By Allison Rolle, Strategist and academic rooted in community

The basis of our work, our motivations, is rooted in a desire for change. We seek to create a world that is more equitable and just, but more often than not, we miss the mark.

We want to change the world, right? 

The basis of our work, our motivations, is rooted in a desire for change. We seek to create a world that is more equitable and just, but more often than not, we miss the mark. 

The truth is that the non-profit sector has as long of a history of harm as it does of good. Marginalized voices have been silenced to satisfy white comfortability, yet they are also “amplified” by organizations that claim to champion equity, diversity, and inclusion. In doing so, these organizations have stripped BIPOC, 2SLGBTQ+, and disabled folks of our agency while leaving us with little to no resources. 

Skeptical of that statement? Let me provide an example. 

A 2020 report by Echoing Green found that non-profit organizations led by Black and Latino executives saw significantly less revenue and unrestricted assets than their white counterparts, even when focusing on similar issues. The data from this study shines a bright and unavoidable light on unequal funding in the sector and how that has placed decision-making power in the hands of those who cannot fathom our experiences. 

In my own work, I have witnessed the immense power imbalance in funding allocations across North America. I have also seen the harm perpetrated against BIPOC colleagues and non-profit professionals. Our experiences are often requested by white-led organizations who seek to “expand” their DEI initiatives. In doing so, these organizations have tokenized our existence while neglecting to listen to the deep-seated issues that they themselves have produced.

I have been a part of this silencing and have also been projected as the “amplification” of my community’s voices. As a Black person in this sector, I am helpless without the support that stems from white saviorism, but should not dare challenge it. I have been that token as I watched the sector operate in an illusion of “goodness.”

So to my white colleagues and white-led organizations, I say to you this: be wary of confusing saviorism for benevolence. 

We must face the reality that the non-profit sphere has a history of colonialism that persists to this day. It resides in institutional function, organizational structures, the treatment of BIPOC, 2SLGBTQ+, and disabled employees, and individual ideologies that place intention over impact. 

What I’ve said may be activating for you, in either a positive or negative way. However, I ask you to reflect –  really reflect –  on the following points so that we can deconstruct the myth that our sector inherently “makes the world a better place.” 

Distinguish Passive Ignorance from Structured Ignorance

There are issues you don’t know about. There are nuances you will never be able to experience or have explained to you. That is the reality of living in a position of power and privilege. However, there is a difference between issues you can’t understand and those you don’t want to understand. 

In my work as a non-profit strategist, I could tell when the issues I raised were valuable lessons and when they were perceived as a nuisance or disruption. Calls to action were met with surface-level DEI commitments. Challenges to issues such as wealth disparities and the harmful projection of stereotypes in campaigns were met with resistance and frustration. In these reactions and actions, non-profit leaders and professionals evade the work required to produce widespread change.

This is structured ignorance. This is the reinforcement of colonial dominance through the evasion, or resistance, to reality. 

In the non-profit sphere, ignorance is a historical, ongoing process that upholds white saviorism and institutional inequality. You must analyze the social epistemologies that not only reinforce racism, but your role within it. 

This also means analyzing how color-blind racism plays a role. In the vein of ignorance, colorblindness hinders, or stops altogether, the advancement of racial justice and equity. That must lead us to ask in what ways the sector has bypassed social justice-oriented learning in favor of a model where “everyone plays a role in creating change.”

Remember, motivations are telling. 

You must separate a lack of knowledge from a lack of willingness. 

Embrace Anti-Racism Despite Your Comfortability

Anti-racism is a scary word in the sector; I think we can admit that. The use of acronyms such as DEI, EDI, or even JEDI has served as palatable introductions to a much deeper issue. This ties back to the issue of structured ignorance and unwillingness.

Anti-racism must be embraced by non-profit organizations, leaders, and professionals if we are to dispel the myth of inherent good. 

Educating oneself about the racial and colonial history of the non-profit sector is non-negotiable. We must move beyond a surface-level knowledge of systematic inequalities to actively engage with structures built on dominance and who is defined as the “disadvantaged.” Through this active engagement, we find the roots of the “myth,” firmly situated in white saviorism and supremacy. 

However, engaging with history is only the first step in embracing anti-racist principles. There are many anti-racist resources and referrals curated by BIPOC, 2SLGBTQ+, and disabled individuals that will challenge you to reflect, recognize, and rectify your knowledge of a sector supposedly built on “doing the good work.” 

De-center Damage-Centered Mindsets

In “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” the incredible Eve Tuck wrote about the exploitation and mistreatment of people and material. In this letter, Tuck warns that a focus on brokenness means that our communities “become spaces saturated in the fantasies of outsiders.” While Tuck is critiquing damage-centered approaches to research, this can be applied to the damage-centered ideologies held by white-led organizations and professionals. 

Much of the research surrounding BIPOC communities is fixated on victimhood and “dire need.” In the collection of stories, I have been asked to seek out and amplify harm, pain, and brokenness. In the evaluation of campaigns, I have been tasked with searching for the most compelling elements that produce the most revenue, and they are often the ones that evoke the empathy of white donors. 

The damage-centered mindset contributes to the long-standing prevalence of the myth of inherent good, or inherent benevolence. The depiction of marginalized people as desperate victims has upheld harmful stereotypes. Moreover, operating from deficit models has led many to believe that the non-profit sphere, at its core, is about saving people who cannot save themselves. 

It is imperative to deconstruct this mindset to not only move beyond the myth, but also return agency to the voices you claim to uplift. 

We are not broken, and we do not “need saving.” We need you to de-center yourself as we take the lead on addressing the issues our communities face. 

With All of These Steps, Can The Myth Be Dispelled?

By themselves, no they can’t. The deconstruction of the myth of inherent good requires the sector to undergo a change that not only gives communities a seat at the table but builds the table from their direction.

Deconstruction means reconceptualization on the part of white-led organizations and charities. In doing so, an environment built on truth and transparency can emerge. Without it, we risk the continuation of an illusion that leaves the sector very far behind. 

Allison Rolle

Allison Rolle

Allison Rolle (she/they) is a Black, queer, strategist and academic with a rebellious love for the sector. In addition to challenging colonial foundations of the sector, you can find Allison working on research that utilizes feminist and anti-racist theory, creating spaces for community engagement and empowerment, or enjoying a bit of quiet time and a good book. You can also find her on LinkedIn to learn more about their work and upcoming projects!