On Donors and Board Members

March 27, 2009

I know, I know – more Honolulu posts promised, and I just haven’t done it yet (haven’t even gotten to the dark side, the real history). But my life is ridiculously busy right now, so I’m doing my best.

I’ll take this moment to reference the sidebar – please read up on the AAYLC, any kind of help would be most appreciated.

In the meantime, I wanted to drop a quick post on an experience I had last night:

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it on this blog, but – on top of teaching – I work for a non-profit youth arts organization (primarily at the camp in the summer, but we run year-round programming in schools, mentoring kids and working with their families, etc.). So – last night – I found myself helping out at a fundraising event.

The event was – basically – a casual (but high-quality) hors d’ouvre-y kind of thing consisting of possible private donors (individuals with money, basically) and board members (also, coincidentally, individuals with money) shmoozing it up, watching a little video about the program, and listening to the founder (and one ex-camper) talk a bit. Relatively small (about 60 people).

So my job was managing the door. Since the event was held in a huge building (our offices are contained within a large advertising firm’s building), we needed folks to help the donors and board members actually GET to the event upstairs. So my job was to greet folks as they came in, and send them to (and help them get on) the employee elevator (which needs an access key), where another staffer would be waiting, to accompany them to the event location.

Easy enough. Except the event, as I mentioned, was in a huge advertising agency building. At the tail end of work hours. So there was a constant flow of people coming and going – ad employees, visitors, etc. So I had to figure out which people were there for the fundraiser, and who weren’t.

That should have made it difficult. Sadly, it wasn’t.

I only asked one person who wasn’t there for the event if they were there for the fundraiser. Every single other individual I was able to pinpoint the second they walked in the door, so I could go up to them and help them before they even asked for help. Every single one.

At this point, you may ask why (or you probably have it figured out)? Why was I able to do that? How? Do I have some incredible powers of intuition or ESP that others do not have?

Nope, I just leaned – heavily – on my own stereotypes of what a “private donor” or “board member” would look like and went with it. And it was 99% accurate, in this case. What was I looking for – more “fancily” dressed (perhaps “elegant” is more accurate – it wasn’t a formal event at all, some people were in sweaters, but there was a particular price-threshold for what people were wearing, regardless of its formality, that I was able to see immediately). Then there was age – I assumed that they would be around 50 and older. I assumed race, as well – but that wasn’t going to keep me from asking folks of color if they seemed to fit the other categories or looked lost.

But I didn’t need to. Because not a single person at the event (with the exception of myself and a couple other staff members) wasn’t white. Not one.

Not surprising, in the least, of course – but not exactly what I wanted to see. Considering the percentage (probably around half) of kids of color that are part of our program , it would have been nice to see a little bit of representation at the highest levels. It’s harder to tell if anybody represented the kids’ socioeconomic class (most from poverty) – I would assume no, but I can’t say for sure that none of the folks that came hadn’t “worked up from nothing.” But knowing how often that actually happens, I have my guesses.

So – another stereotype that I didn’t want reinforced held up to scientific rigour. 100% is pretty significant, statistically-speaking. It’s a stereotype I know I hold – this one consciously – but I constantly hope to be proven an ass on this one; but it has yet to happen. It’s the same with my school – the people that run things are white. Period. And so it’s so hard for me to explain to any of them the importance of real diversity, as well as help them with some cultural competence in how they look at the program, and the changes they choose to make (or not).


But I want to end on a positive note:

At first glance, the founder of the camp (and subsequent programming) would seem like the stereotype, as well. An older white guy with a TON of money (half the people that come to these events are just trying to get near him because he’s so high on the social-status ladder). Further stereotypes would follow, regarding his intentions, what he thinks is important, how he uses his money, etc.

But I am happy to say that that is not the case. He has positive intentions, of course – but we all know how helpful intentions are when poorly carried out. No – importantly – he still has humility, in that, in spite of all these reasons he could feel like he’s a god walking on dirt, he just treats people right. And, even more surprisingly – considering, he is constantly trying to learn and better himself. He’s probably the only person of his status and position that could listen to me do some of my more race-and-class-conscious political poetry at camp (you should have seen some of the “lesser” board members cringe), and I know he’s actually hearing it. He’s come up and talked to me afterwards – not in the manner that uncomfortable white folks with money feel like they have to (“politically correct” and all that), but to delve deeper.

It’s cool. He’s let me and other staff push through changes and have conversations about working with our kids (about class or race) even while he admits that he doesn’t fully understand/agree with it. And that’s really an amazing thing – because, obviously, he has the power to veto everything (it also says a lot that he spends a large portion of the summer at camp with the kids, as opposed to being too “important” to mix it up a little). He’s not perfect, of course – we have our points of contention – but he’s actually trying; and that makes all the difference.

So. That kind of came off like an ass-kissing session there, but I just feel the need to point out the positive when I see it. The instances of hope. The breaking of a stereotype that all too often seems so true. It’s not always about race. Or money. With a little humility and openness, people can transcend those boundaries.

I just wish it happened on a statistically-significant level.



  1. I hear you on this one CVT–I've been to my share of fundraising events–and now that I'm a professor, "dinners" and pretty much I haven't found anyone who has broken my stereotype (which is essentially the stereotype you described).

    But. I have been surprised–just as you were surprised by the founder of the camp.

    By the way, welcome back from Hawaii! And would you mind if I cross-posted to your blog on the stuff about race/sports/art? I'm prepping to do that post, finally, about race & college sports–if you want, feel free to email me at my own blog.

  2. Feel free to cross-post away. I’m looking forward to reading your follow-up.

  3. In my experience, there’s also a selection bias because the tradition of donor events in philanthropy seems to be an American/European thing and white people are more likely to be brought up with that tradition.

  4. Я тоже возьму уж очень интересно.

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