A Moving Train: Neutrality In Fundraising


“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.” – Howard Zinn

I saw something a few days ago that made me pause and think. A LOT.

The other day, I saw someone tweet something along these lines…

Unless you’re a political fundraiser, you shouldn’t risk losing donors by tweeting your political opinion.

It was someone who I happen to have a lot of respect for. Which is why it made me stop and take note.

And after careful consideration, I am going to have to respectfully disagree.

First, a disclaimer. I am in the very fortunate position of not being on staff at any organisation – this means when an organisation hires me, they are very free to look at my website, read through my LinkedIn posts, scan my Twitter account, or search for me on Google. I say things like shit, bugger, damn, piss, weenie, testicles, fuck, fucker, fuck bugger, fuck piss… well, basically any combination of words that are on George Carlin’s list of seven dirty words you’re not allowed to say on television. I also share opinions – like the fact that I think Stephen Harper is a corrupt douche bag, that it is horrendously disgusting that our government has not called an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, that I believe #BlackLivesMatter, that we need to do more to help refugees, that Muslim people deserve the right to peacefully and lovingly practice their faith (the same as everyone else), that we need to do more to protect women and girls from injustice and violence, that humans deserve safe and affordable healthcare which includes access to birth control and abortion, and generally that the “old rich white dude” ways of control, fear and division need to come to an end.

So if for any reason, an organisation decides to NOT work with me because of any of my words, thoughts or opinions, this is completely their decision. But in all honesty, I’ve never had any potential client tell me they couldn’t work with me because I swear and think Donald Trump has the sense and charisma of a bag of smashed assholes.

But this issue of what is appropriate or not raises a deeper set of questions.

What is philanthropy, really?

Who does philanthropy belong to?

Who does philanthropy end up erasing in the process? 

And since when was it ever not political, even when you don’t happen to work in politics?

Advocating for food security in the inner city? That’s pretty darn political.

Helping under-served citizens get access to education, housing, and healthcare? That’s political.

Serving women who have been battered and abused in their quest to find a safe place for herself and her children? Political.

Helping families in war-torn countries help rebuild their communities and combat the tyranny that destroyed their way of life? Political.

Ensuring hospitals and healthcare centres have the equipment and support they need to serve the sick, the wounded, the elderly? Political.

Providing programs, support and resources to LGBTQ youth? Political.

Creating partnerships in the community that will help support individuals living with physical or intellectual disabilities? Autism? With Parkinsons Disease? Alzheimers? Mental illness? HIV? Cancer? Addictions? Political.

The work we do in our sector serves every kind of person. Politics are supposed to do the same. Chances are, you’ve got an opinion about it.

As a sector, we’re also fairly timid. We are scared to be emotional in our appeals to donors. We are scared to tell stories.

In a recent post, my brother from another mother wrote a bit about this fear: 

“There’s no gentle way to put this: The nonprofit sector is full of brilliant people paralyzed by fear. Boards fear liabilities and getting sued. Executive Directors fear not having sufficient cashflow for the next payroll; we fear firing staff who are clearly not a good fit for our organizations; we fear the perceptions from the community with every decision we make; we fear giving funders and donors feedback.  Development Directors fear losing individual donors; we fear that our org’s brand is weak, or that we are not up to date on the latest fundraising techniques. Program Directors fear our outcomes and metrics are not strong enough; we fear we are not doing enough for our community members; we fear that our programs will shut down and harm the people we serve.” 

In a conversation I had recently with Vanessa Chase Locksin, we talked about how fear of rocking the boat neutralizes our stories and our fundraising. The work we do is, in its nature, polarizing. Some people want to help the homeless. Others think they should just get a job. Chances are, people who think they should just get a job aren’t donating to your cause. Vanessa has also spoken a lot about the fact that fundraisers erase themselves in their work – this erasure for “the good of the cause” has a tremendous toll, both on the individuals doing the work, and the causes we’re fighting for.

Generally speaking, I would say that most fundraisers are very passionate about their work and the organisations they work for. I think it would be very difficult to do the work that needs to be done if you didn’t believe deeply in the reasons why you were doing it. I’ve left jobs because of “gentlemen’s disagreements” with board and leadership. I’m not willing to throw away my beliefs and morals for a bottom line. This is not the greater good we’re fighting for. That I’m fighting for.

I’ve also heard the “E” word thrown around in these kinds of conversations. Ethics play a huge role in the work we do, and as fundraisers, we do have a strict code to abide by.

If having a potentially polarizing opinion while doing work that is innately influenced by our political landscape is “unethical”, I think we as a sector face a much larger problem than someone tweeting that Justin Trudeau is a sexy bitch. (I happen to think he’s a bit of a wienerbag. But that’s just my polarizing opinion.)

I want to end this with my usual dive into the deeper meaning of everyday words.

Dissent. From Latin dissentire “differ in sentiments, disagree, be at odds, contradict, quarrel,” from dis- “differently” + sentire “to feel, think”

Conform. From Old French conformer “to make or be similar, be agreeable”

If we choose conformist philanthropy, we need to be well aware of who and what we are agreeing to. To deny the grave consequences of conforming to the status quo is to perpetuate a kind of world where philanthropy is needed in the first place. Whose vision of humanity are we loving, anyway?

If we choose to stand up for the individuals, communities, missions and visions we are fighting for, this will naturally be at odds with the status quo. This is bound to offend. This is certain to be contrary to the kinds of things our society has deemed “PC.” There is absolutely nothing “politically correct” about thousands of Aboriginal women going missing and being murdered. Fuck politics. These are stolen lives! And political conformity will do absolutely nothing to return these women to their families.

It will do nothing to help our citizens get access to the basic rights and freedoms we should all have access to.

Neutrality, the act of not choosing sides, goes against what we’re here to do. Am I suggesting you show up to your next meeting with a donor like Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball? Certainly not. I’m suggesting that if you allow yourself to be neutralized of opinion in order to keep feathers from ruffling, you’ll have a hard time doing what you came here to do: give every bird the chance to fly.

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” – Howard Zinn