Behind the DiD Project: One Story About Secrecy, Silence, and Stigma at Work in Fundraising and Philanthropy

Underwater photo view of iceberg with beautiful transparent sea on background

Those of us who can tell our stories openly about disability, chronic illness, and aging in philanthropy and fundraising are the tip of the iceberg. Our numbers are small compared to those who feel compelled to keep that aspect of who they are hidden under the water-line. Photo credit: Ales Utovko

I’m not sure when I started to notice the pattern.

I’d raise some disability access issue at work and, not long after, a colleague would tell me privately that they had a disability and/or a chronic illness. They didn’t feel safe disclosing it and, therefore, couldn’t ask for any accommodations for it.

These kind of workplace stories are a big part of what’s behind the Disabled in Development Project and how, when viewed collectively, they add up to system failures and structural ableism that is well beyond any individual’s ability to “overcome.” While DiD’s also about sharing stories of the significant progress toward inclusion being made in philanthropy and fundraising, giving space to testify openly about ableism in our own sector is essential for context. 


The situation would be making doing their job harder and they appreciated being able to vent to me. Would I please keep it a secret? Of course I would. And I did. Even when having more numbers on my side would have helped me argue that this-or-that barrier solution should be a priority, despite time and money limitations.
I remember this happening as far back as the late 90s and the confiding confessions continue to this day, socially and at meetings and conferences, though not in my current workplace, DREDF.

I’ll describe one particular situation but keep identifying details out as best I can. This whole episode still bothers me:


Multi-colored hexagonsI worked with a fundraising teammate who had a different but complementary skill-set from mine. They were very good at what they did, from the outset.
We had a superior, also newish, who was a toucher. As in, a touch on your arm for emphasis, that kind of thing. My teammate told them early on that they did not like to be touched and please don’t ever do it, it was very upsetting to them. (I witnessed this.)
Our superior kept right on touchin’.

Part of any system is access to the system. If access is blocked by stigma, that is itself a system problem.


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