Skin Color, Bias and Charity
For 63 years, I’ve been White, descended from Scots and Irish. An interesting part of my (Otis’) family lore was that my great, great grandmother was a Native American. After coming across some old family photos, I did research on my genealogy at Ancestry.com. To my surprise, I learned that my great, great grandmother was, in fact, Black. Frances “Fannie” Wade (1865 to 1899) was married to her second cousin, John Rudd. Both were descendants of my sixth-great grandfather, James Rudd, a slave owner in Maryland.
On various legal documents, John and Fannie’s race was listed as “White,” “Mulatto,” “Black” and even "Dark." I have since learned that the White/Mulatto/Black designation on census forms was an eyeball assessment made by the census-taker. Census-takers did not ask the person what their race of color was; it was based entirely on their judgment. Often, censuses categorized parents and children in the same household differently. My great grandmother, Carrie Rudd, is the girl on the far left In the photo. She apparently passed as White.
My discovery was particularly ironic, given that I grew up in a Black culture, attending a predominantly Black high school in the 1970s. I was a high school all-America basketball player on an (otherwise) all-Black team. In my senior year in Richmond, Virginia, I was the only White basketball player in the Capital District, my seven-high school conference.
While working a construction job the summer before my senior year, my skin became so tanned that I was darker than all but one of my teammates. He said to me, “Otis, you know you don’t have to look like us to play with us.” I told him that I got so dark because of my Native American ancestry. The topic of my mother’s master’s degree thesis was the Plains Indians. Her interest was piqued because of our supposed heritage. I still get those dream catcher premiums in the mail from nonprofits that serve Native American missions she donated to when she was alive.
So, race and skin color were near top of mind when I recently read research conducted by Dr. Abhishek Bhati, a political scientist at Bowling Green State University. In an article published in the academic journal "VOLUNTAS", he described how donors are less generous to missions that assist those in developing countries when the donations’ beneficiaries have darker skin.
Measuring the “implicit skin-tone bias” of 750 subjects, Dr. Bhati reported an inverse relationship between implicit bias against those with darker skin and giving. The greater the implicit bias, the less individuals were willing to donate.
In previous “Peeling the Onion” blogs on NonProfit PRO, we have written about the power of “in-groups” and “out-groups.” Simply put, people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to diminish others who aren’t a part of them. Those who share some defining characteristic(s) are part of our in-group, and those who don’t are in our out-group.
Separating people into in-groups and out-groups relative to ourselves is baked into our DNA. It was a survival strategy that evolved over the thousands of generations our ancestors lived in the African Savannah. It’s a largely unconscious process. Dr. Bhati’s finding that it influences giving should come as no surprise. He concludes, “Relying on… images for charitable fundraising can prove counterproductive if they discourage giving to international charities at higher levels. Further research is needed to determine how nonprofits can accurately represent the people who will benefit from charitable giving.”
Research has demonstrated that people are willing to donate to others they see as “innocent victims” of their circumstances. Empathy is the driver of their willingness to give. But we also know that when we write copy at Turnkey, people are more likely to support others they see as being more like themselves. For many people, overcoming unconscious bias involves presenting missions in a way that supersedes superficial characteristics like skin color. For example, “She’s a mother just like you,” or “We are all God’s children.”
The thing that makes unconscious biases so pernicious, of course, is that they operate entirely out of our awareness. The best we can do is acknowledge they are there and consciously adjust their influence on us.
Hopefully, my own experiences growing up affected how I make in-group/out-group distinctions based on skin color. Black people are my in-group; my classmates, friends, roommates, teammates. I know that most White Americans never have the kind of exposure to a diverse group like I’ve had. Our society pays the price for that today.
A Black high school classmate who went on to get a law degree at NYU had an interesting reaction when I posted the story about Fannie and John on Facebook. He said, “This is an episode of extraordinary personal courage. I am in awe. I sincerely applaud you for doing this.”
His comment made me sad. It was spoken in the voice of the out-group; I never thought of him that way. My response was simple. “My brother.”
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.