Commentary | We can’t ‘polite’ our way through this

publication date: Feb 17, 2021
author/source: Rickesh Lakhani (he/him/his)

In a recent post “Fundraisers must rise above the culture wars” by Ian MacQuillin, he speaks about dichotomies that have emerged in fundraising which he equates to ‘culture wars’ and claims that these are distracting us from the work ahead of us. He invites us to resolve our differences with “respectful pluralism” to preserve the profession’s reputation as being friendly and collaborative.

There’s one important part missing. How does this apply in the face of the harm being done regularly in our sector which has for so long been unnoticed, unaddressed and outright dismissed, often under the protection of “we’re doing good work” and “we’re raising lots of money”? When fundraisers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour, LGBTQ2SIA+, people with disabilities, and women ask nicely for change from those in power, they have been ostracized, laid off, harassed, erased, or ended up leaving the sector.

Asking for politeness in the face of this harm is like telling someone who was just punched to 'not scream loudly because it hurts my ears'. It minimizes the rightful anger of people in our communities and sector for whom the current state is NOT working. Real changes and movements do not happen quietly over tea and cake.

“A proliferation of conflicts across the sector has jeopardised its reputation as a friendly profession…”

This reputation for being friendly is not what drives fundraisers to raise money or why donors choose to give. The reputation is definitely not serving us well when the notions of playing nice shut down individuals, often those with less power and privilege. The best fundraisers I know are kind and effective at inspiring others to give, but they also stand up when something isn’t right. Their drive to be an advocate and ally surpasses the need to be polite.

“…they have ‘alternative’ facts about the harm (as they see it) donor-centred fundraising can do.”

Call it wish-fulfillment as Ian does, but I believe that the positive elements of donor-centered fundraising can be rethought and applied within a ‘do no harm’ lens. But it’s not happening yet. Reported experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, harming of communities served, and other oppression are not ‘alternative facts’, and they are as much a part of the body of evidence as the impact of fundraising practices on retention rates and average donation sizes.

The challenge is that the evidence collected is not holistic, and is influenced by who is designing the evaluation methods, collecting the data, and analyzing it. Are these the same people who likely benefit from presenting some aspects of the evidence and not others, or presenting evidence which maintains the status quo? How can we reconcile the available data on fundraising practices with the recent surge of reports and data about sexual harassment by donors, for example? How much more money was raised because a fundraising leader didn’t confront a donor when they should have?

“…give people with whom you disagree the benefit of intellectual doubt and to treat both them and their arguments with respect.”

Generally, I agree. But for those put in harm's way on a regular basis and where those with power are causing it or ignoring it, is this reasonable to ask? In these situations, is there really another side to be considered? Do arguments which support or are complacent to a status quo which is actively hurting so many deserve to be heard and treated with high regard? This is comparable to the “there were very fine people on both sides” argument.

We can’t prioritize polite discourse over the deep damage and harm that continues in our sector because those in power are ignorant or, more likely, willingly complacent because they benefit from things staying the same.

Fundraising is part of social change. Social change is disruptive, it’s loud, and it’s persistent, because it needs to be so it is heard over the baseline noise that is the dominant culture of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, exploitation, and oppression.

Ian’s piece feels like a call to 'protest, but quietly' to people who feel like we need to rock the boat hard in order to truly evolve. The people whose experiences that I'm not certain that Ian understands given the content of their post.

Just because it works, doesn't mean it's right.

Rickesh has over 15 years of experience in the charitable and social profit sector. Currently, he is the Executive Director at Future Possibilities for Kids, where they work with children ages 9 to 12 to support them in achieving community enhancing goals while building confidence, leadership and life skills. Prior to this, Rickesh was the Director, Campaign at United Way York Region, leading an $8M annual fundraising campaign, and also worked at the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. He is a strong advocate for volunteerism and has contributed hundreds of volunteer hours to a variety of initiatives.

Cover photo by cyrus gomez on Unsplash

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