From Whole Selves to Deep Relationships – Six Teachings from Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva

Take-aways on every page.

“We are all related, all connected. The Native way is to bring the oppressor into our circle of healing. Healing cannot occur unless everyone is part of the process. Let it begin.” (p.181)

In my first job after graduate school, I coordinated a fundraising campaign supporting social priorities in the Greater Vancouver area that raised over a million dollars over two campaign cycles. After that role, I moved to Toronto, and worked at United Way Toronto supporting community projects in a donor engagement capacity. Because of these experiences, over the past few years I’ve been a part of reviewing grants within different organizational environments. The more I am involved in gathering and disseminating money, the more interested I become in how to do philanthropy well.

So I was thrilled when I came across Edgar Villanueva’s book “Decolonizing Wealth”,  a book that is a clarion call to rethink the way foundations and philanthropic organizations operate, relate to others and seek to create change in the world.  The subtitle of the book: “Indigenous wisdom to heal divides and restore balance” is a theme throughout, and Villanueva’s thoughtful, generous reflections on how we need everyone in order to create a decolonized world left me with softer perspectives, a wider heart and a desire to live my life in deep relationship with others.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section, titled “Where it Hurts”, outlines problems with the philanthropic sector, and evokes slavery with each chapter title to powerfully remind us that wealth in North America is more likely than not created through systems of oppression, and acts of theft and violence. In this section, Villanueva describes how philanthropy itself is based on colonial notions of separation and scarcity, notes that philanthropic organizations typically mirror colonial principles, outlines how funding largely does not reach people of colour, details how philanthropic organizations often do not share power meaningfully with those more marginalized, and critiques the sector for generally not addressing intersectionality well and creating unnecessary barriers to funding through the way applications are administered.

Reading about the pain and problems in the sector, it seems an impossible task to reform philanthropic spaces. But this is a book of hope, and in the second part of the book titled “How to Heal”, Villaneuva outlines seven steps (grieve, apologize, listen, relate, invest, repair) on how to heal and decolonize our relationship with wealth in order to use money for social good. Villanueva’s arguments are compelling, and are supported by the deeply personal stories he shares, his interviews with numerous practitioners in the field, and the scores of articles, books and scholars he references. This book invites readers to read more and there is so much this book offers for its reader to look up and continue learning.

Though this is not an exhaustive list, here are some of my take-aways from the read.

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Change needs Resources – Lessons from Campaign Organizing

Building requires investment

Strong communities require investment (Vancouver Law Courts, BC)

Creating strong communities requires investment. When I finished graduate school, I had an understanding of community development and of social issues, but I didn’t know very much about how to mobilize resources in order to create community change. To change that, for the past year and a half I’ve worked in the non profit sector helping to create safe, healthy and inclusive communities. Coming from a social policy and planning background, I wanted to learn more about how community investment actually happens. In 2012, our campaign team raised over $600,000 for local communities, and in 2013, we’ve raised nearly half a million dollars.

Below, a few basic lessons I’ve learnt over the past 18 months about developing campaigns.

1) Keep exceptional records. Record keeping matters because you need to know your audience and your data. Though I started out as a reluctant learner, I’ve discovered that Excel is my friend, and that the more you know about your donors the better. Whether it’s knowing why donors choose to give or not, or the length of time they’ve been giving, or how their giving amounts increase and decrease over time, all of these things (and much more!) are important to know.

2)  Tailor communications to match donors at different levels. Your high value, leadership donors may want to hear different messages from donors who are just starting out. They may respond to different incentives. Think about what motivates your particular donor group(s) (or desired donor group) and what they care about. Raising funds has to do a lot with storytelling. Tell a genuine story about a problem that needs solving, that has a clear call to action and addresses issues that matter to your donor base. Ensure that you have regular meaningful reminders, but that you aren’t overloading potential donors with too much messaging.

3) In person programming matters. You can’t run a campaign on online/email messaging alone. People often choose to give/become part of a campaign because of a connection they have to a cause in their own lives, the conversations they have in person, and the people they meet at your events. Donor breakfasts and other recognition events matter.

4) Have a plan for the campaign season. It should have peaks that build up over time. Have a communication strategy for your different communication channels that can act as your guide through campaign season. Stories resonate with audiences and are remembered more than specific facts and numbers. (though the hard data is still important).

5) Make sure to follow up. Even when someone has been giving to a cause for a long time, they may forget to give one particular year. Or an email may get lost in their inbox. Or they may mistakenly think they’ve given already. It’s important to follow up – (phone is best) with your high value donors that give regularly. To help organize this follow up, you may want to decide to only follow up with donors who give above a certain level, or have been giving for a certain number of years.

6) Aim to grow your donor base. Can people be cultivated from one level to another? The relationship donors have with the campaign you’re running is not static, and needs cultivation and care. A high value donor is the equivalent of many more smaller gifts and should be your ultimate goal. If someone is giving $100/yr now, have a goal of growing their contributions over time. There may be specific incentives that may help with this process, such as invitation to a certain event, a gift matching program or a draw for prizes..

7) Relationships and emotional connection to a campaign matter.  In a climate of increasingly online giving, it’s easy to forget about the individual ask. The most successful asks are often 1-1 to people that you know. Help people become comfortable in asking people in their own network to get involved. Be focused on your ask. Your most likely audience are people who are connected to your issue for a particular reason.

8) You need to know the specificity of your context. Recognition celebrations matter, but you need to know what works for your donor group. Some people want to be thanked extensively, some people don’t like to be thanked at all, and prefer to be more anonymous in their giving habits. People from different professions and life stages may connect with different messages differently. Filter “best practices’ advice through your knowledge of the audience you are trying to connect with.

9) Stay fresh and consistent. Try new things. Change the look of your campaigns. Experiment with new ideas.

10) User experience matters – how do people want to donate? Who is it that people are connecting with when they send an email/make a phone call?  Is it easy to go from ‘a feeling of wanting to get involved” to actually making a commitment? Are your websites easy to navigate?

11) The little things matter. Send a thank you letter (by post!) to every donor. Cultivate a relationship over time.

12) Stay humble, and know that results do not lie in your control.