Imperfect Allies

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The great theologian Dave Chappelle introduced a concept that made me laugh out loud when he spoke about imperfect allies. In his most recent special, he offers a poignant description of not understanding some of the differences in societal demographics and ended with his personal truth on the matter. Is it possible in our faith communities to be honest about the things we don’t understand? He repeatedly said, “I don’t want to harm you. I want to support you. I just don’t understand you.” I believe we should do a lot more earnest laughing about our own discomfort about diversity in giving. At the very least, a heartfelt response is authentic.

Since I heard the Chappelle special, I have spoken of this concept in workshops and seminars about stewardship and development at a Unitarian Universalist conference, as a presenter for the Association of Theological Schools Development Conference, and in partnership with one of my favorite Methodist colleagues. How is it possible we pick the least diverse people to teach about diversity? I do not understand the phenomenon. Oftentimes, the topic of diversity is an uncomfortable subject when the realities of changing U.S. demographics are contrasted with traditional philanthropy which doesn’t reflect those changes. Philanthropy today looks like America 25 years ago.[1] It is really difficult to deal with diversity in giving when we are not capable of addressing our own emotions and discomfort around differences. We may articulate that we share the same faith, but we are often imperfect allies.

Organizations and institutions seek a broad understanding of the inherent opportunities and historical challenges found in identifying, engaging, cultivating and retaining diverse donor and volunteer audiences. The challenges have typically resulted from a lack of experience with difference and the dearth of diversity in leadership, stewardship or finance. I have stopped teaching those diversity workshops. I have become accustomed to celebrating generosity in its many forms. I teach the core principles that have shaped my career at the intersection of faith and giving; relationships, trust, vision and discipleship development. In the course of those conversations, diversity naturally surfaces as we explore the lingering impact of history, traditions and choices within our communities. I have become increasingly less interested in teaching the Top 10 Action Steps necessary to be more diverse or more inclusive in donor solicitation communities. I think we are asking the wrong questions and focusing our attention on the wrong concepts. There simply is no shortcut guide to building authentic relationships.

If an organization, faith institution, congregation or religiously affiliated non-profit seeks to diversify their funding base, growing in relationship is the best place to start. The vast majority of people evaluate trust before making a charitable gift, and savvy donors evaluate impact, effectiveness, vision and the long-term stability of the organizations with whom their values align. Training organizations to diversify leadership boards, executive staff, marketing materials, photos on their website and approaches to “the ask” are merely tactical answers to more complex strategic questions. True interest in diversity must permeate ministry and decision-making structures and inhabit our spiritual practices, as well as resonate with our core purpose.

Technical solutions are not sustainable unless organizations who serve and support our institutions prioritize a commitment to the world that truly exists. In 2012 W.K. Kellogg Foundation published Cultures of Giving: Energizing and Expanding Philanthropy By and For Communities of Color.[2] The study should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the broad diversity that exists in the world of philanthropy. Kellogg’s core findings offer what I believe are undeniable reasons for why the church and faith-based institutions must closely examine their beliefs, practices and goals regarding diversity.

  • The face of philanthropy is rapidly changing to become as ethnically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse as our country’s population.
  • Philanthropy is being expressed in communities of color in a multitude of ways that are not always recognized, counted, or valued as philanthropy—but identity-based funds are starting to boost that visibility.
  • Surprisingly little is known or understood about the scope, breadth, and depth of identity-based philanthropy or how best to support it.
  • No matter which community they served or what social change issues they addressed, nearly all identity-based funds and their supporting organizations face similar challenges and opportunities—both of which are considerable.

Often, we celebrate and bring witness to the people who benefit from charitable gifts. Communities are accustomed to highlighting mission work and those who benefit from our good acts. We are far less accustomed to bringing attention to the joy experienced by the donor, or the story behind the generosity and life lessons that have led to the givers faith-filled investment. It is nearly unheard of to explore ways that people of faith are generous givers outside of the church. If we are to truly understand the role of diversity within our communities, I believe that giving and generosity are not the topics that will begin the conversation; truth and relationship are.

Mission leads to money, no matter what context you place around this truth. People are motivated to give when there is something that deeply aligns with who they are, who they aspire to be or the pursuit of the world we believe can and should exist. To experience diversity in giving, we must be prepared to embrace everyone in their entirety, not because of their gift capacity, but because of their potential alignment with the values and beliefs that drive every aspect of our work. When we are our best selves, we recognize our limitations and seek conversation partners that can help us to unearth our blind spots, and ultimately to grow. Diversity in giving is no different.

Theology is faith seeking understanding. Philanthropy is love of humankind. Diversity in giving is an invitation into relationship with diverse constituencies. There is no effective way to welcome new resources and charitable gifts unless you are open to welcoming new feedback, critique and the inevitable differences that will surface. As densely layered people, we have the opportunity to share our gifts in meaningful ways. Our embrace of imperfect allies provides an opportunity to authentically grow alongside one another. Funding priorities, volunteer momentum and ministry engagement reflect the heart and passion of people in relationship. The more we know about one another, the more we are able to come alongside one another in meaningful ways.

  •  Are you looking for ways to diversify your funding streams?
  • Do you recognize that your financial support is demographically monotonous?
  • Is there untapped potential in your pew and your community?

We can all identify gaps in relationship. Our faith communities are filled with imperfect allies. As we live our faith, we have a tremendous opportunity to expand our conversation partners. We can choose to move beyond the surface to the significant. Where do we start? Consider completing a devotional together. Invite new participants to a book study. Pick a devotional or book by an author that reflects the demographic that you aspire to grow with. Invite someone new to breakfast, coffee, lunch or dinner. Speak to new people in and around your faith community. 

Relationship is the key.

When we embrace an inclusive community, where there is more attention to learning more about one another, we are best prepared to diversify giving. People in relationship, people of faith, people who share values, and people who are open about what they do and do not understand – are ambassadors for a different level of connectivity amongst one another. By being imperfect allies, we may indeed be perfect prospects for generous giving.

[1] Blackbaud Diversity in Giving Study, 2015.

[2] W.K.Kellogg Foundation White Paper, Cultures of Giving: Energizing and Expanding Philanthropy by and for communities of color, 2012. r.

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