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Broken Crayons: What Happens When Nonprofit Leadership Fails Fundraisers of Color

We trusted you! We knew when we showed up on day one as the new Chief Development Officer at your impactful nonprofit, leadership would be behind us. After all, y’all said so in the three interviews we had with the staff, Executive Director, and the Board of Directors. The job description clearly stated that nonprofit leadership values all employees and the unique contributions they bring to the organization.

So, what happened? Why are so many fundraisers, but particularly fundraisers of color, distraught, marginalized, left out, and burned out?

There are a plethora of reasons, including a lack of understanding about the true nature of fundraising work, impatience in wanting money to come pouring in tomorrow when the organization lacks proper resources, apathy from the Board of Directors, and the deadliest — bias, fear, exclusion, and racism!

A new book released last fall, Collecting Courage: Joy, Pain, Freedom, Love, flabbergasted Board members, Executive Directors, and even other fundraisers with its revelations about the plight of fundraisers of color in the nonprofit sector. Many admitted to being clueless about the fear, intimidation, marginalization, and downright hurtful treatment we’ve endured.

The book is an anthology of stories written by fundraisers of color in the United States and Canada:

“With searing and intimate detail, we wrote about our experiences with anti-black racism—about coping with being last hired, first fired, overlooked for promotion to outright hostility in toxic workplaces.”

When I was asked to contribute to the book, I responded with a resounding “YES.” I wanted to share about my personal journey as a fundraiser. I had been fired a few times but being let go wasn’t the worst part. The pain, humiliation, and attacks on my character and self-esteem were the most piercing. Fundraising is about treating others with kindness and thoughtfulness in order to build trusting relationships. It’s about being gentle with our donors. Fundraising is innately human, yet in my opinion I wasn’t treated humanely.

Ironically enough, I chose Joy as my theme in the book. I felt that my harrowing journey had brought me to a place of reconciliation and self-forgiveness for allowing others to tear me apart the way they had. As I stated in my chapter, I had let the “fear of now to block the courage for next,” and I wasn’t operating through faith and trust that I had something meaningful to offer.

But it was OK now. The scars remain, but they don’t hurt like they once did. I’ve landed in a soft place and now felt free to share my story without the fear of retaliation or condemnation.

Little did I know then, but many of my fellow fundraisers of color had been down similar paths. We were like a box of broken crayons. We had been injured, and we weren’t sure if we could be as useful as we once were. After all, no one wants to color with broken crayons if there are new ones in the box.

When they sent me the collection of stories to review before they were published publicly, I was blown away by the depth of trauma that the other contributors, like me, had endured. I was also inspired by the aah-ha moments and confessions of self-love and forgiveness. I was clearly not alone. There was comfort in this knowledge.

The editors, a wonderful cadre of Women of Color in Canada including Nneka Allen, Camila Pereira, and Nicole Salmon, had come to a place of fatigue and exasperation and felt compelled to share their journeys with the world. They invited me and other fundraisers in the U.S. to join them.

The horrific racism and deaths of young black men in the spring and summer of 2020, amid a worldwide pandemic had led a few of us in the U.S. to meet with them in virtual rooms. Conversation after conversation led to the same conclusion: We were exhausted yet committed to sharing our truths with the hopes that they would inspire change.

The movement toward the writing was natural. The social unrest brought on an urging that the time was right, and we knew that people might be ready to hear our testimonies. As I read the thirteen essays of the other brave fundraisers, I travelled down a rocky road of emotions ranging from moments of rage, bursts of laughter, tears of joy, and searing sadness. It was raw, honest, endearing, funny, and heartwarming all at once. My fellow author, sisters, and brother held nothing back.

Almost a year later, the book continues to resonate with so many people. A publisher has just purchased the rights to sell the book in the U.S., which should help it to reach more readers.

Messages like the one below now appear in my LinkedIn Inbox regularly:

“The talk about Collecting Courage today was brilliant. I have been reading and re-reading the book and learning every day. I know that organizations I work with would benefit from your experience and expertise and I would appreciate being connected for future potential connections.”

It’s messages like this that prove that books like Collecting Courage are necessary for the nonprofit sector to fully understand and accept why so many of their leaders are culpable of unfair and unethical treatment of people (fundraisers) of color.

There are many ways that nonprofit leadership can begin supporting fundraisers of color to provide ample and equal opportunity for us to flourish in the profession.

Here are just a few ways nonprofit leaders can support fundraisers of color:

Start the relationship off on the right foot by first offering salaries to fundraisers of color that are commensurate with what their white peers earn.

All fundraisers should be viewed as leaders as they have the unique opportunity to interact with stakeholders across your organization. They should be recognized internally as important contributors that touch every department at the nonprofit. Executive Directors and CEOs should model good behavior and publicly exhibit support for fundraisers of color. Others internally and externally will observe and do the same.

Talk about racial differences with staff and how white donors and donors of color in your database will be cultivated. Speak to the challenges that may surface because of bias and ignorance about people of color.

Board members should also offer support if the Executive Director is also a person of color. There are inherent challenges that they may encounter that the board can help to resolve or lessen.

Board members should lean in and reach out to members of color on their fundraising teams to offer support and resources. They should also question the Executive Director if the development position is turning over year after year.

Finally, it’s a smart choice to purchase Collecting Courage for your Board of Directors and fundraising team. They should also get to know the other authors: Muthoni Kariuki, Marva Wisdom, Birgit Burton, Olumide Akerewusi, Heba Mahmoud, Fatou Jammeh, Kishshana Palmer, Naimah Bilal, Nneka Allen, Nicole Salmon, and Camila Pereira.

Their stories are a menagerie of experiences that reveal the good, bad, and ugly in nonprofit work. The book can serve as a guide to teach board members and other nonprofit leadership what not to do when working with fundraisers of color.

Clearly, our team of impressive authors have a lot to offer. Each of us is accomplished in our own right. To learn more about us and our book, please visit our website. What you will find there is a wonderful artistic rendering of our stories woven into a patchwork of colorful and expressive videos and essays highlighting the wonder and beauty of who we are.

We are bruised but not broken. Our crayons still work, and we hope our stories inspire others to collect enough courage to write their own.

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