Is it time to remove supremacy in non profit fundraising? Photo of Chiang Mai railway station in Chiang Mai, Thailand by humanitarian photographer Bryon Lippincott

White Supremacy and colonialist attitudes are on the forefront my mind currently as the world struggles to address historic and systemic racism. What if part of this could be a movement to de-colonialize international development work? There are a number of issues in this space but what I can speak to is the idea of supremacy in marketing, communications, and fundraising.

Popular nonprofit marketing theory and practice place the donor at the center of the story. The donor is encouraged to become the hero of the beneficiary’s story. Donors are courted with the idea that, for a few dollars a day, they can save a child from starvation, rescue a woman who was trafficked, or help a family rebuild from a disaster.  A small excess in our lives can have a life-changing impact in the life of the poor, exploited, or hungry. I think we can all agree that placing the donor as the hero of the story an effective method of increasing donations. We as humans like to feel good about ourselves and that we are having an impact on the world around us. While it is true that our insignificant excesses can be of significant value to those in need, I think we need to realize the impacts these messages have on our perception of our value in the world, specifically our value in relation to those we deem needy. 

Nonprofits are often constrained by tight budgets and staff shortages that require efficiency in communications and fundraising. Consequently, fundraising has evolved to the place the donor at the center of communications because it is effective, not because it is ethical. While I understand that money is ultimately king in terms of the daily functions of a nonprofit, I would like to question if the non-financial costs of this messaging are worth the financial rewards. 

I see three main non-financial costs associated with this ‘donor as hero’ messaging strategy.

At a societal level celebrating the donor as a hero promotes a problematic world view, where people from developed nations or ‘superior’ belief systems are positioned as potential saviors to countries, cultures, and individuals in need. Centering the donor in the role of hero plays to the ego and perceived supremacy of the donor and reinforces the idea that their beliefs, values, and culture are superior to those in the areas the organization is working in or ministering to. This message is communicated whether or not an individual gives money or not. Simply promoting these messages in our fundraising impacts a society’s beliefs about themselves and their global neighbors. 

The narrative of the donor as the hero devalues the contributions of the organization’s local staff and the beneficiaries in the process of development. If the donor is the hero, what role does the beneficiary play? It seems the default in that scenario is for the beneficiary to play the role of victim, saved from inadequacy, exploitation, or unfortunate circumstances by the benevolent donor. If the donor is the hero then the nonprofit staff are relegated to supporting roles where their efforts are largely hidden from view and rarely celebrated. The celebration of the donor’s money and ‘sacrifice’ for in the cause overshadow the endless hours of work on the part of the staff to create safe, reliable opportunities for the communities they serve. It also overshadows the hard work and determination required from the beneficiary to make the most of the opportunity and ultimately find success. 

These heroic stories require dramatic results to be achieved in a short amount of time. The storytelling we enjoy for entertainment has convinced us that heroes solve problems quickly and permanently. Development work is typically far more complex and progresses much slower than a heroic tale. Offering the title of ‘hero’ also promises a quick heroic finish. When this fails to materialize our heroes will likely not blame themselves, instead, they will look for others to blame while they maintain their title. After all, they did what they were asked, they fulfilled their role and sacrificed some of their wealth, the happy ending should be a foregone conclusion. If it doesn’t appear as promised or is not as satisfying, they will move on and don another cape offered by another organization in hopes of living out another hero’s story. 

Nonprofits need money to operate and currently, the donor as hero narrative seems to be working financially. If it works, why change? If we were going to make a change where do we go from here?

We need to change because the ‘donor as hero’ model is unethical, devaluing, and disrespectful to beneficiaries and nonprofit staff, especially in the areas of international development as detailed above. 

Instead, we need to move toward a connection based model of messaging, communicating, and fundraising. A focus on connection based messaging and fundraising celebrates the value and contributions of beneficiaries and nonprofit staff who are doing the work on the ground. We can create a community environment where donors can learn to engage with people their donations are impacting, where beneficiaries and staff are equal partners with the donor in improving lives and communities. Shifting our messaging away from the donor as the hero allows beneficiaries and communities to have greater influence and agency in how development happens in their communities. When we help donors see staff and beneficiaries’ heroic partners, we provide space for relationships to form around shared goals and encourage donors to admire local staff and beneficiaries for who they are and their dedication to bringing change to their communities.