An image of sparks flying into a dark black sky.
An image of sparks flying into a dark black sky.

After 20 years of being a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Global) I am walking away.

I am tired of fighting a system that doesn’t want to change. I am tired of fighting people who have little or no interest in equity work.

In order to preserve my passion, I must leave AFP.

The door only swings one way, and I will be holding it open if you want to join me. hashtag#fundraising hashtag#racialjustice hashtag#equity

“The passion to change the world flickers in you like a flame, and if you let that go out, you will be robbing the world of your greatest gift. Your task today is not to know what the future holds; your task is to protect that flame.” – Civil rights leader, lawyer, activist and author, Valarie Kaur

I feel I am losing my passion – the flame is burning out.

For five years I have used the passion inside me to try an enact change in the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Global) with varying levels of success. But systems change is difficult, especially when people responsible for these systems have very little – or frankly no – desire to change.

It’s time for me to walk away.

It’s not easy for me to walk away because I am an Aries – the fire sign. As my friend Mazarine Treyz once said, “what I love about an Aries – they see the drama and say ‘ is this a private fight or can anyone join in?'”

I love to fight a good fight. I will be the first one to show up and speak out when it feels true to who I am and what I believe in. I have no fear of being vocal and outspoken and I am prepared to live with the consequences of doing so. That means that a lot of people see what I do, but they really do not know who I am.

My words are infamous, but my vulnerability is not.

My two core values are wholeheartedness and commitment. When I lean into my core values I am transparent and vulnerable. When I engage in “slippery” behaviours I live outside of my values and I demonstrate a sense of moral superiority, which causes me deflect responsibility. It’s so much easier to let the slippery behaviours take a hold of me rather than focus on living my core values with integrity. Finger-pointing and blaming may lead to  justice, but they are destructive methods, leading to notoriety only.  They are not the behaviours of a well-balanced soul. I feel like cannon-fodder, throwing myself on grenade after grenade with no sense of positionality or real sense of purpose. This has had an emotional and physical toll on me.

I have spent too many times throwing myself into battles with AFP and I am tired.

I am tired of being tired, and it’s time for things to change.

In early April, I attended the 2024 Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Global) ICON conference to support my friends Birgit Smith Burton (the first Black woman to chair our professional association) and Nneka Allen, CFRE, COC, PCC. After four years of fighting for justice and experiencing anti-Black racism as a board member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Toronto Chapter , Nneka would be on stage interviewing Pulitzer prize winning journalist and author, Nikole Hannah-Jones. This was an important time to show up and be present as two Black women I love and admire stepped into their power on stage in front of our peers.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the main auditorium in the Toronto Convention Centre was that the seats allocated for Black members in attendance were located to the far right-hand of the stage. The visual was alarming as it felt like the conference organizers were literally and figuratively pushing Black folx aside to ensure the sector “leadership” could maintain their position front and centre. It felt particularly disrespectful considering the content of the opening plenary.

The seating situation was bad enough, but what followed was even more insolent. AFP Global allowed the agenda in advance of the opening plenary interview to run for a full 90-minutes, leaving little more than 45-minutes for Nneka and Nikole’s discussion. What transpired over that first 90-minutes included long, drawn out, tone-deaf content primarily led-by-and-for white people. For instance, Mide Akerewusi, B.Sc., M.Sc. (Econ), CSR-P, CDEP. was only given two-minutes to welcome guests to Toronto. There was one speech by one of the young fundraising award winners who noted the ways in which philanthropy is impacted by white supremacy and patriarchal structures – but that was it.

The most alarming part of the content was when the Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year award winner came on stage, and photos cascaded the main screen, including one of him holding a book with the words Providence Plantations on it.

An image of a white man holding a blue book with the words “Constitution of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

Rhode Island removed the word Plantations from the constitution in 2010 in acknowledgement of the connection to the centuries-long trans-continental slave trade. During the colonial period, Rhode Island was part of what people called the “triangle trade”, where slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean were carried to Rhode Island to be distilled into rum, which was then traded in West Africa and exchanged for more sugar and slaves. The reference to this slave trade on a giant screen just moments before Nneka and Nikole’s session was alarming.

The fact that this photo was not vetted before it made it onto the screen was just another sign of how Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Global) manages and operates itself.  It was utterly unsurprising that this transpired.  During my time with AFP, I have watched the organization disregard and/or gloss over the feelings and concerns of Black, Indigenous, and fundraisers of colour time-and-time again.

The next day, I prepared to sit on stage with The Co-Conspirators for our session titled “Breaking the Silence” to detail the experience of our activism with Nneka Allen, CFRE, COC, PCC Mide Akerewusi, B.Sc., M.Sc. (Econ), CSR-P, CDEP. and Múthoní Karíukí HBSc, MPNL, CFRE regarding their experience of anti-Black racism and tokenism on the board of Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Toronto Chapter. The Co-Conspirators, including Rickesh Lakhani Esther Saehyun Lee Nicole Salmon Cathy Barrick (she/her/hers) Scott Russell Julie Berthoud-Jury Nicole Jamrozinski Mazarine Treyz Camila Pereira, PhD Birgit Smith Burton, Christal M. Cherry received a last-minute notification that we had been moved into another room in the convention centre to accommodate overflow. In spite of our insistence that the session would be oversubscribed, AFP Global did not accommodate the space requirements. The last-minute room change still couldn’t accommodate the demand, therefore, we had standing room only in the back, overflow into the hallways, and a lack of ability for meaningful participation for many. It was apparent how little consideration was given to the need of those who wanted to hear what we had to say and be in community with one-another.

A photo of the Co-Conspirator Session at AFP ICON 2024 from the stage. The room was too small and overflowing.

Our session, “Breaking the Silence: Confronting Anti-Black Racism at AFP” was the culmination of months of collective work.  We worked together to build content that would focus on how to act as a community to demand justice and accountability.  We remained focused on the lessons learned and how to impart this knowledge to others.  I looked out in the room and saw the front rows filled with the faces of Black, Indigenous, and fundraisers of colour who heard our truth and felt validated and seen.  This was an act of collective healing, and while we have far to go, was a step in the right direction.

The energy in the room was palpable.  Friends and allies sat on the floors, watching and listening intently. At the end of the session we were thanked for our work, our commitment, and for inspiring people to take actions of their own.

It felt like we were closing the door on one chapter and moving onto the next chapter of our relationship with one another.

The Co-Conspirators Group Photo in Birgit’s Suite (April 2024)

We spent the remaining hours of the afternoon together in Birgit’s suite at the hotel talking, laughing, listening to our Co-Conspirator playlist, trying to digest what had transpired over the last year as a collective.  We discussed the highlights of the session, the challenges in getting to ICON, the many hurdles we faced in bring about change, and our feelings about the sector.

As I sat there with the Co-Conspirators I was overwhelmed with emotion.  For most of my life I have felt a deep sense of exclusion and isolation.  I am, by nature, a very sensitive person – like an emotional sponge.  I soak up all of the feelings in a room I am in and I feel things very deeply.  Writing has always been my tool to express those feelings and it has not always helped me to fit in.  I vacillate between wanting to be liked, and wanting to rebel.  I struggle with balancing those two opposing ideas and how they shape my identity.  Nneka and the co-conspirators were helping me to find that balance and I was overcome with the feeling of leaving my chosen family behind.

I was so relieved to leave Toronto and AFP behind me. I have spent years feeling like I was trying to mold myself into someone or something I wasn’t so I could fit into AFP.  I felt relieved that I could get out of those spaces where I felt isolated and misunderstood.  I wanted to return to my home, my family, and focus on what was next.

However, I learned during our final hours together was that shortly before our the session, one of the Co-Conspirators found the N-Word written in large white letters on a window of the PATH SKYWALK connected to the Toronto Convention Centre. This happened just footsteps away and in close proximity to where Nneka and Nikole’s interview had taken place.

This word, written in this place, in such a short distance from a room full of Black fundraisers and anti-racist allies was not a coincidence. 

Our Co-Conspirator reported it to security, and ultimately, nothing was done about it. When I called the Toronto Police Force to see if it had been reported and dealt with, they said no one else had called in to report witnessing it.

Anti-Black racism is alive and well and I believe our sector is not ready and willing to do the work of confronting it.

The N-Word written on the Skywalk close to the Convention Centre – a location accessed and used by many ICON conference members.

A week later, Nneka Allen, CFRE, COC, PCC notified us that Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Global) Advancing Philanthropy had released an article on Nikole Hannah-Jones written by a white woman named M. Diane McCormick. Neither Nneka or Birgit Smith Burton were aware the article was being written at all.

So after all of our activism, all of the calls to action, all of the work by Nneka to reveal the harms done, and Birgit Smith Burton and Mide Akerewusi, B.Sc., M.Sc. (Econ), CSR-P, CDEP. to address anti-Black racism within Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Global) and Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Toronto Chapter, here we were with a white woman writing the story about the work of one of America’s celebrated Black journalists.

A photo of the article about Nikole Hannah Jones written by Diane McCormick.

This is the exact opposite of doing the work of racial equity. For example, one must only look to the recent Nonprofit Quarterly series titled White and Black Women Archetypes where NPQ Editor in Chief Cindy Suarez interviewed three Black women about non-profit leadership and the archetypes that enable injustice. That is how you do the work of telling Black women’s stories!

I was once-again reminded of the saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” For all of the ways that AFP Global had signaled to the Co-Conspirators that it was willing to do what was necessary to address anti-Black racism inside the organization, the culture of AFP is toxic. The culture inside Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Global) , AFP Foundation for Philanthropy- Canada and AFP Canada, are of white apathy, martyrdom, and willful ignorance.

This was reinforced again, when just a week after the conference a Muslim fundraiser called AFP Global out for hosting ICON during Ramadan. An issue Nneka raised with AFP several months before the conference. I had also noted that AFP Global had done more to accommodate the solar eclipse than Ramadan, which was just another indicator of the priorities of the conference organizers. What was shocking, was that Mike Geiger and Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP Global) issued an apology within days of the petition being launched. Days – not weeks, or months – but days.

While I am pleased to see the impact of our activism through this response to this issue of inequity, it is not lost on me that it took a full six-months of actively petitioning the association for the Co-Conspirators to get a genuine apology from AFP.

A photo of Nneka Allen and Nikole Hannah-Jones on stage at AFP ICON.

“You can work inside the system to subvert it, but you have to be careful you don’t let the system subvert you.” – Nicole Hannah-Jones (AFP ICON Opening Plenary, 2024)

Am I surprised by any of this?

Frankly, no.

As Maya Angelou famously stated, “when someone shows you who they are, you believe them the first time.”

I have been witness to the performative nature of AFP and its members for almost 20 years. I was a part of that performative action, the martyrdom, the niceties, the gatekeeping, and the harmful practices.

I have been a part of the problem. I have hurt people. I witnessed it as the Chair of the Women’s Impact Initiative. I contributed to it as the co-chair of the Fundraiser Bill of Rights Task Force. I have tried to rectify it through my work in The Co-Conspirators.

So enough is enough.

I will no longer participate in these systems of oppression. I will not contribute my time, my skills, or my money to support an Association that is unwilling to change. I will no longer be a member of AFP.

After 20 years, countless hours of volunteering, and endless hours of advocacy, I now choose to put my time, energy, and funds towards organizations and projects that create equity and justice, not those that seek to uphold white supremacy.

Being a part of AFP has felt like being in the movie Mean Girls. I have the same feeling when I enter the hallways and meeting rooms of AFP as I did when I was in high school. The popularity contests and exclusionary behaviours; the racism and the ableism; the white-dominant culture focused on individual excellence instead of the well-being of the collective.

In many ways, participating in AFP reminded me that I was always on the periphery of those spaces.  As a teen, I defined my identity in opposition to those I didn’t want to be.  I believed I could make these spaces safer – the tents bigger – but I am reminded that systems change is difficult. I kept returning to AFP, hoping that I could help make change, maybe subverting the system, but the system just subverted me instead.

Being a member of AFP is akin to an abusive relationship.  No matter how much you think you can change a relationship, if the other participants are not willing to do the work to change, you are wasting your time.

In 1979, after close to a decade of meetings, a group of leading Black feminists and civil rights activists published the Combahee River Collective Statement.  I would encourage everyone to learn about this collective and read the statement which calls out white feminism for what it is – a dangerous form of white supremacy.  The Collective looked at how white feminism lacked focus on the intersections of race and gender, ultimately leading the feminism movement to exclude women of colour.

“As Black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture.” – The Combahee River Collective (1979)

What transpired in AFP-GTC was an example of white feminism at its worst.  We are far from dismantling the culture of white fragility, white moderation, or white supremacy in the fundraising sector, but we must continue to call it out. We need to find the places where Black women lead, where their voices are valued, and where their contributions are celebrated.  When Black women in fundraising feel safe, secure, and able to participate fully in our work, then and only then will we be fully committed to justice and equity as a sector.

A small sapling starts to grow after a wildfire burns through a forest.

Before I arrived in Toronto for ICON, I attended the Canadian Association of Gift Planners (CAGP) conference in Ottawa. I found myself filled with a sense of unease and discomfort in being in rooms with people whose commitment to a more equitable fundraising sector is unclear. Some of them were no more pleased to see me and made it very clear that I was unwelcome. It turns out, my unease and discomfort were justified as one of them took time out of their schedule to include a petty complaint about me in a conference feedback form.

While at CAGP, I had the privilege of sitting at a table with Monique Manatch, a Knowledge Keeper from the Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation. We spoke briefly about the conference and I noted that she was wearing a medicine pouch around her neck. I asked her what it was for and she noted that it was filled with sacred medicines from her community. Every pouch is different. Some pouches can include tobacco, sage, cedar and sweet grass, protective stones like onyx, a lock of a family member’s hair, or other items of importance. She said wearing her medicine pouch helps her to stay centered.

I sat at that table imagining what it would be like to have something around me to protect me from how I was feeling that day. I was grateful for the opportunity to be in Ottawa with my friends Ruth MacKenzie, Peggy Killeen, CFRE, Jaya Mootoo and Chantelle Ohrling, but I also felt a sense of dread in being in that place, spending time in proximity to people who not only disagree with my views, but actively dislike me. I had anticipated that feeling would carry on when I arrived in Toronto.

I told Monique Manatch I was having a hard time not becoming bitter in response to my sense of unease and she told me that her people were deeply connected to the trees and that they had a lot to teach us about growth. She noted that I was experiencing the process of hardening, similar to the way a young oak will slowly develop hardened inner and outer shells to protect itself from the elements. She warned that while hardening as a form of protection and essential for the health of the tree, taken too far, it can dry out the inside and kill the spirit of a tree. This is when a tree becomes a snag – a dying standing tree – while snags are homes to many creatures, they are removed from their original purpose. She told me to find my own medicine pouch, my own healing balm, and to find ways to lean into those things when I was feeling uneasy.

So my commitment to myself is to build myself a medicine pouch – or as trauma counselors will describe them a container – that will allow me to process the pain I have endured over my career as a woman and fundraiser.

I don’t want to feel this way anymore, and I don’t have to.

I can choose a different way forward, which includes with whom and where I do my activism. I want to focus on  healing myself so that I will ultimately be a better advocate, ally, and activist.

In the book The Politics of Trauma, the author Staci K. Haines writes about how healing can serve social change. She writes that in order to see transformational change, “it takes people who are able to co-ordinate with each other, take courageous action together, and build towards an interdependent vision and purpose.” I saw and experienced all of these ways of being throughout my experience as a Co-Conspirator; how working together can create a better sector. We are better for working together, and we are inspiring change through being in community with one-another.

That is the path I chose now. The path that will nurture that fire inside of me so that I can remain true to my core values and find the places and spaces where I feel valued. I want to do this work from a place of love, compassion, and desire for equity and justice. I need to commit to being fully present, fully invested, and focused on movements that have meaning.

Once you understand oppression, you can never go back to participating in its proliferation and I no longer have any interest in participating in an oppressive system at AFP.

I once heard someone say that “the door only swings one way when it comes to racial justice – you just have to walk through it.”

The door has swung, and I am walking through it.  I welcome you to join me on the other side.