Worried that your fundraising communications are promoting “saviorism”?
You are not alone. In many sectors, fundraisers feel trapped between messaging that perpetuates harmful beliefs and practices … and messages that don’t effectively connect with donors.
We brought together some fundraising experts from around the world to tackle this topic in an informal session for members of The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic called “How to Grow Love and Tackle Saviorism in Fundraising Copywriting.” There are no easy answers, but there are a lot of helpful thoughts.
Our panel included:
- Jen Shang, philanthropic psychologist (UK)
- June Steward, copywriter (Australia)
- Jeff Brooks, copywriter (US)
- Host: Sarah Lawson, fundraising professional (Australia)
Here are some key points from the discussion:
What is “saviorism”?
June: It’s the idea in fundraising that donors are only helping people in a self-serving way that reinforces attitudes from the patriarchy, the colonial system and from white supremacy. Donors are made to feel good about helping people who don’t have power because of a system that disadvantages them. And often donors are part of that system and possibly even contribute to it, even if it’s done unconsciously.
Jeff: In fundraising, we want the donor to feel like they’re a hero and like they’re doing something that is important. What we don’t want to do is say, “Here are some poor, helpless, hapless people, and if you don’t show up, everything’s going to fall apart.”
You need to define saviorism for yourself based on your values. It’s not the same for everyone. Only then can you start to make smarter decisions about how you’re going to tackle it. I mean, I totally respect somebody saying, “I’m not going to do this, even if it’s going to cost us money.”
How do we get around that?
June: Rather than just adopting an ad-hoc approach, we need to look at solutions based on sound research and not just an idea that somebody came up with that sounds good. Charities rely on us to raise money. So we want to do it in a way that’s based on sound methodology and has an evidence base behind it.
Jeff: I think what kind of goes wrong is the decisions are made fuzzily, and we don’t quite know what we’re talking about. We don’t really define what the value is we’re protecting here, and so we make sloppy, weird decisions.
Is there a different way to approach the whole subject of people in need?
Sarah: In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he said, “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.”
Jen: When people feel connected with others, one human being to another, they can experience psychological wellbeing. They don’t need to be the only person who has got power in a relationship to experience psychological wellbeing. That sense of having genuinely warm, trusting, and satisfying relationship is a very important component of people’s psychological wellbeing. Helping people experience that is both good for them and good for the people that they choose to love.
Fundraising is about building connections. It’s about how individuals connect with both people who are similar to them and people who are different from them.
The way compassionate love overcomes barriers is simply by creating connections in the presence of the differences. So we can think about the situation as one in which people own power or people grow their own power at the expense of others. The solution that compassionate love offers is to create connections between the people who own and grow the power and the people who don’t have the power.
What about “donor centric” fundraising?
June: If you’re going to do effective fundraising, you have to focus some of the attention on the donor. There’s no getting away from that. You speak to your audience. But I think part of it may be that we have to speak to donors in a certain way because that’s what they understand.
Jen: When you think about donor-centered, the frame is in the center, right? But the whole point of relationship and connecting with others is there is more than one person in the center.
How can we diagnose our own fundraising?
Jen: There are two kinds of love: Compassionate love, which is for people outside your group, and Companionate love, which is for people in your group.
Collect a couple of your fundraising letters and underline all the words about your donors. Then underline all the words about the people who receive help. You stare at the two sets of words, and you see how similar they are to each other, and if there’s absolutely no overlap in the words you use, then the only type of love you are positioned to grow is compassionate love. But if instead when you look at your two sets of words, you find at least 50% of them, for example, overlap, then you know you have grounds to grow both companionate love and compassionate love because you are positioning them both as people who are similar to each other and people who are different to each other. So then you can begin to differentiate your language to grow both types of love.
June: You could come up with something like, the donor and the child and their family are all poverty fighters, for example. So rather than it being the donor who saves the child, the donor, the child, their community, the charity, they’re all working together as poverty fighters.
Sarah: Instead of, “I can help those families,” it becomes, “I want to be part of that. What amazing people. Can I partner with them?” And it’s a completely different attitude, a completely different reaction.
Is this a problem just for fundraising to solve?
Jeff: It’s partly about fundraising, but it really is about what organizations are actually doing out there. Is the program a saviorist program that ends up harming the people? Then you ask the question, “Are we using language that perpetuates harmful attitudes?”
June: If you think of saviorism as white people putting themselves at the center of the story, that’s basically what Western charity has been for the last century or so. I mean, you even have organizations that are named after white people. If you really want to overcome saviorism, it also has to come from much higher up within the organization.
We all struggle to create the right message in the right way that will move donors to action. We do it best when we struggle together! Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic<https://www.moceanic.com/join/> to be part of a supporting community of like-minded fundraising professionals who can help us face challenges together. You’ll also get training, tips, templates, and more to support your fundraising career. Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open again!
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