As a black person that has worked in the nonprofit education space for quite sometime, one of the most uncomfortable experiences is listening, to mostly white people, talk about their work and the communities they serve. I am more sensitive to such language because I often identify with the students of color and can relate more to them than my coworkers. It often feels that nonprofits sell their mission using racist stereotypical language to fundraise reinforcing the very racist structures that many of their missions claim to be against. They can’t get money without the racist structure in which they operate and therefore force students to fit in the racist stereotypical box needed to continue to operate. Examining fundraising, from a perspective of equity rather than from one of privilege, would prevent, education nonprofits in particular, from perpetuating racism and racist beliefs and it would make having those conversations about one’s nonprofit work more comfortable for everyone.
What does fundraising look like from a perspective of equity? Here are 4 ways that nonprofits in education can change their fundraising practices to be more equitable.
1. Use inclusive language. Words such as “transforming” or “empowering” perpetuates racist ideals that the students and their community are less than. Students should know that they don’t need to be “transformed” to receive an education and “empowering” suggests that students don’t have agency or power. Instead, inclusive language should be used to address and highlight the additional educational service being provided rather than focus on the students and communities. Many educational nonprofit exist because the policies in many towns and cities have created policies that have decimated the public education system in communities of color. It’s not that students in majority low income areas, who happen to be people of color, need to be “transformed”, they just need access to the same resources that you would find in a majority white, or wealthy neighborhood. Using language that focuses on how systems and policies create less opportunities for students of color, produces a more equitable narrative that centers the students’ reality and acknowledges that it is really structural systems and policies that need to be transformed and not the students or their community.
2. Allow for the students to create their own narrative, don’t force the narrative you want. I’ve seen this happen all too often in nonprofit education. A few students that have been “transformed” are paraded around for donors, featured in newsletters and even given the opportunity to speak at the big culminating fundraising event. While this may be a part of fundraising, it should not be at the expense of students capitulating to racist and stereotypical beliefs about themselves and their relationship to education. There are certainly students I have worked with in my career that have benefited from the opportunity of having additional support in their school, but there were also students who, even without the nonprofit, had the skills to be successful and I was there as support. So often we want the students to fit in the narrative that we’ve created and as a result, we perpetuate racist views and beliefs. Imagine those students sharing a story where they acknowledge that they already felt confident in their educational skills and that [insert any educational nonprofit] only enhanced their confidence and academic abilities. Highlighting student experiences outside the typical narrative may not be the feel good story that donors love to hear, but it reduces the need to rely solely on racist, stereotypical “transformation” stories and centers the student and their story and not the nonprofit or donor. Taking this approach helps present a more equitable, diverse representation of students in communities of color and recognizes that diversity.
3. Be authentic and honest. If you can’t repeat the same message to donors and students and you feel uncomfortable talking to students about how you are talking about them, then you should change your message. I’ve had conversations with students that were surprised to learn about how they were talked about to donors. Centering students and using inclusive language will remove any tensions between fundraising for your nonprofit and students feeling disrespected by language used to describe them and their community.
4. Don’t be afraid to address racism. Donors want to feel good. Help them feel good about helping to chip away at something larger and greater than themselves – structural racism in education. Education, like most structures and institutions in the US, is engulfed by structural and systemic racism. Identify and craft a message that addresses the structural issues that your nonprofit is tackling and make that explicit to donors. This shifts the message from the students and their community to the structures and institutional racism that have created the conditions for said nonprofit to address. It resets the power structure from “transforming” and “empowering” students to transforming our education system and empowering the people and organizations working to address the structural barriers to do so.
Fundraising in educational nonprofits should be centered on the students, not the workers of the nonprofits, nor the donors. Recentering fundraising in a more equitable way, refocuses and hones in on the structural and political realities students of color often find themselves simply by being students of color. Doing so could help engage both donors and communities to work towards addressing the disparities in our educational system and discuss those disparities, not in terms of what students are lacking but why they are lacking the opportunity and resources.