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By Maralyne Narayan, fundraising consultant

These types of advice continue to pop up throughout the careers of women of colour. These pieces of advice are tropes bandied around — microaggressions wrapped in helpfulness and presented with a smile.

If asked, many women of colour (WOC) can tell horror stories of the advice they received early in their careers. Most of us have heard versions of, “You should use an “English name on your resume,” (something I personally first heard from a career counsellor when I was an undergraduate at a Canadian university, ironically directed at a room of 5 ethnically diverse faces attending a career workshop). Or perhaps, like me, you’ve been told to dress “professionally,” that is, with no overly bright colours (which of course means to never dress in a way that might identify your ethnic heritage). A temp agency staff member offered me that gem. 

These types of advice continue to pop up throughout the careers of women of colour. These pieces of advice are tropes bandied around — microaggressions wrapped in helpfulness and presented with a smile. 

In some ways, bad advice in the nonprofit sector can feel more insidious because of the high standard of morality to which we wrongly hold the charitable sector. Rather than capture the many pieces of terrible work advice WOC receive — because we all already know what they are — my focus here will be about five entrenched tips and tricks offered specifically in the field of fundraising. It’s important to acknowledge systemic issues that perpetuate sharing flawed knowledge with our newest colleagues. 

1. “Be grateful — very very grateful.”

The first terrible piece of fundraising-specific advice many nonprofit professionals ever receive is to be constantly grateful — both to donors but also for ‘the job.’ This may not be entirely specific only to fundraising but is certainly a common undercurrent throughout nonprofits. 

All too often we accept that gratitude is a requirement for our career negotiations, and we continue to sell ourselves short when we do not demand gratitude in return.

It was once suggested to me that even if I was sweeping the floor for an important nonprofit, I should be grateful for the chance to sweep floors. Too often, nonprofits expect their workers to just be grateful, despite giving them no benefits, extremely low salaries, and no promise of professional development. 

WOC — who are often driven by a deeply personal passion for justice, who are hard-working and believe in the lie of meritocracies — too often accept this status quo, perhaps because it aligns with our imposter syndrome, perhaps because it aligns with what we are told ‘working to improve the world’ would feel like.

Or maybe we accept it because we are afraid to question it, afraid it would make an embedded societal stereotype and a lifelong burden into a truth — and frankly, maybe we accept it because, after difficult periods of unemployment that are very common with nonprofit workers in this sector, we are actually grateful. 

Whatever the reasons, all too often we accept that gratitude is a requirement for our career negotiations, and we continue to sell ourselves short when we do not demand gratitude in return. 

Work — all work — should be mutually beneficial to both the employee and the employer. Ideally the employee gets more benefits than just existential gratification. I am immensely grateful that I eventually recognized the backwardness of this gratitude standard early on (though unfortunately not early enough to entirely escape toxic work environments). 

2. “Network — or starve.”

Basically I received the message that “the people”with “the money” or “the power” were the only ones to know.

The second terrible piece of advice I’ve gotten that straddles the line between fundraising-specific and general malarkey that WOC in all fields receive is that we need to network a lot. The implication is that if only we network more we would begin to experience the benefits of broad, powerful connections that white men in our society have enjoyed for 100s of years. This of course completely ignores the power and influence that a hegemonic group in positions of power can wield and the complexity, difficulty and strain of breaking into these ‘networks’ entrenched by systemic oppression and limited support. In fundraising, this push for volume is not only about networking for our own futures but also about the success of our causes. 

While I have learned through trial and error that building community can be incredibly beneficial with the right people (individuals who actually resonate with my value structure), my initial steps into networking were extremely shaky. 

Basically I received the message that “the people” with “the money” or “the power” were the only ones to know. This translated into trying to make connections with racially homogenous and class conscious leaders in nonprofits or non profit-adjacent organisations who, frankly, never really acknowledged my worth, nor, at times, my humanity.  

This was not only demoralizing, but it also eroded my sense of self. Regardless of the work we do to change the world, there are segments of society upheld by white supremacy that I was not only required to beg from, but I was also required to learn to move amongst effortlessly. Doing so required hiding every part of myself and, at times, denying my personal definition of self.

Networking for the purpose of fundraising often meant putting aside my identity, ignoring my and my family’s lived experience on the margins — from racial abuse to glass ceilings to the fact that my grandfather spent most of his life fighting, first British, then American influences — including those of a charitable nature — on a tiny island — for a kind of freedom that was withheld and denied for hundreds of years. 

Ultimately, I learned that the advice to network a lot, in and of itself, is not bad advice but rather it needs more follow-up. It needs to include effective tools and approaches for people of a variety of experiences and backgrounds. 

It’s important to connect in ways that are meaningful to you, share all of yourself, and find people willing to do the same. WOC need to know that their value in this sector, which has failed us in so many ways, is their difference, their unique perspectives, and their ability to challenge the status quo.

3. “Focus on people who donate.”

Basically, whole swaths of people who, by virtue of address, immigration status, age, culture, skin colour … “those people” apparently don’t give.

When we start out as fundraisers, we’re told that you must target specific sub-sections of society, the people who give. This advice of course implies something deeper, an undercurrent in fundraising (something I have only heard spoken aloud once), that there is also a specific definition of “those people” who don’t give. 

Basically, whole swaths of people who, by virtue of address, immigration status, age, culture, skin colour … “those people” apparently don’t give. 

Every fundraiser has come across this sentiment (and if you haven’t, you weren’t listening). 

The problem is that — again — my skin, my gender, my family’s experiences — has primed me to identify with “those people,” — People who do in fact give, and have given throughout history, both formally and informally. People who, through labour, care, philanthropy, and community, ensured our survival and our wellbeing. People who gave and gave throughout their lives, improving society in ways that simply cannot ever be fully captured in a dollar and cents quantification. 

But what will that ever mean in comparison to what can be donated by white males in boardrooms? 

4. “Have you prayed, though?”

I know I am not the only one who has silently allowed certain religious assumptions to be made about my personal beliefs, just to ensure a gift was received or a donor was not offended.

Do you need advice on how to cope with the burdens of your fundraising role? Well, have you tried asking God for help? 

(Asking for God’s help was an utterly useless tidbit of advice that was once offered to me by a manager in an organisation categorized as secular.) 

Fundraisers, perhaps more than in most other fields, are often confronted by religion in the workplace. The issue with this is that our donors often require us to embody a religious persona (or play a role) related to their own belief system, in order for us to build trust with them. I know I am not the only one who has silently allowed certain religious assumptions to be made about my personal beliefs, just to ensure a gift was received or a donor was not offended. 

From relatively benign instances of a donor assuming I was Hindu based on appearance alone (they were thrilled that I could also see the good work of “the lLord” and find myself a soul-redeeming job in a nonprofit), to awkward conversations with board members about my personal feelings around women’s right to choose or superiors in organisations encouraging me to settle down and live a “good” life instead of remaining a single cis female. 

Again, these conversations are coming up in settings that are defined as secular workplaces. 

What is also problematic, especially for WOC who have to deal with this kind of multiplicity all the time, is when leaders in nonprofits, specifically those claiming to be secular, lead based on their very personal religious beliefs, which is an all-too-common reality when leaders move up because of their dedication to a cause, rather than their skills or training. 

Religious identity need not ever be part of your decision-making as a fundraiser — and it certainly should not dictate success in your career. 

5. “Remember, the donor is king.”

Being reminded that the donor is king is the worst piece of advice that frequently shadows fundraisers. It’s advice that tells us that our principles as an organisation (and frequently our values as human beings) have no place in the donor relationship. 

Ultimately, while terrible career advice does often come from well-meaning places, many aspects of the nonprofit sector’s good intentions are not enough to break systemic inequities.

The reality is that organisations are often willing to contort their values and principles into unrecognizable forms to better accommodate those providing the money. This can be in minor ways — like altering language, and communication for specific donors — to larger scale issues like changing programs or completely rebranding the organization into something more palatable for large donors.  

The idea that the donor is king further diminishes opportunities to those groups, or individuals unable to accommodate donor expectations. Small or new organisations are limited by their infrastructure and administrative costs. Further, those extremely marginalised individuals, experiencing homelessness or general precarious realities, who may rely on informal street donations are displaced in favor of the bright faced, credit card accepting fundraisers on the street, eroding a potential source of needed emergency support in the community, in favor of large scale entities. 

I understand that, for most organisations engaged in fundraising, there are times when compromise is necessary for growth, development, and to ensure essential work continues. However, systemically, the assumption that donors deserve all of these compromises on the part of fundraisers and nonprofits is something we need to criticize and a practice we need to dismantle.

Across these five bits of advice, there are some overarching themes that WOC so often face as challenges to their success and professional development in this field. White supremacy is equally entrenched in the nonprofit sector as in other parts of our society, (perhaps more so in the narrative of white saviors). Those in positions of hierarchy may extend unrealistic expectations, stereotypes and personal beliefs to their staff, but it is not our burden to cope with these pressures. 

Ultimately, while terrible career advice does often come from well-meaning places, many aspects of the nonprofit sector’s good intentions are not enough to break systemic inequities. 

It is okay to recognize that being seen and actualized through your work is part of your requirements for finding a career that is a good fit. And maybe the best advice I have had in my career is that nonprofit work is hard, fundraising is hard, it is necessary to protect yourself and give consideration to your personal well-being, and salary, while not negligible, can never replace good work culture. 

Maralyne Narayan

Maralyne Narayan

Maralyne Narayan (she/her) is a fundraising consultant who has worked with several diverse international non-profits, including those focused on education, gender, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. She holds a Masters of Global Studies from Queens University located in Kingston, Ontario with a focus on sexworker unions in Thailand and had the privilege to work with youth in Guyana researching the impact of corporal punishment on youth. Now she lives in Ottawa and is focused on effective, equitable, and ethical fundraising practices. Connect with her on LinkedIn. If you’d like to tip her, you can send her a tip.

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