Advancing Philanthropy

Equity in Development: Be Radically Intentional to Change the Lived Experiences of Diverse Fundraisers

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Charu Uppal, M.A., M.B.A., CFRE

I compulsively refreshed the red dots on the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard as they grew and traveled from the east to the west. It was horrific to watch the number of infections and deaths escalate while many argued if the virus was real. In 2020, the country was grappling with the devastating impact of the pandemic when we were jolted by the tragic death of George Floyd. From Minnesota to Tokyo, hundreds of thousands of people around the world protested in solidarity with the Black community. As the protests gained momentum in Portland, I felt compelled to stand up against injustice, but mostly, I felt anger and hopelessness.

You only need one story to start a conversation, and one conversation is enough to start a movement. With this in mind, I designed and executed a study to learn and collate the lived experiences of fundraisers from racialized and marginalized communities around the country. By sharing these authentic stories from within our fundraising community, we could significantly expand our understanding of the diversity-related issues in our profession. I had found my way of participating in the fight against injustice.

The issues related to power and privilege are widely prevalent in the fundraising profession. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.” The paradox of philanthropy is not lost on me—a system of privilege that reinforces influence in the hands of a few but simultaneously possesses transformational healing power.

Over the past decade, most of my fundraising experiences have been overwhelmingly positive—I felt respected and supported. Yet, there are other experiences. From lack of trust, constant criticism and questioning to biased comments in the name of humor, I have experienced inequity in many forms. The late Simone Joyaux explicates, “We talk a lot about the disadvantaged. We worry about the poor and the infirm, those without skills, those without education. And, wonderful nonprofits help relieve the suffering of the disadvantaged” (Ahern & Joyaux, 2008). But, we rarely talk about the plight of the messengers—the fundraisers. The power of philanthropy and the nonprofits’ missions are intricately connected by the fundraiser. What if the fundraisers belong to historically marginalized groups, and every day, at work, they were reminded of their otherness.

At a very young age, we learn to organize and identify ourselves based on affiliation with voluntary or involuntary groups such as family, religion and school. Within our groups and based on our lived experiences, our brain creates patterns that lead to instinctive responses without our awareness or control. Similar mental wiring can occur in favor of, or against, a person or a group of people. The purpose of this skill called heuristics is to help you problem-solve consciously and subconsciously (Kahneman, 2011). Heuristics can also be rooted in inaccurate and potentially harmful information and they can be so ingrained that over time we can become completely blind to them. Through my study, I set out to learn the spoken and the unspoken dimensions of prejudice, bias, and inequity as it is experienced by fundraisers in their work.

With generous support from the leadership team at the Association of Fundraising Professionals, in October 2020, my survey titled Your Story, Your Voice, was emailed to approximately 1,400 AFP members who self-identified as belonging to a diverse community. I then conducted follow-up interviews with 13 participants from the 87 who originally responded to better understand their experiences and identify solutions. (All participants remained anonymous in this article.) From the survey and follow-up interviews, three themes emerged:

1. Fundraisers highlight an urgent need for accountability

From hiring practices, gender pay gap, and lack of opportunities, to leadership’s attitude toward them, the fundraisers reported an enormous equity issue.

Here’s how some fundraisers have experienced bias and overt racism:

  • “I’ve been tasked with being the ‘elevator girl’ not the development director at a large fundraising event. My role was to take guests up and down the elevator instead of stewarding my own big donors. Yes, it was awkward.”
  • “Where to begin? Some of the typical discrimination, like a questioning of my skills and experience, micromanaging even though I had more experience than my manager, assumptions that I would work on the one initiative that focuses on Black people, etc. These days microaggressions are so common that I am not sure if I couldn’t point them all out; or if I am actually aware of them on a regular basis. Unfortunately, discrimination is somewhat of the norm now, and I expect it.”
  • “As a young queer man, I have dealt with sexual harassment to the point where I avoided the donor and reported it, but the executive director and board did nothing.”

Perhaps, the much-needed seismic shift in the nonprofit sector will begin by letting go of ideologies that no longer serve us.

2. Fundraisers want the lip service regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion to stop, and they demand real action

Systemic racism, bias, and prejudice are highly prevalent in our profession. Ofronama Biu explains that the racial leadership gap is not a pipeline problem, nor is it is due to differences in education, skills or interest; rather it is a structural problem within the sector (Biu, 2019).

Fundraisers share how biased organziational structures negatively impacted their work experiences:

  • “I took the ownership of bringing my own chair to the table. These tables are not meant for us.”
  • “The model minority assumption—she will be fine; she doesn’t need our support. But people from diverse backgrounds—people of color and LGBTQ—were encouraged and promoted. But not me. I am Asian.”
  • “The disadvantage does not come with the inability to secure a gift. It comes from your managers not trusting you in securing the gift and imposing their own bias on you and your work. We often have to work ten times harder to prove we are capable of building relationships and skilled enough to secure any gift.”

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are resilient and we can adapt. The fundraising profession is on a trajectory of rethinking and adapting. If we all take personal responsibility, we can keep the momentum going.  

3. Fundraisers want you to use your privilege to move the needle

Despite the inequity issues expereinced daily, 94% respondents reported they were committed to the mission and wanted to create an impact. However, there are several problems.

Fundraisers share their challenges with career advancement:

  • “I have felt myself bumping up against the ‘bamboo ceiling’ where Asians are honored for being highly accomplished but are not seen as ‘leadership material.’ I have been, in the past, a well-regarded number-two person but not considered for the top position.”
  • “In a city that has an enormous Black population, I don’t think I know any Black fundraisers. I am sure that part of the issue is related to wealth. I could take my part-time, pretty-poorly-paid job (30 hours a week making under $40K) because I have a husband who makes much more money than me, and we have benefited from generational wealth.”
  • “We start at a deficit; a deficit that was created 200 years ago. Two-hundred years of righting the wrong. You are holding the pen, you can make a difference.”

Fundraisers want the reform to be top-down, side-to-side, in any possible direction. The need to build an equitable work environment is urgent and it cannot wait until the next budget cycle, nor should it be a discussion that takes place once a year during the staff retreat. Individuals and organizations are strongly encouraged to wield the power in the direction that leads to systemic, significant, and long-lasting change. Our goals must be clear, actionable, and achievable, and each step must have milestones and measures of accountability.

I asked the interviewees to imagine a perfect world where the issues they face would disappear. “What would you change and fix if you had a magic wand?”

The participants shared tangible and actionable ideas, ready to be implemented by anyone, anywhere.

Take Personal Responsibility

Each fundraiser described their poignant journey navigating prejudice and discrimination in their daily life. The thematic analysis provided an overarching structure and helped me aggregate the issues and solutions.

black woman holding a black lives matters sign
© Alessandro Biascioli

An interviewee recommended, “we need to give power and influence to the people who are experiencing the issues. These people come from the community, they face the issues, and they are the specialist who can solve the problem.” We need to give agency to the actors and get out of their way. Whether you are a marginalized or racialized community member, or an ally, charge into the system around you. The disruption of power, privilege, policy and practice begins with you.  

Standing up for what’s right will always be tough. We have to consciously stop ourselves from thinking, “I’m a good person, I am not a racist, and someone else will fix this” or “it’s not happening here.” Ibram Kendi, in his book “How to Be an Antiracist” says, “Denial is the heartbeat of racism, beating across ideologies, races, and nations. It is beating within us.” (2020).  It was uncomfortable for me to realize that even as a person of color and a feminist, I too had avoided making tough choices. Knowing this, I examined my resources and decided that doing this research would be the most effective way of using my privilege.

Understand the Power of the Lived Experience

 Since the civil unrest, systemic racism in our society has become salient and magnified. The people and leaders of color are becoming more vocal about injustice they experience daily and are seeking reform. This paradigm shift has baffled many leaders in the dominant culture. While they continue to have power, privilege, and resources, their existing systems seem to be deficient in managing and adapting to this change. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explained that cultural capital is a currency that helps us navigate our social world by giving us access to certain opportunities and experiences. It refers to the collection of symbolic elements, such as clothing (how we dress and mannerisms), how we talk to donors, professional credentials (CFRE), and other things.

An insightful facet of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital is the idea of Habitus, which he defined as deeply ingrained habits, skills and dispositions that we own due to our lived experiences, “things we just know” or tacit agreements (Bourdieu, 2016). Habitus enables us to identify those who don’t belong. By observing cultural capital “tells,” the in-group can easily identify outsiders without the outsider even knowing.

The nonprofit industry continues to be led by white males. Marginalized groups try to assimilate to the standards set by our leaders but fall short because, unbeknownst to them, they are missing key cultural elements. Kendi says, “Assimilationist ideas are racist ideas. Assimilationists can position any racial group as the superior standard that another racial group should be measuring themselves against, the benchmark they should be trying to reach. Assimilations typically position White people as the superior standard.” (2020) At work, we need to embody a different identity, one participant commented. “I have been denying my own culture. I am yellow on the outside but white on the inside.”

The idiom “only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches” is valuable in illustrating that people of color have the unique lived experiences and insight that can help to rebuild systems in our profession. If we have to change, we need to be radically intentional. Our colleagues experience prejudice daily and most likely they have ideas on ways to fix their probems. Change is incremental and it might be years before the ideas of equity and justice become prevalent. But in the interim, let’s sit the right people at the head of the table, ask them to define their turmoil and what resources they need,  make room for them to speak, and then follow through with action—it will be worth it.

Hold Leaders Accountable

All grassroots movements fail when participants don’t have decision-making power. We can protest all day to draw attention to systemic issues, but nothing will change without the authority to sign on the proverbial dotted line. If we are beholden to those who hold the purse strings, we will find ourselves here day after day, decade after decade.

Unanimously, each interviewee asked, “How can we hold our leaders accountable?” Should we require fundraising executives, grantors, and funders to commit to continuing education on the historical background of race and power? Even well-meaning leaders from the dominant culture are finding it harder to successfully implement diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives because they are lacking the necessary cultural capital. According Bourdieu, many leaders are finding themselves in the “out-group” because they lack the understanding of what it is like to live and work as a person of color. A Black fundraiser with nearly 30 years of experience shared, “I wish people were more open to hard conversations. I have good friends, but I can’t talk to them about race. It becomes a 10-fold problem when they move into the corporate environment.” I am optimistic, and I agree with the colleague who believes that it is possible, “we need a system to retrain our eyes, hearts, mind, and our world, to look outside of our experiences; we need to demonstrate this behavior.”  Being vulnerable and asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of self-awareness and wisdom.

I found that the proposed solutions weren’t original or novel. In fact, they were tried and tested during other historic and significant movements such as civil rights, women’s rights, etc. These solutions reinforced that we did not need to reinvent the wheel. We need to get to work.

Moving Forward

The historical background of our country has repercussions on every facet of our lives, and the fundraising profession is no different. The quotes shared throughout this article provide only a glimpse into the lives of racialized and marginalized fundraisers. To end the discrimination and bias experienced by fundraisers, we need to do something radically different. Addressing racial inequity at the individual and organizational level can be challenging because it necessitates an acknowledgment that systems are rigged in favor of some. And even though we did not create this unjust system, we are a part of it, and it is up to us to find solutions.

So, I invite you to reach out to your colleagues—be authentic, humble and vulnerable in your invitation. Be prepared for a hard conversation, as it will most likely be the first of many to come. Lead with compassion for yourself and others because, in the process of learning and rebuilding, you will make mistakes. The paradigm shift in an organization’s culture and value system will occur if we intentionally work to understand the lived experiences of marginalized groups. Casting a vision for the future, one of the interviewees commented that dialogues regarding race and privilege are uncomfortable at first, but when they are done, we will be one step closer to a just and equitable society.


  • Ahern, T., & Joyaux, S. (2008). Keep your donors: The guide to better communications and stronger relationships. In Keep your donors: The guide to better communications et stronger relationships (pp. 409-416). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  • Biu, O. (2019, March 08). Study: Women of color face systemic challenges in nonprofit careers. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from
  • Bourdieu, P. (2016). Cultural Capital. Social Theory Rewired.
  • Kendi, I. X. (2020). In How to be an antiracist (pp. 14–15, 51). Random House Large Print.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Charu Uppal, M.A., M.B.A., CFRECharu Uppal, M.A., M.B.A., CFRE, is the annual giving manager at the Oregon Zoo Foundation, where she is responsible for creating and managing a multi-channel program focused on increasing annual giving revenue, deepening donor engagement, and broadening the base of support all constituent groups.

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08 Aug 2022 President's Perspective Blog
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