Where is the community in your communications?
Who is your community? They often tend to be more expansive than we think. Listen in as Sarah Durham unpacks the word “community” in fundraising and communications with Michelle Shireen Muri, the founder of Freedom Conspiracy, Co-Chair of the founding Seattle chapter for Community-Centric Fundraising and host of The Ethical Rainmaker podcast. Learn about community mapping and more in this episode of the Smart Community Podcast.
Sarah Durham: Welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I am Sarah Durham and I’m joined today by Michelle Shireen Muri. Hey Michelle. I’m so happy you’re here. Welcome.
Michelle Shireen Muri: I’m thrilled to be on your podcast. Thanks, Sarah.
Sarah Durham: For those of you who don’t know Michelle, you really should. She’s the co-chair of Community-Centric Fundraising. She’s a fundraising consultant with the woman of color collective Freedom Conspiracy, and she uses a community-centered lens there, but she does so much great writing and speaking about her work. I’m sure you’ve probably seen her in other places. One of the places that I first learned about Michelle is her incredible podcast, which is called The Ethical Rainmaker. If you’re not listening to this podcast, you definitely should be. I highly recommended it. It’s probably the number one podcast I recommend to people who like listening to podcasts and work in the nonprofit sector. It explores how the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors are complicit in colonization and the ways that we as a sector or as people who care about this work can work to undo those systems of oppression, including the places where we can step up into our power or step out of the way, which is something I know I try really hard to do.
Sarah Durham: And I learned a lot from you, Michelle, as I listened to your podcast about that. Michelle is awesome. She brings passion and vision for how the third sector can do better. And she has partnered with movement leaders and organizations who inspire social change, like the Edgar Villanueva and the Decolonizing Wealth Project, Code 2040, Columbia Legal Services, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, Launch, and others. She loves helping individuals and organizations explore their emotional narratives around money, something that a lot of people are willing to do and developing awareness about how those narratives affect the movements that they serve.
Sarah Durham: In non-COVID times, we might find Michelle out salsa dancing, scuba diving, doing some karaoke, gardening. And right now we’re recording this in December 2020, so it is COVID times. She is at home with her foster dog. So you may hear her dog or my dog in the background. Michelle. I’m so glad you’re here. Thanks for joining me today.
Michelle Shireen Muri: That was the most beautiful introduction. Thank you, Sarah. I’m glad to be here too. Thank you for that. I appreciate it. Yeah. And you might hear my foster dog snoring in the background.
Sarah Durham: It’s a very relaxing sound.
Michelle Shireen Muri: It is.
Sarah Durham: You’ll notice that the word “community” comes up a lot with Michelle when you listen to her on her podcast or in this conversation. And I really wanted to invite her to join us today so we can unpack “community” together. And some of the insights that she’s gleaned from all of her work. First, Michelle, let’s just start off big picture. How do you think about community? What does that mean to you?
Michelle Shireen Muri: It’s interesting because it keeps evolving. One of the important factors for me is realizing that my mind is colonized. When I think about my personal community, it probably shouldn’t be different than all the rest of my communities. But when I initially think about my personal community, I think about this map I made of all the people that I speak with regularly in a period of maybe six months. I thought when I took on that assignment, that it would be, you know, maybe like 15, maybe 20 people, but it’s actually like 130 people that I speak to on a regular basis. And that really would have been what I would have considered my community a couple of years ago. That’s really a network of conversation instead. And I realized that I wasn’t counting in some of my other identities and other places that I am, like my literal community are the people around me, my next-door neighbors, the folks that like literally that we share a backyard with.
Michelle Shireen Muri: And not only that, but that my identities also make my community expansive. So I’m part of the Iranian community. I’m part of the bicultural communities. I’m part of the queer community. I’m part of a lot of different communities, you know, fundraisers of color, nonprofit workers, salsa dancers, et cetera. And so my community is actually quite expansive. But I realized the fact that I, in my identification of who is my personal community, don’t immediately think about all of these identities and really go expansive. I think this is also an issue with our nonprofit sector. We have intersecting identities. Our communities are broad, and we really don’t typically do the work around what is our holistic community? What does that look like? So community can be defined in a lot of different ways, but I think that we are often, you know, thinking about it from a really colonized perspective.
Sarah Durham: I love as I listened to you talk, thinking about how the traditional notion of community as you’re describing it is kind of more about geography. Like, you know, as you said, the people who live next door. But increasingly I think you’re describing community as being about identity, about being a part of a group that you share something in common with that’s more intrinsic to who you are as a person, right? So let’s get into community mapping cause you referenced this when we had a conversation earlier and I want to understand from you, what is community mapping? And how does it relate to those different identities that we might bring to the table uniquely or share?
Michelle Shireen Muri: In the nonprofit sector, I believe that we think about our communities in really isolated ways. I developed this process of literally looking at who are you serving? Who are you meant to serve? Who are you intending to serve with whatever work you’re doing? And in the process of community mapping through my consultancy, we literally place that group in a circle in the middle of a page. That is our intended community. Hopefully, we’re a part of that community ourselves. But really when we look at centering the community that’s who should be in the middle, then the process of community mapping is going around that circle and creating new circles that intersect with that community. Now who cares about that primary community,? Who’s adjacent to that primary community? Who’s involved in that primary community? And when we look at that and we take an issue, like one of my clients, Columbia Legal Services, they both serve agricultural workers with their rights and also folks who are imprisoned with their rights.
Michelle Shireen Muri: And so when you think about who is at the center of their work, it should actually be those communities. Often what we’re doing instead in nonprofits is we’re saying that our community are actually the donors or the people who support or, you know, our institutional funders. And we often in fundraising, center those people. In communications, too, we sent her that group instead of the group that we’re meant to serve. So when we think about who is our community as a nonprofit, and center the community and create a community map, we must actually center the people who we are serving in the middle and then work out from there. When you do that process, maybe donors are closer to the issue. Maybe they’re farther away from the issue, but that’s how we center community is really creating a map like that.
Sarah Durham: I can picture that bulls-eye graphic, that you’re articulating really well. And I have a version of that in my book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine. In the book, I didn’t call it community. I called it audiences. And the idea of centering in the middle of the bullseye, the audience that is essential to your mission, the people you serve. But I love that you’re renaming that group community. As I’m thinking about this, I’m also thinking about how donors in a way can run through all the layers of that bullseye. In other words, people in the community can, of course, be donors. People adjacent to the community can be donors. But oftentimes I think we treat donors in this kind of almost siloed way where we sent her a lot of the decision-making we do in our communications about what we think donors might want or need or expect, or their desire to be treated as heroes or saviors. But maybe they actually, as you’re saying, not only the primary audience, but they’re kind of woven through the community and in a way that might even be more embedded than we think of. Do you think that’s true?
Michelle Shireen Muri: Yeah, I do. I think that that’s true. Typically, in a traditional fundraising shop and maybe even in comms, we will center the donor as its own community. Donors, major donors who fits where on a giving pyramid, our institutional funders. And we tend to think of our audience mapping that way, but this is exactly right. Your donors, your institutional funders are all part of a broader map of your holistic community and they belong to different communities as well. And I think we would be well-served to think about our fundraising comms in that way as well.
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Sarah Durham: You know, I’m struck when I think about segmentation in fundraising, but in other areas too, about how often we, as communicators are quick to make generalizations about what the wants and needs of the people we’re communicating with are or their expectations. And when you talk about community-centric fundraising, you’re not talking about prioritizing what we imagine donors want. So I’d love you to talk about that a little bit. What do you see as the sort of projections that we put on to donors about how they want to be treated or should be treated and how do you work with organizations to try to course correct, to be more community-centric?
Michelle Shireen Muri: In my consulting practice, we are actually using surveying tools. So we are doing the audience mapping piece to learn who really is your community? Who is your actual community? Where their voices should be magnified, amplified, and lifted up, and the work that you’re doing and should be shaping the work itself. Right? And so from that community mapping process, we then go and interview folks and the type of survey depends on what type of information we’re looking for, who has availability to do this work with us in terms of the audience that self-selects right. So there are some flaws and creating the real holistic picture of community. But when done well, and when folks are available, we are able to see, to go out and actually ask folks, “What is i, you’re part of the community, what is it that you believe is the solution? What kind of information do you want from us? What kind of work do you want us to be doing?” Here’s a really interesting case example. Again, I’m going to use Columbia Legal Services. So Columbia Legal Services is a legal advocacy nonprofit, they work in these two areas. I was mentioning earlier. So the rights of agriculture workers and rights of folks who are imprisoned. The legal system is all about, you know, patriarchy and hierarchy.
Michelle Shireen Muri: And there are a lot of problematic practices in that system that uphold white supremacy, for example, and this organization recognizes it. But they’re fighting within the system, but they’re shifting the way that they do their work by actually asking the community that they’re intending to serve, what does that community need and want? Sometimes when our legal aid organizations do legal aid work, they’re actually doing it from an academic perspective where they’re approaching a topic area that may have some effect on a community, but maybe it has more of a theoretical effect versus what the folks who actually need this assistance actually want from a legal service provider. So this organization created liaisons that are actually meeting with organizing bodies and learning what the community actually wants. That’s a program’s example, but in that same way, I think in order to serve our communities, we really need to be doing that work of what does our community need and want from us programmatically.
Michelle Shireen Muri: And then we need to really be communicating out and reporting out what are we doing, therefore, you know, what actions are we taking based on what the community said that they wanted? We’re often using comms as a PR tool instead of a tool for change. We are using comms to say, “Hey, look at the great work we’re doing, please give now.” Instead of, “Let’s look at this work that we’re doing and let’s temperature check, let’s see, is this actually fitting the needs of the community?” And then we have to share out our process, right? So I think that this is the way that great community-centered work can be done. But I think that what we’re traditionally doing is we’re making a lot of assumptions. One of our donors to Community-Centric Fundraising gave a great example. This was a person who, when the pandemic first started, he took 195 masks to the local emergency room of a local hospital. Knowing that workers there needed personal protection equipment, and the person who collected that equipment, this is the middle of a pandemic, everybody is rushing, you know, to try to be as safe as they can to meet the needs. And the person who picked up the masks on behalf of the hospital said, “Would you like a selfie? You know, would you like a selfie so that you can show your friends and community that you’ve done something great.” And this donor was upset about it because the whole purpose of that donation was just to get the help to where it was needed, you know, get the help to the community in which it was needed. It wasn’t so that he could be thanked profusely and have a selfie taken with the masks. Right? So I think we’ve often made this assumption, that person meant well on behalf of the hospital.
Michelle Shireen Muri: And I’m sure that I’ve done things like that in the past as well. Right? All fundraisers have been complicit and comms folks too. But when we do traditional work, we’re usually centering what we think a donor wants and we’re making the donor the community versus really understanding who our community is, identifying that and working to serve the community and really asking what they want. This is the way in which we can build more authentic relationships where what is being received, what is being sent by the nonprofit or the communications that are done, are consensual, right, and also welcome and wanted and creating better relationships.
Sarah Durham: I love that example too because in it you can see that the donor doesn’t want the selfie, right? Isn’t trying to focus on sort of, you know, signaling their own virtue through this gift. They are truly trying to support the community, but we often make, again, as you said, these assumptions about what’s going to make a donor feel good, and isn’t it refreshing to actually realize that some donors might not even need that? That we’ve developed all these practices as communicators or fundraisers that might actually be unnecessary. That maybe we could put that time back into the programmatic work, or back into, as you say, communications that go back to the community per se, focused on the mission.
Michelle Shireen Muri: Right.
Sarah Durham: And not virtue signaling.
Michelle Shireen Muri: that’s right.
Sarah Durham: You talked in that example and throughout our conversation, I think, about communications and fundraising and the interwoven nature of the two. I often see fundraising and communications as incredibly interlinked. How else do they come together for you? Are there other places where the people listening to this podcast who are communicators might want to think more about how to communicate in community-centric ways?
Michelle Shireen Muri: One thing I’m seeing is that we really need to be communicating much more with our communities and not less. Oftentimes at a nonprofit organization, leadership is often afraid to invest more in fundraising period, right? Communications is one of the last things that’s prioritized to invest in, but yet it’s one of the most important because I really do feel as fundraising professionals, as comms professionals, it is the job of the organization to report out what they are doing. So our organizations must show their work. What are they doing? Who are they serving? How did they come to the conclusions that they did? How are they making sure that the services that they’re providing are relevant to what the community has asked for? And I think that when we really utilize communications well, we can share those stories and we can solicit feedback from our greater community.
Michelle Shireen Muri: So I think, as comms professionals, some of our jobs include finding the ways in which we can receive feedback really well. Even feedback that’s difficult to hear. Even feedback that might change some institutional direction we’re heading in that might be based around, for example, what an institutional funder might have requested versus what the community requested. So I think there are ways in which comms folks can really play a huge role in that. I think another way is by deprioritizing media. We are often looking to tell stories where we want that great media for our organization to show our work. But again, how much time are we spending catering to media so that, you know, a large group of people who are reading that publication can access it versus how are we getting the word out about what we’re actually doing? And again, receiving feedback from the communities that were intended to serve.
Michelle Shireen Muri: So, I think we’ve learned a lot of practices that have set us up to pander to certain communities. For example, those who want to know more about our work may not be the most interested in our work–they may not be the most impacted by our work. And we really have to look at that. We also need to look at things like which languages are your communities speaking? Can you provide your communities access to the information that should be serving them in the language that would best serve them? I think we need to look at that as comms professionals as well. There are plenty of translation services. It’s abundant actually, but often organizations and comms folks will again, deprioritize and put that as a nice to have priority instead of a need to have priority. And I think that’s pretty problematic. I do think that we can think more expansively about our work.
Michelle Shireen Muri: If we took the example of a private school, we have kids whose parents love them more than anything in the world. And all of those parents give the same amount of love, care around the same amount, right? They are highly invested in these human beings who are, they’re a family, and they would love to know about what’s happening at school. But in a private school, for example, we are really prioritizing, especially with communications and advancement or fundraising teams, we’re really prioritizing those families that have money to give and aren’t giving yet, or have been giving high amounts of money to the school. So that’s also who gets access to the heads of the school. That’s who the head of the school is told to prioritize in what information they’re giving. So suddenly in a private school example, we have the wealthiest families receiving the most amount of information about what’s happening at their kid’s school or about their child, in particular, they have the most access, whereas all of the parents care equal amounts about their children and have less access based on how much money they’re giving. So I think that we could really do a much better job at looking at those pieces and really interrogating them around where we’re placing value and where we need to make shifts.
Sarah Durham: There’s so much in what you just said I want to unpack. I was thinking, as you were talking about experiences, I had as a board member at the National Brain Tumor Society. And at that organization, the center of the community are people who are affected by brain tumors. Usually, you know, patients and maybe their immediate care partners. And I was listening to your example and thinking about my experiences with that organization and thinking about how often being truly community-centric also means slowing down and developing practices, leave room for dialogue with the community that are going to be different. Maybe they are about making the way you communicate accessible for members of your community. At the times, they’re available to connect with you, which might be weekends or after work hours. Maybe it’s about translation services, as you talked about. Maybe it’s about accessibility services because they have some sort of hearing or visual ability that requires some different tools.
Sarah Durham: So as communicators, I think we have to sometimes develop a bigger toolkit of tools that we use to make it possible for people in the community to connect with us in ways that are more on their terms and less on our sort of nine-to-five, often white dominant culture practices. The other thing I was thinking about is a tactic that I haven’t seen done a lot, but I have seen done sometimes that I think is maybe a really nice opportunity to bring into reality what you’re talking about, which is hosting open Zoom meetings or calls with people in the community or open houses. I’ve seen organizations who do these kinds of standing monthly or quarterly open calls, town halls, where anybody is welcome to come, anybody’s welcome to ask a question, anybody’s welcome to share. And obviously, we see this a lot in community-based activism, but I think it’s such an appropriate thing for nonprofits to do in their communities too.
Michelle Shireen Muri: That’s right.
Sarah Durham: There’s so much here. And Michelle, I feel like I could talk to you all day, but unfortunately, I can’t, I’m going to encourage people to do two things. The first is right now, go subscribe to The Ethical Rainmaker podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, you’ll hear a lot more from Michelle. And also she interviews some really enlightening people that I’m sure you will enjoy. And the other place that people can find Michelle is michellemuri.com. That’s Michelle with two L’s, M U R I. And Michelle, are there any other resources you want to point our listeners to before we wrap up?
Michelle Shireen Muri: You can find information about community-centric fundraising at communitycentricfundraising.org. You can find my podcast, The Ethical Rainmaker online on any podcast platform and on the website, theethicalrainmaker.com. And our fundraising collective can be found at freedom-conspiracy.com.
Sarah Durham: Excellent. Michelle Shireen Muri, thank you so much for joining me. Talk to you soon.
This webinar has been sponsored by Bloomerang