Like most children, I reveled in the days that found my classrooms in the dark to illuminate images on TV. On those days, I’d get lost in the action projected on the screen and forget that I was different. When the lights were turned off and the blinds closed, we were all the same—no shades of black, brown, or white skin to separate us.
In my young mind, I could just fade into the shadowed room and be like everyone else—or at least invisible—for a few hours. I could recast myself and no longer be the Black girl—the one of these who didn’t belong. I was just another kid, and I felt safe.
Growing up, these thoughts followed me as I aged. Just blend in. Don’t call attention to your differences, and they will accept you (Never did I think that I was in the position of accepting.).
Yet, with time, I learned no matter how hard I tried to fade in and belong, the difference became even starker in every room in our white-dominated society, especially when I entered fundraising.
Though some might question why I was so shocked by the discrimination, microaggressions, and biases I witnessed, I was, nevertheless, shocked. Traumatized might be a better word, actually.
Our profession, which I love, often seems not to love me back. Outwardly, we espouse the importance of bringing people together to spur positive change. Behind closed doors, however, we say through our words and actions we only want these _______ (insert advantaged group here) donors, volunteers, and employees—not ___________ (insert disadvantaged group here).
I’ve heard it, seen it, and felt it. You have, too, I am sure.
These beliefs and practices permeate how we treat one another in the workplace and reduce economic opportunities (the life chances) of our historically marginalized colleagues—upholding systemic inequities and barriers while eroding trust, culture, and our missions.
I don’t like to cite my race as the source of any misfortune or failure. If I didn’t get that promotion, I needed to work harder. If I didn’t get that budget request, I needed to do a better job persuading. If I didn’t…, then I needed to change…
But even as I have tried to deflect, moments throughout my career showed me that we live in a racist society (That never gets any easier to say. The sting lingers.).
One such moment found me seated at a large conference room table surrounded by white female colleagues as one, a junior teammate (not that her position matters) of them began berating me, her voice raising with every word. I sat there as she yelled, tossing belittling statement after statement. No one intervened.
This is privilege unchecked.
I thought the sound of my heart pounding would drown her out as every cell in my body fought to hold back tears. When she was done and silenced the room, I apologized—to defend myself would only make matters worse. I’ve learned this throughout my career (Her white tears have more currency than mine, and I didn’t want the angry Black woman stereotype to follow me.).
I said I was sorry and, in a haze, rose from my seat and out the door to find a safe space to release my tears.
As I rushed down the hall, I locked eyes with another black colleague. We rarely spoke to each other in those days. We’d never swapped stories of our experiences, but in that flicker of a moment, without a word, we tacitly exchanged years of understanding. He offered comforting words, validating my struggles and feelings—I wasn’t alone—and I just bobbed my head up and down, unable to speak, still searching for a place to cry alone and reclaim my dignity.
That moment in the conference room made me wonder if I would ever be enough.
“The rules just don’t seem to be the same for me,” I would later share with a senior black development colleague from a peer institution.
“Because they are not,” she said flatly, hardened by years of battling racism and discrimination in fundraising.
We all have stories that bind us as one. For far too many, the stories are one of rejection and neglect. How can you fully flourish when you’re constantly battling? Quietly screaming to be heard and seen?
Years have now passed, bringing with them George Floyd’s murder and social justice moments, yet the rules still seem to be applied more favorably for advantaged identity groups. The promises in the wake of George Floyd’s death are becoming increasingly fragile and more clearly empty.
Recently, a light-skinned colleague of color told me she could use her light skin to help me advance my goals. “They don’t see me as a person of color, and I can use that to my advantage,” she remarked, and my heart sank.
Still, I thought, I am not enough…her white skin an “asset” that I will never have.
Since the summer of 2020, I have had several white fundraising colleagues reach out via LinkedIn, usually with the same inquiries: How do I integrate DEI into our fundraising? How do I hire more people of color? How much more DEI training do I need? How do I diversify our donor base and board? How do I…?
And then, the pretexts, revealing the limitations of our organization’s DEI commitments, and why, in many ways, our society remains segregated and unequal—It’s so hard to find experienced diverse fundraisers. I don’t have time for this. We don’t have the resources. Our donors are white men; that’s our base and whom we need to appeal to. Our margins are so thin.
Oh, the horror of having the power to do something but choosing what is safe and comfortable. We become part of the problem. (I, too, am guilty of this.)
“It’s easy until it is hard,” a Black colleague lamented upon observing her team’s resistance to honoring their DEI commitments.
I quietly listen to my white fundraising colleagues. Nodding. Thankful for their outreach and the progress we have made since 2020.
Though mostly difficult, I am indeed grateful for these conversations—these opportunities to further understanding, empathy, compassion, healing, and solutions.
Not too long ago, I heard Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin say, “We make the simple complex…We insulate ourselves with infrastructure and effort to feel good about the decisions we make because we’re scared.”
I feel this way about DEI.
Through my conversations with white colleagues, I have come to understand the level of fear that surrounds DEI. We barricade ourselves from the possibilities of change by layering processes and procedures rather than simply taking personal responsibility and action.
DEI cannot be the work of task forces, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), or DEI departments alone. Our fundraising leaders must take this on as their own and embed it into their strategies for us to realize fundamental change together.
As I said at the 2022 Association of Donor Relations Professionals Conference, “Look around the room and ask yourself who is missing and what we can do differently to make sure they are here next year.”
Let’s look around.
We take innovative risks on fundraising strategies every day. Why can’t we do the same in DEI, which is critical to our philanthropic success?
As the authors of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Advancement make clear: DEI strategies are engagement and fundraising strategies.
We need to manage to this and not acquiesce to more of the same.
Indeed, how can we effectively address issues that impact our diverse communities when we exclude disadvantaged groups from participating?
How do we engage our communities when they are not represented in our internal communities, on our boards, in our conference rooms, or at our donor events?
When our leaders do nothing, they become complicit in denying systemic discrimination and risk us all falling short of achieving our philanthropic missions, leaving us all in the dark.
I often catch myself thinking, “I am not a DEI practitioner.” And then I remember that we are all responsible for leading change. We answer to a higher calling—our nonprofit missions.
And It’s up to all of us to offer grace and compassion to those leaders who do lean. Applaud them. Elevate them. Recognize, like all of us, that they are learning and growing, and we must give them space to do so—while also holding them accountable.
Let’s not shut down the conversation.
“If it is important to you, you will find a way to do it. Simply.” This is often what I want to say at the end of the conversation with my white colleagues regarding DEI, but I am usually too afraid to say it.
We all have fear.
At the 2022 Houston PR Day, hosted by the Houston PRSA Chapter, I was moved by Tracie Jae’s advice for centering hard conversations around love:
To be certain, this post is not a sob story. It’s a love story. A love for our profession, colleagues, communities, and the future we can build together when we come together.
I no longer find solace in the darkness. The dark is where we hide.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” said James Baldwin.
I am grateful to the development leaders around me who are taking steps to embed DEI goals into fundraising operational plans and goals. You are powerful examples of the change needed to make life better, not just for some but for all.
And as we grow together in this critical work and seek to better align our strategies with our values, I encourage you to share how yourleaders are creating an environment of accountability and trust by incorporating DEI into their fundraising strategies.
Post your practices below to keep the conversation going. The future for a more inclusive and equitable tomorrow resides in all of us. Thank you for speaking up.