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podcast: engaging equity-seeking populations with Andrea Gunraj

Do you work with equity-seeking populations? Is your organization on the front-line of social justice change? So often we see our values challenged in traditional fundraising and communications and don’t know how to reconcile our need to fundraise effectively with our beliefs and values. The good news is that we can still be powerful communicators and respect, honour, and empower the equity-seeking populations we work with.

In this episode, Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, teaches us all about recognizing our bias, rethinking our storytelling and engagement strategies, and how to ensure our organization is reflective of the communities we serve.

engaging with equity-seeking populations

Working in a small nonprofit often means engaging with people from all kinds of diverse groups, particularly those who might experience things like racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and many others. How do we interact with people from these communities in a way that doesn’t further oppress and marginalize them?

unintentional bias in the charitable sector

Unintentional bias is a hidden issue that comes up in the charitable sector. Often, we see many campaigns that showcase the story of something negative that has happened. Then the donor or supporter funds the solution. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this campaign. However, the issue lies in the way the problem is framed.

For example, a story featuring an immigrant coming to Canada and goes through a settlement process where a cultural clash happens. This can be the inability to join a community or the process of gaining immigration status. The issue is framed as the person’s culture or immigration status as opposed to the level of support made available for them from the country they’re coming into. Those entering the country may not be given the same support services as those who have been here for a long time.

On the same token, framing the solution in a negative way can also be a problem. For instance, using money as the solution for everything in this scenario is not accurate. Andrea suggests explaining exactly where the money is going towards in order to provide solutions for specific elements of the scenario.

For instance, the money goes towards ensuring that staff is available to provide services in their native language to assist with the immigration process. That way, the solution is catered to specific things that are relevant to them.

If the issue is structural, explain that the money can assist the person right now in this specific way, and explain what the organization is doing with the government to change policies that are specific to those going through the immigration process.

Due to these situations often being complex, there will often be multiple solutions.

how to avoid “poverty porn”

Many of our small nonprofits are in the business of trying to change large systemic issues which can be discouraging and overwhelming. We often resort to telling the “story of one” to encourage supporters to tackle this huge issue - one person at a time. But it can be tempting to exaggerate circumstances.

Be sure to avoid overemphasizing, or what Andrea calls “poverty porn,” when talking about various issues with equity-seeking populations. This means avoiding stereotypical details like a person lying down, shivering on the streets in the rain. While this method does bring in donations, it actually dehumanizes the population you’re seeking to serve. On the other hand, you also can’t avoid giving details otherwise there isn’t really any urgency to help.

Andrea challenges us to find a happy medium between the two, where the specific details of the situation of a unique community are communicated without overusing cliches. That way, if we use a story of one, it remains authentic and meaningful.

explore other ways of storytelling

Storytelling can be a liberation process where it paints a picture of the people you serve and how you make a change that impacts them. Andrea warns us against overusing the story of one too often. We look at things very individualized - something we have trained ourselves to do over many years due to our colonial ties. We do not tend to see ourselves as part of a broader system, but rather, as a singular person pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. This isn’t true.

Instead, push yourself to seek other storytelling methods. Change the expectations and how you frame both the issue and the solution. A great example that Andrea loves is United Way’s campaign that shows you how communities build and support the individual. It shows that funding allows the collective to provide services that help the individual - which makes sense since you aren’t typically funding one person but programs and services that positively change the community and those within it.

beware the saviour complex!

Along with poverty porn, the “saviour complex” is also something that is NOT helpful in our sector. Whether or not we intend to do so, sometimes we pressure our donors to become the saviour of situations that match our causes. Instead of our donors feeling good in stewardship, they feel guilted and forced into helping.

This also taps into other complexes such as white saviour complex, rich saviour complex and the male saviour complex - all of which becomes core to a person’s identity. It can become hard to challenge someone’s identity and point out that their worldview may not be accurate. While they may be achieving good, it can be tough for others to see the ways in which they may do more harm than good.

organizational check-up 101

The first step Andrea suggests is to take a step back and look at everyone in your team. If your team is monocultural and not reflective of the diverse communities you serve, you’re going to have a harder time recognizing your bias. Having different perspectives and experiences will allow your team to find and negotiate those balances.

Diversity in your team also extends to those in leadership positions - right up to your board of directors! This means that your leaders need to be diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, race and reflective of those you serve. By excluding various perspectives in your leadership roles, your storytelling, planning and assets become very limited for no reason.

Ensure that those involved in the process have access to the support they need and are compensated fairly. It’s important that they are gaining value from your organization and are given many opportunities to share ideas. If your organization doesn’t have space, doesn’t consider creating space for these changes, then you’re going to struggle. By hiring them as consultants or leaders, your organization will have better access to inspiring and meaningful material. Those with lived experiences who understand the population you’re serving will keep your messaging authentic and will resonate better with your supporters.

giving everyone a seat at the table

It’s not enough just to hire, but also to develop meaningful relationships within your team. Avoid a situation where it feels like “us” versus “them” in your team by giving everyone an equal opportunity to express ideas and thoughts. When various parts of your organization feel siloed, the cost to your work is significant and undermines your success as a fundraiser, communicator or policy person. If you don’t get it right, this can lead to high fundraiser turnover amongst other issues within our sector.

If fundraisers aren’t aligned with the organizational work, there is a huge disconnect. Combat this by hiring those with crossover backgrounds and providing training opportunities for all staff members. Everyone has a responsibility to coach, mentor and train one another to be and do better. That way, the organization becomes one where they focus on providing support for the individuals they serve as well as those who are hired to serve them.

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The Small Nonprofit is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano