Building meaningful allyship with donors, and what being donor-centric really means
2020 brought about a huge reckoning for the theatre industry, one aspect of which was a provocation for the American theatre industry to overhaul some deeply entrenched racist practices. A decentralized collective of over 300 BIPOC theatremakers calling themselves We See You White American Theatre (WSYWAT) sent an open letter to the theatre industry in June, calling out long-held racist practices and outlining their expectations for change in an uncompromising, strongly-worded list of demands.
The letter and demands rapidly went viral, with many theatres around the country responding publicly to the call to action. Antiracist statements went up on websites around the country, and plans for reparations and harm reduction were generated. What I personally view to be a long-overdue and urgent message was inspiring for many...but felt very discomfiting to others.
On Jan. 25, 2021 a self-described “concerned patron of the arts'' wrote to WSYWAT, saying “this will backfire on you...it is the white middle aged group that financially support theatre and they do not appreciate being called these names nor see justification.” It’s unclear what name-calling she is referring to, but regardless she seemed offended by the tone of the demands and decided it was appropriate to do her own advocacy for the arts by advocating for not offending white middle aged donors.
WSYWAT subsequently shared Connie’s note on their Instagram page with her surname redacted. “Dear WAT, come get your Connie out of our inbox and please find some new donors. White supremacy donor money is OVER,” read the caption.
A few days later the development director of Trinity Repertory Company identified Connie as a former patron of their organization, although she had not engaged with Trinity for the last few years. The development director sent Connie an email requesting that she leave Trinity out of her estate plans, as she formerly indicated she planned to do. “Last year Trinity Rep decided to meaningfully place anti-racism at the center of our work...it is clear from your email to We See You that you do not share these values,” the email read. Trinity also shared this email exchange with Connie with WSYWAT, who then updated their Instagram followers: “Connie is DONE. WAT pls follow @trinity_rep and rid your theater of all #CONNIES.”
This post on WSYWAT’s Instagram garnered close to 9,000 likes and comments from members of the theatre community, primarily outpourings of support. “Money that comes with an agenda is *NOT* a ‘donation’” shared one commenter, while another agreed “Connie...we don’t need your dirty money.”
As I watched this unfolding drama I wondered: how do we end up with supporters who do not align with our values in our donor pools? And is there anything we can do to prevent uncomfortable call-out moments like this one? Suppose this had gone a bit differently, and Connie had engaged instead with Trinity Rep over her concerns. What kind of conversation could the development director have had with her in that instance?
My thoughts coalesced into two distinct questions: 1) how do we attract donors who align with our organization’s values? And 2) how do we encourage donors to be partners and allies in our organization without giving them the impression that they can control the organization through their wallet?
I come to these questions not from the perspective of a fundraiser, but as a theatremaker and student who is new to studying fundraising practices. To address my questions, I started by digging deeper into what is widely considered to be best practice for donor relationship-building: the model of donor-centrism.
Broadly defined, donor-centrism is the mindset that fundraisers should center the relationship with the donor in their fundraising efforts--emphasizing the donor’s role in bolstering the organization’s goals, setting schedules around the donor, and acquiescing to the donor’s requests when possible. I say broadly defined, because one of the issues that leads to controversy over donor-centricity is that we don’t have a standard definition for what it looks like. At one end of the spectrum donor-centric fundraising could look like mutual respect, but at the other end it could manifest as the troubling mantra anyone who has worked in retail or food service has likely heard: “the customer (donor) is always right.”
On his blog Nonprofit AF, fundraiser Vu Le voices strong feelings about this version of donor-centrism, and some relevant questions the practice brings up:
I think we have a serious problem with the donor-centered approach. Namely that the pervasiveness of this model in our sector may be perpetuating the very inequity that we are seeking to address as a sector...Do we really want to further this philosophy that donors are heroes and saviors...? What is the cost to society when we reinforce the notion that some people are saviors and others are there to be saved...?
The way Vu tells it, we are being disingenuous to both our cause and our donors by perpetuating donor-centricity (important: donor-centricity as Vu sees it).
Vu’s opinion certainly has precedence when we look at the problematic roots of philanthropy in the United States. In a podcast episode on The Ethical Rainmaker, fundraiser Christina Shimizu talks about how the law that granted the nonprofit 501(c)(3) status coincided with the creation of tax brackets, circa 1913. “It allowed for a paternal system of nonprofits and foundations where wealthy people were then given tax incentives and tax breaks to care for the poor and the poverty that they themselves created,” she explains. Donor-centrism could look like fundraisers placating and sheltering donors from such harsh truths so that they can remain the heroes of the story. As Vu says, “By fueling our donors’ egos, we unconsciously tell them it’s OK, that they don’t have to think about the hard stuff, about privilege, about disparities, about racism.”
At nonprofit theatres we are less likely to be providing meals or housing or directly addressing poverty--but largely thanks to WSYWAT’s open letter, we are increasingly called to embrace social justice or be left behind. Being that the roots of philanthropy are tied, as Christina says, to a “deep...and direct exploitation of human beings,” it’s easy to see how donor-centric practices--again, donor-centrism at its worst--could result in skirting around these important conversations.
Vu’s thoughts on donor-centrism were controversial among many of his fundraiser peers, who felt that he was generalizing about donor-centric fundraising. “That’s not donor-centricity as I know it,” said fundraiser Pamela Grow on the blog Nonprofit Pro. “What Vu talks about is not donor-centricity. It’s a faux form—a shell without any substance, depth or authenticity.” She articulately unpacks several of the points Vu makes, including the fact that he seems to put donor-centrism and authentic partnerships at opposite ends of a spectrum:
It has been my experience that when you’re truly focused on donor-centricity, honest conversations and true partnerships naturally evolve and flow. When we recognize the humanity aspect of fundraising, it opens up a world of possibility. If we lose that, yes, we are in danger of falling into the dreaded realm of donor-centricity at its worst.
If Vu characterizes donor-centrism at its worst Pamela seems to characterize it at its best, and puts “the humanity aspect” at the center of what good donor-centrism looks like. I feel that both Vu and Pamela have good and relevant points, and I wonder how each would engage with Connie if she were raising her concerns with them. How should fundraisers move towards Pamela’s model of donor centricity while remaining wary of the traps Vu warns of--specifically in the context of performing arts fundraising, and in the era of WSYWAT’s demands?
I’ll posit a potential way to reframe our thinking: rather than argue about who’s in the center, what if we approached donor relationships from the narrative of decentering?
White people have heard the phrase “decenter yourself” a lot in the last year around the topic of white supremacy (here’s just one example). It’s a phrase tied to the idea of harm reduction; none of us alone are responsible for white supremacy, and we can’t singlehandedly solve it. So we need to focus on ways to reduce harm and remove ourselves from the central narratives we have stolen from marginalized people for so long.
What would it look like for organizational leaders to engage in this kind of narrative with donors? A decentered response to Connie might have looked something like “We can understand your feelings of dismay at the WSYWAT letter--it is disturbing to be confronted about harm we have perpetuated in an industry we care about. We invite you to move past your defensiveness and join us as we work together to understand and address the damage WSYWAT has brought to our attention.”
I’m not proposing a new model; this philosophy is essentially the mindset of Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF), a thought leadership and advocacy collective based in Seattle (in which Vu Le and Christina Shimizu play leadership roles). One of CCF’s ten principles that is particularly relevant to this topic is principle six: “We treat donors as partners, and this means that we are transparent, and occasionally have difficult conversations.” This topic goes on to detail how fundraisers “must have honest, respectful conversations to be effective, including strong disagreements as needed, with our donors,” and “must respectfully and firmly push back when donors do or say things that may be detrimental to our work or to the community we are serving.”
Whereas Vu sets up donor-centrism as antithetical to community-centric fundraising, it seems to me like we are all saying the same thing: we want authentic, strong, dynamic partnerships with our donors. Where perspectives seem to differ is on how many and what kind of hard conversations we are willing to engage donors in. James Hong, another member of CCF leadership, observes that across relationships, donor or otherwise, the ones that last are “never ones where one partner is put in the center and constantly heaped with attention and catered to. The best [relationships] have strong communication, a strong belief in the future, and shared values, but also vigorous, challenging conversations and disagreements and occasional explosive but cathartic arguments.”
How deep into realms of discomfort can we take our donors? And would this actually strengthen donor partnerships? At the end of the day each organization will need to decide for themselves based on their mission, the judgement of their development staff, and the relationships they have or want to have with their donors.
I’ll wrap up with a quote from Cause Effective’s latest report on fundraisers of color: “We are, all of us, negatively impacted when the system of financing nonprofits is built upon a series of racially-charged interactions in which wealth and status are allowed to dictate human relations.” As performing arts organizations consider what kind of relationship we want to have with donors we should be considering how this relationship trickles down through every level of our organization’s culture. If we consider ourselves donor-centric fundraisers, are we falling into the traps Vu warns of? Or are we having honest conversations with our donors and making sure that they are sharing in the complexity of our organization’s collective journey?
According to WSYWAT “white supremacy donor money is OVER,” but what lessons can fundraisers take from the Connie/WSYWAT/Trinity Rep exchange about how to steward donors through this turbulent era in our industry? I am certainly closing these reflections with more questions than answers, but I think this is appropriate for the topic at hand. White supremacy in the American theatre is not a problem that will be solved overnight--and I wish all theatres a donor base who are willing to engage in necessary hard questions alongside them.
Rachel Nunn is a graduate student in the M.F.A. in Theatre Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.