Sometimes, my audiences deny me my stories
Several years ago, I was presenting in Illinois. Maybe 100 people were in the room for this six-hour workshop on keeping your donors through relationship building. Audience members participated actively.
At lunch, a gentleman came up to me and asked if he might speak with me privately. “Of course,” I responded.
He was very gracious and gentle. He told me that I was the best presenter he’d ever heard and that he was learning lots of stuff.
Then he said, “But your examples are distracting.”
I asked him to explain.
He said, “Your personal stories are about giving to Planned Parenthood and to homosexuals.”
I explained that I was sharing my stories and wanted to hear his stories. I explained that this was about all of us learning to listen and hear the stories of our donors and others.
He responded, “Yes, I know. But your stories are distracting.” Then he asked me how I would feel if I was hearing stories from those who believed in God and thought my donations were contrary to God’s principles.
I responded, “I teach at a Catholic university. Many students in my courses believe in God and some are evangelicals. I listen to their stories with respect. I honor their beliefs. And I expect them to do the same with my stories.”
He responded, “Yes, I know all that. But your examples are distracting.”
And I responded, graciously and gently, “Don’t you understand? I don’t care. These are my stories and I listen to your stories.”
He came back after lunch.
And when the workshop ended and I was walking out, two women came up to me. They said, “We’re from the local Planned Parenthood affiliate. Thank you for talking about us like we’re just another nonprofit organization. That happens so very rarely.”
And I’ll bet there were homosexuals in the audience, too. And I’ll bet there were people who didn’t believe in a god or goddess.
I hope to speak for all of them.
Here’s another story
I was presenting a workshop in Rhode Island. That’s my home state in the U.S.
I was talking about fundraising. I was talking about respecting donors and realizing that people are different and welcoming these differences. Not just tolerating differences, but actually welcoming and respecting differences.
At one point in the workshop, I looked at the audience and said: “Just look, Mary is the only person of color in the audience. That’s a problem.”
Yes, I called out the truth that we weren’t particularly diverse. That we had better work on that. That we had better realize that the world and our community is diverse. And we have to respect that and welcome diverse people.
At the end, a white woman came up to me and said: “I don’t think you should have said that about Mary.” I responded, “Don’t you think that Mary immediately knew she was the only black person in the room? We cannot expect those who are marginalized to speak out for themselves. Those who aren’t marginalized have an obligation.”
Yes. That’s what I do. I hope to speak for the marginalized. I will not be silent.
And here’s another story of denying the stories of others
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I was presenting outside of North America in an English-speaking country. The workshop title was “Fundraising Is Not About Money—Neither Is Giving.”
I explained to the audience that this would be very personal. That I would use my own personal stories as examples.
I explained that I was the chair of the board of directors of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England (RI and CT). I told the stories of my gifts to social justice organizations.
I said loud—and absolutely not proud: “I’m a white, heterosexual, well-educated, affluent woman. I win—except for gender. Because it’s a disadvantage to be a woman in every country in the world and every state in the USA. But at least I’m a white, heterosexual, well-educated and affluent woman. I win and I find that appalling. And that is my life’s work—to fight that.”
At the end of the plenary, a woman came up to me crying. She asked if she could hug me. I said of course. She was a lesbian and unable to marry her life partner, a woman.
I’ve had that happen before. Another time at a big conference, a woman came up and hugged me after that statement. She was lesbian.
And gay men tell me how wonderful it is that I speak that way. And people of color say that to me. And people who aren’t wealthy say that to me.
I respond with thank you. Thank you. Because I’m only marginalized as a woman. But I’m privileged—unearned privilege—because I’m white and heterosexual (born that way!), well educated (thanks, Mom and Dad), and affluent (partly because I’m white and heterosexual!).
By the way, in my evaluations, I received an eloquent comment from a Christian. The individual talked about how inappropriate I was, how Christians were in the room and didn’t expect to have to hear those kinds of comments at a fundraising conference.
There was no way for me to respond directly to that evaluation. So I am responding here. I’ll bet there were Muslims in the room, too. And people who don’t believe in your God or Allah. I’ll bet there were LGBTQ colleagues and friends in the room who are tired of continually being unacknowledged.
To all the fundraisers out there
In too many spaces—in too many rooms—the majority seems to think it’s okay to deny the stories of some people. Often that’s because of unearned privilege. Unearned privilege is how you’re born: race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical status, socioeconomic status, and so forth. You don’t choose any of these.
I believe philanthropy should be greater than unearned privilege. I believe philanthropy is love of humankind…and that crosses all diversity. I believe philanthropy should be a democratizing activity, embracing donors regardless of socioeconomic status.
And I believe that fundraisers and their organizations should welcome all donor stories. We fundraisers are supposed to be enablers of philanthropy. Fundraising is the essential partner of philanthropy. Without fundraising, philanthropy isn’t as frequent or effective or productive as it is and can be.
How can a true fundraiser—any real leader—deny a donor his or her story? How can a true fundraiser—any leader—allow the marginalized to continually be denied their stories?
I tell my stories. I don’t tell your stories because your stories aren’t my stories.
I expect you to tell your stories.
No matter where I’ve presented—Eastern and Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, North America, Mexico—I told my stories. I will continue to do so. I will be honest and genuine.
That’s my obligation as a human being—because you’re a human being, too.
That’s my accountability as a fundraiser—because you’re the donor or the prospective donor.
You’re the hero. As the fundraiser, it’s my honor to listen and hear your story. I’m trying to learn your aspirations, what you’re trying to accomplish.
Psychology tells us that human beings need to feel known and understood. We need to know that others heard our stories, and understand our feelings and aspirations. That is what it means to be human. To find connection.
Surely that’s what fundraisers do with donors, our heroes: make them feel connected.
As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
My giving isn’t about money. I want to join a fight I think I can win. It’s my fight, my interests, my aspirations.
Can I give through you? How will you, the fundraiser and your organization, make me feel about my story?