No strings donations: Breaking the cycle of privilege’s rules

A few months ago as I was walking with a friend, she was telling me about people in her home country who had even less money than she does. She was telling me about them because I had given her some money and she wanted to tell me about who the money was helping. I had a physiological response to her sharing the details of this with me. I desperately wanted her to stop. I’m still confused by this response, but am going to tease out some aspects of it here.

On the one hand, I come from a culture where we “don’t talk about money.” Talking about money signals a crassness, or, more accurately, a lack of the right kind of culture. While I didn’t grow up with enormous wealth, I grew up with people who did and I learned their language. I learned enough to know what it would take to be a part of their circles. I spoke their language with varying degrees of success.

As I’ve been practicing recovering from my addiction to whiteness, I’ve become more aware of all of the unwritten rules of speaking the language of class—and this is a cross-racial issue, though white people are more likely to be very wealthy and it’s white people I’ve known in this socioeconomic class. I wasn’t even aware that the rules were woven into me. They dictated how I moved in the world, and to a large extent they still have an impact. Even just thinking about writing this post made me feel tension in my gut, like I might be doing something shameful. I’ll get in trouble. I’ll lose access to networks. I’m not sure what else I’m afraid of, but my body has me on alert. I’m breaking a class rule, even though I’m not a part of that Super Rich class. I’m talking about money and I’m talking about the language of the moneyed class.

Another reason I flinched when my friend told me about the good results of the money I shared was because I didn’t want to feel like there were any strings attached to my gift to her. People in the upper socioeconomic classes frequently ask organizations and individuals to “sing for their supper.” I didn’t want to be one of those people. I gave the money to my friend because I had it to spare and wanted to share it.

Donors to nonprofit organizations or individuals can be very controlling about their donations. I’ve seen donors ask that recipients of financial assistance write thank-you notes to trustees, for example. Maybe that seems harmless to you, but what it does is enforce the power imbalance. You (recipient of funds) are beholden to me (donator). Individual donors often require special meetings with nonprofit management before they will make donations, too. In fact, this is very common. It’s a part of the donation process most people don’t even question. Executives in nonprofits regularly need to “court” wealthy donors. What is this courting process?

In my experience, when someone donates money but wants to be sure they have a say in how it’s used, there’s a level of white supremacy culture that is playing a part. As a white person who comes from a background of financial stability I have recently uncovered fear that real justice will mean I have to give away all of my family’s money. I have only begun touching on this fear in an embodied way. (My personal bank balances don’t show a whole lot of money to lose.) The fear lives at a deep, deep level. Existential. Cellular. I understand the urge to want to control what happens to money I donate. I think that’s why my friend describing the use of the money made me so uncomfortable. When I share money, I want to do it differently than whiteness wants me to. When I share money I do so with trust that the recipient will know best how to use it.

If you are among the class of people who has the option to share your financial resources, what do you expect of recipients? Do you trust them to use the money you share in a way that will have the most impact? If you don’t trust them, why don’t you? Are you asking people or organizations to sing for their supper? If you are, what need are you really trying to meet?

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3 thoughts on “No strings donations: Breaking the cycle of privilege’s rules”

  1. This piece resonates as I was also just reading Vu Le’s Nonprofit AF’s post: ‘How “strategic philanthropy” has harmed our sector, and why it refuses to die’ from November 28th, which looks at all of the strings attached to money in the nonprofit/philanthropy world. Your line about trusting the person is so important and made me also think of the efforts that the Trust Based Philanthropy Project is taking to address the inherent power imbalances at that level. I don’t have much to share, but on an individual level, I do trust that the people I share with will use the money in the way that has the most impact, I just need to keep pushing and challenging others on a professional level as well. Thank you for the thought provoking post and thank you to the whole BGIM team for your important work!

  2. Your post hits a sweet spot. Neither grandmother finished high school – both parents did – but with 5 children to raise my childhood was quite a scramble. Hand-sewn clothes (otherwise known as haute couture), warm home and regular meals, but no vacations or extras like school friends had. I never think about where my money goes. I buy groceries for the folks in front or behind in line, donate to organizations that aren’t even where I live (south side Chicago, Navajo (buy lots of girl scout cookies to donate), and my favorite – treating students on my campus to a free lunch. I show up, give my card to the cashier and the next 10-15 through eat/drink on me! I helped start a pantry called Circle of Love in the previous town where I lived for 26 years. Dignity items such as baby diapers, incontinent products and feminine hygiene items are all very expensive and not covered by SNAP or benefits; also rarely donated to food pantries. Someone commented on how pricey the items were and she “bet that they were sold on the streets for drug money”. I just thought what a cold hard heart she had and never gave her comment any weight. These are dignity items! How do you go to work, or be a care giver, or live a life without those products? I try not to think whether I have “enough” for retirement. I live well, have health and family, and money will come and go. Keep up the good work I’m a subscriber and like how my money is spent 🙂

  3. Agreed! However, when I donate to a predominately white organization (which I rarely do these days,) I do designate that my donation be applied to specific programs that focus on reducing the effects of systemic and organizational racism. It is one of the ways I send a clear message of support for changing priorities.

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