When news broke here in Seattle that a local hospital had offered last-minute vaccine spots to its age-eligible major donors, the most surprising thing to me was how surprised people were.
Shortly thereafter, we learned that several other hospitals in the area, as well as others across the country, had offered similar access to VIP donors, and it became clear that this was not simply a bad decision by a single team or a taken-out-of-context issue more rooted in optics than ethics.
No, this was precisely what our fundraising practices have been evolving toward: preferential treatment for top donors that, at best, is superfluous for those with significant resources—do your major donors really need discounted tickets to that concert or free parking during their hospital stay? At worst, this on-a-pedestal treatment preferences high-net-worth donors’ health—and lives—over others.
That feels like a pretty clear crossing of a line, but we as a sector have collectively inched ourselves toward that line over the years, and I say “we” recognizing that consultants like me have sung from the donor-centered songbook for just as long as frontline fundraisers. Donors, too, have been known to wield their philanthropy for access to a scarce resource, as we saw with the college recruitment scandal of just a few years ago.
The truth is that we have conditioned our donors to expect more and more, and that leads us reaching for ever-more-questionable tactics to signal our gratitude. At the same time, we know that, when donors are surveyed about why they give, material benefits are almost never at the top of the list. So why do we continue to treat our donors like they only care about the discounts, the trinkets, the recognition, or the access their support “buys” them?
What’s to be done when bending over backward for our donors threatens to break us?
The emerging Community-Centric Fundraising movement offers guidance, not only for healthcare organizations but for all nonprofits seeking equitable ways to engage donors. I’m not alone in pointing in this moment to this movement, as members of Seattle’s fundraising community gathered last Thursday at a virtual ethics summit hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Advancement Northwest chapter.
Throughout the discussion, many highlighted the principles of Community-Centric Fundraising, which puts forward the idea that communities served by the work of nonprofits should be at the heart of organizations’ decisions and actions, as an antithesis to our current donor-centered practices. Indeed, these principles provide an excellent framework for organizations to consider in decision-making.
In addition to the first principle of Community-Centric Fundraising—grounding of fundraising practices in race, equity, and social justice—two principles feel especially pertinent as we consider how this situation could have gone differently:
“We foster a sense of belonging, not othering.”
Offering preferential vaccine access only widens the gap between monied donors and those navigating cumbersome websites to snag a few precious vaccine appointments.
What if, instead of an invitation for one of those coveted appointments, major donors had received an invitation to a discussion about how the hospital is ensuring that vaccines are distributed with racial and economic justice at the forefront? What if the email they had gotten was a request for funding for multi-language translation of public education materials about the vaccine?
“We treat donors as partners, and this means that we are
transparent, assume the best intentions, and occasionally have difficult conversations.”
Too often, we act out of fear that if we challenge our donors, they’ll stop giving. That leads us to bite our tongues when they say or do something problematic.
What if these hospitals had answered major donors’ calls requesting help securing a vaccine with information about how wealthier, predominantly white ZIP codes have been vaccinated at much higher rates than communities of color, despite the fact that the pandemic has had a much more devastating toll on lower-income communities? What if they had encouraged their major donors—often in higher-paying jobs and more likely to be able to work from home, further insulated from COVID-19—to help fund a vaccine clinic for essential workers?
What if instead of acting on fear, we acted on the faith that donors give to our organizations because they care about the work more than they care about the perks?
We’ve led our donors down this path, and we can and should start to walk it back by reassessing our practices, explaining to our donors why we’re making changes, and trusting that—in most cases—they’ll be willing to keep walking with us.