An illuminating conversation between values-led fundraisers reveals an approach better for the donor and the people they seek to support.

Last week we shared research from fundraising think tank, Rogare, about the ethics of storytelling in fundraising. Specifically, we explored the way nonprofits ‘frame’ the people they serve, and the argument for providing these ‘service users’ with a far greater degree of voice and agency. Because it is these people who are living the experiences nonprofits seek to portray as a means of raising money.  

It therefore felt serendipitous that one of the sessions at the recent Nonprofit Summit focused on two organisations actually doing the hard, essential work of putting the people they support front and centre of their fundraising.  

Here we share an enlightening conversation that questions the long-held saviour-focused approach to fundraising and encourages us instead, to travel a values-led path that may cause discomfort, but that ultimately builds fundraising founded on diversity, equity and inclusion.  

DEI-driven fundraising  

As a fundraiser, you have ambitious goals. Working for a nonprofit, it’s also likely that you value diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In this webinar from the Nonprofit Summit, Alissa Silverman, Nonprofit Industry Advisor at, Patrick McIntyre, Chief Development Officer at Polaris (a data-driven social justice movement fighting sex and labour trafficking), and Deepa Kunapuli, Chief Digital Officer at the Sierra Club (a grassroots environmental organisation) explore the connection and tension points between fundraising and DEI, so that we can build more DEI-driven fundraising strategies across the nonprofit sector. 


Patrick, you’ve shared with me how you’ve changed your fundraising to be more DEI-driven and I would love to ask why you made that change and, more importantly, how does it motivate you every day? And Deepa, I ask the same question of you.  


Let me start with some context about Polaris. We fight both sex and labour trafficking and work every day to help restore freedom to survivors. This year we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary and the movement against human trafficking is about 25 years old. And so we’ve learned a lot of lessons as an organisation and as a movement over the past 20 to 25 years.  

I think initially there was a sense that folks with privilege should make an effort to ‘save’ and ‘rescue’ folks who find themselves in human trafficking situations. And the truth that we’ve discovered over the years is that victims and survivors themselves are the experts about their experience and why they are in the positions they are in. 

We do a few different things in terms of direct response. We operate the national human trafficking hotline – talking to victims and survivors every day and helping them plan their exit plans and get on roads to safety and healing. We also use data and artificial intelligence to learn more about what is driving human trafficking, particularly the flow of money, because, at the end of the day, it’s an economic crime as well as a human crime and a humanitarian crisis. And finally, we use public policy and advocacy to compel policymakers to change laws. We’ve been very active in advancing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. We’ve passed over 100 bills in all 50 states to change the systems in which people find themselves vulnerable.  

So I share all this to say that, at the end of the day, Polaris describes themselves as survivor-centred justice and equity-driven, and technology-enabled. The survivor-centred bit is the primary lens through which all of our work flows.  

For us, it’s no longer responding to what donors want, it’s centring what survivors need and the truth that they tell us. So that requires a shift in communication. There’s been a shift in the message to the folks who’ve [supported us] for several years.

The issue of human trafficking thankfully remains a very strong bipartisan issue and we work every day to keep it that way. But there is a shift in terms of understanding why people are vulnerable in the first place. What can we do around affordable housing? What can we do around LGBTQ equality? What can we do about liveable wages and childcare that will keep folks from falling into the hands of traffickers if they just have a bit more justice and equity in their lives in the first place?  

So having that conversation with our donors and bringing them along that growth line is really, really important to us and fundamental to maintaining the integrity, empowerment and humanity of the people we serve. It takes a lot of work to steer a ship like this, but at the end of the day we know it’s the right way to go and we’re willing to take that risk.  


A lot of organisations in the progressive movement are grappling with the question of “how do we evolve and how do we stay true to our core and values?” 

For the Sierra Club, [part of ] our mission statement is ‘to explore, enjoy and protect the planet’, and historically that’s really been centred around public lands, history and conservation. Those things are all still very important to the club, but as we’ve been evolving and really leaning more into social justice and racial justice issues; we’re thinking more about how people fit into our mission. What does access to lands actually look like beyond getting a park pass or being able to visit one of our national parks? What does it mean to honour and uphold the original stewards of the land? How do we centre communities who have been historically left out or purposely excluded from conversations by our government?  

Lobbying and advocacy is one of the Sierra Club’s greatest assets. [We’re asking], how do we use that power to change policy and our laws so that everyone can explore, enjoy, and protect the planet?

I think one of the most visible ways we do this is with storytelling, language and terminology – whose stories we share, how accessible and familiar the terminology is, and most importantly, how we can make it crystal clear that climate change is here and everyone has a stake, regardless of who you are.  

I would also say that our storytelling is even more important because we are a nonprofit. We can’t compete with oil and gas companies who are spending billions of dollars on advertising every single day to convince people that climate change is just a myth.

There are lots of nuances in how we do our work and at the core of it is is asking “what do people need to know to take action, now?”  


I would love to hear about what action you both took internally, in terms of your leadership structure or any sort of policies that you had to set so that the [DEI] approach works externally.  


As recently as 2017, the majority of the Polaris board, executive team and staff were white. We now have mostly minority board, executive team and staff, and include survivors on our board, on our advisory council and on staff.

That was very intentional, but only the first step in terms of having the right voices in the room – the informed voices, the expert voices who can speak to both their lived experience and the vulnerabilities they experience every day. So that was an important step to right ourselves and centre the folks we serve.

The next big step is around our fundraising communications. As of last year, we’ve constituted a new advisory council that is majority survivors with lived experience.

And we are in the process of building a structured feedback loop and accountability mechanism with survivors so that our language remains true to their experience and our values. [We are implementing] concrete steps of engaging survivors and victims in language creation, and testing it versus the [traditional] proven fundraising practices that we all know work.

That’s what our work is this year – to AB test proven messages against the direction we want to go in; a direction that really promotes our values, that centres survivors and that paints the picture for a more just and equitable world tomorrow. 

[F&P note: read more about centring service users in fundraising here].


The very first thing I did when I joined the Sierra Club almost two years ago was look around at who my peers were, and to take a look at the executive leadership team and who was on my team and in my department. And I very quickly realised that the diversity, equity and justice ‘problem’ the organisation was trying to solve is rampant. How you structure your teams, who you designate as a leader, who you give official titles to – all of that matters.  

So, I like to say that my being here and being in a position of leadership in this organisation is change. I’m the first woman of colour to hold this role, to lead the digital department, to be the most senior technologist in the organisation. And that stuff really matters, because it’s not just something to be proud of, but it’s also that my experience, my point of view, and my lived experiences all contribute to the way that I think about the work.  

My very first task was redesigning and restructuring my department, and we’re still in that process. This is happening across the organisation. I would say that, over the last five years, the Sierra Club executive leadership team has transitioned from a mostly white, mostly male team to a team that’s comprised of the emerging majority, with many women of colour. The organisation is going through its own metamorphosis.

And how does this all tie into fundraising? I like to say that however your organisation is on the inside will reflect on the outside.

If you’re on our email list, you would have seen a shift in our communication and the way we talk about our work. Instead of embodying the saviour mentality of “please donate to indigenous communities because they need our help”, it’s actually centring indigenous voices and partnering with indigenous communities and other communities across the country. It’s really thinking about putting ourselves in the background instead of the foreground, and the very slow and painful process of getting our members and staff to understand that if we make ourselves irrelevant in 25 years, we’ve done our jobs. 


So how does technology fit into this?  


When I joined Polaris a year ago, I found that we had two CRMs that didn’t talk to one another. If your goal is to bring your supporters along on a values-driven journey, you really need to understand what it is they care about and to speak to them in terms they understand. So, given our long partnership with Salesforce, we decided to consolidate two CRMs into one on Salesforce, and we use some Salesforce native products to help us better understand our existing and new supporters, segment them, cultivate them and bring them on this values-driven journey in a way that hopefully resonates with what they care about.  


I would agree and say technology has everything to do with values. Technology is not values neutral – we as consumers and managers of technology apply values to it. So, in order to build power for our people, technology can be an immense force multiplier and we have to really think about how we’re using our technology responsibly, equitably and efficiently.  


This is a huge body of work that takes on fundraising, DEI and the intersection of the two. As we close, I would love for you to share just one of the most important lessons or learnings you’ve had on this journey.   


I like to talk about money and there’s a lot of discussion in the progressive space around good money, bad money, the right donors, the wrong donors. And in the environmental space, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance around whose money to accept. If we can all just agree that billionaires shouldn’t exist and that we’re actually going to take their money and redirect those funds towards our communities and the causes that we care about, then we’re having a different [better] conversation. 

Money and fundraising is something that people are really uncomfortable about. It’s one of the most taboo topics in American culture. So really redefining the playing field that we’re all on is important, and then we can actually talk about why it is that we’re raising money, who we’re raising it for, and what we’re trying to accomplish, which I think can often get lost in some of our conversations around fundraising.  

So I would say the learning for me is not judging different campaigns or sources of funding, but instead thinking about how we’re getting to our end goal, which is to end in climate change, and not to be alarmist but to paint a picture of a hopeful future so that everyone can see their stake and join us in the fight.  


Here here Deepa! [At Polaris it is] exactly the same in terms of the socio-economic systems that make people vulnerable in the first place. We make a point not to commodify our survivors and their stories, [especially] because money is part of the root of what makes people vulnerable to trafficking in the first place.  

So how do we raise money in a way that centres survivors, empowers them, leverages their expertise and puts them front and centre? I think Deepa and I are trying to shake things up by creating a new paradigm that questions what [traditionally] works in nonprofit fundraising. And part of that is painting the picture of what tomorrow could look like so that people engage in, donate and aspire to reach it today.


To access the content from the Nonprofit Summit 2022, click here (please note this link will redirect after 27 May, but will still work). 

If you had already registered for the Nonprofit Summit and would like to go directly to the DEI-driven fundraising webinar, click here

To watch F&P’s recent Tech Thursday webinar with on the topic of Ethical Marketing & Fundraising, click here

To read our recent article, You’ve been framed – the ethics of storytelling in fundraising, which includes a link to Rogare’s extensive body of work on the subject, click here

To learn more about an example of a nonprofit putting their service user voice front and centre, read about the National Justice Project here.   

To read about June Steward’s take on white saviourism, click here (F&P subscriber article).  

To hear more about ethics in fundraising, join June Steward and Karen McComiskey for their session 7 Ethical Dilemmas and How to Navigate Them  at the Fundraising Forum 2022 from 30 August – 1 September in Sydney.

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