By Chris Talbot-Heindl, communications (plus additional duties as needed) professional
It’s never easy to change the tire while the car is still in motion, but if we want to build our organizations to truly uphold JEDI principles, it’s something we need to do.
In mid-February, I sat in a development committee meeting. Like most meetings I attend, I was the only non-white, non-cis person in the room, sitting on mute, listening to an all-white, all-cis group share their ideas for how we could monetize an educational week of events.
The event they want to use as a fundraiser is one I have put on my recent slate of cover letters (thank you to the folx who reached out after my first article and encouraged me to look for new work) as an example of one of my proudest accomplishments. Its last incarnation was a week-long virtual series of events, which happened in the third month of the pandemic, and was entirely free to attend.
During this February meeting, when the others mentioned VIP-style pay-to-play schemes to monetize it, I was not happy. And I voiced it.
“That’s not an equitable practice,” I said.
I also elaborated and tried to relay the injustices in wealth accumulation between the races and explain how our science-based research is better circulated to everyone who wants to learn than saved for the wealthy who can afford to pay.
Honestly though, I’m not sure how much I was able to say or if I even whipped out any stats — like the fact that it would take the average Black family 228 years and the average Latinx family 84 years to accumulate as much wealth as the average white family — because a white cis woman on the Zoom call interrupted me to laugh in my face and tell me, “That’s just how fundraising is.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d been laughed at by a white cis colleague while voicing an equity concern in a nonprofit. I’ve worked and volunteered in predominantly white institutions my entire adult career. I’m pretty much used to it.
But it was the first time it happened after the people involved expressed a “commitment” to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) work, and so it hit differently.
Regardless, I tried one more time: “It may be common, but it’s not the only way. And it’s rooted in white supremacy culture.”
This elicited shocked stares from the all-white, all-cis wall of Zoom rectangles on my screen before someone did the whole, “I can see both sides, but I think this is a larger conversation that can happen off this call.”
That was over two months ago. There’s been no attempt to have that larger conversation.
Shaken by this exchange, I went to process the experience with one of my accomplices. She brought up that there may not be many examples of community-centric practices on paper — and there’s also no evidence that white-donor-centered (as Vu Le refers to it) is the only or supreme form of fundraising either.
There simply isn’t enough data to claim either side of the argument the victor.
(In my purview, if organizations are committed to justice and equity, that needs to be at the forefront, regardless of what works best to bring in cash. But, I take the point.)
I’m sure the thousands of us following Community-Centric Fundraising want to be the change, but how are we sharing our successes and learning opportunities to make sure that the data will eventually be there?
With that goal in mind, I want to share three things I’ve tried that worked beautifully.
1. The time I organized a week-long, virtual education event and gave it away for free
We had our week-long annual educational event scheduled for May 10-16, 2020. Typically, this week would have a significant event every day, along with a couple of fundraisers, to educate the public on at-risk animal species and help fund our work to protect them.
Denver reported its first coronavirus case on March 5 and started its incremental lockdown around March 16.
Being a triracial, queer, trans nonbinary person in an all-white, all-cis, all-het organization meant that I almost immediately realized I would need a little extra help getting through the pandemic without rage-quitting my job. I had already begun attending support groups and webinars to help me navigate and process my feelings when my team scheduled the “what are we going to do?” meeting.
Inspired by the BIPOC Surviving Predominantly White Institutions series and Native Wellness Institute Power Hours I loved, I proposed doing free lunch-and-learns to share the community’s knowledge regarding different species. While there was some skepticism, there was also a lack of other great ideas and the energy to deal with the programming, so I was given free rein to do whatever. Power! LOL.
Instead of seeking monetary sponsorships from our partners as we had in years past, I asked nonprofits to share a resource, an action, or have one of their experts appear on a lunch-and-learn for the day. I also provided them with a media kit and asked them to advertise the week and events. Content, experts, and advertising — check! Community — double check!
With their contributions, I made a webpage for each day featuring things to read, direct actions to take, videos to watch, and kids’ activities. For Monday through Friday, I scheduled a different lunch-and-learn, each with a panel of experts.
It was completely free. Anyone with an internet connection could attend. We recorded the lunch-and-learn sessions for those who couldn’t participate on the day and hosted them on our YouTube account.
One partner who wasn’t ready for community-centrism insisted on doing their own thing, going as far as taking credit for my work, sending fundraising asks about the event with no mention that my organization (or more accurately, I) created it. But I ain’t mad. At the end of the day, the information was disseminated, people learned and took action, and the movement inched forward.
The result is that we created the most educational experience I think our group has ever hosted! We had over 70 attendees register for each lunch-and-learn. Attendees got direct access to experts and were able to ask questions in real-time.
I don’t know if anyone felt what I did as the moderator, but it felt like we were building a real community! It was beautiful!
What about the bottom line? Well, with the whole week being online, removing the need for rented locations, signage, programs, and other in-person staples, and all the experts donating their time in exchange for sponsorship benefits, the costs were entirely staff time. And if you’ve read my previous article, you know I am not paid well. A few enthusiastic donors probably covered my salary without us even having to do any formal ask (I didn’t track it, but I’m fairly confident this is a true statement).
This is the series of events the development committee wanted to monetize with VIP-level access, pay-to-play scheme, concentrating access to the information and science to the “largest” donors. (I put “largest” in quotes because “largest” in this case would be determined by the number of dollars donated rather than respecting that “large” is subjective — people give at a level meaningful to them. It also does not account for donated time, which, arguably, community scientists who acquire the scientific data we rely on make a “larger” donation to the cause than any monetary donation could).
2. The time I divested from AmazonSmile and immediately received donations equalling six years worth of disbursements
During the last Amazon boycott, nonprofit Facebook groups were abuzz about what to do. Should organizations continue to advertise AmazonSmile or should they respect the boycott? Most of the responses indicated that almost universally, nonprofit fundraisers hated the whole AmazonSmile grift but reluctantly participated.
I was the same way. For years I wanted to divest our organization from AmazonSmile. I would send an email to my boss every time we received our quarterly disbursement asking that we find time to talk about the possibility.
When my organization started claiming they cared about JEDI principles, I stopped asking and started telling. I said we couldn’t make that claim while our fundraising processes proved otherwise. I made a list of things that we wouldn’t be doing anymore — with sending personalized thank yous only to people giving $100 and above (yes, for real) and AmazonSmile at the top.
After I finished the divesting process, I let our supporters know. I sent an email. Here’s a truncated version of my email:
We’ve committed to more ethical fundraising
We have recently divested from Amazon due to their ongoing history of warehouse abuses, sub-standard pay, Rekognition software that contributes to racist profiling, and inadequate or spotty adherence in warehouses to social distancing guidelines during COVID.
Our organization has decided to cut ties with Amazon and the nonprofit fundraising arm, AmazonSmile. In doing so, we are not making a statement against individuals, businesses, or organizations who continue to use Amazon for their needs. We recognize that for a lot of people, Amazon is the most accessible option and a safe alternative to shopping in person, but we have decided not to support the business ourselves.
AmazonSmile donated 0.5% of our registered supporters’ qualifying purchases on their platform, or $5 for every $1,000 spent. In the last year, we received $224.28 from AmazonSmile. We hope that we can recover this amount without encouraging spending at an organization with a history of unethical practices.
If you are looking for alternatives to Amazon, here’s threshold, a website with a list of ethical alternatives. You can also shop at businesses that are 1% for the Planet members. These businesses donate one percent of annual sales directly to approved environmental and sustainability nonprofit organizations.
The immediate result of this action was that we received an outpouring of support in our inbox, along with enough donations to cover six years of lost disbursements!
And more than that, we stopped providing a tax shelter and encouraging nearly $45k a year in spending “on our behalf” on Amazon.
3. The time I changed our sponsorship levels from dollar levels to a percentage of income
Spurred on by these two successes, I decided to try something new for our end-of-the-year celebration and fundraiser. Already, it was going to be different. Typically, our annual celebration event costs $35 to $65 just to get in the door. The ticket price grants you direct access to our staff and board for presentations of our work, vegan and vegetarian tapas, wine, and the opportunity to bid on an environmentally-themed silent auction.
With the lockdown and the pandemic, we decided to host one of our annual environmental film festivals virtually.
The film festival is always my favorite event of the year — a film festival made by activists, for activists. We always pair the festival with a reception where local nonprofits can feature a direct action for attendees to take.
The festival’s entry fee was $15 per household rather than $35 to $65 per ticket. Still, I ensured all of our advertising was clear that we would happily waive the fee if anyone were experiencing financial insecurity.
For our sponsorship levels, I decided to try and create suggested ranges based on gross income. Our previous sponsorship levels had two price points: $250 and $500. We had one partner organization with a gross income under $100,000 who struggled with this each year, and I always felt guilty turning them away.
Our new ranges based on gross income operated on my theory that people give at a level meaningful to them.
We based the high-end of the range on 0.05% of gross income. So, for organizations with a gross income below $100,000, we asked them to donate between $20 to $50. Our levels went up to “Over $1,000,000” for $750 to $1,000.
After making the levels, I ended up looking at a few of our partners’ 990s and realized some had gross incomes over $50,000,000! How unfair was it that we previously expected the same sponsorship amount from the first partner as we did the other two partners!
Additionally, I added a “choose your own adventure (name your price)” sponsorship level, where partners could let us know what they could give and decide their benefits — either the ones listed for the traditional sponsorship level or something else that could be mutually beneficial.
Smaller organizations were able to get in at a reasonable rate relative to their income. Larger organizations stayed at sponsorship levels similar to the previous years through the choose-your-own-adventure option.
While the resulting sponsorship is hard to compare to our normal business operations because we were essentially combining two events (our end-of-the-year party and a film festival we usually host in January) — we still ended up bringing in twice as much as we typically do for the end-of-the-year party and significantly more than the last year’s two events’ sponsorship combined.
More importantly, the change made it so that our close, smaller partners could participate. In fact, 25% of our sponsors were new sponsors!
It’s never easy to change the tire while the car is still in motion, but if we want to build our organizations to truly uphold JEDI principles, it’s something we need to do. As Vivien Trinh pointed out in her essay (which I absolutely suggest everyone read), “relying on ‘tried and true’ practices…often [replicate] white supremacist, colonial, capitalist systems of extraction.” We can do better.
While the following three things are “tried and true” …
- Creating exclusivity that hinges around a haves and have-nots dynamic in order to encourage large donations is not based on equity and doesn’t help the larger mission. If only those who can afford to learn about species and the obstacles they face, how will you build critical mass to remove those obstacles?
- Reluctantly participating in funding schemes with horrible equity for partial pennies on the dollar isn’t worth the harm it puts out into the world.
- Creating sponsorship levels that shut out essential members of your community while chasing members outside of your community for what they can afford doesn’t build a strong community. Being malleable, meeting your community where they are, and building relationships rather than transactions do.
There are big and small ways we can try to change the white-donor-centered transactional method of fundraising we’ve been told is “just how fundraising is,” if we’re creative and we’re open to learning, trying, and, yes, failing.
And maybe that needs to start with diverting from a planned meeting agenda to have a much-needed conversation about equity when a white woman fundraiser laughs in the face of the person suggesting it. Making small changes to your programs and events that make them more equitable and community-centric is an exciting opportunity with benefits infinitely more important than the monetary ones. And in my experience, sometimes financial boons come with those changes, too.
Chris Talbot-Heindl (they/them) is a queer, trans nonbinary, triracial artist and nonprofit employee. When they aren’t working the day job, they spend their free time editing an art and literature magazine, writing and illustrating educomics to help folx affirm their nonbinary pals, creating a graphic novel to describe what it’s like to be nonbinary in a gender binary world, cuddling their cat, and quad skating in the park. You can find Chris at talbot-heindl.com, on LinkedIn, and Twitter.