Seen and not heard: The colonial roots of fundraising

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The definition of decolonization that I refer to in this context is best articulated by Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (she talks about researchers, but it applies to any industry):

“Decolonization is a process which engages with imperialism and colonialism at multiple levels. For researchers, one of those levels is concerned with having a more critical understanding of the underlying assumptions, motivations and values which inform research practices.”

When I presented the idea of a panel discussion on the Colonial Roots of Fundraising at the upcoming Xlerate Day in Toronto, I was met with a lot of interest and excitement. Everyone I spoke to about this said something along the lines of, “This conversation is so needed”.

Here’s the part where I show you all how naïve I was. I assumed all this positive feedback meant, “This will be easy for you to pull together. There are plenty of people who can speak on the topic.”

The second part is true. The first part is not.

I’ve been watching the decolonization movement closely and seen it make some major strides in the last few years: thoughtful discussions on intersectionality, diversity and inclusion in hiring practices and workplace environments. In program design and implementation. In the distribution of organizational resources. In embracing land acknowledgements.

It made me think, “It’s time for fundraisers to decolonize.” Let’s unravel the bias, whether it be unconscious or conscious, which is baked into our industry. Let’s take a closer look at some of our “best practices” and evaluate whether they are still relevant in the fast-changing landscape of today’s society. And together, let’s learn how to ask the right questions and ensure that all of us are able to achieve our respective missions and visions without causing harm to others.

But turning that into a reality has proven to be harder than I had expected. Way harder. And incredibly frustrating.

If so many people agree that this conversation is needed, and colonialism is being addressed in so many other aspects of the non-profit world, why is it so hard to find people to speak publicly about it when it comes to fundraising?

I reached out to over 20 potential panelists over the course of the summer and most of them gave me the same answer:

  • Yes, I love that Xlerate Day is hosting this conversation, and,
  • Yes, I’d like to speak about this, and,
  • Yes, I have thoughts on how to decolonize fundraising, but,
  • No, I can’t join your panel because I’ve been discouraged by my direct manager/nonprofit from doing so.

One organization went out of their way to reach out to me and tell me that the word “colonialism” was offensive to them. (As in the definition of decolonize above, the words colonial, colonized, etc. have implications that many people are uncomfortable with or would prefer to outright ignore.) But if I removed the word from the title, they could get behind the subject matter and aim of the session. So can I please change the name of the session? Sure I can. But I won’t. Because how engaged can we be in this conversation if we’re gagged from naming the root cause of everything we’re going to discuss?

The aim of having conversations about colonialism in fundraising is not to attack charities or people on their past or present actions. We’re not here to tell anyone that they’re wrong, or a bad fundraiser, or a racist because you’re worried about the “diversity” of your database, or because the language you use in your emails is othering, or because I disagree with your storytelling philosophies.

This session isn’t about blame. It’s about acknowledgement and action. Personally, I know I have a lot to learn about decolonizing my fundraising practices. And I know I’m not the only one.

But if we are unwilling to have a raw, honest conversation about some harmful fundraising practices because there is a chance we may feel some discomfort, then this conversation isn’t just a priority. It’s an emergency.

We’ve got no time to lose. The people who count on our organizations are depending on us.

Further Resources

Here are some thought-provoking articles that inspired part of what I'll be talking about at my Xlerate Day session.

Please join the author, Fai Hassan, at the Colonial Roots of Fundraising session at Xlerate Day in Toronto on November 2, 2018 and be a part of this conversation. You can find more info and get tickets on our website, xlerateday.com.

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