Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels
March 8, 2022

Me vs we: Fundraising for the collective good

Hannah Thomas, Director of Learning and Innovation, and Ally Dommu, Director of Strategy, led an interactive discussion about how fundraising communications can evolve to reflect a spirit of collectivity and abundance (we) instead of individualism and competition (me). They spoke about why this shift is critical to take on, offered fresh ways to approach common fundraising communications “best practices,” and shared wins that have emerged out of this mindset change and corresponding real-life applications.


Jen Petersen: Wonderful. Welcome, everyone. We’re going to go ahead and get started. We’ve got a wonderful webinar scheduled for everyone today. We want to welcome you. Ally, Hannah, and I are excited that everyone is joining us today. We look forward to this workshop. Workshop is “Me vs We: Fundraising Communications for the Collective Good.” My name is Jen Petersen. I am Big Duck’s Marketing Manager, and I’ll be your emcee for today’s festivities. I use the pronouns she and her. And for those of you who don’t know anything about Big Duck, let me go ahead and let you know. Let’s tell you a little bit about what we do. Big Duck is a worker co-owned cooperative that works with nonprofits; that advance their missions through communications by developing strong brands, campaigns, and strong teams. And, Ally, if you can go ahead and advance the slide. We want to welcome you guys to our fundraising series. If you haven’t registered for the two that are coming up, we have one on March 16th. That is The Capital Campaign Case Statement. And then one coming up on April 21st, which is Addressing Problematic White Women and Fundraising. So if you have not already signed up for those, please feel free to sign up and join us there, too, as well. Thank you.

Jen Petersen: Again, I am Jen Petersen. I’ve already introduced myself, Marketing Manager at Big Duck and your emcee for today. Just a few reminders, we will be recording today’s session, and a list of the resources that we share throughout the session and this recording will be sent out by myself tomorrow. If you do not get that in your email by tomorrow or Monday, just feel free to email me, [email protected], and I will take care of you. Please feel free to ask questions throughout this webinar. We will be having a Q&A session at the end, but feel free to just, if you have any questions throughout, if you just pop them in the Q&A portion of this of Zoom. It’s going to be on the lower right-hand side, and then we’ll either address them as we go or address them at the end. If you have any technical issues, please feel free to email me, [email protected], or feel free to email [email protected] and I’ll take care of you. And then any takeaways, feel free to tweet @bigduck if you are on that platform. We are going to go ahead and enable closed captioning today. So if you want to enable that, that again will be on the lower left-hand, I mean, lower right-hand side, and you’ll be able to see the transcript. And I will turn it over to Ally and Hannah.

Hannah Thomas: Hey everybody. It’s a good morning for me on the west coast, but good afternoon, whatever time you are at. My name is Hannah Thomas. I use she/her/hers pronouns. I’m Director of Learning and Innovation at Big Duck. So I am helping to think about the ways the agency is growing and evolving to respond to the needs of the nonprofit sector. I’ve been at Big Duck for about three and a half years now. Before that, I worked in New York City’s nonprofit arts and culture community in marketing and communications. Very excited to be here with you all. I love talking about possibilities for fundraising, and I think we’re going to have a great conversation. I’ll pass it to my colleague, Ally.

Ally Dommu: Thanks, Hannah. Here’s me, hello, everybody. Thanks for joining us. My name is Ally Dommu. I use she/her pronouns. I am Big Duck’s Director of Strategy, and that means that I support and lead our team of strategists here at Big Duck. And we develop, you know, the sort of plans and goals and strategies associated with the branding work. We do the campaigns work, we do the communications planning work we do for nonprofits across the country. I have been working with Big Duck for eight years and, similar to Hannah, I’ve been really enjoying and being challenged by conversations about how we can challenge best practices in fundraising. Personally, a lot of practices that I learned as a fundraiser in my career in the nonprofit sector. So today we’re going to dig in, we’re going to talk about a lot of, you know, practices that maybe are familiar to us and try to give some new, fresh ideas to how we can think about fundraising with more of a collective mindset.

Hannah Thomas: Great. So yes, Ally, that was a great setup for talking about what we’re going to do today. The game plan is we’re going to start by thinking about what makes up “me”-oriented fundraising. What are the characteristics of that approach and where do they come from, right? What might be the harm if you take on fundraising from this perspective? We’ll also be offering up some ideas and new ways of thinking that are more oriented toward the wellbeing and success of the collective. We’re going to share some potential hallmarks of a “we”-based approach, and we’ve got plenty of examples on deck to help illustrate, kind of, both orientations along the way.

Hannah Thomas: So we’re going to start our discussion by setting some critical, if uncomfortable, context around the roots of fundraising. We really think that this is important to help set the stage for any further conversation about how we can approach fundraising and communications around fundraising. So, what we’re setting as the foundation of this conversation is an understanding that fundraising, the nonprofit sector, and philanthropy are integrally tied to capitalism and wealth, white supremacy, and racism. We really can’t extricate fundraising from these other pieces or look at it, sort of, in isolation. So we need to know that when we’re talking about and doing fundraising, we’re participating in and intersecting with different systems of harm. And I’m going to dig into that a little bit further.

Hannah Thomas: Throwing in some Angela Davis to get us started here. So, we live in a capitalist society, right? Capitalism in the U.S. originated from white people enslaving black people for their labor and stealing land from indigenous people. And that is capital that put everything into motion, and the effects of that are still in motion today. So when we talk about capitalism, we’re also needing to see the roots in racism and injustice that made it possible and made it continue to thrive today. And we need to connect that fundraising is a function of capitalism. People have the money, they make a choice to spend their capital supporting a nonprofit.

Hannah Thomas: And we also wanted to share this excellent resource from the Justice Funders called Stifled Generosity. It really helps to map out all of these critical moments where philanthropy was kind of shaped and really designed to actually cement the status quo and benefit wealthy and, by that I also mean, white people more than it was meant to advance the common good. An example, in 1917 here – there’s a lot of text on the right-hand side we’ll share around this report afterwards so folks can take a deeper look – the example in 1917 was where it was decided that individuals could deduct charitable donations from their taxable income, which motivated wealthy people to divert their money into nonprofits whose efforts benefit them. So they win by paying less taxes and having more sway over the work of nonprofits. What this was really illustrating here is that it’s a long history and it’s really deeply entrenched that we’re working with.

Hannah Thomas: And it all kind of ladders up to this idea that while there are great aspirations and a lot of dominant narratives around philanthropy as a way to course correct or as a way to redistribute money more equitably, the truth is, as it is, philanthropy is serving to keep things the way they are in a lot of ways. And that’s because it was designed to do so over, as we saw in the last slide, hundred plus years.

Hannah Thomas: And to bring whiteness more explicitly into the fold here, we also need to set context around the state of the fundraising field itself. So, the people raising the funds, the organizations the funds are going to, and the people giving the funds are all majority white. This is the game that is largely being played, of buying for white people. And all of what I’ve just said is a bit uncomfortable, a bit of a downer, but it’s truly critical to think about. And if we want a just, healthy, safe world, a world where we have advanced all of our missions, we’ve brought them to life, we’ve got to also bring this knowledge and context into our fundraising practices everyday. So we’re going to transition here with this context at the core to talk a little bit about what we see as tenets of fundraising for “me” and fundraising for “we.”

Ally Dommu: So I’m going to take the “me” content, and then I’m going to hand it off to Hannah to sort of share the antidote of the “we” content. So, when we talk about “fundraising for me,” the title of this, you know, webinar is “Me vs We,” what we’re talking about is, you know, using fundraising practices to bring in dollars for your organization, but that when these practices create a ripple effect of harm, you know, not really thinking about a collective good that that needs to be elevated when fundraising. So, hallmarks of this “fundraising for me” orientation or mindset or markers are donor and organization-centrism, dominant narratives, emotional gratification, and I’m going to talk a little bit about those right now, but what we’re going to do over the course of this webinar is dig into, like, specific examples of how these markers show up in how we communicate, how we write, how we try to raise money in the practices that often go into fundraising.

Ally Dommu: So, first we’re talking about a donor-centric fundraising mindset, and this is, kind of, largely about acknowledging valuing, and, you know, thanking and appreciating donors. This mindset is not necessarily all bad, being donor-centric and bringing into account donor’s views and being, you know, mindful of the experiences that donors are having. However, this often goes too far by really putting donors at the center of fundraising, putting donors at the center of decision making, and elevating the needs, experiences, beliefs of donors over those of the community or those that are most impacted by the issues that your organization is working on. Relatedly, an organization-centric approach to fundraising is another manifestation of a “me”-centered mindset. It’s about putting your organization at the sector of your story and your fundraising time and time and time again. That could look like taking credit, right, for impact when it was actually a shared effort, not taking into account or fairly representing the work of peer organizations and others in your community, working to advance the mission, working to advance the vision, working to advance, like, this future of the work and really putting your organization as, sort of, the savior or as the instrument of all change that needs to happen. And then dominant narratives, and we’re going to dig into some examples of dominant narratives that we see come up in fundraising communications. But dominant narratives are really patterns of stories, they’re ideas that are entrenched in our culture, that play out in all different contexts about people and society that shape our perceptions of the world. And then the repetition of these narratives, of these stories that perpetuate these narratives. You know, they shape entrenched beliefs and then tend to uphold existing systems of oppression like perpetuating racism, perpetuating classism. And then finally, fundraising that aims to foster what we framed here as emotional gratification. It’s another marker of a “me”-centric approach and really something that I think a lot of fundraisers learn to do. This is through thinking through our reliance on tapping into empathy, like, empathy-centered fundraising, to generate funding. What are we actually doing there? We’re conditioning donors to give by thinking and feeling certain ways. Things like pity, things like fear, things like feeling, “Oh, I want to give when I get that warm glow.” So then as fundraisers, it’s our job to make sure that our donors feel that warm glow. But when we’re using these practices, we’re training people to believe that the most important thing is how they feel when they give and that the worthiest cause is to support those that they can really understand and relate to and feel viscerally.

Ally Dommu: So, we have sprinkled in some really awesome quotes that have resonated with us. This quote comes from an active participant of Community-Centric Fundraising, which is a movement, and we’ll chat that link out, a movement, if you’re not familiar with, that’s really collectively building up a fundraising model that is grounded in equity, that’s grounded in racial and social justice, that really emphasizes the “we” when you’re thinking about fundraising. And we love this quote because it’s a call to action to fundraisers to be actively critical, to be actively questioning of the fundraising practices that we’ve been taught as best practices, and to examine how those best practices in our field have been shaped. And they have been shaped, as Hannah pointed out, largely by white folks, largely by white folks that, in fundraising, that have, you know, created what these best practices are. Still largely the case, as Hannah shared, in terms of who is doing the fundraising, who is the recipient of fundraising.

Ally Dommu: And we want to start off with just acknowledging that, you know, as a firm and, you know, as fundraisers ourselves, like, we’ve been here, we’re on a learning journey, and that’s part of what we’re excited to share with you today, is just, like, topics and practices that we’re just engaging with and, you know, learning and unlearning, I think, in our work as nonprofit consultants. But this is just a snapshot of a webinar that we hosted just a few years ago, really elevating what we’re trying to actually challenge today. We were banging the drum to make the donor the hero, this idea of centering the donor, making the donor, you know, feel like the hero of the story. But for us, in an effort to be more equity-focused, oriented in everything that we’re doing, we’re actually critically questioning our own thought leadership content, which is why we’re really excited to be sharing this with you today.

Ally Dommu: Another example of, you know, content that we’ve used, tips that we’ve used – making the donor the hero, getting your donors to fall in love with you – these are all, you know, things that we’ve learned, I think, as fundraisers or things that have been out there in the world in terms of, you know, tips and how to make sure that you’re successful in fundraising. But what we want to do today is kind of question some of these “me”- centered approaches and give some new solutions.

Hannah Thomas: Great. So now we’re going to pivot and talk a little bit about the inverse and kind of do a bit of a radical reframing here and talk about “fundraising for we.” So, you know, “fundraising for “we” is marked by some of these sorts of things, and we want to start off with a big, big shout out to our friends at Community-Centric Fundraising. They have really nailed it in naming that the community should be at the core of your fundraising, not the donor or the organization. This is about putting their agency, their power, their perspectives at the center of your fundraising communication. Disruptive new narratives, right? We need counters to the dominant narratives that are causing harm. We need narratives that don’t cause harm when they’re wielded, we need narratives that are healing, we need narratives that hold systems to account, that makes space for everybody, that lean into our shared values and our vision for the world. And then this, you know, emotional rollercoaster that we send donors on, you know – feel bad, feel terrible, feel guilty, now feel heroic and euphoric, you save the day – that is not healthy or sustainable. We should really be giving because we feel it’s a right and just thing to do with our money, not because we will be emotionally rewarded or feel good about our behavior.

Hannah Thomas: And really, we want to, like, start at the start here and found this Teju Cole quote helpful to think about all of these, sort of, hallmarks of that “we”-centric approach to fundraising may feel intimidating or they may feel inspiring. Like, let’s get started right now. I love this quote because it reminds us, instead of just focusing on doing good and moving forward, we also need to elevate the idea of stopping harm and really thinking about what currently exists that’s harmful that we can cut out of the picture.

Ally Dommu: All right. So, you know, the better, more equitable world that we want to create as nonprofit fundraisers, as leaders, it’s not going to come from an unquestioned reliance on best practices. So we want to encourage a shift towards radical practices, and that’s what we’re going to start looking at now. So, we’re going to go through three practices that have been held up as, you know, dominant best practices, I think, in fundraising – communication, specifically – the way to do things that we think are important to interrogate. And then what we’re going to do is sort of present back, “What can we do instead? What can take the place of this while we’re fundraising?”

Ally Dommu: So, the first and, we have referenced already, is the idea of saviorism. So that is about, you know, those closest to an organization’s mission or most affected by the injustices or the problems that your organization is trying to solve, that they are in need of saving and the donor or the organization is the one to save or rescue them. So this is a dominant narrative of the saviorism that plays out a lot in fundraising, both in the messaging that, you know, we use, but also through the practices that we use. And I want to say that, you know, when saviorism is applied through fundraising, it’s a practice that hits, really, all those attributes of “me”-centered fundraising. It’s promoting the idea that those impacted by the problem your organization is trying to solve are in need of saving, and the donor or the organization is the one that can rescue them. So, it’s tapping into the donor’s desire to make the world, you know, a better place while attempting to make donors feel good about themselves instead of actually combating the systemic problems at play – upholding white supremacy by reinforcing the underlying belief that donors, who we know are often times white, know best in that they have skills or power that program participants don’t have or need.

Ally Dommu: So we want to see how saviorism plays out in actual fundraising communications. So we’re going to sprinkle in some examples of where we see this narrative or this mindset play out. So, this is a piece of fundraising communications that really embodies saviorism, but by saying that children impacted, in this case, by facial deformities are the responsibility of the organization, there’s an ownership that’s expressed here in the copy. And that donor support saves lives, this headline, “Give a smile, save a life.” And that donor support gives new lives of dignity and pride. But by saying this, we’re treating program participants as less than, as “other,” perpetuating the savior mindset.

Ally Dommu: Another instance of saviorism in action, and the thing is, these narratives don’t have to be as overt as that last example. They play out in subtle ways that are sort of, you know, natural for a lot of people because these narratives, these dominant narratives, have been so internalized by us because they’re so dominant in our culture we don’t even realize that we are perpetuating them at times. So, this is an appeal that is about supporting rehabilitation – medical care abroad work that’s done by doctors, by nurses, by trained professionals. And there’s this line in here that says, “You don’t need to be a doctor or a nurse to be a first responder right now.” So, it’s, like, kind of clever fundraising language, but thinking and pausing to examine it, what we’re doing here is we’re actually saying one, we’re kind of diminishing the real work of people on the front lines doing this healthcare work, but we’re treating donors as heroes, inflating their power as a first responder, equating them to a first responder, rather than partners or rather than, you know, contributors to the work.

Ally Dommu: And sorry for the blurriness here, another example of saviorism in action, which is problematic, this is a mental health nonprofit that does workforce development in their community, and we’re telling the donor here that they’re the underlying line, we’re giving them the confidence that comes with having a consistent, meaningful job. So donors are giving individuals impacted by mental health the confidence. We’re reflecting paternalism here and stripping power and agency from the program participants themselves.

Ally Dommu: So, saviorism, you know, some of what all these examples, kind of, ladder up to, how they cause harm, takes the power of addressing needs or solving problems from the individual, putting it on the donor, you know, through language and narratives and storytelling, you know, that is powerful and that does strip people from agency and dignity and humanity. We’re not respecting people when we talk about them as “other,” reinforcing dominant narratives about “us and them,” and then failing to acknowledge systems and institutions at play, focusing on the role of individuals to solve problems rather than systemic solutions that individuals can support in advance. So what do we have in response to that?

Hannah Thomas: I’ve got a response lined up, it’s a little thing called justice. No, let’s think about how we could, you know, think about a dynamic shift here from the power being in the hands of those who are giving to support a mission to those who are closest to the mission. What are the meaningful, powerful, and deep ways that we can really be centering the outcomes for people who are most impacted by the work of a nonprofit? So, here are some, you know, savior dynamics we can see on the left-hand side here and how they might be approached with a reorientation towards justice. So comments, storytelling, dominant storytelling in fundraising may be around one person’s strife, their journey, their triumph, the difference that the nonprofit or the donor made in that one person’s life. Another way of looking at that would be to frame that story in the context of bigger picture systems and structures at play. So it becomes less about this individual’s choices and, kind of, the micro level of, “Your $50 gave this one person this one thing, and they were able to turn whatever around,” it’s indicating that there are so many other variables at play and factors so that it’s not such a condensed focus on the donor kind of perspective. The second arrow here is around imagery, right? It’s often pulling on those emotional heartstrings if you’re portraying people as “other,” as pitiable, or as, kind of, agency lists, and a simple pivot there is portraying people as they would like to be portrayed. Think about how you would want to be portrayed. Is that the way that you are, you know, portraying others? Getting consent and full consent understanding of how their story’s going to be used and which context and then compensating folks for sharing their stories, their lived experience, their likeness with you and your nonprofit. So, we have a couple other examples here, too, mostly around how we kind of hyperbolize the role of donors or really outsize the impact that they’re making when they give money and thinking about the ways that we can put that into a better perspective or make that relationship seem more reciprocal and in an act of solidarity than it is an act of charity.

Hannah Thomas: And so, like, with the saviorism piece that Ally walked through, we’ve got a couple examples here that we really like, that we think are bringing some of these ideas to the table. This is an email from the Latina Institute, and the copy up at the top here says, “One of the best ways to support our reproductive justice work is to invest in those on the front lines of it – every contribution matters.” So we like here that it’s saying it’s not the only way, it is a great way to do it. We’re talking about investing, which connotes reciprocity rather than just giving. And it is explicitly naming those on the front lines. It’s talking about who is actually doing the work and that the money and support is going towards them. And then at the bottom here it says, “Your support can be a vital part of that work,” right? “Invest in us and our activists.” Again, it’s really framing as this plays a part, and we’re driving home the role of a donation as really prioritizing the folks in our community who are out there organizing at the grassroots level.

Hannah Thomas: And this is an example from Center for Court Innovation talking about children in the welfare system, and we’re starting off here with, “A wide range of factors, from poverty to systemic racism, contribute to the high number of Black and Brown children in the child welfare system.” So we are starting off by framing with systemic and structural problems, and we’re taking a topic that could really easily be sensationalized, emotional, told through one family’s story. They’re taking a different approach with it. It is evocative without being emotionally manipulative or invoking pity, shame, any of that stuff. We also like to highlight the use of illustration. That’s a great way to avoid some of the traps of saviorism, right? This is helping to protect people’s privacy. It helps you understand that there are people and relationships at play and families at play without putting that burden on real people. I also love at the end here talking about positive experiences. We’re, we’re putting a solution out here, and it’s not one that centers, you know, individual’s choices and individual’s responsibility to make it right or donor actions as the solution to this problem.

Ally Dommu: Thanks, Hannah. All right, so that was our chapter on saviorism. Our next chapter or practice to dig into is about individualism and something I feel, like, is important to acknowledge is these, you know, this is our sort of way of grouping them, but all these things sort of overlap with one another and their is overlap between saviorism and individualism and all these different threads, you know, they’re not mutually exclusive. When we talk about individualism we’re really thinking about how we can deemphasize, intend to deemphasize the collective, collaborative work that nonprofit work, movement work takes by holding up the idea that the gift or contribution of one individual donor or the work of one nonprofit matters most. So very much an example of emphasizing the “me,” not the “we.” And we love this quote from Vu Le of Nonprofit AF and who is really instrumental in the community-centric fundraising movement. And as Vu points out here, when we attribute impact alone to donors versus celebrating or clarifying the real collective effort, what we’re doing is perpetuating inefficient nonprofit dynamics and actually obscuring the real “how” of how impact actually happens, right? So we’re doing a disservice to our own organization when we obscure this reality and to the donor to really understand, like, what does it really take to create change?

Ally Dommu: Okay, so here’s an example where we see individualism play out. We see this play out when buildings are named after donors. So really thinking here about what message it sends when the Sackler name, the family behind the Oxycontin epidemic, is held up as the name of beloved arts institutions like The Louvre. So even if, you know, a donor’s record is spotless, not, you know, like the Sackler name, holding up a single individual as the representation of a collective effort like the launch of a new museum wing or a new program or a new location at your nonprofit, it’s still deemphasizing the real collective collaborative effort that went into getting a new, you know, this new project off the ground.

Ally Dommu: And then, this is more into the fundraising practices side, but we see individualism play out when, as fundraisers, we subscribe to models that perpetuates the hierarchy of our supporter base. So offering, you know, high personalization to those that have more resources to give and really putting low personalization or thinking about that there’s this exclusive difference in terms of how we treat those that have higher abilities to give and those that are giving small levels.

Ally Dommu: And then this is a framework of thinking about how we are, you know, labeling individual donors with these different, like, tiers or titles. In this case, those that are giving more are titled “Leaders” or “Visionaries.” These very, like, ambitious names that show, have a lot of power and influence in them. So we see individualism play out when, as fundraisers, we label those with means to give, you know, as visionaries. You can only be a leader or a visionary in this framework, in this giving opportunity level, if you give at least, you know if you give at least $15,000, reinforcing the idea that wealth equals worth or wealth equals smarts and that donors with more resources to give are actually the ones doing the work, which we obviously know is false.

Ally Dommu: And a very common way of communicating to donors is, you know, emphasizing this idea of minimizing overhead or saying, you know, that our organization is worthy of giving because a hundred percent of all the dollars that you give to us will go directly to programs. So, that’s very much an embodiment of individualism kind of playing out in a different way. Setting up operations in a way that private donors, you know, cover overhead costs, reinforcing this dominant narrative that giving to operational costs is not going to drive impact, and that orgs that do ask nonprofits to give to overhead are untrustworthy or not as effective. Kind of perpetuating this competitive mindset of saying that, you know, we are more worthy of giving because when you give to us, it’s not actually going to overhead. So what’s happening here is in an effort to spotlight, you know, your organization and make your nonprofit look desirable in the eyes of donors, often this is actually hurting other nonprofits.

Ally Dommu: So this individualism, how it causes harm: replicating the wealthy few, having power of the masses, reinforcing hierarchy – that wealth equals worth – progress on the donor’s terms, centering money as essential to change, and then this competition among nonprofits – pitting organizations against each other- making it really, really hard, but from the way that you’re fundraising, the way that you’re communicating about the worth of your organization for others to be able to fundraise. Alright, hand it over to you, Hannah.

Hannah Thomas: Great, thank you. And we’re going to talk more about competition, too, more specifically and explicitly a little bit later on here, but we’re thinking about that shift from individualism to collectivity, and that is about, you know, seeing the victories all around and seeing them as not mine but all of ours. You know, we’re putting in work so that we are all able to thrive, we are all able to succeed. It’s about showing care for everyone and not just ourselves.

Hannah Thomas: And we’ve got some examples here, like, Ally walked through the major donors getting a building named after them. Maybe instead you could consider naming the building in alignment with your vision for the world; something that everybody who supports you and everybody who’s part of your community can see themselves in. Instead of, you know, crafting your strategies to make donors who give more feel more special, you’re investing in strategies that make your whole community feel that sense of belonging and feel valued by you. And this is something that comes up, too, “We’ve got a special presentation with a super mega potential donor. We’ve got to, like, craft the way we talk about ourselves just so, so it really appeals to them.” Instead, consider how you can stay true to the core of who you are, making something that is authentic no matter who will see it.

Hannah Thomas: And we love to utilize this image to show an ecosystem at play. Your organization, your donors, your whole community are part of an ecosystem of change in your issue area. There are a lot of other players contributing in invaluable ways. You can also view your organization itself as an ecosystem, right? The staff, the board, the volunteers, donors, folks participating in programs – everybody is playing an important role in keeping that ecosystem alive and healthy. We can’t just talk about the fish doing well without honoring that the coral reef is where they’re going to get their food that keeps them healthy and strong. So kind of using that framing as we move forward.

Hannah Thomas: So, some examples here – we’ve got Color of Change. “We’re in this together” language can go a long way. We are all part of this struggle, we all have a stake in this, we all have something to gain if it succeeds. We also have here, “History teaches us that people-powered movements are critical to transforming our communities.” This is emphasizing the role of people-powered movements, not organization-powered. This isn’t really about Color of Change in the spotlight, it’s about the momentum of people coming together that Color of Change can play a role in facilitating.

Hannah Thomas: And this is an example from the Intrepid that we appreciated, one of the Giving Tuesday emails that can go out from an organization. Here we just appreciated that they’re starting off by thanking their staff and talking about folks who have engaged in ways outside of donating or funding their organization. It’s just making sure that everybody is getting their due thanks for having played a role in the Intrepid’s success. So it’s kind of pushing against that traditional hierarchy of thanking donors first or only thanking donors in your communications.

Ally Dommu: Alright, now we want to dig into the scarcity mindset, which is ever present in nonprofit work, right? There’s never enough donors, never enough budget, never enough resources, leading to, sort of, this feeling of competition or you know, that there’s just not enough, that there’s limited resources at play here.

Ally Dommu: We love this little snapshot from Parks and Rec, if you’re a fan, which, we think, does a wonderful job of showing scarcity, that has just perfect correlation to the nonprofit sector in terms of fundraising scarcity mindset. But here we’ve got Hannah who runs into Donna at a singles event but is quickly sent away because she represents competition in the jungle. So, dating is a zero-sum game. If you get a man, I don’t get that man, right? Fundraisers, we can tend to think that, too. If your organization gets the donor, that means that my organization does not get that donor. So same mindset happens. You know, how can we challenge that a little bit?

Ally Dommu: So, you know, this view of nonprofits is sort of held up as the ideal, right? If you can create a pie that looks like this, where all your funding and giving is going to programs, you’re going to seem more, you know, desirable in the eyes of donors. So, when nonprofits are evaluated this way, no matter how hard we try to think differently, we imagine important infrastructure of our organization as taking a slice out of the pie, diminishing the real work of our mission. So the more, you know, our nonprofits admit to spending on overhead costs, the more likely we are to be seen as untrustworthy, to be seen as wasteful. So we do everything we can to compete in donor’s’, funder’s mind to be seen as worthy, even obscuring the reality of how, actually our operations as a nonprofit work.

Ally Dommu: And here’s an example of how this kind of plays out in nonprofit communications. This is an organization that’s reinforcing scarcity by saying, you know, through this message, “We’re the best. We only use your money for programs. We’re the most worthwhile use of your money because a hundred percent will go directly to the mission.” The scarcity mindset, one, promotes a competitiveness to have the littlest amount spent on overhead, and two, the belief that donors are only game to support programs rather than salaries, rather than infrastructure, rather than, you know, all the things that we need to actually do our nonprofit work on a day-to-day basis.

Ally Dommu: And we perpetuate this deficit-oriented mindset as fundraisers when we exclusively talk about people in terms of what they do not have versus talking about them in terms of what they have and the strengths that they bring to the table.

Ally Dommu: And this ever-present scarcity mindset, you know, comes into play and causes a lot of harm because it really puts us in a position of avoiding, you know, direct, honest conversations about race, wealth, and justice with our community, with our supporters. As I shared, discouraging investment in nonprofit infrastructure and general operating support, which is so important for nonprofits to be able to be sustainable; constantly striving to do more with less and really perpetuating this, like, competitive communications language – this “us versus them.” Alright, so what’s the antidote to that one?

Hannah Thomas: Yes, and just to go back, Parks and Rec, Ally, I think you said my name, Hannah, but we all know that’s Anne Perkins. Come on, Rashida Jones, shout out to Parks and Rec, just to clarify.

Ally Dommu: My bad.

Hannah Thomas: I was like, I wish I was Anne Perkins, Rashida Jones. So, moving from scarcity to abundance, right? This is a similar idea to what we’re thinking about with collectivity. It is looking outside the self and seeing that others are integral to the story. It’s really trying to instill this belief that there’s enough of everything for everybody and it’s possible for us all to win.

Hannah Thomas: And some examples of how that can shake out is, you know, putting the spotlight on your organization versus putting the spotlight on your ecosystem of change – all of the different folks and entities and all the things that are contributing to making change and moving your mission forward. It can be the idea that there’s only room to talk about the nitty gritty of our specific issue area versus making spaciousness for showing how causes are really interconnected. This one is a big one here that we’ll talk about, more of the fixed pie of dollars or attention that we are fighting for. “There’s a limited amount, and we’ve got to get our piece of the pie.” And just a reframing of the thinking there, that there is not a fixed pie. There is an unlimited pool that we can all share. And the last one here is, you know, donate or bust. Donate is the way, the one way that you can really help us out. Versus, “We encourage you to give in the currency that you have to give. That’s your time, that’s your energy, that’s your spreading the word, that’s your signing a petition. We value all of that. And that there are abundant ways that you can contribute to our work.”

Hannah Thomas: And here’s this quote from Amanda Cooper at Lightbox Collaborative that I just really, deeply appreciate. It is asking, ‘Who does this competition mindset ultimately benefit,” right? It is a very effective trap for the imagination. And I want to make sure to say, this is not me saying, yeah, there’s more than enough funding for nonprofits. There’s adequate funding, you know, we know the hustle that fundraisers experience is real and super messed up, but when we’re stuck in this mindset, we aren’t as easily able to imagine differently or find the pockets of abundance or slow down to consider more possibilities.

Hannah Thomas: And so this example from Make the Road, you know, is prompting folks to give to another organization, right? We don’t need your support all to ourselves, and when you donate to them, you are really helping us all, right? When you are affecting change with this organization, it ripples out so that it’s going to have an impact on us as well. And for bonus points here, the line above the arrow says, “Migration is natural. All migrants seeking safety should be welcomed with dignity.” We love that as a bonus for disrupting a dominant narrative and really putting forth a different value or idea around immigration.

Hannah Thomas: And this is coming from the Landback Manifesto here. We appreciate that it names that the struggles of all people are interconnected and is explicitly affirming that reparations and Land Back can and will coexist. Your dream and my dream aren’t in tension, they aren’t in competition, they can happen together. We think this is a beautiful example of leaving the competitive language behind and saying, you know, when one of us wins, the other will win. We’re all going to succeed and thrive in this future.

Hannah Thomas: And the other example to share here is from Girls for Gender Equity, right, showcasing how causes are interconnected. Environmentalism is tied to racism. We need to draw these connections for folks. So an organization that is about gender justice for girls is calling out environmental racism, right? Because they’re seeing that their work is not isolated, and by talking about this crisis, they’re not detracting from their mission, they’re drawing integral ties. We are all deeply interdependent as people, organizations, causes, movements, and we can really only benefit from acknowledging that and strengthening those ties.

Hannah Thomas: So, in summary, what we’re hoping we all kind of leave with today, you know, you really will not get through a talk from me without an adrienne maree brown quote, I’m just saying. What we’re hoping is that there’s an understanding that we’re all really learning. We’re all in a process of gathering data and better understanding what we can and should do as fundraisers. And I particularly love the use of the word tender here. There is necessary room for compassion towards ourselves as we learn to do better, as we stumble, as we get up and try again. So, I really appreciate you all joining us. Hope this has been a productive, kind of, learning and thinking space together, and please do keep the conversations and learning going. We want to learn from y’all as well. We’re going to have a couple minutes for questions, I think, at the end. But, just want to say thank you. That’s our content.

Jen Petersen: Thank you, Hannah. Thank you, Ally. That was really great. I found myself getting sort of lost in your conversation instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing. So I appreciate you very much. For everyone that is still with us, we have two more webinars coming up in our Rethink Fundraising series. So if you have not already signed up, please feel free to sign up. We have one on March 16th, The Capital Campaign Case Statement, and then another one on April 21st, Addressing Problematic White Women in Fundraising. So if you have not already submitted your registration, please do so. And yes, don’t worry, we have a Q&A session coming up.

Jen Petersen: If you want to keep up with our insights and things that we are talking about, thinking about, you can always visit our website, I’m going to chat out that link to you right now. And then lastly, if you have any questions, we can help you. If you need to develop a donor communications plan, create an equity-focused fundraising campaign, craft brand strategy and new visuals and messaging, or anything else that you can think of that has to do with communications and smart communications, we can help you. I will chat out our Co-director, Farra Trompeter, and she or I will speak to you about that, and there is her email.

Jen Petersen: And finally, the portion of the webinar series that we always love, questions and answers. I’m going to go back and forth in between our Q&A and the questions that were submitted in chat. So, just starting right away, our first question, this was regarding stats, Hannah from Jamila, she asked the question, “Are these stats – are these national stats or global?”

Hannah Thomas: I believe that was in reference to the state of the fundraising fields right now, which, Ally, I think you had sourced that.

Ally Dommu: Yeah, national. That we could definitely sound out the links so you can reference, exactly, the source of all those data points, but yes, pretty sure that’s national.

Jen Petersen: Great. Our next test question is from Kara, and Kara asked, “Can you give an example of good narrative and bad narratives? I’m truly trying to learn, and if you can provide a specific example, it would be very helpful.”

Hannah Thomas: Yeah, examples of good narratives and bad narratives. If only it was that simple. I think what we’re trying to communicate, too, is that there’s a lot of nuance and, okay, great. Somebody is sharing that there were some good examples throughout the presentation, which thank you, Kara, for sharing that you know, there’s some examples where it is putting the emphasis or the onus on the wrong sort of sources, or it’s centering donors when the story really should be not focused on donors at all. So that might be an example of a narrative that is causing harm, right? Or it’s a narrative that is talking about people as though they’re, you know, less than us or oh, “Poor them,” right? That is reinforcing racism, that is reinforcing ideas of us as being different, as being separate from others who are needing resources, needing services. I think there’s a lot of ways that we can think about different narratives as being good or bad, but hoping that that beginning context that we set for the presentation around understanding the deep, deep roots of how fundraising can cause harm, that that can help us, right, decide when we have a story to tell – how it is that we’re going to tell it and what we’re going to emphasize and not so that we’re not creating more harm.

Jen Petersen: Great, thanks Hannah. The next one comes from Noah, a comment and question. “I one hundred percent agree and have grappled with best practices throughout my tenure, but donor-centric, as far as I understand, has proven to be super successful in securing major and purposeful giving. Is there a balance or a way to take the best, most successful parts, approaches to these best practices while also actively fighting against damaging dominant cultural behaviors?”

Hannah Thomas: I mean, I’ll just start quickly and then I’m sure Ally has thoughts, too, but I think the way that you can show the most respect and care for a donor is to be candid with them and be vulnerable and consider them as partners. And I think there’s a lot of power in coming to a donor relationship and having, you know, sort of that honest, shared understanding of the roles at play. So, I think that even just having that conversation is something that can be really powerful and have a positive impact on the way you communicate with donors moving forward, but I want to pass to Ally to share, too.

Ally Dommu: Yeah, I appreciate that question and something that I meant to note, if I didn’t, was that, like, donor-centrism isn’t, like, all bad. It’s coming from a place, I think, of wanting to like, you know, fundraise effectively and build relationships with your supporters, which is a good thing to, you know, get to know our supporters, to listen to our supporters, to thank our supporters, to offer gratitude for supporters. So there’s practices in there that need to be continued. We can’t, as fundraisers, stop thanking our donors and appreciating our donors. The issue is that when it goes too far in terms of centering donors, to the point of saying that your needs, your ideas about the issues that we’re working on, your, you know, desires for how we do the work is actually going to take precedent over, you know, what we know best from listening to the communities most impacted by the issues that we’re working on. So it’s a balance there, you know, it’s not just throwing it all out, it’s taking it, but then also bringing this mindset to the table as well.

Jen Petersen: Great, thank you both very much. We have five minutes; I’m to try to get through all of these questions. The next is, again, a comment and question from Emily. And they say, “I think one area of tension in ‘me versus we’ balance, especially when we work,” I’m sorry, my tongue got tied. “I think one area of tension in ‘me versus we’ balance, especially when ‘we’ work is more collective, is how to make your work apparent in the collective journey. Any tips in sharing and celebrating the collective journey while also acknowledging your role, voice – where you might bring a unique point of view?”

Ally Dommu: So, at Big Duck, we do branding work. That means that it’s about clarifying. That work is all about clarifying your role and your voice. You have to make sure, as a nonprofit organization, that you are clear about who you are – that’s what branding work and identity work is all about – who you are, what your values are, what you bring to the table. And that, like, ecosystem image that Hannah drew up, like there’s a role for everybody in that. And it’s, I think that there is a space, you know, for you to be able to lean into as an organization. This is the awesome stuff that we’re doing. You know, this is the awesome contribution that we made as an organization, but not to the point of overshadowing the partners that you work with, the community members that you work with, the other folks that are involved in your work. So it’s about, I think, making sure that you have really good clarity in terms of what are the contributions that you are making, and what’s the unique role that you play, but not to the point of shadowing the collective work that’s being done on your mission. But Hannah, what would you add to that one?

Hannah Thomas: I mean, I would just say there are, I’m seeing, there are so many questions, actually, around, like, striking a balance, right? How do we balance between all of these things? And I think it really is just about starting small and experimenting. Tying things out, like, not being afraid to give something a go. If your usual, you know, end of year fundraising push involves, like, 10 emails and they’re really usually all about you and the impact that you had, experiment with, “We’re going to do one that is just focused on partners” or “We’re going to do one that is, you know, really not centered on us,” and see how that goes for you and see how that feels and how your community responds. So it’s really, you know, these can be incremental, small actions that have a really big impact, and you can really build your way up and find that balance for yourself as you experiment.

Jen Petersen: Great, thank you. Our next question is from Cassidy. “Does naming individual donors, like, in impact reports perpetuate the individualism framework? Why or why not? How do you recognize without falling into the individualism trap?

Hannah Thomas: I was going to say it’s really all about how you frame it and what context you set for folks. Certainly, there is space for donors on the stage, but it’s not exclusive space for them on the stage. So it’s really about what is the message that you’re leading into on that donor impact page? What are you saying about these folks? What are you thanking them for? What’s on the page before the donor impact page? All of these sorts of things all play a role in what the ultimate story is that you’re telling. So I would say it’s not really as cut and dry as just like don’t shout out anybody by me, but it is about being really thoughtful in how you’re celebrating donors.

Jen Petersen: Great. Thank you very much. We have a question from Kelsey. “Do you have any case studies, examples of orgs who have pivoted and seen success in fundraising?”

Hannah Thomas: We do, actually, I think Community-Centric Fundraising is a great resource for this, and they have a whole article about a case study of one organization, Autostraddle, that took a Community-Centric Fundraising approach and have had really positive impacts, quantitatively, and then also, you know, in the way that it has felt for them in their community. So we can link you out access to that article, but there are examples, on small scales, of things being successful, or at least not harming fundraising, you know, dollars earned, right? When you take this approach, it’s not automatically, like, well, we’ve got a hill to climb now. What we’ve been seeing in our communications efforts and from our clients is that making this pivot has not been a detriment to fundraising.

Jen Petersen: We are at time. You guys want to do one more question? Keep going? Should we – it’s up to you. One more question then we can end? Anonymous question, “What do you say to administrators who are more concerned with bringing in the funds right now versus shifting to these mindsets? Asking for a friend?”

Ally Dommu: I mean, I think I would, in that case, echo that, I mean, I think it starts with, you know, getting on the same page with everyone at your organization about what some of your core values are, I think, and having that to uphold, you know. Thinking about things like equity, thinking about things like community, solidarity, you know. If there are these underlying values that people really tap into, then we could lift those up and say, “Well, we can’t just practice that in our program’s work. We can’t just practice that in a silo. Actually, all these things need to come into play when we’re fundraising, when we’re working day in and day out with each other as an organization.” You can’t exclusively choose, “I want to do equity here, but I don’t want to do equity here.” But I think what Hannah shared is that, you know, we could start small, you know, so when there’s urgency around bringing in the bucks, you know, like in the short-,term and needing to hit those fundraising goals, like what are some of the small things that you can do in the meantime, to just shift your fundraising ever so slightly to bring these mindsets to the table? I think there are, you know, small actions in terms of messaging, in terms of storytelling, in terms of, just, language, imagery that can be employed that can drive fundraising but that are not going to perpetuate some of these harmful narratives that really do a disservice to our long-term work of trying to advance in a just and equitable world.

Hannah Thomas: I would also just add, too, a lot of these questions, we have hunches about the answers to, or we have, you know, thoughts based off of these principles, but we are the people who are going to create the proof, right, for the future, right. It is on us to try and experiment and work this out and imagine better, and, you know, hopefully we will have the proof that this is what works, but we’re doing it because it’s right. It’s the right thing to do. It’s going to help us get to that vision for the world that we have. So just want to name in total, like, vulnerability on our part, you know, we’re putting forth ideas. We want to hear your ideas too. We’re all on the same playing field in terms of trying things out and asking questions and being critical. So, appreciate everybody’s questions here and the conversations happening in the chat, as well, are very wonderful for us to read.

Jen Petersen: Absolutely. That will be the last question that we’re going to take today. I will talk with Hannah and Ally offline to see if there’s a way we can answer some of those questions in our follow-up email. But thank you all, for everyone who is still here, thank you very much for joining us today. I found this conversation really insightful, and Hannah and Ally, I really appreciate your knowledge. So, thank you. And for those still here, we will send out a follow-up email either tomorrow or Monday. Thank you.

Ally Dommu: Thank you.

Hannah Thomas: Thank you! Have a good day.

Ally Dommu

Ally Dommu is the Director of Service Development, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

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Jen Petersen

Jen Petersen is the Marketing Manager, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

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Hannah Thomas

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

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