Liberation Philanthropy | A Conversation With Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW)

I was honored to join Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) and their Leading & Learning community to talk about approaching fundraising, the exchange of wealth, with deep reflection on how power imbalances affect your practice.  If you ask yourself; “who in my organization is denied the power of “NO”? does it illuminate a power imbalance in your work?



::::Video Transcript (Edited for clarity and “ums” & “likes”::::

I’m going to try my best not to talk for the full 20 minutes, because I do want you guys to have some good breakout sessions. So I’m Patricia Berry and I’m going to admit first and foremost that I’m a recovering institutional fundraiser. So for about 35 years, I have worked in huge institutions like the University of Michigan, Columbia University, Fordham University and organizations like that, doing really deeply transactional fundraising.  Through that 20 years in [big institutions], I certainly learned some things, but also got very tired of it. I really wanted to transition to something that felt a little bit better that wasn’t so awash in fear. When I started doing fundraising consulting full time in 2018, I really continued to dig deep into what is the WHY behind my fundraising and what is the WHY behind what I was beginning to identify for myself as really problematic things about the way that we were raising money and sharing wealth.

Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) has been a terrific partner and also just a place that I have learned and begun the process of dismantling my own white privilege. I am an alumna of the Champions for Change program, which was really transformational for me and have just continued to look to new as a place to learn and dig into some of these ideas. I’m delighted that they invited me here to speak. 

OK, to be real, I’m not going to solve fundraising for you in 15 minutes, you know, how to fundraise with a liberation philanthropy mindset. So I thought I’d put some things down and let you begin the mulling process, right? 

So anybody can be a fundraiser.  I am socially awkward. I had to learn how to deal with humans. If I can learn how to be a fundraiser, anyone can learn how to be a fundraiser.  One of the best fundraisers that I’ve worked with was a tax lawyer. <Laugh>  You wouldn’t look at him and say, “you’re gonna be a great fundraiser,” but he was just really dogged about it. He was very focused on the work and the doing of the work. So with that said, what I can say about everything else that you’re gonna do past this, wherever you are in your fundraising thing, it’s just the practice.  Just do fundraising and you’ll make fundraising happen. And one of the things that I find that organizations do not look at first is how their fundraising embraces their values. Fundraising often becomes something that’s very separate.

We do “asking for money” in a very different way than we live our values. You know, maybe we’re a social justice organization, but we aren’t necessarily fundraising with social justice values because somehow sharing wealth feels different. And so my question for myself and in the room today is what if you did knit those together? What if you did knit together your organizational mission and values and you use those things to also raise money for your organization in the social justice space?  That’s liberation philanthropy. Liberation Philanthropy is a term that I first heard used by a practitioner named Sidney R. Hargro, who was president of philanthropy network of greater Philadelphia.  He’s an interesting guy, and what I read of his that really spoke to me as a person who is steeped in Jesuit and Buddhist practice.

I was educated by the Jesuits at Fordham University. They brought me to Buddhism, which I’m a Buddhist practitioner and I loved a lot of the concepts that were kind of rife in that, in that whole Jesuit value system of liberation theology, right? So that’s me starting to bring together my personal values into the way that I fundraise and begin to unpack that. So one of the things I want to talk about today is going to be literally a little love letter to somebody who I find really inspirational. And you’ll find we have the links for this, so you don’t need to write it down, but there’s a woman named Cyndi Suarez and she wrote a really great book called The Power Manual

The Power Manual isn’t necessarily about fundraising, but I would say it’s all about fundraising, right? We need to think about how those power dynamics play out in how we ask for money and how we do fundraising in a way that makes it very foundational to our work. And so I think these next couple of slides are really just going to be me doing a little love letter to Cyndi Suarez who also is editor in chief of a wonderful fundraising Nonprofit Quarterly.  Cyndi Suarez in her work, The Power Manual kind of broke me open. And for me, how I wanted to talk and think about philanthropy to think about that exchange of power and my background in fundraising, one of the things I could never figure out is why as fundraisers, we were always so scared, right?

We were really afraid. We were gonna screw up the ask. Somebody was mad because they wanted to do the ask and you didn’t ask for enough money. And I said the wrong thing and that donor wandered away and I somehow broke the relationship. And it took me a long time to really realize that that actually is power imbalance.  If something is so breakable it’s because you feel like you don’t have any power in that situation. So that was the beginning of me starting to poke at why do we fundraise the way that we fundraise? Right. Some of the things that I started bringing to my clients was to start to think about how we are really creating power imbalances, which “donor centrism” is one of those, “donor is always right.”  “The customer’s always right.”

My WHAT IF question for my clients is what if you are interviewing donors? If you really took a look at how your fundraising is creating that power imbalance by going through that fearful scarcity mindset, right. I think that’s where the fear for me gets unpacked. If we are in organizations that we feel like “it’s so easy for me to screw up as a fundraiser,” or “I’m gonna get in trouble,” or “I’m gonna lose that donor,” or” I can never say no to money” —  that’s scarcity mindset, and that is really a hallmark of an imbalanced power dynamic in your fundraising practice. So what if we really start fundraising a little bit more without limits and really started to think about unpacking that towards abundance consciousness when we’re fundraising, if we’re thinking in abundance, and if we’re thinking with kind of liberatory power dynamics in our fundraising practice, then we can say NO to things.  We can say, not right now.

We can say, that’s not the right donor for me. We can say to a donor, we only fundraise for the general fund because your restriction on that fund, that million dollars that you want to give us is actually you expressing inappropriate power over my organization. So switching to that is hard, right? Because, and I really want to honor the fact that a lot of times I work with organizations that we are just trying to keep the lights on, right? I need this money because I have people that I need to pay and I have work that I need to do. So I want to honor that reality, and that making the transition to an abundance mindset, a liberatory power structure also comes with risks.  So far, those risks have paid off for the organizations that I work with. I can’t guarantee that it’s always going to pay off, and it’s a very fearful thing because you’re bucking, if you really think about the current philanthropy landscape, that’s really only in 80 years of practice, right?

So we’ve got 80 years of this weird tradition that we created about “the customer is always right”, or the “donor is always right” and we always write handwritten thank you letters. And everybody gets to put their name on a building. What did we do before that? <Laugh>, you know, certainly as the practice has become formalized, we have started to think in fundraising that we can’t say no to those things, that we can’t do it a different way, and if you do it differently, you place things at risk. But my question to you as an organization is are you willing to essentially shut a door? To begin to think about how those power dynamics are creating either an abundance mindset or a scarcity mindset. If you’re feeling fear as both a fundraiser or an executive director, I’m not going to say that it’s always a scarcity mindset, but I’m going to say it may point to a scarcity mindset. It did for me.

So I really work with my clients when we first start our work together about who do you say no to? And how do you say no? When I was coming up through the ranks and institutional fundraising, you never said NO.  Never.  Nobody would ever say NO to money because as a fundraiser, I was incentivized to always say YES.  I didn’t even really care whether it was good for the organization, because I was getting ranked, reviewed, promoted, and paid based on how much money I brought in, regardless of whether it was good money or bad money. That is the core of really problematic slippery slope power dynamics. My liberation question for organizations is how are you giving people the thumbs up? How are you incentivizing people in your organization who are doing that critical work about wealth exchange to say NO to things that they should be saying no to.

And I think particularly in the social justice space, it’s an act of resistance to say NO to somebody who’s coming at you with $3M that would change your life. And they want to use that $3 million to enact their own agenda on you. “I need you to create this fund. It’s gonna do one thing for this one particular kind of person that I really like. You know, here’s the $3 million.”

The people that I want to work with, would say, “that’s not my mission. I’m gonna send you down the street to somebody else who it’s a little bit more their mission, but that’s not for us.” That is, oh my God. I don’t know if any of you guys are having a little clench, as I say that? When I say no to $3M, oh my God, that would be life changing. Again, it’s scarcity not being able to say NO.  Being able to say NO is expansion, is a sign you can live a value that really changes minds and changes hearts.

So I’ll just tell one little story and then I’m gonna send you guys off to kind of reflect on this. I had a client early in my practice and we had talked about this power dynamic and interviewing donors, right? So that power dynamic of “the donor is always right.” And the donor gets to come in if the donor says they want to come in, regardless of what I think and feel. And regardless of what my mission is. And she {my client] was at that point as an executive director, that this money that she was raising was keeping the lights on, was paying the staff, was doing the stuff like she really carried both of those weights. There were real things at stake for her. And so she went out to coffee with a high net worth individual who, you know, here in Southeast Michigan, this individual gets hit with a lot of asks.

So she asked this person out to coffee and they were having a great conversation. And she noticed that the individual was starting to get a little short. And so she just reflected on it. She said, you know, I’m just noticing that, that it seems like you’re getting a little frustrated with this conversation. Can we talk about why? And so what the woman said to her, what the philanthropist said to her was, I’m just waiting for you to ask me for money. You know, that’s the point of this, right? And she said, well, it’s the first time that we’ve met. I am fundraising, but I want to see whether we are right for each other. That’s what this conversation is about. I think she blew that philanthropist’s mind <laugh> in a good way. It may have been a bad way. You know, it may have been a philanthropist who was like, dude, if you’re not just gonna come and ask me for money, then what are we doing?

But she expressed her power in that moment about, I don’t need to ask you for money until I know that you’re right for my organization. So that was her showing that abundance consciousness, right? If I shut this door because you’re so fragile in the relationship space here, that you’ll be annoyed with me just being a human in this conversation, talking about exchanging wealth. Then I’m not the right organization for you. And this is not the right relationship for me. I don’t wanna bring that into my ecosystem because my staff and I are not going to be afraid of the people who are donating to us. We get to be humans, right? Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we own up to those mistakes. If this relationship with the donor is so fragile and breakable it’s not the right relationship for our organization, because we will not be fundraising in fear.

The P.S. to the story is this person came back with a significant gift and loved the relationship. And they had a very, sometimes a tug of war relationship, because this individual wanted to create restricted funding and wanted her to do events in a specific way that she [this executive director] said, no, we don’t do events like that. We do celebratory events. We’re not gonna do fundraising events. You know, the fundraising happens here so that we can talk about whether we’re a good fit for each other and the individual weirdly loved it. I guess I shouldn’t say weirdly, that’s kind of a value judgment. It was surprising to them [the donor] because they rarely get met that way. Is this executive director the flashiest fundraiser I’ve ever met? Absolutely not. She’s just like me. She’s awkward. She’s weird. She doesn’t know how to deal with humans. She just shows up like herself and has transparent conversations about money. And if it doesn’t work out, everybody’s gentle and walks away. So now I’m going to stop talking because really it’s the least interesting thing about me. We are going to send you guys out into your breakout rooms and I really want you to consider a couple of questions. 

  1. Think about who in your fundraising practice never gets told. NO.  Really think about who that person is. And it could be a whole host of people, right? You know, often the donor never gets told no, but there may be other people in that.
  2. And now also think about who never gets to practice their NO. Who is a constant recipient and never a person who is having an equal power exchange in your organization? And I’m going to hopefully give you enough time to think about flipping that, think about what if you disempowered that person that only hears only YES, to be something that’s a little bit more like in conversation? And then what if you empowered that person who never gets to practice their NO? What would your fundraising practice look like if you institutionalized that and made it part of your value set, part of your stated goals as?  If you said, as a philanthropy organization, these are the values we live by?