The joy of fundraising: How fundraising can be truly, authentically joyful

Written by Vu Le

When I was younger, one of my favorite things was the Skymall catalogue, which some of you may remember. It was a catalog that every airline had at every seat, and it was a glorious collection of some of the coolest stuff ever. I couldn’t afford the life-size gorilla lawn statue, or the fountain pen filled with tiny Swarovski crystals, or a lamp made out of pink salt that generated negative ions, or whatever. But it gave me a small measure of happiness to flip through the catalog and learn about the wacky products and what they did and how much they sold for.

Why am I bringing this up? I’ll get to that in a moment. A few weeks ago I was invited to give a keynote on the joy of fundraising. Now, I know at least a handful of people in the sector are rolling their eyes. That’s like inviting a teenager to deliver a lecture called “The Importance of Listening to Your Parents and Other Authority Figures.” Over the past few years, I have criticized many aspects of the way we do fundraising, and have been helping advance a movement to change it. So there may be this perception that I hate fundraising, fundraisers, and donors.

That is not true; I point out the flaws in various aspects of our sector because I believe in our work. And I genuinely believe there is joy in fundraising. It’s just that I think the way we’ve been conditioned to understand and experience joy needs to be explored deeper, and with a lens of equity and justice. We have been told, for example, that connecting donors to wonderful causes is joyful. That helping donors feel like they made a difference is joyful. That having a sense of gratitude (mostly to donors) is in itself a form of joy. That meeting our annual goals is joyful because it means we are helping further our missions.

But are those things really “joyful”? And does everyone experience these joys, or is it reserved for certain people in our sector, namely white-privileged donors and fundraisers? I can’t speak for all fundraisers of color, but I interact with enough, and being one myself, I can say that fundraising is often devoid of any semblance of true happiness for many of us. If fundraising is actually joyful the way many development colleagues and gurus keep insisting it is, why aren’t there more fundraisers of color in the sector? Why do the few we have keep leaving? Why do diversity efforts often fail? “We have a scholarship program to support fundraisers of color to get their CFRE,” a colleague told me, “but we struggle to get anyone to apply.”

Yes, there is a diversity problem across the entire sector, but I see unique aspects of development that are driving people of color away. It is a special sort of stress and dissonance for people of color to have to cater to donors, who are mostly white. There are plenty of wonderful and well-meaning donors. And there are also endless stories of racism, white saviorism, poverty tourism. There’s the perpetual codeswitching we have to do, the conforming to white-people-determined standards of professionalism in how we dress, talk, behave. There are problematic and unethical things we are asked to gloss over, core values we are made to suppress, in order to meet our fundraising goals. To be told over and over that all of this is normal, that this is the most effective way to raise money, that this is “joyful” if we just create an entire culture around it, it destroys morale and makes many of us question reality.

It’s not just fundraisers of color though. Many white colleagues have also been disillusioned. Fundraising, the way we’ve been taught to do it, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, is often soul-crushing for anyone with any accurate analysis of systemic inequity. Charity has become a warped manifestation of capitalism. Traditional fundraising and philanthropic practices have turned our sector into a Skymall catalog of causes and issues, all competing for the attention of donors. And we fundraisers have become salespeople and personal shoppers who often delude ourselves into thinking that our fundraising work, at its worse a form of conscience-laundering for capitalism’s many inequities, is somehow fun.

So yes, maybe fundraising is joyful—in the way some people find joy when they go shopping and can afford stuff that pique their interests or brighten someone else’s day, and in the way a kind and dedicated salesperson may find joy when they help a customer find the perfect present for a loved one. But does this type of joy serve the purpose of our sector, or can it be distracting us from it?

I think genuine, authentic joy in our sector comes from being in alignment with our values and in advancing the primary reason for our existence: to build community and to create a just and equitable world. If we can unlearn many of the philosophies and practices we’ve been taught, and if we can be guided by the true purpose of our work, I think we can achieve a much deeper, more meaningful level of joy.

Here are some examples of what authentic equity-aligned joy looks like in fundraising. Some of these are examples I have mentioned before, but I want to run through them with an analysis of joy:

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.