A better world through fundraising

CN: ableism, abliest language

I don’t write much about fundraising.

Ok, I don’t write much about anything these days, but if I were writing, fundraising wouldn’t be the topic I would choose to write about often, if at all, despite being in the profession since Clinton’s second term.

I do, however, think about charities a lot. And not just the ones I work for.

When my son was diagnosed as being autistic, I started to encounter charities that made my skin crawl at the messages they peddled. It was only seeking out actually autistic adults that made me realize the depth of misery some of these charities were creating. Words like abuse and eugenics popped up a lot.

And then a year ago, I saw an ad from Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto that screamed ableism and opportunism.

I dreaded watching the VS ad other fundraisers were raving about because I heard that autism was referenced in it. When I finally did watch it, there was nothing positive about autistic people. In fact, it struck me that the mention of it was just thrown in to attract attention.

I vented about the ad on social media and at AFP* Toronto’s annual Congress. I started a couple of blog posts, but I just couldn’t get to the point of publishing them.

*AFP is the Association of Fundraising Professionals and is the professional organization I belong to.

A year has passed and the VS campaign messaging has become even more appalling to me.

I had only negative things to say whenever the Sick Kids campaign popped up and that wasn’t what I wanted to share, but it was often on my mind. Unspoken, trying to get out.

But then 3 things happened in quick succession.

First, I saw some fundraisers promoting an event presented by their company which had the word “savant” in it. For some autistic people and their allies, savant is a slur. It speaks to a greater value that the mere existence of an autistic person doesn’t have. If one is a savant, then one overcomes being autistic, or having no value.

Second, Sick Kids started running Twitter polls asking folks what team they are on. It took the whole competitive angle to a new and disgusting level. What happens if Team Autism gets more votes? Will they get to stay on the island?

Third, my professional organization, AFP Toronto provided me with something that looked like an opportunity to do something positive. They put out a call for proposals for Tough Topics–the things that eat away at fundraisers that never come out in presentations on direct mail, wills, click-through-rates, or being a better leader.

I asked a few people about some ideas I had and took the plunge and submitted a couple of proposals. Aside from a presentation idea about how to treat consultants well (tentatively entitled “The Care and Feeding of Consultants”), there was never much of a fire burning inside me to get in front of a bunch of fundraisers.

The opportunity to address ableism in fundraising sparked more than a bit of a fire.

I met a fundraising student, Liz Chornenki, at Humber at the most recent AFP gathering and heard what she had to say about getting around an event that is supposed to be inclusive. I wanted to co-present with her on one session, because she experiences ableism–especially in the profession–every day. Now, we are listed as presenting a session on ableism. Here’s the proposal for that one:

Unaccommodated: Fundraising and Ableism

Session Description:

Ableism isn’t just about trying to decide between saying differently abled or disabled people, it’s about not incorporating inclusion. While many charities deal with issues relating to ableism, fundraising hasn’t kept up. This session will look at the language we often use, the ways we exclude people from events and giving, and examples of appeals that reinforce stigma and ableism. We’ll also look at the under-representation of disabled people in the fundraising profession. Are we doing everything we can to accommodate people who use mobility devices and communication devices? (For this session, we would like to request a different seating arrangement from the usual one. One with fewer tables with room for people with mobility devices to move freely to any table in the room would be ideal. Also, a format type of other would be useful.)

The other session I proposed is related directly to that Sick Kids ad and agencies of the sort that touch on my son’s life.

Fundraising That Hurts

Session Description:

Fundraising is about changing the world. What happens when it hurts people? This session will explore the stigma reinforced by campaigns from a hospital foundation and a disability-related charity and the community voices raised in opposition to them. During the session, participants will look at the language of framing winning battles against a disease and the role of inspiration porn. It will also look at the movement to make charities operating sheltered workshops increase the sub-minimum wages paid to disabled people.

If either presentation is approved, I’ll be suggesting folks go looking for #actuallyautistic tweets and blogs, as well as post from disabled writers.


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