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5 min Read
May 1, 2019

Integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion into your capital campaign

“Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a practice, equity is a goal.”

This quote comes from Dereca Blackmon, Stanford associate dean and director of the Diversity and First Generation Office, in an article about the ways work will change in the future. Nonprofits and for-profits alike are beginning to set goals around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Now more than ever before, there’s a shared understanding that honoring DEI makes for stronger business, stronger workplaces, and stronger communities. However, alongside this recognition there’s often discomfort about exactly how to take action—and how to communicate about those actions. The nonprofit sector is increasingly engaging in complicated, nuanced conversations around philanthropy, including the DEI implications of common communications practices. Capital campaigns haven’t yet taken center stage in these discussions.

Looking at capital campaigns through a DEI lens feels challenging and charged for several reasons. For one, a capital campaign’s success relies on wealthy people giving large amounts of money. When attracting wealth guides an organization’s decision-making, there are likely to be significant DEI implications. Second, with so much money on the line and so much at stake, it feels hard to diverge from the proven “way things are done.” If you trust that standard campaign conventions will get you to your financial goal, can you afford to risk doing things differently?

The good news is that there are ways you can infuse DEI into your capital campaign right now, even as these bigger questions (and the more profound changes they might call for) continue to percolate. One useful strategy is to become more aware of and intentional about who you’re elevating, prioritizing, and centering at critical moments in your campaign’s communications.

The first step toward aligning your capital campaign with DEI is embracing this discomfort. It’s hard to talk about race, economic privilege, inclusivity, power dynamics, etc. But the change you want to see in the world and the change you want to see as a result of your capital campaign depends on your willingness to dive into what may be uncomfortable waters.

A different lens for donors

Your prospective donors are people with the means and motivation to give a significant amount of money. Capital campaigns tend to reinforce the social narrative that wealth is the ultimate measure of a person’s value and typically characterize donors as “superheroes.” Vu Le, Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps and author of the amazing blog Nonprofit AF, believes this framing is a symptom of what he calls donor-centrism. When a donor and the money they bring to the table is the star of your story, you’re likely to reinforce inequitable structures. This is because a donor-centric story reinforces savior/saved dichotomies that in turn deprioritize, minimize, or mischaracterize the people your work is meant to benefit. It also credits the individual—as opposed to the collective—with creating change, which diminishes the value of what we’re capable of achieving together.

For example, consider the subtext of a capital campaign naming opportunity. By putting a donor’s name on a building, you’re centering one person and their contribution in a major way. But who is the building being created to serve? Whose names don’t make it onto the facade? What privilege or influence are you giving to the donor? Talking through the dynamics at play in choosing a building’s name may even be a meaningful way to engage donors. Together, you might brainstorm options for the name beyond using their own, thinking about the opportunity to share power and ownership more equitably.

Success for the collective

One of the simplest pivots you can make in your capital campaign communications is changing “they will benefit from this” language to “we will all benefit from this” language. This is the curb-cut effect, a phenomenon that shows how change to address one group’s needs can and will benefit everyone else, too. The curb-cut effect gets its name from the early 1970s effort made by disabled people to create curb-cuts (wedges that bridged the jump between street and curb) so that they’d gain crucial access to spaces and places across the country. The curb-cuts ended up benefiting parents with strollers, workers pushing heavy loads, travelers bearing luggage, and innumerable others as they went about their daily lives as well. The bottom line is that we all have skin in the game, and when the capital campaign succeeds, we all succeed.

Because we can all benefit from progress, the relationship between an organization and its donors should be thought of as a partnership. In a partnership, power is shared, and both parties have the opportunity to push back against something they don’t agree with. Current campaign convention often places the onus on the organization not to rock the boat with a prospect. Try resolving differences with your prospective donors, or even opening your first conversations with them, by sharing and discussing your DEI intentions. Use or adapt this quote, from an article about addressing funder fragilities, as a potential jumpstart for dialogue: “If we have privilege (white, male, cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied, etc.), we bear a larger burden in listening with empathy and responding with humility.”

The stories we tell

Storytelling is a common and incredibly effective tool for making the case. Many stories are unconsciously told via a dominant narrative, or serve a dominant group’s interests and ideologies because they’re assumed to be universally relatable and quickly understood. For example, the “donor as superhero” trope mentioned above is a dominant narrative. Another is “all lives matter.” The general sentiment is that every person’s life is valuable and valued. But this narrative is actually only applicable for some (those in dominant groups) even though it’s presented as an understood truth for all. “Black Lives Matter,” by contrast, is a narrative disruptor because it spotlights and gives power back to those who are excluded from “all lives matter.”

Dominant narratives tend to pop up in capital campaigns when stories are used to pull on heartstrings, evoke excitement, or drive outrage. Reflect on the stories your capital campaign tells.  Are you reinforcing a harmful narrative? Are there opportunities to acknowledge or disrupt it?

Your capital campaign has a lot to gain by integrating DEI into its communications. Start asking questions, start prompting uncomfortable conversations.

Hannah Thomas

Hannah Thomas is the Former Director of Learning and Innovation at Big Duck

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