Why AFP needs to be kicked to the curb (and pronto)

If you recall, Wednesday March 8th was International Women’s Day. It was an odd mix this year. As Women’s March organizers were getting arrested in Washington D.C., a WTF attitude and a call to honour the good men in our lives emanated from other quarters.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) with world headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, chose to mark the day by re-posting an article on their monthly AFP eWire called Why Are There So Few Male Fundraisers? 

For the uninitiated, 75% of AFP members are women and are professional fundraisers who work in a range of charities from food banks to universities.

There is a lot to say about the value, and values, of AFP in general, but in the interest of time, I won’t get into all of it today. Yet, with this trip-up on International Women’s Day, AFP once again shows how little it considers social justice or equity as part of its business.

After a bit of blowback from a few of the 75% of AFP members, Jason Lee, AFP President & CEO, did issue an apology about the article and if you want to read how much AFP respects women, you can click here.

The article in question has no discussion of the implications of women’s of position in the labour market or in leadership positions in the nonprofit sector. According to a leadership study conducted by the University of Denver, women constitute only 21 percent of leadership roles among nonprofits with budgets in excess of $25 million, even though they make up 75 percent of the workforce.

That means if you are one of seven women in a group of 10 people, one of three men standing with you is four times more likely to become CEO than you. Or that the existing 25% of men working in the sector could transform into 75% of its leadership.

All this inverted perspective at a time when we, and our colleagues in the U.S., are marching in the streets to support access to reproductive health, decent wages and working conditions,  freedom from sexual harassment, as well as concern about our physical safety, while condemning racism, inhumane immigration policies, homophobia and Islamophobia.

Consider also that the U.S. government has recently instituted The Global Gag Rule designed to silence doctors working in any charity funded by US dollars.

The gag rule will prevent medical practitioners from discussing a full range of reproductive options, including abortion, with the women who come to them for help and advice, disrupting the reproductive health care for some of the world’s poorest women. We know the lives of women will be put at risk because of The Global Gag Rule.

And yet …

… why isn’t AFP out in front on that? Where is the leadership on that issue? Forget a dopey story on International Women’s Day. This is a life and death situation for the poorest women around the world.

Calling it “a violation of medical ethics,” Doctors Without Borders responded to The Global Gag Rule with a compelling video. Click here to take a look. Doctors Without Borders, it needs to be noted, doesn’t take any money from the U.S. government.

And if that isn’t enough to wind you up, what about the protection of charities as non-governmental organizations? Is that not a sectoral issue of great importance?

Surely, the complicity of aid charities in the deaths of 200,000 men, women and children in the Somali famine of 2011 as documented by journalist, Alex Perry, and summarized in my own book Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World, might give pause about the danger of charities being an extension of their governments’ policies and the importance of the operating at arm’s length.

Mais non.

Because AFP clearly doesn’t consider “mankind” their business. Or that fundraisers be directed by a moral compass beyond the transactional ethics raising of money.

It’s not like AFP is allergic to lobbying. It is prepared to get loud and proud on some issues, such as the repeal of the Johnson amendment, a change which would “allow churches and nonprofit organizations to get involved in partisan, electoral politics, including endorsing and raising money for parties and candidates.”

In the last few years in Canada, AFP saved its biggest salvos for a capital gains tax exemption for gifts of private shares and real estate, a move, if enacted, would have benefitted wealthy charities and wealthy donors.

Over the span of 25 years, AFP is an organization on which I have spent my own, and my company’s money, to support. I have delivered, and attended, workshops at its conferences, congresses and luncheons.

But today, and not to put too fine a point on it, AFP is irrelevant in terms of dealing with the issues that are eating the charitable sector alive. It is a fiddle while Rome burns, a place where fulsome and pertinent debate goes to die.

And this latest trip-up by AFP is simply another brick in a long line of actions and offerings that show its irrelevance to people who want to change the world.

Because what’s needed is a modern, progressive, responsive organization that feeds the souls of people working hard to change the world, not crush them.

Could all those volunteer hours given freely by the extraordinarily talented women of AFP be put to more effective use elsewhere?

Could all the membership fees that now go to AFP from these self-same talented women be more productively spent elsewhere?

Could the training delivered with 1950s values not be replaced with the training that’s needed to make much-needed systemic change in Canada, the U.S. and around the world —on issues of social justice, the increasing gap between the rich and poor, racism and the move to control the lives of women?

Is there an opportunity to build something relevant here? Something new, something dynamic and something responsive?

I’d say yes to all of the above.

But leadership is not gratitude. Leadership is leadership. We must begin the work.

Because if the work of women remains invisible to AFP, whose membership is 75% women, and AFP doesn’t lift a finger in objection when charities are being silenced and women’s lives are put at risk throughout the world, then it’s time to build an organization where women’s work is not invisible and where women’s lives are worth saving.


As a belated Happy IWD Day present, and something to fuel your spirit, here’s that video of the singer MILCK and vocal groups GW Sirens and Capital Blend, who went viral with their performance at the Women’s March on Washington in January, and who were hosted on Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, for a special performance of their anthem “Quiet.” Just scroll down.


Gail Picco, a strategist who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years, is one of Canada’s foremost experts on the increasingly complex dynamics at play in the charitable sector. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector and of the recently published, Cap in Hand: How Charities Are Failing the People of Canada and the World published in January 2017. Gail works as a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and serves as Chair of the Board of the Regent Park Film Festival. http://www.gailpicco.com

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  1. Gail, With the greatest of respect to your opinion and the obvious knowledge that you have, I have to take issue with your characterization of AFP in this post. For transparency purposes, I acknowledge that I have a long history of support for and championing of AFP. As a former international board chair, I could be considered by some to have a slanted view. But that is not the case.

    I agree that AFP tripped up on this one. There is no doubt of that. But – you imply that Jason Lee responded somewhat reluctantly – after some pushing by members. That is just NOT the case. As soon as it was brought to AFP’s attention the apology – which is quite contrite and fulsome with no excuses – was up on the website. That doesn’t eliminate the deserved criticism but does demonstrate taking responsibility for the insult they inadvertently (and stupidly) handed out to our female members.

    I can also attest to the unarguable fact that AFP has long held gender equity and diversity at the forefront of its service to the profession. The long and sometimes arduous task of selecting a board has, for as long as I have been involved (20+ years) been guided by balancing out gender, geography, type of practitioner and numerous other criteria. They have been a stalwart in ensuring equity.

    Lastly, AFP is not a social justice organization. It is a professional association for heaven’s sake. Your suggestion that it should be fighting the good fight for a bevy of causes is just not what the vast majority of AFP members would want their membership fees spent on. As an AFP member, I would argue the majority want AFP to lobby for, support, and fight for the issues that make it easier for us to communicate with and support our donors. To increase philanthropy so that our organizations can more effectively fight the social justice issues. That promote our profession. That grow philanthropy through ethical and effective fundraising.

    We are challenged by myths and uninformed opinion on the work of charities, fundraising and the sector. That is a big enough challenge for organizations like AFP. Let’s not pander to an easy pile on of criticism that would mean mission drift in the extreme for our professional association.

    • Andrea: I understand that when you put a lot of time into an organization and represent it as its international president, you feel a responsibility to defend it and I respect that. While it’s no where close to the level of your commitment, I too put a lot of time and resources into AFP. But, and I say this as a successful fundraiser myself, and as someone who admires many people doing this work, that there are serious problems in the sector. Very serious problems.

      And your comment that “AFP is not a social justice organization. It is a professional association for heaven’s sake” shows were we have very different ideas of the moral obligations of the fundraising profession.

      The Global Gag Rule just signed by the Trump administration guts the concept of the non-governtmental organization, which for decades has been a fundamental pillar of aid, both domestically and internationally. And any charity or organization related to charities, like AFP for example, that doesn’t object to this is allowing charities to become an extension of their governments, a policy, if you listen to experts that aren’t fundraisers, puts the lives of their staff at risk, plus the lives of the poorest people in the world at stake because of the policy itself.

      For example, the unnecessary deaths of 200,000 men, women and children in the South Somali famine of 2011 was because aid organizations fell in line behind the U.S. government’s decision to not allow food aid into the area because some of it may have ended up in the hands of terrorists. 200,000 people died because of this policy and when the U.S. government realized what was happening and changed their approach, it was too late. 200,000 people are dead, in part, because charities refused stand their ground as non-governmental organizations.

      Unbelievably, at the same time, those same aid organizations were fundraising in North America for food aid they were, in fact, not distributing. What happened in Haiti with the American Red Cross pales in comparison to what went on in South Somalia. Alex Perry wrote a book about it called “The Rift” and I recommend giving it a read. Or take a look at some of the articles Perry wrote for Time magazine. Depending on how much you believe fundraising organizations are responsible for their actions, your view of the level of their complicity will vary.

      I’m surprised that, in your role as international AFP president the trend way from NGOs to simply GOs has not crossed your path. It is desperately important, as Doctors Without Borders who have had their hospitals bombed in three counties have been trying to tell people. And if charities continue to divorce themselves from how the money they raise is spent (or not spent) and continue to appeal to a donor’s most intimate fears and desires by making representations whether they are true or not, they lose any claim to a moral imperative whatsoever. And there is nothing remotely resembling a “profession” left.

      And, in my view, until fundraising organizations like AFP start the process of looking beyond professional development and take a look at the world around them, they truly are part of the problem. And I, for one, will continue to beat this drum as steadily as I can.

      While my words might sound like a “pile on,” they will not be as harsh as the contempt the world’s media will rain down on charities if they don’t soon understand the implications of their actions.

      That’s why I wrote Cap in Hand: How Charities Are Failing the People of Canada and the World. I am far from being alone in holding this view. When you look at the facts and listen to what people on the front line are saying, as well as public policy analysts, foreign affairs experts, academics, researchers and program specialists, and even some donors, it is very hard to come to any other conclusion.

      The sector could change direction, but the majority of its leadership doesn’t seem even close to recognizing there’s a problem. Believe me, there is nothing “easy” or “pandering” about my criticism. And “mission drift” would be the best thing that could happen at AFP right now.

    • Jessica Wroblewski says:

      Andrea, I don’t know you, but I very much appreciated your well-measured response. I read Gail’s article yesterday, as well as a few others by fundraisers who saw (and took) an easy opportunity to pile on to AFP, yet couldn’t summon the strength to respond. However, I’m glad you and James have. You’ve captured my own feelings perfectly and I’d wager we’re far from the only ones who think some people are making this molehill into a mountain. For what purpose, I have to wonder. But I digress. It was obviously a stupid but unintentional mistake by AFP staff which Jason Lee promptly and genuinely apologized for. He also stated that new processes would be put into place to ensure such a gaffe never happens again. As far as I’m concerned, the matter is over and done with. If it happens again, that’s another story.

      • Much appreciated Jessica. One of the great things about a democracy is diverse views and healthy discussion. I agree with Gail there is room in the sector for organizations to step up and take action, be leaders on societal issues. They have a lot of knowledge and experience to bring to the discussion. This is just so far beyond AFP’s mandate that it does not even seem to be a reasonable expectation. There is no morality (or lack thereof) in this. AFP serves members – to help them strengthen their organizations and grow philanthropy. And maybe many of those organizations are well positioned to take this moral high ground.

  2. As a past AFP International Board Member and a Past Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion International Committee, I would like to emphasize that AFP is a professional association that has been devoted to diversity and inclusion for many years. The vision of that committee is that the membership of AFP and development professionals reflect the communities that our organizations serve. That means all all development professionals, all communities and all organizations. I will confess that many of us that are drawn to the work of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee are also people who work in the area of social justice and equity, but we understand that we must serve all members and all organizations. Diversity is what makes us stronger. I am a gay atheist who has worked for AIDS organizations, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and LGBT organizations. Despite that, one of the best workshops on planned giving that I ever attended was led by someone who worked for the American Bible Society. Do I support their mission? Absolutely not! Will I ever donate to them. Absolutely not! Can I enter a workshop with an open mind and learn how to improve my work from an experienced colleague? Fortunately, yes. I belong to lots of progressive organizations. I don’t need my professional organization to only serve progressives as long as they are welcoming to me and they provide benefits to my personal and professional growth. AFP has been one of the best volunteer experiences of many because they have allowed me and others who care about true diversity and inclusion an opportunity to help shape the organization into something that serves everyone in the profession without regard to who I am or the organization for whom I work.

    • hi James!

      It’s nice to hear your voice here. I can’t believe we live in the same town and never see each other! Let’s change that.

      As a professional organization, AFP needs to care about the majority of its members wellbeing.

      We are the microcosm of the macrocosm in the world. We need to model the world we want to live in. Who wouldn’t want to live in a more just, more equitable world for women?

      Not being equitable hurts nonprofits. Each time a fundraiser leaves, a nonprofit loses at minimum, according to Penelope Burk’s Donor Centered Leadership Research, almost $200,000. http://wildwomanfundraising.com/what-happens-when-you-dont-pay-a-living-wage

      Why do they leave? For a higher salary elsewhere, or because they don’t get along with their boss.

      That means if we REALLY want to talk about fundraising effectiveness, we have to talk about how we are treating our fundraisers, how much we pay them, mentoring them, supporting them, and help them to stay. Otherwise we are wasting our donors money and our own time, and not serving as many people as we could.

      So, when you think that the topic of how we treat female fundraisers, their salaries, their happiness, and gender equity in the sector is beside the point, let me assure you, according to 30 years of research, it is NOT beside the point, it IS the point.


  3. I’m chiming in a bit late here, Gail, but I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis and critique in this article! And I’m sorry to see that you haven’t received more support in the comments.

    And to show solidarity, I’ve published a critique of AFP on this issue:

    A professional association should be setting the tone for our profession on multiple levels, not just skill and professional development. If they are not going to advocate for the advancement of fundraising professionals on all levels, they are doing a great disservice to everyone. This issue has clearly drawn some lines in the sand as to where people fall on this issue. But frankly, any attempt to maintain neutrality and deny responsibility of the issue, is demonstrating poor politics on gender issues.

  4. BettyJo Ferry says:

    “As Women’s March organizers were getting arrested in Washington D.C., a WTF attitude and a call to honour the good men in our lives emanated from other quarters.”
    As far as I know and was reported, there were no arrests in regards to this march.This first sentence made me pause and ask myself about the validity of this article. That’s all.

    • The first sentence might give you pause to simply think.

      Women’s March Organizers Arrested During ‘A Day Without A Woman’ Rally
      March leaders are calling on people to “meet us at 7th precinct… in Manhattan to show solidarity with our sisters who were arrested.


      • Great discussion! It is high time that we are talking about these issues and yes it certainly relates very strongly to fundraising. The reality is that the big tent of AFP includes many political views. This I think is especially true of the US. In my experience most CDN fundraisers present as liberal. The whole field of major gift fundraising, in particular, presents temptations to paper over moral failings of wealthy prospects. Where do we draw the line? What can the ethics statement of AFP do to guide us?
        Thanks for this article Gail and thanks for all who responded. This is important.


  1. […] From Gail Picco @GailPicco “Why AFP Needs to be Kicked to the Curb.” Gail gets into some of the hard numbers of gender inequality in our sector, and questions why AFP is not showing leadership on these issues. I particularly appreciated this insight, “Because AFP clearly doesn’t consider “mankind” their business. Or that fundraisers be directed by a moral compass beyond the transactional ethics raising of money.” […]

  2. […] Yay or Nay? Why AFP needs to be kicked to the curb (and […]

  3. […] balance has swung towards women, with between 60-75% of the profession being female. According to Gail Picco’s article on the AFP fail, quoting a leadership study conducted by the University of […]

  4. […] balance has swung towards women, with between 60-75% of the profession being female. According to Gail Picco’s article on the AFP fail, quoting a leadership study conducted by the University of […]

  5. […] balance has swung towards women, with between 60-75% of the profession being female. According to Gail Picco’s article on the AFP fail, quoting a leadership study conducted by the University of […]

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