Photo by Iker Urteaga on Unsplash
June 10, 2020

How can you disrupt power dynamics and bring a DEI lens to your major donor relationships?

Sarah Durham and strategist Hannah Thomas discuss how DEI plays an important role in your capital campaigns and other major donor communications. Centering your communications on participants and being aware of how you may be “privileging” your donors is the first step. Tune in to find out how you can reevaluate your organization’s donor centrism.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham and I’m joined today by one of Big Duck’s strategists, Hannah Thomas. Hi Hannah, welcome.

Hannah Thomas: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Sarah Durham: So Hannah has been on our team for a little while and she’s been a really excellent addition because she brings a lot of very insightful vantage points into the work we do here at Big Duck. And in particular I invited her on the show today to talk about an article that she wrote. It’s on our blog and we’ll link to it in the show notes. The article is called “Integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion into your capital campaigns.” Now, Hannah, you’ve got a particular passion for issues of DEI and professional background in that area. Tell us a little bit more about your background and what got you engaged with DEI professionally.

Hannah Thomas: Yes, and in addition to professionally, I also am a woman of color, so that certainly plays a role…

Sarah Durham: It’s personal.

Hannah Thomas: Yeah, personal and professional. So I actually studied film as well as race and ethnicity at school. And my first jobs were in film institutions around New York City where I was marketing and doing publicity for repertory cinema. And something that was really important to me was representation in those film screenings and how film has the capacity to change and influence culture and vice versa. So a lot of that is looking critically at race, at gender, at how diversity, equity and inclusivity are a part of the film world or not.

Sarah Durham: And who shows up on screen and who’s making that film, all those kinds of issues?

Hannah Thomas: Exactly. And even who is in the audience, who feels invited to come and watch.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and that’s something at Big Duck we do a lot of capital campaign work where we’re creating the materials, the case for support, the decks, all the kinds of things that a fundraising team might use in a capital campaign. And that’s definitely something we think about a lot is like who are we showing, you know, what, what voices are we elevating in the materials? But your article really goes a bit deeper into some of the even deeper complexities around relationships in a capital campaign and particularly relationships with donors. One of the things you talk about is an idea called donor centrism. Can you unpack that a little bit for us? What’s that about?

Hannah Thomas: Yeah. Donor centrism is actually a phrase that I first learned about when I was reading through Vu Le’s blog, Nonprofit AF, which is an amazing, hilarious, informative…

Sarah Durham: It’s a must read, if you don’t mind. Nonprofit AF, you should check it out. We’ll link to that too.

Hannah Thomas: And basically his bottom line is that donor centrism is a set of practices that really make donors the star of your story instead of the world you’re trying to build, the outcomes you’re trying to achieve through your campaign. You’re really laser focused on the donor. Some of the reasons why that might be harmful or problematic is that the donor is somebody who has generally a great source of wealth and anytime that you are prioritizing money, there’s going to be inequity in whatever practices.

Sarah Durham: It’s a funny thing too, to put the donor as the star of whatever you’re doing and that odds are good in many organizations that the donor is really a supporting character. You know, the donor is necessary to help raise money and certainly they play a critical role, but they’re not necessarily the people who advanced the mission literally. And they’re not always the people who benefit from the mission personally. So they’re more around the edges. Do you think that’s true?

Hannah Thomas: I do think that’s true. And another key point of all of this is that donor centrism really promotes the role of the individual rather than the collective, rather than the change that we’re all trying to achieve together through the campaign, which is what you are already hitting on. It’s deprioritizing the effect that it will have on everybody to hone in on one person.

Sarah Durham: Right. So it becomes about the “me”, the individual as opposed to the “we,” the collective, that advances the mission.

Hannah Thomas: Exactly.

Sarah Durham: You have an interesting example in this article you talk about some of the dynamics that are in play in capital campaigns. One of the things you talk about is, for instance, naming a building. Tell us a little bit what you wrote about that and what your take is on how donor centrism plays out in these things like naming opportunities.

Hannah Thomas: Right. So a major thing that happens in capital campaigns, a major incentive for donors to participate is the opportunity to have usually some aspect of the campaign named after them. It’s a great opportunity, but by putting the donor’s name on a building or on a program or on an initiative, you’re centering that one person. Again, that’s sort of the through line of this whole whole chat. But what about the people who are actually going to be using that building or participating in that program? Those people’s names do not make it into the conversation. And so you’re privileging your donor and we’ve talked through, Sarah, some opportunities maybe to disrupt that practice. Some other ways that a donor could take that opportunity and take that power and redistribute it. So instead of naming a building after themselves, maybe a donor wants to name the building after a role model or after somebody who is a part of the community, plays a big role in the wellbeing of the community, and another opportunity might be to have the folks who are going to be using that building who are closest to the mission of the organization, be able to weigh in and give input and play an active role in the naming of the building that they’re going to be using.

Sarah Durham: I love that idea because it feels to me like one of the things many donors are really hungry for are more authentic ways to connect with the organization and a lot of times donors I think also suffer from donor centrism and that they’re kind of put on a pedestal and kept at a distance. And in your idea, I’m imagining, for instance, what if the development team, you know, had a meeting with the donor and with people in the programs to really talk about the space and help the people who’ve used the space or are going to use the space, share their vision for what it’s like and collaboratively co-create a name or think about the space together in some ways. You could see that a donor who was hungry to be more engaged would love that, would love the opportunity to kind of really connect with it. And of course it takes a donor who is less narcissistically motivated. I think we’d probably mistakenly assume that donors want it to all be about them, but that’s not necessarily the case, I presume.

Hannah Thomas: Totally. I really think that you hit on it well with this authenticity and what’s better than an inclusive equitable outcome is an inclusive equitable process. So I’m sure that many donors would really value the opportunity to get in a room with a bunch of other people and be a part of a collaborative process.

Sarah Durham: Another thing you’ve talked about in this article that I loved, and I think this is sort of where we’re going right now too, is about partnership and how in a partnership power is shared and both parties have the opportunity to push back against something they don’t agree with. So you could imagine if you were going through a process with let’s say program participants and donors together co-creating or naming something, that’s one way to shift towards more of a partnership than a power dynamic. But this also plays out in terms of the relationship between the donor and the fundraisers that are their shepherds through the process of deciding to make a major gift. So in that dynamic, I had a lot of conversations with fundraisers who feel they have to be so careful around donors. They have to really coddle them or maybe say yes because they’re worried about putting a major gift in jeopardy. Do you have any ideas about how a fundraiser or somebody in the organization can kind of form more of a partnership or disrupt that narrative in their dealings with donors?

Hannah Thomas: Yes. I think that in partnership we’re talking about respect, mutual respect, and trust as well and so a good way to think about that might be in, this is a way out there example, but if you’re going on a hike to a place you’ve never been, you might enlist the help of a guide to take you along on the path and you are the client. You are supposed to enjoy the hike, but you definitely need the guide. If you take over leading, you might get bitten by a poisonous snake, you might fall off a cliff. The guide plays an essential role and you really have to trust that person to be the expert. So I see maybe a conversation about fundraiser as being a guide through the process as maybe being helpful in terms of facilitating a healthy, productive, trusting, mutually respectful relationship.

Sarah Durham: I could see that that’s a conversation that if it happens candidly right up front. You said to me in one of our conversations in advance of this recording, you said something about the importance of being explicit about power dynamics in these relationships. So I could imagine that as a fundraiser, if at the beginning of a conversation about a capital campaign you said, Hey, I view myself as your guide. You know, this is what I do for a living and I want to make sure you get to the destination you want to get to, but I also want to make sure it works for the organization and that it’s a successful partnership and you know, here’s how I imagine that might work. That would be, I guess, one way to be explicit and kind of begin to peel away some of the power dynamics that are often behind closed doors.

Hannah Thomas: I do feel like sort of embracing some discomfort up front often pays off and you build a relationship without all of these barriers to a good, strong collaborative relationship. So by having that beginning conversation, acknowledging power dynamics, trying to get on the same page, it could really benefit your campaign and your relationship with this donor.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and it’s so challenging. What you refer to in your article is dominant narratives are often very, very powerful in these relationships and not, not often explicitly named. And I’ve had a number of conversations as I’ve mentioned to you with fundraisers who are women. In fact, the vast majority of fundraisers are women who find themselves in a lot of gender dynamic challenges with donors who are men that they describe often where they’re trying to lead the dance as opposed to the donor trying to lead the dance and feeling like that’s very tricky.

Hannah Thomas: Mm-hmm.

Sarah Durham: All right, well I think there’s a lot of robust content we’ve begun to unpack in this conversation and there’s a lot more in your blog, so again, we’ll link to it in the show notes. There are other great resources we’ve got related to capital campaigns, which we’re not talking about in too much detail here broadly, but I will link to an ebook that we produced about capital campaigns too. So if you’re not really sure what a capital campaign is about and what it means from a communications point of view, we’ll link to another resource about that for you in the show notes. Hannah, thanks for joining me.

Hannah Thomas: Thank you, Sarah.