“Philanthropy is Broken”: How the Stop Community Food Center is moving away from donor-centric fundraising to putting community first
Philanthropy is broken.
About two years ago, I attended a session of a professional fundraising association. I remember hearing white women discussing how they would approach a donor who said something racist. Maybe they had a bad day; it might compromise the donation; it would be too difficult to say anything. As a racialized woman, I felt unsafe and invisible, something I have felt many times before in philanthropy.
I have been a professional fundraiser for over a decade, my passion for it stemming from my personal use of charitable services and supports. I lived in a World Vision refugee shelter, skipped school to access food banks, got help getting my citizenship through a 12-year process, went to walk-in meals at church and I received Christmas presents from strangers. I know firsthand the profound impact nonprofit work can have. We are undeniably changing the course of people’s lives.
Over the past 18 months, at the Stop Community Food Center – a mid-sized Toronto nonprofit that provides emergency food access, community building programs and urban agriculture – we’ve been working to verify our fundraising methods and move towards a less problematic approach to philanthropy.
Having seen both sides of charity, I call on funders and organizations to rethink how philanthropy works, embrace community-focused fundraising (CCF), and move away from fundraising donor-focused. Many fundraisers recognize that current fundraising practices are harmful and grounded in white saviorism, but do not know how to dismantle oppressive practices; this is how we approached the CCF.
The first thing we did was reinvent engagement by minimizing transactional donor recognition. We treat donors not just as funders, but as partners in our work who also benefit from meaningful community support. We’ve removed online donor walls and eliminated most public recognition for supporters. We now send donors personalized videos, invite them to sign petitions, and provide education on our community’s top public policy concerns. We don’t shy away from having difficult conversations about the origins of a donor’s wealth, working against racism and oppression, systemic barriers, tax evasion, wealth hoarding, white supremacy, power dynamics and more. Our fundraisers are empowered to end a relationship with a problematic donor or push back against any problematic notion they present.
Beyond that, we have moved away from elite events. Just a few years ago, our organization was raising 25% of its revenue from signature events like galas, events that weren’t designed to include our community. We took advantage of the pandemic to pause and rethink why we hosted events the way we did. During this time, we asked our supporters to close the revenue gap and they stepped up, resulting in a 55% increase in revenue year over year.
Once we redesigned our donor engagement strategy, we turned to our service users. We surveyed 200 service users about their top public policy priorities to quantify the most pressing issues our organization needed to address. We used this information to advocate publicly, connect with organizations dealing with these issues, and send letters to our representatives. We then also piloted our first community fund and asked two donors to give $50,000 – $25,000 that went to our organization and $25,000 to an organization chosen by our program participants. The chosen organization responds to an identified public policy priority, in this case affordable housing. Both grants were awarded without restriction.
I’m sure you’re wondering how the move away from donor-centric fundraising has affected our bottom line? Well, we’ve had significant successes: this year is our biggest fundraising year ever, we’ve collaborated with nonprofit partners, increased donations and dollars, solidified our first million dollar donation and are $400,000 above where we were last time. year.
It’s not always a smooth journey. We had to consider the origins of wealth in a capitalist system and our role in maintaining or activating the non-profit industrial complex. We also encountered various challenges, such as training the board and the organization in general; identify ways to make legacy more community-focused; and grappling with the fact that while we work hard to ensure our actions are grounded in fairness, our organization does not operate in a bubble.
With the daily impact of fundraising on the lives of their organization’s service users, it is imperative that we make changes to the way we engage donors and service users. We must seek a more equitable way to tell stories with dignity, engage our audiences and push for systemic change.