Fundraising Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair
Chapter Leadership Brief 02.24.2023
By Melissa A. Benjamin
Director of Development
Fiver Children’s Foundation
As we near the end of Black History month, I decided to revisit one of my favorite writers, Langston Hughes. His poem, “Mother to Son” has always resonated with me, but in reflecting on the past fifteen years of my fundraising career, it feels even more poignant. If you’re not familiar with this poem, see below:
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
If you ask anyone who does fundraising for a living, they will tell you that it isn’t easy. The inherent challenges of convincing an individual, company, or foundation to give your organization money comes with many late nights, lots of writing and editing, crafting plans for board members, and so much more. Even when you do your very best work, you still might not get the donations you are seeking. However, over the course of my career, I have found that these experiences were just an added layer to much larger elephants in the room—imposter syndrome and difficult relationships with money, just to name a few.
I felt like I was the only person I knew who did fundraising for a living.
I spent most of my formative years as a working fundraising professional feeling alone. None of my friends did what I did for a living, so when I would try to explain the challenges I encountered, they didn’t understand. Several even encouraged me to apply for different jobs in the for-profit sector. My family thought I should stop fundraising and try wedding planning or other kinds of event work instead of pursuing my master’s in public administration. I didn’t have a network of fundraisers of any kind, let alone fundraisers who looked like me.
Organizations like AFP in theory seemed like the natural place to solve that issue, but the cost of membership meant that I couldn’t be a member unless my employer paid for me. So, with little support from those around me, I forged ahead, attending grad school at night while working my full-time special events role at a nonprofit during the day.
Fundraising Makes You Confront Your Own Relationship with Money.
There’s a challenging dynamic for many fundraisers of color when it comes to money. For most of my career, the organizations I’ve worked for served Black and Brown communities here in New York City who have been systemically under-resourced in a variety of ways—from lack of access to educational resources, food insecurity, lack of access to legal representation, etc. It was easy for me to identify with our clients because my family was one of those clients. As an alum of a mentoring youth development organization myself, I am living proof of the positive impact organizations can have on a young person’s life. The intervention of local nonprofits supported my single-parent household, and connected us to several resources as I applied for and got accepted to college.
As a child of an immigrant mother, money was something we didn’t discuss often, and when we did it was because we lacked it oftentimes. The taboo nature of money meant that for years I was afraid to discuss it and was uninformed on how to best manage it once I began working. When I began fundraising, I was surrounded by and asking for the very thing I was raised to not ask questions about.
Imposter Syndrome Interrupted My Confidence.
The wealth I was around at work was daunting at times. Board members would host meetings to plan a gala in their palatial and well-appointed Upper East Side homes (I’d be there to take meeting minutes while my director led the agenda), and then I’d travel back to my cramped basement apartment deep in Brooklyn. Neither space was bad, but one was certainly nicer. I recall a time when the organization I worked for was comped two tickets to a foundation funder’s gala at The Plaza Hotel. I had just paid rent, student loans, and utilities, and was told the event was black tie. I probably should have told my manager I couldn’t attend, but I was embarrassed to admit I couldn’t afford to buy a dress for the event. I went to JC Penney, bought a dress, and tucked in the tags. For the entire night, I felt the tags scratch the inside of my arm, a reminder that the dress didn’t belong to me, and that I didn’t feel like I belonged in that space.
I don’t have an answer for how to not feel that way anymore. Even as my salary has increased over time, I sometimes still feel that twinge of imposter syndrome reminding me that while I may be in a leadership role today, that somehow I’m still less than and inadequate.
I’se still a climbin’.
I decided to share this lived experience because I know many fundraisers like me have had to battle with (and maybe still battle with) similar experiences in order to do this work. I don’t share these experiences to seek pity or apologies, rather, I want to highlight these inequitable and at times painful experiences because this sector needs to be a lot better to the people who serve it and help to resource it, especially BIPOC/LGBTQ+ and other underestimated identities.
I do see changes that make me feel encouraged. I have worked for the past four and a half years at Fiver Children’s Foundation, where me and my colleagues’ professional development is a priority of my Executive Director. And the same AFP chapter I couldn’t afford to join years ago is now a place I am starting to call home. My organization sponsors my membership, and I am a member of the chapter’s board of directors, serving on the professional advancement and audit committees, and volunteering as a career mentor to a fellow fundraiser. My hope is that through my involvement, our chapter will continue to evolve and support all fundraisers, but especially those who look like me and come from similar backgrounds. I no longer feel alone in my career and have made a personal commitment to supporting fundraisers who are new to the field so that they don’t feel the way I did when I started in 2007.
There’s still a lot that can be done, but I encourage anyone in the space of supporting fundraisers of color to listen, leverage your privilege where you can to advocate for equity and inclusion, and support efforts to spotlight the expertise and knowledge that exists in fundraisers like me.