Guides & Resources

Unconscious Bias in Fundraising

women sitting

Unconscious bias is the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. The existence of unconscious bias is scientifically tested by a multitude of researchers, including from The University of California, who have compiled compelling evidence about how unconscious, automatically activated and pervasive mental processes manifest across a variety of contexts.

Bias is perpetuated by conformity with in-group attitudes and socialization by culture at large. The manifestation of this shows up in how we think about others or how we use language. It controls certain behaviors, such as eye contact and smiles. It also affects how we use our own body language and how we perceive the body language of others. 

As fundraisers, the significance of this research is crucial. Unconscious bias can affect our relationships with existing donors, with potential donors and our fundraising colleagues. It can have a critical impact on our success in the field, as well as our own career growth.

Let’s look at some of the ways unconscious bias can impact professional fundraisers.

  • In a one-on-one fundraising situation, pay attention to your assumptions about your potential donor. Are you assuming that the donor has less capacity because she is a woman or because he drives a particular car? Are you assuming the donor is unworthy of your time because of their disability?
  • In your major gift strategies, are you missing the cues that indicate desire and capacity because of the donors’ cultural reluctance to discuss money with a stranger?
  • When you meet new people who may become donors, are you asking questions without prejudice as to your instinctual prediction of the answers? Are you able to keep an open mind?
  • In all cases, are you using language that is particular to your own upbringing and culture that may not have universal use?
  • Is your social media outreach sensitive to pictorial nuance? For example, do all your photographs of clients or donors only represent one ethnic group? Or gender? Or ability?
  • When deciding on which projects might interest a major gift prospect, are you only picking projects that serve the donors’ own race or ethnic background? 
  • Do you ever assume sexual orientation based on dress or hair?
  • Do you ever assume an individual’s politics from their ethnic group?
  • Are you paying attention to the ways in which your staff and board self-identify? Many philanthropic funders are now asking questions on grant applications about staff and board diversity. Are you distributing surveys to cull this information or are you making assumptions as to how your staff and board self-identify?

If you want to challenge yourself and your unconscious biases, sign up, for free, to take Harvard University’s Project Implicit Test. You will be able to select a test from a list of possible topics. The data you put into the test is private and encrypted. Leave your comfort zone and take a test that may make you uncomfortable.

After taking the test, if you feel that unconscious bias training would benefit your organization there are many qualified trainers who can run productive sessions.

Our donors trust us with the stewardship of their generosity. Let’s continue to work as AFP members to become the best fundraisers that we can be, with open minds and inclusive thoughts.

Randi Sunshine is a member of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of AFP. She is a member of AFP’s IDEA Committee and a 2015 AFP Diversity Scholar.  

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