An ass of “U” and “Me”

You’re meeting with a nonprofit Board as it tries to establish a mandatory minimum gift by individual Board members.  These meetings are always excruciating because Americans would rather detail their sex lives–honestly!–than talk about money.

But this meeting is about to become doubly excruciating, because the agency in question serves poor people of color and has one or two Board members of color adrift on a milky sea.  Often these Board members have been recruited from institutions in the neighborhood the agency serves–the pastor of a local church, perhaps. 

So no sooner is the toxic monetary topic broached than some well-meaning pale person says, "Well, of course, whatever number we pick we wouldn’t expect Reverend Jones . . . " and then tails off because s/he doesn’t want to say what s/he’s thinking so obviously it could be spotted on Google Earth: " . . . . wouldn’t expect Reverend Jones TO HAVE ANY MONEY BECAUSE HE HAS DARK SKIN AND LIVES/WORKS IN THIS AWFUL NEIGHBORHOOD."

[The Nonprofiteer doesn’t mean to suggest that only agencies serving poor people of color do, or should, have nonwhite Board members.  Rather, she’s trying to give clueless whites the benefit of the doubt.  At a community-based social service agency, white Board members might conceivably think Reverend Jones doesn’t have any money because of the neighborhood he and the agency share.  Whereas at the city’s main art museum, white Board members who hastened to exempt the Reverend from having to make a gift would be proceeding solely and blatantly on the basis of their beliefs about his skin color.]

If the consulting gods are with you, you’ll be spared the necessity of forcing the issue ("You wouldn’t expect Reverend Jones to do what?  And why not?") by that gentleman’s polished pastoral tact.  Reverend Jones, who’s too polite to have said "I’m right here!" when his Board colleagues began talking around and about him instead of to him, will ask, ‘How much money are we talking about, again?" and, once the number is reiterated, nod and say, "That wouldn’t be a problem for me." 

But you can’t always expect to be so lucky; because, again, most people will do whatever they must to avoid talking about money, especially their own.  So any random Reverend Jones–one might almost say any self-preserving Reverend Jones–will most likely keep his mouth shut and enjoy not being pressed for a contribution the way the rest of the Board will and should be.  Because after all, if you’re going to tolerate the costs of your fellows’ racism you might as well enjoy the benefits.

The Nonprofiteer can’t possibly be the only one who understands that we’re talking about literal costs, actual lost gifts, to every charity in America where white people let their racism trump their good sense.

And it goes beyond Boards: friends of friends of ours, who’ve retired very comfortably, observe that local charities never ask them for contributions.  Why?  They’re only guessing that the color of their skin, coupled with the slight drawl that reveals their roots in the South, causes people to assume they’re just "poor country Negroes."  They, like the imaginary Reverend Jones, are gracious about it, but you can tell it sticks in their craws.

So here are some suggestions.  Every Board President should–and if s/he can’t or won’t every Executive Director must–impress upon every member of his/her Board the sacred Nonprofit Syllogism:

All Board members must be treated equally;

Every Board must include members of color;

Therefore, Board members of color must be treated equally. 

Client representatives are an exception to this rule, though the Nonprofiteer strongly suggests that even they be asked to make some contribution–"meaningful to the giver" is the phrase currently popular.  Why?  Mostly because it requires non-client Board members to treat clients as partners instead of supplicants, but also because it makes for a great story when you’re out soliciting.  "100% of our Board gives to support the agency–even the client members!"

If necessary, mention that

  • Not all poor people are black or brown.
  • Not all black or brown people are poor.
  • Most poor people are more generous (by percentage of income) than most rich people–and if that makes you uncomfortable, handle it by giving more yourself not by asking less of others.

If you have indeed recruited people to your Board with some special half-articulated understanding–he’s a community representative; s/he’s from a cooperating nonprofit and has prior fundraising commitments–now’s the time to revisit that understanding.  In a private conversation, those "special cases" will readily agree (at least in principle) that every Board member needs to meet the same standard. 

So ask her to do so.  Don’t just assume she can’t.  There’s a tendency to let one’s prejudices skew the outcome–to try to spare someone the imagined embarrassment of having to say, "I don’t want to do that" by asking them to do something else, something less: "Chair our new Community Advisory Board!  You won’t have to give any money!"

But that’s just compounding the original underestimation of Ms. Special’s capacity–which may well have been based on her race.  Lest you accidentally create a separate-but-unequal Board for people of color, ask her to accept the full range of Board responsibilities, and give her the chance to decline.  If she does, you can always float the Advisory Board idea then–but she won’t.  Because amazingly when you treat people as your full partners, they return the favor.

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3 Responses to “An ass of “U” and “Me””

  1. Shawn Gavin Says:

    You make a compelling point about the blinders we all wear, especially when it comes to race. But isn’t the issue at the heart of your scenario as much about socio-economic status (SES) as it is about race? The thing about Rev. Jones is not that he is African-American but that he is a reverend. It’s not so great a leap for our hapless “milky” board members to assume that he does not have the same financial capacity as the marketing executive sitting next to him in the board room.

    Aside: Sure, it’s true that race does not always correlate to SES. And a note on open-mindedness is always in order. But it’s also true that race all too often correlates very strongly with SES; a situation of which many of the people reading this blog are well aware and are, in fact, actively trying to fix.

    So where does that leave us in your hypothetical? I’d say we need a more nuanced understanding of the board role and of what members bring to the table, both individually and as a whole. We want Rev. Jones on the governing board because he brings a variety of assets (knowledge, creditability; influence); his money just isn’t one of them. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t give a personally significant contribution. Just that we should be as grateful for his $200 as we are for another board member’s $2000. This not about race; we/they ought to extend the same understanding to the white teacher, the Latina nonprofit exec and the Asian small-businesswoman who are on the same board.

    The full partnership you seek is not a matter of some static set of minimum requirements. Rather, it should be a covenant with our board members that they share their talents and treasure in a way that is personally meaningful. This model takes more work on the part of staff and board leaders to implement, but it seems well worth it.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m not sure I’m prepared to concede that “full partnership . . . is not a matter of some static set of minimum requirements.” Board members need to decide what to expect of themselves and then figure out how to find new people from diverse communities from whom those same things can be expected. And among those expectations must be contributions of cold hard cash–without which no agency can function. I don’t think we do anyone a favor by pretending that financial capacity is irrelevant to nonprofit Board membership.

    Again, if we want to invite people to serve in special capacities–community representative, client representative–then it’s clear from the outside that we’ll ask, and expect, something special from them. I just think we should start from the assumption that people who have a passion for an organization and a full-time job (of virtually any description) can be asked to make a $500 annual gift. That’s $10 a week–that’s a grande Starbuck’s every weekday for a year–and most people who want to make your agency a priority can manage that. If they can’t, it’s not clear to me that their appropriate position with your agency is on the Board of Directors.

    And yes, of course, race is often a marker for SES (or, put more bluntly, class) in our society; but I guess I’m making a plea for treating Board recruitment and training as something that’s done by individuals, to individuals, rather than by Demographic #1 to Demographic #2.

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