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‘Philanthropy is broken’: How The Stop Community Food Centre is moving away from donor-centric fundraising to prioritize community

This piece was published in The Toronto Star as a condensed version of the essay “The highs and lows of CCF in practice: 9 approaches we’ve championed” as published on the Community-Centric Fundraising website. To read the full piece, click here.

Philanthropy is broken.

About two years ago, I was sitting in a professional fundraising association session. I remember hearing white women discuss how they would approach a donor who had said something racist. Maybe they had a bad day; maybe it would jeopardize the donation; it would be too hard to say something. As a racialized woman, I felt unsafe and unseen, something I have felt many times before in philanthropy.

I have been a professional fundraiser for over a decade, my passion for it growing from my personal use of charitable services and supports. I lived in a World Vision refugee shelter, I skipped school to access food banks, I got help obtaining my citizenship through a 12-year process, I went to church drop-in meals, and received Christmas gifts from strangers. I personally know the deep impact non-profit work can have. We undeniably change the course of people’s lives.

Over the last 18 months at The Stop Community Food Centre — a Toronto mid-sized non-profit that provides emergency food access, community building programs, and urban agriculture — we have worked to audit our fundraising methods and move toward a less problematic approach to philanthropy.

Having seen both sides of charity, I am calling on funders and organizations to rethink the way philanthropy works, to adopt community-centric fundraising (CCF), and to move away from donor-centric fundraising. Many fundraisers recognize that current fundraising practices are harmful and founded on white saviourism, but are unsure how to dismantle oppressive practices; this is how we have approached CCF.

The first thing we did was to reimagine engagement by minimizing transactional recognition for donors. We treat donors not only as funders, but as partners in our work who also benefit from meaningfully supporting the community. We removed online donor walls and eliminated most public recognition for supporters. We now send donors personalized videos, invite them to sign petitions, and provide education on our community’s top public policy concerns.

We don’t shy away from having difficult conversations around the origins of a donor’s wealth, anti-racism and anti-oppression work, systemic barriers, tax evasion, wealth hoarding, white supremacy, power dynamics, and more. Our fundraisers are empowered to end a relationship with a problematic donor or to push back on any problematic notions they present.

Beyond this, we have moved away from elitist events. Only a few years ago our organization raised 25 percent of our revenue through signature events like galas — events that were not designed to include our community. We took the pandemic as an opportunity to pause and rethink why we did events the way we did. Meanwhile, we asked our supporters to make up the revenue gap and they stepped up, leading to an increase in revenue in a year-over-year comparison.

Once we reimagined our donor engagement strategy, we turned to our service users. We surveyed 200 service users on their top public policy priorities to quantify which were the most pressing issues for our organization to tackle. We used this information to advocate publicly, connect with organizations addressing these issues, and send letters to our representatives. We then also piloted our first community fund and asked two donors to give $50,000 — $25,000 that went to our organization, and $25,000 to an organization chosen by our program participants. The organization chosen works to address an identified public policy priority, in this case, affordable housing. Both grants were given without restrictions.

I am sure you are wondering, how has moving away from donor-centric fundraising affected our bottom line? Well, we have had significant successes: this year is our strongest fundraising year ever. We have collaborated with non-profit partners, raised the number of gifts and dollars given, and strengthened our existing partnerships.

It is not always a smooth journey. We have had to reckon with the origins of wealth in a capitalist system, and our role in maintaining or enabling the non-profit industrial complex. We have also had various challenges, such as educating the board and broader organization; identifying ways to make legacy giving more community-centric; and grappling with the fact that although we work hard to ensure our actions are based in equity, our organization does not operate in a bubble.

With the impact fundraisers have every day in the lives of their organization’s service users, it is imperative that we make changes to how we engage donors and service users. We must pursue a more equitable way to tell stories with dignity, engage our audiences and push for systemic change.

Written by our Director of Development and Communications, Maria Rio.