black lives matter

The way we promote legacies perpetuates white supremacy

The past few weeks have been difficult. Not only are we all trying to make do with the

The past few weeks have been difficult. Not only are we all trying to make do with the current pandemic but the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other black people in the US have sparked protests across the country and around the world.

The wave of consciousness surrounding the systemic racism that exists in our societies has awakened many around the globe. One by one, every company, association, government, service provider, non-profit and NGO has put out a message calling out racism and vowing to take action and bear witness. 

I am not here to publish my own message about how I plan to combat racism, discrimination, and oppression. I feel the values and the way I’ve lived my life speaks for itself. Whether it was starting the first Amnesty International group in high school, interning for a human rights organization in university or through my past board involvement in various nonprofits, I am fully aware of my privilege as a white, cis, female living in Canada (although my family emigrated here from Argentina and have faced some racism growing up).

During Tuesday’s group coaching call as part of my Online Legacy Bootcamp, we started talking about how we market legacies perpetuates white supremacy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking pitchforks and white robes. I’m talking about the systems we create in our organizations to maintain power over black, Indigenous and people of colour. To learn more about this, I strongly recommend you read this article, it certainly opened my eyes.

So what do I mean about legacies promoting white supremacy?

  • A picture is worth a million words

How we market our legacy programs can create an “us and then” sentiment in the words we chose and the images that accompany the copy. Do a quick scan of legacy marketing materials and websites and you will quickly see that the vast majority of pictures that represent the donor are usually white, older individuals. Very seldom will you see pictures depicting legacy donors as being Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latina or any other ethic group. 

Ask yourself, what message does that send to your non-white donors? What message does that say about your organizations’ values?

  • The cultural divide

When talking about legacies and when you create marketing materials, you are probably thinking about society in general’s view of death and dying. If you are working in most western countries, those customs have most likely stemmed from our  European roots and the impact of colonization from the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch.

But what about the death rituals and beliefs of your donors coming from other cultural backgrounds? Have you investigated what their customs are and how you must adapt your approaches accordingly?  

  • The exclusive club

This is the one that makes me the most uncomfortable. In most North American nonprofits, it is customary to create a “legacy society” as a way to recognize and steward donors who have pledged a gift in their will. Their names are listed in annual reports, they get seated at the front of the events, they get exclusive perks for being “part of the club”. The idea is to engage and to inspire other donors to consider a gift in a will. 

I am part of a legacy society in an organization and I have stopped attending the special dinners they hold annually because it simply makes me feel uncomfortable. Why? Because I am sitting there, a privileged white woman, among other privileged and generous white individuals listening to testimonials from people of colour or impoverished families who have been helped by the organization. It makes me feel like an elitist shit (I’m not gonna sugar coat it for you, that’s just how it feels to me).

Granted not every donor will have that kind of reaction but I’d like to think that more and more donors do. 

The path forward …

This is a complex issue but the solutions can be simple as long as we endeavour to dismantle this white supremacy system brick by brick.

Brick 1: review the images you use representing donors and mix it up with people from various cultural backgrounds.

Brick 2: take the time to learn about the death and dying traditions of your non-white donors. A good read is The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.

Brick 3: review your legacy club (if you have one). Examine how you market it, how you treat your donors, what message it gives to your non-white donors.

At the end of the day, our job is to help donors envision themselves as “legacy worthy” and removing that friction opens the door to greater inclusion.

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