Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash
April 8, 2021

What norms should you challenge and disrupt?

What norms should you challenge and disrupt? Sarah Durham and Hannah Thomas unpack “thoughtful disruption” and offer different ways of challenging nonprofit communications norms and assumptions.


Sarah Durham: Welcome back to The Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham, and I’m joined today by Hannah Thomas. Who’s a senior strategist here at Big Duck. Welcome back, Hannah.

Hannah Thomas: Hey Sarah. Great to be with you this morning.

Sarah Durham: One of the many awesome things about Hannah is that she’s got deep roots in the arts and culture community in New York. And she has joined our team after many years working in-house in nonprofits like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film at Lincoln Center, where she championed meaningful representation and inclusivity in the film industry. And along the way, she’s honed all kinds of excellent communication skills, which she brings to the work we do with our clients. So I invited Hannah to join me today because she is doing some really, really exciting writing and thinking right now about inclusivity and donor centrism and community-centered fundraising and communications and all of the implications of those things. So I thought we dig into that today, if it’s okay with you, Hannah, how are you feeling?

Hannah Thomas: It sounds great to me. I’m game for it.

Sarah Durham: All right. Great. So one of the pieces you wrote recently that I thought was really exciting was about bringing a spirit of abundance to Giving Tuesday and beyond we’ll link to that in the show notes and to some of the other pieces you have been writing. But beyond the writing you’ve been doing, you’ve been doing a lot of excellent work with our clients, challenging their norms and assumptions around nonprofit communications and whose voices we listen to. You’ve been servicing donor centrism. You’ve been asking really important questions about who holds power, whose voice is being centered on in the work we do. And when you and I were talking about all of this recent use this term that I thought was really interesting. You called it thoughtful disruption. So let’s unpack that what is thoughtful disruption?

Hannah Thomas: To start, I think a really helpful quote actually comes from one of the great minds at Community Centric Fundraising. Her name is Anna Rebecca Lopez, and she said in one of her webinars, “do you look at best practices without critical inquiry?” When I hear best practices, I think white-dominant culture. And I thought that that was a really valuable perspective just to critically look at the way that we do things and see where that actually might be harmful to the nonprofit sector, or might not get us towards achieving our missions, achieving what we want out of the work that we’re doing. So for me, thoughtful disruption means taking a critical look at the way that we do things and maybe reframing to center different voices, to look at different ways of going about things, different processes, maybe even shifting the outcomes that we’re going for. So in a lot of my thinking and in my writing, I’m suggesting ideas that might sound disruptive, might sound not familiar, not comfortable, not guaranteed to generate dollars or audiences immediately. For me, thoughtful disruption is playing the long game and helping us work toward a world that is kind of radically different than the world that we’re in right now.

Sarah Durham: You began by talking about how best practices often emerge from white-dominant or white supremacist culture. And there have been some great articles written on that topic. One of the ones that we’ve been reading and discussing a lot here at Big Duck, I’ll link to in the show notes, but it’s from an organization called Stand Up for Racial Justice. And I want to just circle back to that because I think for people who maybe haven’t been reading quite as much about the implications of a culture that has been dominated by white voices for so long, the notion of best practices emerging from a white-dominated culture might be a little bit new. And I want to underscore how important it is to read about that and think about that. And I think that’s a lot of what you are thinking about in this work. So why should we challenge those norms now in particular, or at any time?

Hannah Thomas: I think now’s a good moment because we’ve really been forced by a healthy handful of different crises over the last year to rethink some of the basic ways that we function personally, professionally, all of that sort of stuff. So I think there is an open mind right now about adapting and growing and evolving. I also think we’re kind of at an inflection point where some of the nonprofit sector is not really thriving, not really healthy feels a little bit stagnant in some places. So it feels like a time that is really ripe for iteration, for experimentation, for an opportunity to try things a new way.

Sarah Durham: Definitely. And I think in 2020 with the combination of the pandemic and the wake of racial reckoning that has emerged after George Floyd’s killing, there’s an interesting intersection in the nonprofit sector with that. And some of the work of the community-centered fundraising groups you’ve been talking about too. So I agree. It’s an exciting time to see these assumptions challenged, particularly in the sector. So if a nonprofit does this work deeply, where do you think it might take them? If you were to dig in and read and learn, start to disrupt these norms, where are you going to go?

Hannah Thomas: Well, I’d like to start by pairing down that sort of white dominant best practices idea that I had because I think at a basic level, it just means that the nonprofit sector is used to rooms full of white people, deciding how they’re going to communicate with white people, largely their donor base. And so the ideas that I’m suggesting are about reframing that about reframing, who is in the room, who is helping make decisions, who you’re speaking to, who you involve in your mission, who’s important, who you show care for in your work? So that’s sort of the big idea of what I’m trying to think about. And so the outcomes, the benefits that might come from thinking with an abundance mindset or prioritizing community voices over donor voices, or making your community, your donors, things like that, might have different positive outcomes for you. You might have more diverse dollars coming in ,dollars coming in from many different sources. You might be less reliant on finicky grant processes that may not be sustainable for you. You might have a brand that is beloved and well understood by several different audiences that are important to you rather than stayed or something that just donors identify with. I think there’s opportunities in those seem kind of maybe in the nitty gritty, I’m thinking even bigger picture about a sector that is more financially robust, more ambitious, sees itself as an ecosystem where everybody has a role to play and everybody is able to helpfully live out that role.

Sarah Durham: So Hannah, one of the things that I want to reflect upon in this notion of disruption and becoming more aware of who has a seat at the table and what their voices or their role is in communications or fundraising. As a person who identifies as cisgender and white myself, it took me actually a very long time to become aware of how often the people sitting around the table with me, or the people at the client’s table, or the people who were involved in the work were predominantly white. And how often particularly donors are predominantly white and that we are grounding so much of what we do when we work in the nonprofit sector, in those voices and the voices of white leadership and white donors. And there’s this sort of big absence of other voices at the table that I think you’re talking about when you use this metaphor of the ecosystem, who are the voices in that ecosystem? You know, I’m mixing metaphors here, but who’s got a seat at the table or who’s thriving in this ecosystem?

Hannah Thomas: Yeah, that’s a great question, and for me, it’s even thinking about that table differently. Let’s remove the table, let’s make it not a room. It’s not who has a seat at the table. Who’s at the head of the table? Does everybody have equal power in that space? So even just, re-imagining that very basic analogy that we’re all familiar with because it is already replicating some structures that are harmful. It is already setting us up with specific expectations and even just who we allow in the room, and who is allowed a seat, and things like that. So I love thinking about it more as an ecosystem where everybody has a role to play, and everybody is critical to the environment thriving. An ecosystem that’s healthy for me has a lot of different voices in it. And a lot of different voices held with value and respect and giving input.

Hannah Thomas: For me, it’s got to start at the folks who are closest to the mission of a given non-profit. Those are the folks who are engaging directly in your work. Those are the folks who need to thrive in order for your mission to be achieved. So for me, it’s really valuable that they be highlighted in their role in the ecosystem. Additionally, staff and volunteers, as well as the board of nonprofits. These internal audiences are really important in the ecosystem. A lot of times, when we think about the center of nonprofit communications or who we need to be pleasing with our communications, it really starts with donors. And for me, I would love for us to turn that upside down and really be prioritizing others who are doing the work, not to say that donors do not have a role to play in that ecosystem. They certainly do. I just think our prioritizing of donors may not get us where we want.

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Sarah Durham: In your article about “Bringing a spirit of abundance to Giving Tuesday”, one of things you and I talked about, and I know you’re thinking about is also the opportunity in that ecosystem to lift up pure organizations and other people who work in your space. And you and I had an exchange about the idea that historically, I think nonprofits have viewed organizations in their space, somewhat competitively as if it’s the nonprofit Hunger Games, but actually they have a place in that ecosystem too. Right?

Hannah Thomas: Absolutely. I’m so glad you brought that up. I think that there is a tendency to view others who are in your landscape, peers, as competitors, as people or organizations you’re worried your donors are going to go to instead. This sort of zero sum mindset. If the spotlight is on them, the spotlight can’t be on me. If they’re getting donors, I’m not getting those donors or their dollars. And I think that that’s not the mindset that’s going to bring the nonprofit sector forward and move it forward into a world that has perhaps more empathy and room for organizations to grow and give. So my suggestion in that article was that nonprofits start shouting each other out and really viewing themselves as part of a collective. Like we are all working towards this better world. And by sharing our audiences, by sharing our donors, we’re growing our audiences and our donors, and we’re drawing really vital connections for our audiences. They’re seeing how important it is that we are all working together and how our collective effort is stronger than any individual effort.

Sarah Durham: That’s awesome. I love the positivity of that vision and the potential of that vision to really shift from a way of viewing the world is limited and resources is limited towards a more generous and abundant vision. So before we wrap up, I want to circle back to something you said earlier about challenging, why there’s even a table, you know, let’s get rid of the room and let’s consider it an ecosystem. If that is a new idea for you, one of the great resources I recommend to dig in more to what Hannah is talking about is an interview that Joan Garry did with a consultant named Neha Sampat recently. And we’ll link to that in the show notes. But Neha Sampat is a coach and a consultant principal at a company called GenLead that works with organizations. And she has a practice called Belong Lab, where she talks about belonging and what it means to truly feel a sense of fitting in and belonging. And she and Joan Garry explore that in the podcast. So that’s a great resource if you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’re not sure where to start on this journey. Hannah, where do you encourage people to start when they’re not sure where to begin on this journey?

Hannah Thomas: I think there’s an abundance of resources available out there right now. Just type in Google with a question that you’re curious about. There are so many people doing good work and good thinking, that that is always a place that I start with. Additionally, I would say internal reflection. Make space within your organization for your team to meet and talk about these things. Talk about, you know, everybody was very excited to put forth some commitments around DEI and antiracism earlier in the year, check in on that. How is all of that going? How are folks feeling? How have you made progress or where have you encountered roadblocks in those commitments? And in affirming those values that you might have put forth. I sometimes think that those sort of vulnerable internal conversations are the best place to start. And having that kind of candid conversation can really take you pretty far.

Hannah Thomas: And then you are looking for baby steps, in terms of actually communicating out there with the world’s communicating with your audiences. There are a few simple things you could do, like shouting out another nonprofit on Twitter, once in a while just saying, Hey, we see you. You’re doing great work. We applaud you! Rock on! Something like that. It doesn’t take a huge lift. Isn’t the boldest or most radical or something that feels very risky, but it is totally a step towards that world that we all want to work toward, and it could really benefit you. It could benefit that organization that you shout out, and it will certainly benefit your audiences too.

Sarah Durham: Awesome. Well, Hannah, thank you so much for joining me today to talk all of this through, we will be linking to all these resources in the show notes, and you can find Hannah Thomas on the Big Duck website and read more articles by Hannah and get a sense of her practice here with us at Thanks Hannah.

Hannah Thomas: Thanks so much for having me. Sarah.

This podcast has been sponsored by Fresh Research, a NonProfit Times Podcast‬.

Fresh Research, a NonProfit Times Podcast‬