White Saviorism in the Nonprofit World

“Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth.” -Bell Hooks

As some of you may know, TFFT’s theme of 2019 is “a window into our world.” According to a study done by the Better Business Bureau and Give.org, only 19% of people trust NGOs. And only 10% are optimistic about these organizations becoming more trustworthy over time. A window into our world is an attempt at transparency. Being honest about our successes and failures, about what we do well and what we need to improve, and about the issues that surround the work we do.

There is a significant racial gap in the nonprofit world. Many organizations serve communities of color, but lack racial diversity in their leadership. For over a decade, survey reports consistently show that less than 20% of nonprofit executive leaders are people of color. This is a real issue and often leads to White Saviorism, particularly within nonprofits that engage in international work. The term “white saviorism,” refers to an idea in which a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation. More often than not, white saviorism (or western saviorism) stems from a place of compassion. However, this compassion becomes dangerous to individuals and cultures when “empowering” other groups ends up taking away their ability to help themselves, to grow as a community, and to have sense of agency. 

American-Nigerian writer Teju Cole says in his article The White Savior Industrial Complex, “But I disagree with the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

TFFT’s U.S. staff is made up of four white women. How can we possibly know what is best for Tanzanian children on the other side of the world, when our world is so drastically different? The answer is, we don’t. This is why our staff of 10 in Arusha, with 8 of them being from Tanzania, create and implement our programming. The dynamics within our team allow the U.S. staff to play our important role—in fundraising, communications, marketing, and development—without unknowingly projecting our world view onto the population we serve or assuming we know what is best for Tanzanian children, teachers, and communities. Our TFFT Family, with all shades of skin tone and from all walks of life, are valuable to our work. Your financial and consistent emotional support provides the resources our TZ Staff needs to implement programming and assures that we have the best people for the job with boots on the ground. People who not only understand Tanzanian culture, but act as positive role models for our scholars, allowing them to see people that look like them and come from the same place they do making an impact. 

So what else can Westerners do to participate in important international work without taking on the white savior role? We acknowledge that anti-racism is a process, not a destination. We address that good intentions are not always good enough—people can mean well and still engage in harmful practices. We accept that it is not about us. We learn to sit with the discomfort, both in the context of experiencing a different culture and when the guilt of our own biases weigh in. We listen. We hold ourselves and other Westerners accountable. And we center the conversation around those we are trying to learn about, not around ourselves.