On fundraising and the white savior complex

White people, we need to talk. Despite our talk of equity and inclusion, there is an insidious thing happening. Nonprofit fundraising still hinges on a relic of white supremacy that it seems white people are just not willing to quit.

I’m talking about the white savior complex, discussed in Nonprofit Quarterly here. The article quotes Teju Cole, who describes a white savior as someone who “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

I recently attended a fundraising training, and a white fundraiser presented on her methods and approaches to donor cultivation. She opened by using an offensive word to describe a child with a disability, and at first, I thought she was joking. It soon became clear she was not.

She began to cry. Big, White Tears. She told stories of African children crawling through the dirt to get their basic needs met. And how her white organization saved them and was doing so much good.

It made my blood boil. I was shaking, I was so angry. And what I should have done was to challenge her right there, in front of everyone. Instead, I gave feedback on a survey that will probably be ignored. (Side note: this Clint Smith poem is a lovely reminder of The Danger Of Silence.)

This woman’s view was atrocious in so many ways (e.g. presenting African children as one group of people without distinct and varied cultures, language, and histories; claiming to solve issues that stem from white conquest and colonialism), and it gave me pause to think about how the nonprofit sector fundraises and profits off the white savior complex. I feel lucky to be at an organization that takes a hard look inward and thinks very intentionally about the stories we tell and how we speak about our customers and work.

But this fundraiser’s organization raises a ton of money every year – way more money than I do. This story is not creeping out their audience. It is so well received that people are willing to pay to see more of it.

Then there was that nagging thought: I could see pieces of my past wrongs in her views. Things I had to relearn. White people are taught that we are the good guys. That is a dangerous lie. In fact, we are quite the opposite. Our ancestors colonized, enslaved, and robbed entire cultures of their land, humanity, and freedom. We cannot be the heroes and sheroes of a narrative in which we are the original villains.

This work is one of continual learning for me, and I have more to do. One learning moment happened when I prepared some remarks for a person who has utilized our organization’s services to speak at a fundraising event. I had included the words “generational poverty” in them, and she paused during her review. She noted that “generational poverty” can be coded language to shift blame away from white people and the systems they created to exclude people of color from economic opportunity, stemming from slavery and continuing through redlining and housing discrimination. She was right, and I’m grateful she pointed out the ways my word choices could either perpetuate stereotypes or challenge those narratives.

It is painful to realize that we white people have profited from the legacy of slavery, of land theft, of pillaging. It is painful, but it is necessary to confront and repair. It's up to us to relearn healthy and truthful narratives in which communities of color are acknowledged for their assets, culture, and contributions. For example, in her TED Talk, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells The Danger of a Single Story, namely the danger of a single African story and how it differs from the Nigeria she knew.

Here are some things that have helped me challenge white savior narratives:

- Becoming a single parent. Nothing like a little lived experience to show me just how irritating it can be to be portrayed as a stereotype. I’ve realized how much nonprofit people use these words to introduce a story, and it makes me want to scream, “I have a great life! That’s not a full description of who I am.”

- Writing a fundraising appeal addressed to our organization’s customers. This challenged me to think differently about how we frame our asks.

- Thinking about which stories I tell, how I tell them, the words I use, and how to include the subjects of stories in the telling of their own narratives.

- Considering the people I prop up as a donor, volunteer, and person served and recognizing that there is a lot of crossover between these groups.

- Prioritizing representation from our stakeholder groups in our annual Give to the Max Day campaign and recruiting fundraisers from our customer base.

- These 9 principles of community centric fundraising from the Nonprofit AF blog.

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