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November 9, 2022

Why should you try new approaches in your donor communications?

Rachel D'Souza-Siebert

How do you center equity and justice in your fundraising efforts? Founder and Chief Purpose Officer of Gladiator Consulting, Rachel D’Souza-Siebert, chats with co-director, Farra Trompeter about how to shift our relationships with donors and bring more abundance to our fundraising.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. Today, we’re going to ask the question, “Why should you try new approaches in your donor communications and fundraising?” I am so excited to have with me today, Rachel D’Souza-Siebert. I got to meet Rachel through the wonderful world of Community-Centric Fundraising, where we first connected through Twitter, I think, via an exchange with Michelle Shireen Muri, about using or not using the terms “micro donor,” or “major donor,” and really saying we should reclassify how we talk about our donors, which led to a Zoom and many Zooms since. And I am so excited to be in conversation and community with her. Before Rachel starts informing us about all sorts of things, I want to introduce and tell you a little bit more about her.

Farra Trompeter: Rachel D’Souza-Siebert, uses she/her pronouns, as the Founder and Chief Purpose Officer of Gladiator Consulting, a boutique consultancy with a holistic and community-centric approach to nonprofit organizational development and capacity building. As an inaugural member of the CCF Global Council, Rachel has found joy in connecting with purpose-driven fundraisers across the country. Rachel enjoys cooking and spending time with her two children who are 11 and 7 years old. As a postpartum SCAD heart attack survivor, she keeps her heart healthy with daily Peloton workouts and encourages all women to lean into community care. Rachel also taught me to re-appreciate the Enneagram and learn that I’m a Two Wing Three, which is called “The Host,” and that she is an Eight Wing Seven, which is called “The Nonconformist,” which feels really relevant to today’s conversation. Rachel, welcome to the show.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: Thank you so much. I am so happy to be here. And we could probably have a completely separate podcast on “Enneagram identities, wings, and values,” so I’m glad that you just led with that.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, well, we’ll see. If we have time at the end, we can touch on that. You can, if you haven’t already, take your Enneagram. See what it says about you. We’ll link to that in our show notes, the link that Rachel showed me where I could take my own test and find out my profile. Yeah. So Rachel, you have seen and done a lot that has led you, I think, both to appreciate and critique philanthropy and “best practices in fundraising.” Let’s just start there. What led you to start questioning how fundraising was done and challenge the status quo, including donor-centric advice and strategies?

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: One of the things, honestly, that first kind of raised my antenna a little bit was being a woman of color in the nonprofit sector and specifically a woman of color who is in development and fundraising work. And I realized early on through mostly non-verbal cues, but sometimes verbal, that there was a lot of value in bending to the will of a donor and to, sort of, going the extra mile or do what was needed to close a gift. And at first I thought “Okay, cool, like yes, I’m going to do my job really well. I’m going to close that budget gap, I’m going to get those gifts in the door.” But then, I started realizing that I was relying on the same tactics year over year, but my nonprofit wasn’t actually achieving its full mission or achieving its full vision, and really, at best was sort of functioning in the system of harm reduction and truly not in a place of systems change or where we could ideally have put ourselves out of business.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: And so, I began to wonder, and you know, this was honestly like 10, 15 years ago, “Is this the right way to do this work? If we are doing the same things over and over again as fundraising professionals, if we are having some Hail Marys when it comes to closing budget gaps, if we are shifting our work to make a donor happy, are we actually doing the work that will solve the problem that we seek to remedy in the community?” And so, that was really the place that I came from to start to wonder like, “Oh no, am I a fundraiser? Because right now I’m asking all these questions, and that might not make me a good fundraiser in the traditional sense.”

Farra Trompeter: Well, speaking of questioning, I mentioned Twitter earlier and one of my favorite tweets of yours from back in 2021 was “it is okay to lose a donor. It is okay to lose a racist donor. It is okay to lose a sexist donor. It is okay to lose a powerful donor. There is more for you and your cause. There is so much more.” That is so powerful and I want to break that down a little bit. What do you say to nonprofit staff who are worried about losing money and donors as they center equity and justice in their fundraising efforts?

Farra Trompeter: It’s been so exciting to watch the community-centric fundraising movement, which of course, was seeded years before with Vu Le’s blog “Nonprofit AF” and has grown over the years to now, obviously, this international movement. And I think as people are getting excited about that, there are other people like “Wait a minute, you can’t challenge us. It’s not okay to lose donors. We are worried about losing money.” So, what do you say when people are starting to have a hard time getting folks to really move the needle, and start questioning how these practices are harmful, and that they should center equity and justice?

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: Honestly, one unfortunate truth about the nonprofit sector is, we don’t have a tolerance for failure. And as we know, when we look at innovation and entrepreneurship across the country, it really is failure that helps us learn and grow. And so, in some ways, I feel like because we are unable to tolerate this failure, that we wind up with this very sort of deep seated scarcity mindset. And what’s also true is that there is a lot of money in our country. There is a lot of brilliance and a lot of lived experience. I mean, we are overflowing with resources and we get stuck in the patterns that we trust that have served us well and then wonder why things aren’t changing or why we aren’t raising more money. And so, for me, when I talk to nonprofit staff who feel like they’re stuck in a rut or they need to make those changes to their development program or have different relationships with their donors, there is a lot of fear there because as a development professional, sometimes your organization’s viability is on your shoulders, literally.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: And if we continue to cater to a small subsection of that wealth, of those resources, of that experience, we don’t give ourselves the ability to see what abundance looks like or what’s possible. I’m going to steal a quote and I’m going to butcher it from Shonda Rhimes, but she speaks often about how many times she had to say “no” or “this is not it,” before she could say the right “yes” and the best “yes.” We all come to this work with power. Whether we feel it or not, we are all autonomous. We come to this work with power, and we have an opportunity to stand in that. When I have worked with organizations or development professionals or even Executive Directors and had these coaching conversations about saying no or pushing back with donors, sometimes a donor is absolutely ready to hear that and they want to understand and they want to learn and grow with the organization.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: And sometimes in the case of donors that I would classify as racist or sexist or powerful, when you challenge them, they react in a punishing way and they may take their resources. And when I wrote that tweet, I wanted to be clear that, like, you do not have to sacrifice your values or the values of your organization to get a gift. And if you are able to stand in your power and to stay true to your values, you might lose a donor and you will gain so many more people who appreciate the transparency, appreciate the boundaries, appreciate what you were doing to maintain those values for everybody that cares about the work of your organization. And that’s hard. That’s a hard place to sit in, but once you start to build your comfort level with not settling, not settling for bad behavior, or not settling for compromise based on a donor’s values, we really get to reimagine what’s possible in our work.

Farra Trompeter: I love that. Now, one of the things I also love about CCF and all the insights on the content hub are all the invitations to examine power dynamics with donors and funders. And when prepping for this conversation, one of the things you said to me was, you were talking about the importance of being in right relationships with donors, and I’d love you to just explain what you mean by that and really share how fundraisers and communicators can go about shifting or creating those better relationships.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: I have to first say that there’s a lot of narrative in the fundraising and development space about how community-centric fundraising and donor-centric fundraising are in opposition to each other and they’re opposite ends of the spectrum and it’s either or and I need to, like, squash that right now. I don’t think that that is a useful comparison. When I think about donor-centric fundraising and the way that at other times in my career I have practiced it, it really has been about being in relationship with a donor and maintaining a donor relationship with an organization or a cause. When I think about community-centric fundraising, we are not talking about something that is relational. We are talking about a movement. So, we are talking about looking at this work at systems, or even cross systems, level. We are challenging the constructs that we operate in. So, you don’t have a community-centric fundraising relationship with a donor. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We are talking about shifting the practices of the sector.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: So, when I think about part of community-centric fundraising, which is relationships with donors, that is there, being in a right relationship, to me, is really embracing the transformational part of donor-centric fundraising. And in order to be transformational in a relationship, it requires honesty, it requires vulnerability, it requires connection and proximity. And oftentimes, when I am talking to other fundraisers and even at points in my own fundraising career, I have thought like “Oh my gosh, if I have to tell this to my donor, they might pull their gift” or “they might not expand their gift or increase their gift” or “they might stop their recurring gift,” and we make, I think, a lot of assumptions about how someone’s going to react to information without just opening up a conversation, right? Like, how many non-ask conversations are we having with our donors? How many opportunities are we giving our donors to learn and actually build relationships with our community, with our staff? How are we getting out of the way of gatekeeping these resources to really lean into the values of community-centric fundraising? And to be in that movement, it does require us to A: as I said before, like, step into a different power position and to push and to offer information and B: to educate. I work with a number of organizations who function at their grassroots level, who have wonderful donors who are resourced and who care, who, like, understand the language and they read the blog posts and they have a book club, but they really haven’t gotten their hands really dirty in that work. And if we don’t give people the opportunity to learn and grow and be wrong and learn more, then how are we really in relationship with people who we want to be in our corner, who we want to advance the work.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: So, I think that requires fundraisers to zoom out a little bit of some of the day to day things that we do and the boxes that we check and the reports that we write, and really start to think about what is it that our organization sees as their north star? What is that 15 year vision and how are the relationships I’m building today impact that metric, right? Not, like, are we going to be in the block at the end of the year? Which is often how people are measuring success or what milestones and performance reviews are based on; not the engagement, not on the relationship building, not on this sort of bigger vision of what’s possible.

Farra Trompeter: Right. Or what percent we put to fundraising and administrative costs. That’s a whole other thread we can go on.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: Makes my head hurt thinking about it.

Farra Trompeter: So, earlier this year, Hannah Thomas and I wrote a blog post called “Encouraging a culture of experimentation in your fundraising” which we’ll be sure to link to in the show notes. And in that post, we talked about moving from a place of fear and scarcity, that you were naming earlier, to one of imagination and abundance. And I know that you’ve done a lot of that work, specifically with Forward Through Ferguson and many other organizations. And I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about some examples of, what does it look like in practice when an organization does practice more imagination and abundance with their fundraising?

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: Sure. So, just to frame it up. Forward Through Ferguson is the nonprofit organization here in St. Louis, Missouri, that was formed after the Ferguson Commisson released the report in regards to the murder of Mike Brown, back in 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. So, that nonprofit organization has essentially been charged with moving forward this report, which has about 189 calls to action to help St. Louis and the folks living in and around our community, advance the conditions for racial equity across the region. I had the opportunity to provide fundraising support to Forward Through Ferguson at the beginning of the organization. And right away, they were very clear that they wanted their fundraising practices to align with the antiracist nature of the organization.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert And you know, this was back in 2016, so Community-Centric Fundraising wasn’t even a thing back then and it was exciting, and we had the opportunity to learn and to experiment and to try and to fail and to iterate. And there are a handful of things that came out of that. So, one of them is the relationship that Forward Through Ferguson has with the St. Louis Community Foundation. So, that relationship has evolved from being a more traditional funding relationship sponsorship, we’ll get a general operating gift, to being very transformational. And part of that was the Community Foundation making the decision that racial equity had to be a priority for them. And, so they centered that priority in their own strategy and planning work, and then came to Forward Through Ferguson to go through a racial equity audit process. It was really interesting because on the one hand, we really had the opportunity to provide this type of reporting and audit to a force in our community. And at the same time, I remember the team sort of thinking “We are going to tell them the truth and what if that means they’re going to pull our funding.”

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: That fear is there. If we are honest, if we say the wrong thing, you could just be done with us. It really required, again, that sort of vulnerability and comfort and discomfort, comfort in the unknown, a commitment to each other to be able to move that process forward. And now we can pick up the phone and call each other. Forward Through Ferguson was invited to help give out funds for our COVID Response Rund that was formed back in 2020. The Community Foundation has really leaned into the fundings of the audit, and has done things around participatory grantmaking, and donor education, and things like that. I don’t know that the terminology “leveling of the playing field” is right, but there is this sort of relationship where these organizations are on equal footing, and there is respect, and there is disagreement, but there is absolutely a common vision for what we want for our community that feels different from other funder and nonprofit relationships.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. Now, I know our listeners are in all different roles: management, development, communications programs, advocacy, et cetera, and they all also have different access to positional power. For folks who are not in official leadership positions, but are interested in trying new approaches in their donor communications, where do you think they should start? How should they approach their leadership team who may be rooted in the way things have always been done?

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: So, a few things. As we know, culture is powerful. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So, a lot of us want to jump into the tactics. We want to make a plan, we want to execute the plan, we want to measure and evaluate the outcomes, and that’s great and wonderful and we all learn how to do it in school or whatever. And that alone doesn’t serve you in this work. What I have found, is that there are a lot of, sort of, soft skills and social capital that you need to build wherever you are in an organization, however much power you have, there are these other pieces that can help you move your organization or your cause forward. So, I often will suggest a couple things.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: First of all, note, right, that culture is powerful, and that if you are new in an organization or if you are one voice amongst many, change is going to be slower than you want it to be. And I get that things are urgent, but we don’t get to avoid them or we don’t get to get frustrated because it takes a long time to solve a problem. Like, we just have to solve the problem. So, I will encourage people to figure out who in the organization is also curious? Ask questions. Build relationships. Understand what’s important to other people who maybe are in your department, who maybe are not, who maybe, if you have a very hierarchical organization, maybe they have a lower position than you, maybe they have a higher position than you, but start to understand where other people with other kinds of power and influence are, and then pick one thing. When we look at the principles of Community-Centric Fundraising, there are 10, and I would offer that those 10 principles are even a floor and not a ceiling. You cannot build a development plan that integrates these 10 principles and check a box and have solved equity in your organization.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: So, pick one thing. Maybe it’s educating your board. Maybe it’s figuring out how to bring your executive director along. Maybe it’s figuring out how to learn alongside the chief development officer. There’s a lot of ways to start, but when you’re in a movement, it is dynamic. Sometimes it is not linear. Sometimes, you may start with a plan A or action A, and you will realize “wait, my resources and interest really make C the thing that I need to follow or letter P the thing I need to do.” And we need to be willing to be, sort of, flexible in our vision for what change looks like. Then, I think if you’re able to just follow the cues in front of you and keep communication open with your peers in the organization, with your donors who are curious, then everybody begins to understand that when we change the way these systems work, we all benefit from it.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I love that idea of being open and curious. I’m going to hold onto that. Well, Rachel, I could talk to you all day. And we have, and we will again, but it is time to wrap things up. So for those of you who are out there and you are listening and you’d love to connect with Rachel, I invite you to do that. You can follow her on Twitter @rdsiebert or connect with her on LinkedIn at Gladiator RDS. You can also connect with the folks at Gladiator Consulting at [email protected] and follow them on Twitter @gladiatorconsu1, Shorten Consulting. And you can learn about their awesome work, read their blog and get into their thinking at Rachel, before we go, any last parting words of wisdom?

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: Here’s what I’ll say again. This work can feel really overwhelming. We love our organizations. We love our jobs. We love our donors, and there’s things about it that are hard. So, just remember that you don’t have to be all the change, but you do have the responsibility to the work and to your mission and to the stakeholders, to pick that one place to start and try something different. Whatever you do, don’t be the person that continues to perpetuate something that doesn’t serve you. Be the person that chooses change to build something new.

Farra Trompeter: Well, thank you Rachel. I love that, and thank you for being on the show and doing all the work that you’re doing out there in the world.

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert: Thank you for having me. I look forward to our next chat.