Stepping Up: Walking the walk in nonprofit conferences

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My name’s Kyla and I’m one of the people who is organizing Xlerate Day, an integrated and digital marketing conference for nonprofits. I got involved in this initiative a little late — it was my boss, Chris Carter, and Ryann Miller who started Xlerate. When Chris and Ryann attended fundraising conferences, it seemed that there was less content for those who concentrate on the multichannel and digital aspects of annual giving. And they both had clients who wanted see more of that content. So they decided to test out the theory that there was market demand, and created Xlerate.

Xlerate has always been a collaborative effort, and a work in progress. After our first Xlerate Day in Ottawa, Ryann raised the suggestion of trying to weave in Indigenous Reconciliation into the day for Xlerate Day Vancouver. It was fall of 2017 and, along with so many conversations about Canada’s 150th, we on the Xlerate organizing committee had also been starting our own personal journeys towards Reconciliation between our white settler histories and our complicit roles in colonialism and Indigenous history and present-day reality for Indigenous folks in Canada.

We enlisted Jada-Gabrielle Pape and Katherine Dodds from Hello Cool World to help us in Vancouver. We had a number of humble, early calls with Jada, where we made mistakes and tried to consciously stay focused on how to be a good ally and human in Canada. Initially the thematic question we had was around the role nonprofits could play in Indigenous Reconciliation and decolonization; however, as planning for the conference evolved and as the day itself evolved, it became more clear that the focus would be on Reconciliation and decolonization more broadly. On the day of the conference, for example, the crowd-sourced questions people asked were about Reconciliation in general, which means covering the basics was a necessary first step for many. Jada and Kat did a phenomenal job of opening up attendees’ hearts and minds to what colonization really means, and how we as humans and as nonprofit professionals have roles to play, big and small.

Editor's Note: We recommend checking out the interview we published with Jada-Gabrielle Pape and Katherine Dodds in advance of last year's Xlerate Day event in Vancouver. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

What we’re doing now

We live in a world where #MeToo is now part of the narrative of society, and hard conversations about race are becoming more common. Colten Boushie’s shooting death verdict and the work that Black Lives Matter Toronto has done, like protesting at Pride, are getting mainstream news attention. Calling out injustice and naming unfairness are becoming the dominant narrative. And we at Xlerate think it’s about time. We think the nonprofit sector has a preponderance of change-makers who care about these and other issues, that in fact the goals of the sector itself are to improve society.

But we aren’t seeing a lot of nonprofit conferences tackling difficult topics like gender representation in the sector; why nonprofits are mostly comprised of white staff even in diverse cities; how we’re all working on Indigenous land; or the ways in which we represent some recipients of nonprofit mission delivery, like people who are disabled or people living below the poverty line.

We’re trying to do something to change this. We know the fear: that talking about values, or misogyny, or racism in the sector will turn some people away. It might. That’s a conversation we’re willing to have — in fact want to have, with people who are uncomfortable. Let’s be okay with being uncomfortable for a while, especially us white folks and people who haven’t experienced much marginalization or discrimination in life. We know there will be a few people who don’t like the idea that we’re trying to weave together our values for social change with a conference on a professional subject matter (digital and integrated fundraising, marketing and campaigning). We talk about this openly and often at planning meetings. Inevitably, we all agree that we want to be better humans, better professionals, and good allies. And that starts with creating the space for more voices.

To that end, we’ve renamed one of our four session tracks Stepping Up, because we’re hoping to have conversations that lead to actions: we’re designing sessions that will give people ideas on how to go back to the office and do things differently.

What we’ve done so far

Our biggest change may also be the most straightforward: as we note on the Xlerate Day website values page, we aim to have a speaker lineup— both the conference as a whole and each session — that is diverse and inclusive. This is actually a rule, not just an idea. Given how often conference speakers are male versus how many women work in the sector, we feel this change is long overdue, as is ensuring we have diverse representation of ethnicity, race, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation too. Conferences are better when speakers are 1) diverse and 2) actually representative of the industry.

Negotiating Privilege: Some suggestions for my fellow privileged conference organizers

I’ll be frank: I’m a white woman, so I have a lot of privilege. (I’m queer, but in the queer community white folks are also privileged.) This is aimed at those who, like me, want to put their privilege to good use.

When you have privilege and want to create change, there will likely be discomfort at some points. I’ve had several moments where I look back on conversations from long ago (or not as long ago as I’d like) and only now realize how misguided I was, or worse, even outright offensive. I’m a human being so I know I’ve made mistakes (and still do make mistakes) but it’s still an uncomfortable reality to confront. However, although change is uncomfortable, it’s part of the process. If you’re also pushing for change, for instance, trying to support a conference engaging with these topics too, here are my suggestions for my fellow privileged folks on how to start.

Do the work, question everything. If I want change, it has to start with me. Over the past couple of years, I’ve done a lot of reading on issues of privilege and intersectionality, and have actively tried to learn from those whose lives are different than mine. When I’m reading a book or an article, it means engaging with the topic even if it’s uncomfortable; when I’m on social media, a lot of the time this means I have to take a step back and listen to the people around me.

For Xlerate Day, it means we have to educate ourselves about these issues and how to resolve them. We have to rethink our processes and our implicit biases every step of the way: Are we making space for people of colour, queer folks, or other marginalized voices? (Not just saying we are, but actually giving others space and listening?) Are we only reaching out to our own networks, which are likely mostly made up of other white people, or are we doing the work to expand our contacts? Are we falling back on pat answers instead of wrestling with issues like we wanted? It’s ongoing, and some questions are harder to resolve than others, but hopefully we’re getting better at it.

Don’t put work on those you are trying to help. Emotional labour is still labour: I can’t just go to people I know and ask them to invest time and energy into helping me with my problem. I have to do the work myself. It doesn’t mean asking the one person of colour, one woman, one person with a disability, or one queer person how to solve every problem and then being frustrated when they don’t have the answers. Navigating these issues is a very different experience than trying to resolve it. (Often much of someone’s energy is already taken up simply by trying to live their lives, so asking them to help resolve things is doubling their workload). It does mean that if someone is generous enough to share their thoughts with me, I have to listen without being defensive and then go figure out the answers myself.

If you do ask people for help because of their identity and experiences, pay them. Like not offering creatives ‘exposure’ in exchange for their work, we need to put our money where our mouth is when we seek out specific people to help us do our work. If someone has expertise — for example, on the Indigenous community, on the immigrant community, on the queer community — that you want them to speak to, they should be paid for that expertise. Otherwise our request is just another burden that makes their professional more difficult and they have to work harder to overcome it.

Find collaborators and don’t stop. Change doesn’t come easy. You may ruffle feathers, you may feel silly, or you may not see results right away. You may want to pause on the difficult things and focus on those that are easier or bring quicker results. Take a break if you need to, find people who are also keen to make change, re-focus and re-define your goals, but keep going. The things that are hard are those that are most important.

I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done so far to make Xlerate Day more representative and inclusive of all our amazing colleagues in the nonprofit sector. Please join us 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,

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