By Rakhi Agrawal, CCF Organizer
I used to wonder: “Why are we buying lunches for people who can already afford to buy lunch everyday?”
I am one of those fundraisers who “fell into fundraising” instead of seeking out this job in a more traditional way.
I was the first person to attend college in my family. I went to college at an elite institution in New York City with the goal of supporting myself through college without any family or external financial support (aside from need-based financial aid and scholarships). I worked six jobs to support myself through college, including a job as an administrative assistant (functionally a receptionist) at a Jewish student center on campus.
On most days, I was almost the only woman of color in the entire building — the other melanated faces included those of the security guard and the cleaning staff. Through hard work and balancing all of my jobs, on top of living in a new city and trying to be involved in student life, I was incredibly efficient at my job. So much so that, slowly, they started giving me tasks to support the development director — such as inputting data into our CRM, processing acknowledgements, donor research, and prepping for board meetings.
I reluctantly did the tasks so I could log more hours and not negatively impact my paycheck — I was very quick and efficient at my basic admin tasks, which counterproductively meant less time at work and less pay — but didn’t yet understand fundraising. (I was a free-and-reduced-lunch kid who had grown up in poverty — without fully realizing it because of how immersed I was in our immigrant life versus the lives of my peers — for much of my childhood.) In this particular job, I couldn’t imagine having the guts to ask rich white donors for checks or stroking their egos and playing nice to get them to give more to the organization.
I used to wonder:
“Why are we buying lunches for people who can already afford to buy lunch everyday?”
“Why would we host dinner galas that cost thousands instead of giving that money away to students in financial need?”
“Why is someone getting paid more to sit in an office and coddle white egos than the person who interfaces with every student when they walk into the building and asks them how they are doing (read: the security guard)?”
Our dinner galas made me uncomfortable. Using my brownness in fundraising campaigns promoting ‘diversity’ at the center made me self-conscious.
Over time, and slowly, I morphed into a development assistant — a promotion in title and hours but not pay. This was one of the first real “professional, resume-building” jobs I had. (Growing up, I had worked in my family’s convenience store since age 7, and then when I was legal to work elsewhere, did odd jobs helping local businesses sell things online, dog sat for neighbors, and worked 40 hours a week at a local grocery store.) I didn’t know who to talk to at the center or how to advocate for myself for a raise, all the while still knowing that an increase in responsibility should probably come with an increase in pay. Instead of a raise, I was made to feel grateful and special that I was chosen — out of any other student worker — to be the person who would be taking on development work, which would bolster the number of hours I got to log on my timesheet.
As the development assistant, I was never invited to donor meetings or to speak with board members, but I did all of the behind-the-scenes work. I understood the need for nonprofits, but I didn’t understand philanthropy — I didn’t understand why people were hoarding money and then selectively giving it away instead of just accepting less money from the get-go.
It was during this job that I started to find language around my early criticisms of the sector, language such as: nonprofit industrial complex, anti-capitalism, interdependence, equity and social justice. I also discovered Vu Le’s Nonprofit AF blog and realized there was at least one other person in the world who saw the same issues within the sector that I did.
Our dinner galas made me uncomfortable. Using my brownness in fundraising campaigns promoting ‘diversity’ at the center made me self-conscious. Having to remove my name from any donor-facing communication because my name was clearly not Jewish made me shrink into myself.
Needless to say, upon graduating from college and this role, I left the world of nonprofit development and didn’t look back — for a time.
After college, I ventured into education — teaching Black and brown kids math. I also organized in my free time, from fighting for reparations for victims of police torture in Chicago to organizing protests against family detention centers in south Texas.
It was exhausting. I dealt with so much secondhand trauma — students and their family members being shot and killed, being deported, getting arrested, struggling financially. Friends and comrades were organizing bail funds, occupying city hall buildings, and being arrested for protesting. I would leave school after a 16-hour work day and go home and send out emails to organize weekend actions. On top of everything, I wasn’t making enough to even be able to afford twice-a-month therapy, nor did I have the luxury of having plentiful PTO to be able to take time off for appointments. I realized that I was no longer good for my students when my mental illness started to seep into my teaching.
Why are we perpetuating white savior narratives by serving up poverty porn in appeal letters? Where are our affected populations involved and centered in our fundraising processes?
I inevitably got burnt out and was left confused about where to go after my teaching career. Do I sell my soul, ignore my values, and go into tech? Do I find a way to pursue more systemic change through community organizing for probably less pay? Do I go serve wealthy white communities as a service-worker, nanny, or tutor?
At the end of the day, I realized that the only tangible ‘hard’ skillset I had was nonprofit development — I knew how to write grants, plan fundraising events, do donor prospect research, and maintain CRMs and donor data. I knew that nonprofits couldn’t thrive without good fundraisers, and that the nonprofits I had worked closest with as a teacher and community organizer — the ones that mattered the most to me — tended to be small, grassroots, BIPOC- and/or queer-led nonprofits, who didn’t always have someone on staff with development skillsets.
So I decided to take my skillsets and bring them into BIPOC-led nonprofits. I started contracting wherever I could and won grant after grant, developing giving campaigns, and taught peers about cultivation and stewardship.
In many cases, I had to do some unlearning, followed by facilitating unlearning for others, about practices that I never understood — like, who is a “major donor? Where is the room to acknowledge folx who give at different levels that might still be personally significant for them? Where is the acknowledgement of time and talent in addition to treasure? Why are we perpetuating white savior narratives by serving up poverty porn in appeal letters? Where are our affected populations involved and centered in our fundraising processes? Why do we have to say, “$10/month pays for one book for one Black girl in our program,” in order to justify our need for funding?
As a queer, brown fundraiser, I am able to push orgs, challenge donors, and help decolonize wealth in service of true, grassroots work.
Last summer, after I lost my full-time fundraising job due to COVID, I stumbled upon the Community-Centric Fundraising website and shrieked out loud. Everything I had been asking myself and questioning for years, quietly, was addressed in type on a live website.
For the first time in my more-than-a-decade-long nonprofit career, CCF has given me a space where I don’t need to tamp down on my values or dampen my beliefs, a place where I can be a proud anticapitalist, decolonizer, and abolitionist, a place where I can openly say what I’ve known for years — that nonprofits only exist because of capitalism.
I’ve learned that there is a growing movement of folx who are critical of the white supremacist structures that prioritize individual (white) comfort in our sector over collective advancement, especially of those most historically disregarded. I’ve learned to identify the Westernized dominance that we, BIPOC fundraisers, are forced to adopt to be taken seriously, as we are also pushed to disregard practices that honor our deep, ancestral roots in collectivism and community.
The sharing of the 10 CCF Principles in the sector is finally giving us a common language and base from which to examine development practices and shift systems that have perpetuated the nonprofit industrial complex since the birth of the industry. As a queer, brown fundraiser, I am able to push orgs, challenge donors, and help decolonize wealth in service of true, grassroots work. I implore you to do the same.
Rakhi Agrawal (she/her/ella) is a nonprofit development consultant and grant writer, educator, community advocate, data scientist, and current CCF organizer. Through CCF, she has combined her experiences as a community organizer and former activist with her wide nonprofit development experience. She has received privileged credentials from schools that uphold systems of white supremacy, and as a queer, fat, brown disabled woman who was born to South Asian immigrants, is dedicated to leveraging her privileges to working towards equity, justice, and liberation for all. She currently lives, connects, and organizes on the land of the Tonkawa and Comanche peoples in Austin, Texas. She has never-ending love for and interest in babies, half-sour dill pickles, and Criminal Minds. Connect with her on the CCF Slack, LinkedIn, Twitter, and/or Insta!