Your donor makes a prejudiced remark – do you know what to do?

by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

Have you ever encountered one of these situations?

* A parent hands his dirty plate to another guest at your private school reception, saying “you can take this, I’m finished” – assuming that this person of color must be the hired help.

* During an event committee meeting, a prominent community leader concurs with a recommended host couple because they’re not like the others of that heritage “who wear all that flashy gold jewelry.”

* Your development director is asked to stay in the foyer to register rather than mingle with the guests – because the exclusive private club your major supporter chose as the venue doesn’t admit individuals of “her persuasion.”

In my 20+ years as a fundraiser, I don’t remember any training program addressing real incidents like these. What do you do when a prospect or donor acts like a bigot in your presence?

“What’s most amazing,” observes Anita K. Brower, CFRE, Director of Development for Howard University, “is that we are so unprepared.” According to, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “every day somewhere in the United States, at least eight blacks, three whites, three gays, three Jews and one Latino become hate crime victims. Each week, a cross is burned.”

What runs through a fundraiser’s head when someone says something offensive in this way?

* If I voice my discomfort with the remark, will I alienate a longtime supporter?
* If I say something, do I place my own job at risk?
* Yet, by not responding, am I signaling that I concur with the prejudice?

To complicate the situation, imagine the remark made in the presence of another donor who is part of the ethnic group being maligned. By not speaking up, are you also risking this individual’s support?

So what should you do?

Charles R. Stephens, CFRE, Managing Partner, Atlanta, and Director with the fundraising consulting firm Skystone Ryan, was the first person of color to serve as the board chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Charles shared with me the one time that he experienced a major gift prospect making a disparaging remark. Here’s how he handled it:

“I told the individual that his comment made me quite uncomfortable. Then I explained the reasons why. The person apologized for the remark and our relationship continued.”

“If I felt that the individual didn’t feel that the remark was offensive and stood by what he said, I probably would have thanked him for his time and ended the meeting. To me, philanthropy and diversity are co-dependent. It is impossible in my mind to respect philanthropy and not embrace diversity. This is clearly a case where ethics and morality can override a fundraiser’s responsibility to their employer. I just can’t separate the cause from my commitment to inclusiveness.”

Having unthinkingly offended a colleague myself, I can personally appreciate Charles’s approach to give the offender the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to apologize.

Fundraising consultant Sue Smith, related that she has encountered bigoted speech or sexist actions on several occasions. On one occasion when a donor made a particularly nasty slur aimed at her ethnic group, she politely “told the donor that I am [of that heritage] and that if he would rather speak to someone else in the future I could arrange that” and then didn’t work with that donor again. Sue knew she would have gotten nowhere with that donor if she had continued to work with him. In similar situations, Sue says: “I find that you can say almost anything if you have a smile on your face, your voice is well modulated and you remain in control.”

Sometimes it makes sense for others to intervene, as in this case described by fundraising consultant Jane Tennen. During a board meeting for a new client, a powerful trustee made a sweeping comment about members of Jane’s religious faith. Jane recounted the incident to the nonprofit’s executive director who subsequently asked a senior fellow trustee to call the woman to discuss the incident. The trustee explained that she had not intended any offense and was just using the group as an example of the diversity desired. The woman conveyed her apologies through her colleague. No offensive remarks were ever made again.

While a few fundraisers I spoke to felt that there were times that it was better to just ignore the remark, most diversity experts agree that it is important to speak out and interrupt slurs or hateful speech.

For many fundraisers, as Charles Stephens pointed out, philanthropy embraces a welcoming world of inclusion and respect for one another. As philanthropists ourselves, an incident of bigoted speech presents an opportunity to interrupt the spread of slurs and prejudiced beliefs. We may not be able to change another’s long-held beliefs, but we can learn from the situation and reaffirm our values within our own organizations.

Those of us who are not part of a group being demeaned are especially important allies for those subject to prejudice. While an incident may feel very small, it contributes to a climate of intimidation and exclusion. Silence condones, or appears to signal agreement, with the derogatory remark.

But realistically, what can you do?

Diversity specialist, Judith Kaye of Judith Kaye Training & Consulting, advises that the first thing to do is to take care of yourself. If you are so emotionally charged by the incident, it is unlikely that you will be able to react effectively. Sometimes it makes sense to respond later when you are more in control of your own emotions.

In many cases, the comment is most likely a prejudiced, unthinking remark, fueled by ignorance. Consider this one of those teaching moments and yourself an educator, much the same as you are an educator for your organization when you are serving as a fundraiser. While you may never change the individual’s beliefs, you may open the door a crack to influence their thinking, or at least their behavior.

Raise the issue using words that Judith describes as “staking in the relationship.” For example, “I really value our relationship and I am concerned when I hear you say…” Or, “I know that you care so deeply about this organization that I wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of our working together.” Calmly express your discomfort with the remark using “I” statements and state the reasons why you found the remark offensive. Judith points out the power of Charles Stephens’s approach. “Mr. Stephens took responsibility for how these comments made him feel. He didn’t generalize, didn’t attack and gave some reasons for his feelings. All are excellent approaches. It is much easier for people to take in the feedback when they know why you feel the way you do.”

If the person made an unthinking remark, you are likely to receive an apology. Then move on to the work that you came to do. Handled well, you have not necessarily closed the door on your relationship and the opportunity for a gift, though there is always that risk.

According to Judith, a situation like Jane’s might present the opportunity for a group to dissect stereotypes and challenge themselves to learn more about the history and culture of groups with which they are not familiar. One response might be, “it’s important that we be accurate when we make cultural generalizations. Let’s explore that comment further.” Jane points out that this is easier to do when you have been working together for a while.

If the comment was made in a group, it is helpful to pull the person aside and share your comments privately and directly. In her article “Stopping Hateful Language: it begins with us,” Karen Pace, Diversity Specialist at Michigan State University Extension, writes that: “your goal should be to educate and challenge, rather than to embarrass. However, if a racist, hateful comment is made in a public meeting, it’s important that the whole group hear your thoughts.”

Be prepared for an incident like this.

I hope that you never encounter such a situation. Unfortunately, as Anita Brower pointed out, it happens frequently enough that it makes sense to prepare for the eventuality that something like this might happen to you. Here are a few steps you can take:

Talk the hypothetical over with your Executive Director and Board. Understand how your mission and values reinforce inclusion for your organization. While common sense will always prevail in the moment, it helps to have an official policy that provides guidance for your actions. It is especially important that your leadership is in agreement when it is okay to walk away from a donor and a gift.

It takes a great deal of courage to speak up in the face of bigoted remarks, especially when the individual making the remarks is wealthy and influential in the community. You can fortify your courage with a little practice.

Unfortunately, everyday life presents us with plenty of opportunities to speak up against prejudice. Judith Kaye suggests picking some easy situations first (perhaps when a good friend makes an ethnic joke) to practice the approaches described above. In this way, you’ll be better prepared to handle a situation like the ones described in this article.

Remember, your intent is to interrupt the spread of bigoted speech, reaffirm your personal and organizational values, and then move on without alienating the individual from your organization. This is an extremely difficult assignment when the individual is a current or prospective donor. There are no right answers for every situation.

Humor and empathy can help. When naively told by a donor and friend that “your people need to get over talking about the holocaust all the time,” fundraiser Steve Sorin replied with humor and a smile, “the next time I see ?my people,’ I’ll be sure to tell them what you think.” This resulted in a good chuckle shared by both parties.

As fundraising professionals, it is important that we bring this topic out into the open and incorporate it into our training sessions. Someday, we may all live in a world where each person truly loves their neighbor and lives in peaceful harmony. Until then, let’s resolve to be better prepared to do our small part to build the world of our dreams.

My special thanks to everyone who bravely shared their personal stories and contributed to this article. I would be interested in learning more about the types of situations you have experienced and how you handled them. Just drop me an email at

In peace, Gayle

A prior version of this article first appeared in 2003 in Major Gifts Review at
Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.