

One thing you can do is ask yourself some questions before you make your next gift — and then repeat the process each and every time you make a donation going forward. These questions might make you squirm a little, maybe even feel uncomfortable — but we believe in you. We know your heart is in the right place. You’ve got this!

Question 1: “Is there a quid pro quo?”

Ask yourself how you benefit, if at all, from your donation? Are you asking to see your name or your company’s logo on a billboard or in the annual report? Do you expect front row tickets or other perks and favors? Do you understand that your donation allows you to benefit from an elevated social status and access to others of wealth and privilege?

Here is a dirty little secret: We know you have your self-interested reasons for giving, and we as fundraisers specifically try to find out what your reasons are — and then we capitalize on and exploit them by incentivizing you with rewards.

However, many of us have decided that we don’t really like doing this anymore. It feels manipulative and unsavory. We have created this problem, and we want it to stop. And we think once you really understand your giving motivations, you will want this dynamic to stop too.

Question 2: “How am I using my power?”

Are you asking to create new programs based on your personal passion and/or vision rather than supporting the work that is currently being done? How about: Are you leveraging your funds so that you can sit on a board or step in to provide direction and “expertise” — while also getting the added bonus of receiving accolades for doing so?

Do you ever assume that because you have resources, (or a PhD from Yale, or a Mensa membership) that your advice should carry more weight than those in the community who are doing the work?

Here’s a hot tip: If you are giving funds to a nonprofit, you clearly already have confidence in their quality of work and their commitment to their mission, right? Their lived experience and daily immersion in the work provides them with expertise that you likely do not have — so honor and respect that and maybe just save all your brilliant ideas for your own start-up.

Question 3: “Am I willing to share my power?”

Here’s another way to look at this question. Ask yourself: Do I trust the organization and its leadership to make good decisions with my dollars?

If your real answer is no, could it be because the organization is led by women, people of color, or someone with a less formal education? Are you continually ‘vetting them’ by demanding a return on your investment with labor-intensive data and impact reports?

Hot tip: While nonprofits do want to reassure donors that they are good stewards of their funds, all of the time spent documenting and justifying their very existence is time and energy spent away from doing the actual work. As a donor please adjust your expectations, as well as help change the norms by talking about this problem when you see it.

Question 4: “Is my giving plan really ‘philanthropy’ or is it a tax shelter?”

If you are putting your money into a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) or contributing to an endowment, who, precisely, are you helping?

For the record, a DAF is designed to allow you to avoid paying taxes. Typically, your money is not actually being distributed in a timely manner, but rather kept in a fund, earning revenue for you — your DAF, your Community Foundation, or the charitable fund who manages your DAF — while the nonprofits and communities who desperately need those funds are only getting the 5% skimmed off the top.

Are you throwing pennies at a problem with one hand while hanging onto your piggy bank for dear life with the other?

If you are, that’s okay. But it’s not really philanthropy, is it?

Question 5: “Am I engaging in charity or change?”

Do you expect to feel a warm glow as you reflect on how your money has rescued and lifted up others beneath you?

Let’s break it down: Charity implies that there are two categories of people — the givers (the superior, the ‘haves’) and the recipients (the inferior, the poor, the ‘have-nots’). As long as that is the lens through which we view money, there will always be people ‘in power’ and people ‘in need.’ The way we think informs the power dynamic.

If we want to stop engaging in ‘charity’ and acknowledge the toxic byproducts of this word, then all of us — donors and fundraisers — need to shift our thinking in the following directions:

  • We need to visualize the mission as a shared project.
  • We need to use words focused on partnerships that seek long-term change.
  • We need to acknowledge that we all have something to contribute — and money is only one part.
  • We need to talk more about our nonprofits doing community-based work, work that requires everyone working together, where each individual is valued as an equal partner.
  • We need to collectively reinvent our language to clarify what these new relationships will look like.

Question 6: “What do I want my legacy to be?”

Are you creating a fund that will ‘live in perpetuity’? What is the source of your motivation in wanting to leave behind a legacy?

Here’s another hot tip:

GIVE IT AWAY.

We all go out of our way to stretch our funds — to make them last in perpetuity (and our financial experts certainly advise us to do so, mostly because it actually benefits them.) But, if you want to make an impact, you need to give it away.

Why then do we do so with such reluctance?

Creating an endowment that ‘gives forever’ or putting your name on a building is actually not inherently about doing good. It’s about hanging on to your power. Again, that’s okay. It’s your power. Do with it what you will.

Let’s just remember — it’s not philanthropy.

 

Finally, dear donor, we want you to know that we believe in our hearts that you do not engage in giving merely for the accolades. We know you do it because you care. You care deeply.

And when you think of your family, your children, your community, what do you really want your lasting impact to be? Do you want your lasting impact to be one of change and partnership — or one of maintaining the status quo of a dysfunctional system, a system that perpetuates the lie that there are two kinds of people: Donors with a capital D and the recipients/less-than/have-nots.

Now is the time for all of us — donors, fundraisers, board members, and nonprofit communities — to move from transactional giving to genuine, equitable, and heartfelt partnerships for change.

Dear donor, we are holding out our hand to help you step down from the pedestal we put you on and asking you to walk with us side by side.

 

 

Author’s note: With deep appreciation to the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who have led the way, I want to acknowledge that I am echoing ideas in this essay that many others have already articulated.

Rebecca Paugh

Rebecca Paugh

Rebecca (Becky) Paugh (she/her) has worn many hats in the nonprofit sector: co-artistic director/co-founder of a theatre company, stewardship/event planner for a private school, program developer for a refugee resettlement org, and director of development/chief recycler for a youth arts org. Becky lives in Connecticut with her complicated and beautiful blended family. She is passionate about bees, ranked-choice voting, and the NYTimes Spelling Bee.  Follow #disruptphilanthropy or find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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