Queer Fundraisers Need You Now


With over 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation proposed in the United States and a travel warning from our Canadian neighbors for LGBTQ+ travelers entering the states, I’m scared for what this means for my front-line fundraising colleagues. 

Front-line fundraisers are representatives of an organization and its mission, passionate advocates who are expected to speak confidently about programs and partnerships while also maintaining a keen sense of self-confidence. At the same time, you are not just a pitchperson for an organization — you are also a person with interests, with a life outside of work, passions, a sense of style, and a charismatic way to communicate. I was taught valuable lessons early, including the power of authenticity in your communications with donors. Yet, the more that I remained in the fundraising space, the more I realized that the way I presented myself influenced how donors began to make judgments about supporting my organization. (That is, of course, not true for every donor, but at the time, that was the culture.)

Some time ago, I was raising money for an arts organization in North Carolina when I met with a donor I had encountered at two previous events. She liked me because we shared similar interests in old movies and classical music. When it came time to discuss her giving, I presumed, because of our casual conversations around interests and passions, that we were comfortable enough that I could mention the boy I was dating. As soon as I did, her tone changed instantly — she stiffened up and pursed her lips. It became uncomfortable. I did not get uncomfortable, she did. Her sentences became monosyllabic, and she looked over my shoulder for the waiter, ending the conversation. She did not even shake my hand when we left the restaurant.

Later, I was told by someone on the board who was close to her that she asked for “someone else” to talk to her from now on. This rejection reflected poorly on my ability as a fundraiser, because how do I explain to the board the sea change I witnessed when I mentioned a boyfriend? She rejected my queerness and identity, and my identity as a fundraiser. It is hard not to internalize that, especially since my job is to be a connector between people and missions. It stunts personal and professional growth when microaggressions like that donor’s are presented, and they created a complex of fear within me. Who was next to do this? My board? The other donors? Suddenly, I felt like I was back in the closet, afraid to come out. The other shoe could drop, all because I was myself. I felt, now, that I had to censor my behaviors, to “straighten up” by acting a bit more heterosexual — dropping my voice, wearing pressed suits all the time, toning down my animated gestures. Changing myself so that I could keep my job.

No one should live in fear or isolation because of these behaviors of others. And my behaviors, too, were influenced by the power dynamics that the organization’s board and leadership had around donors. An organization with a culture of protection would have intervened with the situation and asked me how I could best be supported. Donors who give more or are close to the organization should not hold the power to comment on or evaluate a staff member’s job based on their own personal biases. 

Because of the personal aspect of fundraising, donors want a sense of safety with the person that is asking them for support. The minute they feel uncomfortable, they are altered. In my experience, donors have a tough time separating their own biases against a person’s appearance, race, gender or ethnicity from their relationship with the organization. 

The scarcity mindset among nonprofits contributes to the perpetuation of harmful practices for minority groups and does not distribute power in a fair, equitable way where employees can feel safe to be themselves. With many Southern states being at-will employment states, queer fundraisers may feel threatened to stay in the closet and not bring their full, authentic selves to donor conversations or relationships, which damages staff retention and culture. To walk around confidently and “out” in a region that has proven to discriminate against our community is not a valid option for those who are front-line fundraisers. 

So, then, do we move out of state to New York, San Francisco, somewhere that is more accepting? My question is: Why should we run, period? Organizations and their leadership must be vigilant about protecting LGBTQ+ staff. Equity efforts include the creation of policies protective of LGBTQ+ people at every level of an organization. Managers and leadership must affirm the value of queer-identifying fundraising staff and work on how to identify and talk about boundaries around donor conversations. Every day, queer people face these challenges directly and through microaggressions, and all we desire is for our places of work and our superiors to reach out and say, “We see you and we are here for you... and will support you.” 

I left the South in 2019 to pursue fundraising in Seattle, where, in my work situation, I am supported in being my true, authentic self. This is because my leadership and organization do the work of educating themselves on how harm can be identified in workplace settings and on the responsibility of leadership to ensure the safety for all communities of staff in their organization. My family life has always been a supportive one — no doubt something which helped ground me when I was in North Carolina. Many LGBTQ+ fundraisers in the South are not as lucky and do not have a given family to support them. 

Hiring managers and leadership must stand with their LGBTQ+ fundraising staff during this time of increased discrimination and danger for our community. My hope is that leaders ensure safety through policies and protections in the workplace and advocate to decentralize power from donors and back to the fundraisers themselves to create a more equitable future for communities.

Jackson Cooper is a queer fundraiser based in Seattle, Washington. He currently serves as Major Gifts Manager for Pacific Northwest Ballet and teaches fundraising at Seattle University and UNC-Greensboro. He is the author of the book “A Kids Book About Kindness,” inspired by his life in philanthropy.