By: Christa Orth, a lifelong fundraiser who has worked with hundreds of nonprofits
As a fundraiser, I’ve been to my share of “fancy” parties. Each time, I rummage through my closet trying to find the perfect outfit that will look sufficiently dressed up, professional, and that shows off my genderqueer style.
I want to fit in. As a cis, white, queer person, I might look the part, but deep inside, I fear that people will judge me because I don’t come from wealth.
Many of the fundraisers I know are like me — people who got involved in the development profession out of a love of doing good and a desire to support the missions of organizations we care about. We are not always wealthy and don’t always come from family money. This creates a tension as we navigate spaces of wealth and interface every day with philanthropists who may have very different class backgrounds than ourselves. The tension is compounded for fundraisers of color who must contend with blatant racism, microaggressions, being passed over for jobs and promotions, and more.
How do we honor and uplift our lived experiences of socioeconomic class, and turn them into a source of strength to become fearless fundraisers?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know we should examine how we learned about money as children, because this affects how we operate in the world as adults.
I was in a workshop for LGBTQ+ fundraisers once where they asked us to close our eyes and think about our first memories of money. I squeezed my eyes shut and here’s what I saw:
Memory #1: Living with scarcity can instill a scarcity mindset
When I was around six years old, I sat at the kitchen table, watching my mom pay the monthly utility bills. She carefully consulted the calendar as she wrote checks. She tapped her pen on a day, then wrote the date in the corner of the bill envelope where the stamp would go. The envelopes sat in a neat stack on her bedroom dresser until there was enough money in the bank account. When that day came, she licked a stamp to cover her handwriting, and dropped the bill in the mailbox. My mom learned this money-tracking system from her single mother who supported her family as a housekeeper.
My white working-class family had just enough to squeak by, and I grew up in a household that was living just above water. As a result, my relationship to money was formed with a scarcity mindset.
Memory #2: How others perceive us can be a root of class shame
More money doesn’t always solve class problems, and I find this is especially true because of my identity as a white cis queer woman
I was a kid in the 1980s era of excess, and I wanted lots of things— Guess jeans and Keds sneakers were on the top of my list. I saved my $2 a week allowance to buy them and as you might imagine, it took forever. As I waited for the pennies to pile up in my piggy bank, I took a seam ripper to the no-name triangle label on the pocket of my acid wash jeans. With a blue ballpoint pen I drew rectangles on the backs of my generic Keds. I hoped these measures would distract from the fact that I couldn’t afford name brands. I hoped kids at school wouldn’t tease me so much. I hoped to overcome the shame I was feeling.
However materialistic this might seem to me now, as an anti-capitalist adult, I recognize my actions and this feeling of inadequacy was at the root of my class shame.
More money doesn’t always solve class problems, and I find this is especially true because of my identity as a white cis queer woman, which leads me to my third memory:
Memory #3: Class shame is intersectional
Because of internalized shame about my socioeconomic background, and early messages about scarcity and homophobia in my family of origin, I’ve had to work through feelings of worthiness and what it means to belong in order to become a professional fundraiser.
When I was a teenager and had my first job scooping ice cream, I finally got to buy the clothes that made me feel most whole— ripped men’s jeans, flannels, and Birkenstocks. My dad and I fought bitterly because he insisted I “dress up” in “girl’s clothes” and wear skirts to church. This was physically painful for me because whenever I attempted to dress in a way that felt feminine to me, my teenage queerness made me feel foreign in my own skin.
As a grown-up, I now realize my parents held shame about their poor and working-class backgrounds, which they reflected and transferred to me. Dressing up became a signifier to others that our white heteronormative family was doing better, that we were a part of a community that shared similar values and experiences.
Because of internalized shame about my socioeconomic background, and early messages about scarcity and homophobia in my family of origin, I’ve had to work through feelings of worthiness and what it means to belong in order to become a professional fundraiser. Despite my whiteness, I often feel like an absolute interloper at my workplace— especially at galas, intimate four-course dinners with prospective donors, and “major donor” events.
As fundraisers, we talk about money all the time. But we rarely talk about class and the unspoken power it wields within our profession, which has real consequences. My class shame is constantly triggered by going to work and it’s not made any better by “dressing up” for the part.
When I moved across the country from Portland, Oregon to Brooklyn, New York in 2008, I encountered layer upon layer of the most extraordinary wealth and poverty that I had never known. On my daily commute, I encountered people living on the streets and panhandling in the subway to feed their families. I also became aware that some people own multiple homes in Manhattan, in the Hamptons, in Rome, in Shanghai. It’s in the world of that income disparity that I experienced my fourth memory:
Memory #4: Our class backgrounds are our power
My inner child conjured the image of my mother and her careful timing of sending a check to the utility company. Instead of shame, I felt pride in who I am and where I come from.
When I was 35 years old, I prepared for a job interview for a Major Gifts Officer position by scanning the organization’s website for the names of their largest donors. I searched a few of them— all white, gay, male couples, with high-powered corporate bios. As a fundraiser for queer organizations, I was more than used to this. I thought I needed to present myself as best as I possibly could for the interview— with a snazzy new outfit. I chose a lavender men’s button-up from Calvin Klein, bought at Housing Works Thrift Store. Respectably queer.
The interviewers sat across a big conference table— two white gay men a bit older than me. I recounted my deep experience fundraising from high net worth individuals and families, and we laughed about the show “Portlandia.” (That show really put Portland, Oregon on the map for New Yorkers.) I detailed my dedication to queer community, including that I had done academic research about queer workers seeking economic justice in unions. The older man folded his arms across his chest and asked me, “Do you hate rich people?”
He was reading me as not rich— there was no private school on my resume and my interest in economic justice was front and center. He was pitting me against the wealthy. My face flushed and I balled my fist under the table. In major gifts, there is a myth that peers must ask peers for major gifts, and I most certainly was not, and never would be, a financial peer of someone who could write a check for $50,000.
My inner child conjured the image of my mother and her careful timing of sending a check to the utility company. Instead of shame, I felt pride in who I am and where I come from. As much as I truly wanted this job, I couldn’t hide myself any longer. I gathered my courage and answered honestly, “I delight in working with wealthy people with philanthropic hearts. Moving money to people who most need it is why I work in fundraising.” I didn’t get that job, but now having successfully worked for years in major gifts, I’m satisfied with my answer, and my point of view.
Fundraisers from diverse socio-economic backgrounds are a gift to this profession.
Memory #5: Uncovering our belonging
We’ve got to dig deep to name and reconcile our class shame, and to uncover our belonging.
When I was 41 years old, in the pre-Covid days, I wore a tailored suit, that made me feel masculine enough to flag my queer style, and fancy enough to look like a guest at this major donor party in New York City. I rang the doorbell and was greeted by Ines, the housekeeper, who led me through giant wooden doors. Ines showed me to the butler’s pantry where the caterers were setting up. I introduced myself to them, and we got to work laying the scene for an event where people would learn about the charity’s mission, and hopefully give. I put out the cheese plate, made sure there was a wine key at the bar, and fiddled with the wireless speaker until the room filled with atmospheric jazz.
When the guests arrived, I straightened my nametag before I got into conversation with the mostly older, white people. I asked how they were connected to the host or the mission, and talked up the virtues of the programs and their impact. I pulled out tricks to relieve myself of a couple of uncomfortable exchanges that turned to where I went to school and if my jewelry was “real.” (It was real costume jewelry I inherited from my housekeeper grandmother.)
“Excuse me,” I said, “I have to go check on the bar to make sure they have enough ice.”
On more than one occasion, I’ve been mistaken for the wait staff, and while that certainly isn’t born of the racism that my colleagues of color experience, it feels like a reminder that I don’t belong. It’s a reminder that I identify more with the workers than the donors.
In a donor-centric model, we’re forced to identify with wealthy donors, to speak their language, to praise their privilege, to look and talk like them.
After a half-hour or so of mixing and mingling at the party, after second glasses of white wine were passed, it was time for my favorite thing to do at these kinds of gatherings— make the fundraising ask. I took a deep breath, and quieted the audience with the tap of a knife on a glass. I stood sturdy in front of this group of strangers in my slick suit. I heralded the good work of this grassroots group. I asked everyone to give what they could to resource the movement.
This was the time I felt most myself at this party. I was the vessel to deliver this message— and with the pride of my class background buoying me, I had the strength to ask.
In the field of nonprofit fundraising, where I’ve built my career, I’ve grappled with overcoming my class shame in order to operate as a bridge builder. I’ve learned to move among wealthy people so that I can raise money for social justice movements. I’ve learned how to use my privilege as a white, cis person to teach others who are like me—from un-wealthy backgrounds— to become donors and fundraisers themselves. It’s a gigantic feat given that regardless of our socioeconomic backgrounds, we’ve all grown up under capitalism and have been taught not to discuss money. We’ve got to dig deep to name and reconcile our class shame, and to uncover our belonging.
The field of fundraising is widely known as a stressful career. Folks in the profession blame high turnover rates in development departments on unrealistically high fundraising goals and lack of support from boards. But we must also consider that people may feel fed up and pushed out because of white supremacy, systemic racism, and class shame.
People who do not come from wealth contribute a ton to this field. We know how and where to move resources, and we are donors of time and money ourselves. We make gifts that are meaningful to us, whether it’s $1 or $1,000, whether we volunteer for our community mutual aid or serve on a board. People with lower incomes give a higher percentage of their resources than people with high net worth. But regardless of levels of financial giving, everyone should see themselves as a valued donor, and everyone should feel comfortable asking people with wealthy backgrounds to give to their cause.
In an ideal world, fundraisers would feel powerful asking anyone to give their resources to a mission, without hesitation, without shame, and without having to worry about how they are dressed. They would be supported to do their jobs and recognized when they bring in even a dollar. Everyone would be seen as a supporter, including people perceived without means, and everyone’s contribution would be appreciated equally.
It wouldn’t matter if your family couldn’t afford brand-name clothes, private education, higher education, or if family heirloom jewelry was made of glass instead of diamonds.
Here’s how I propose we start to overcome class shame in fundraising to build true equity and justice:
- Make space to be curious and talk candidly about class differences
- Debunk the old myth of donor solicitation that peers must ask peers (wealth asks wealth)
- Redefine philanthropy to include contributions beyond the financial— people and families give in many ways and traditional philanthropy is trapped in a “charity” mindset that consolidates power with the wealthy instead of distributing it equitably
- Implement all the community-centric fundraising principles at our organizations
We must free ourselves from class shame so we can care for the people in our movements, innovate for the future, and liberate everyone.
Christa Orth (they/she) is a lifelong fundraiser and has worked with hundreds of nonprofits in staff roles at StoryCorps and Streetsblog, and as a consultant to social justice orgs like Campaign for Southern Equality, Drama Club, First Peoples Fund, Third Wave Fund, and Trans Justice Funding Project. They serve as the Co-Vice Chair of AFP-NYC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access committee, and their previous work can be found in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal archive and on Candid. They live on Canarsie Lenape land (also known as Brooklyn), they’re writing a memoir about their life as a drag king, and they just launched Seaworthy Fundraising, a consulting practice providing joyful strategy and implementation for community-centric individual and “major” giving. You can follow Christa for very infrequent tweets @christamaeorth, email them, or tip them on Venmo @Christa-Orth
Oh, my, Christa, your writing has brought me to tears. What an amazing piece! I love you dearly and hold you in my heart always. Thank you for the vital work you do.
Growing up poor with a single mom (and in other ways that I don’t want to explain), I relate so much to this article. I so appreciate you putting into words things that I haven’t been able to articulate but have felt throughout my 20+ year career (and really my whole life). I too have lived in Manhattan and the wealth extremes are staggering compared to Oregon. I’m glad that I have only had to fundraise in Oregon and never there. Thank you for writing this insightful and important piece!
I appreciate this line a lot, “In a donor-centric model, we’re forced to identify with wealthy donors, to speak their language, to praise their privilege, to look and talk like them.” It reminds me of the many times we have to code switch as we navigate different groups/communities.
This was such an insightful post. It is something we do not always think about. Class shame is real and I’ve seen firsthand how being in a room with wealthy individuals who are potential donors can be uncomfortable. Most philanthropists have to learn how to interact with certain groups that they would not regularly associate with. While I’ve gotten comfortable with speaking to donors it took time and honestly I prefer a more collaborative approach. How can individuals with a love for the same organization help in ways outside of just financial. Time and talent are great alternatives and reap equally benefits.
Thank you for this insightful post. This is something not commonly discussed in philanthropy. Getting dressed for events is such a task when you’re in the room with deep pocket donors. Also the line of “Redefine philanthropy to include contributions beyond the financial— people and families give in many ways and traditional philanthropy is trapped in a “charity” mindset that consolidates power with the wealthy instead of distributing it equitably” is very important. Time and talent reap great benefits and partnerships. This is something groups aim to focus on as well.
I felt so out of place as a major gifts officer for all the reasons you’ve written about here – thank you for raising these issues and urging the profession to become more welcoming to people who do not come from wealth. I truly believe that people who have lived experience with less resources are the best equipped to do this work.
Thank you for writing this and capturing many feelings I’ve had as a fundraiser who grew up in a low-income household but was never able to quite articulate. I was once denied a promotion because the leadership wanted someone with more major gifts experience (aka someone who had connections with wealthy people). I was angry at the time and knew it was wrong but didn’t have the words to talk about it.
Thank you for sharing your story and deep insights from working with large gift donors and your experiences in our profession. This is a piece that can help so many understand their feelings or add insights to those who feel the discomfort that can come with working with supporters with deep resources.
Your comments reflect my own truth. Thank you for expressing this so clearly and with heart.