Benjamin Franklin Had long hair, Alexander Hamilton wore a wig, and Judith Gordon Low stopped wearing pearls: What pronouns did they use?
“I don’t give to people who can’t even tell if they’re boys or girls,” an irate long-time donor said before slamming down the phone.
As a feminist using she/her pronouns and serving in various capacities for organizations that work with girls and gender nonbinary youth, my first instinct was—and still is—to angrily call the donor back, yell, then hang up on her after explaining what privilege looks like and how it makes spaces unsafe for the most vulnerable, underserved, and invisible youth, the ones who need support more than their cisgender peers.
As a fundraiser, I am not allowed to do that.
As a yoga and mindfulness practitioner who is deeply invested in concepts of reparative justice, I also know my instinct is wrong from an empathetic standpoint.
How can I reconcile the angry feminist, the budget-aware fundraiser, the yogi, and the activist? Well, I’d like to start by remembering that giving is grounded in goodness—especially for women and marginalized populations.
That may sound essentialist, but in this case, philanthropy seems to have been intimately bound with social justice, in no small part because women and gender nonbinary folks have had to find funding for causes that matter to them.
When Juliette Gordon Low sold her familial pearls to help fundraise for Girl Scouts, she showed others what feminist fundraising could look like. Nowadays, it’s a little more complicated than that. The people deeply invested in achieving social justice often lack the financial resources to fund their mission because of the systemic barriers they face.
Realistically, organizations rely on our donor base, so we need to develop strategies that simultaneously see those donors and showcase for them new ways of approaching the causes they care about, holding true to a foundation of values while showing how those values have engendered new needs, new iterations of programs, and new ways of meeting challenges.
These new challenges may or may not impact people dressed in skirts and pearls, yet the ethos holds true.
As fundraisers, especially at mission-driven organizations that serve women and girls, we have a responsibility to marry history with best practices, even when that union may seem tense. To do that, we need to contextualize trends in ways that match donors’ values without kowtowing around those values in a way that prevents modernizing our mission.
Here’s why it’s important for fundraisers to walk the line between meeting donors where they are and modernizing their missions
- Our donors are smart. When someone makes a comment about gender inclusive pronouns or other recent restructurings that they believe impact program delivery or agency optics, we need to be prepared to share the why.
- When we show the why, we need to believe it—fully—and understand it as it aligns with our organization’s values. Adding pronouns to an email signature line or including that question on a form is not about seeming “woke;” rather, it’s a way of demonstrating that every person we serve possesses equal inherent value.
- As we talk to donors, we need to share with them in a way that shows respect for them as lifelong learners—not as endless pocketbooks. Plus, we need to build a complex knowledge of their stories so we can meet them where they are. While the words I and you have a strong impact in direct mailings, tracking preferred pronouns in a donor database is one of many ways in which organizations can show respect to all donors while interweaving a lesson about privilege by explaining with compassion that our agency believes we can only disrupt prevailing cultural narratives about whose bodies matter if we provide everyone with the same opportunities.
Pearls are not purse strings.
When we tie ourselves to simply pleasing donors, we miss an opportunity to empower them so they can show up for the living, breathing people we serve, not as they want those people to be, but as they are. Because that’s what all of us, without pomade or pearls, desire—and deserve.
What other issues does the modern fundraiser deal with? Let us know in the comments.