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The Assertive Fundraiser – an interview with Ruby Bayley-Pratt

Ruby Bayley-Pratt

It’s an interesting and challenging time in the world of Fundraising. Never before has there been such intense scrutiny on equality, fairness and safeguarding. In the wake of the #metoo movement people are speaking up and asserting their rights. Diversity is being recognised for its importance. However, making yourself heard and recognised is not always easy. Sometimes we hold ourselves back, sometimes our inner voice gets in the way, and sometimes we just don’t know how to be assertive.

=mc Director, Yvette Gyles, and Ruby Bayley-Pratt, Fundraising Policy and Research Manager at the British Red Cross and Trustee at Bloody Good Period presented on this very topic at the 2019 IoF Fundraising Convention. It was a popular session, with some fantastic questions. Sadly, in just 60 minutes, the session was over all too quickly, with much left to discuss.

Hand drawn infographic reflecting the session on Assertiveness at the IoF conference

Image drawn by @MsMandyJ during the IoF session. Click the image to follow her on twitter.


In the following interview, Yvette asks Ruby about her thoughts following the session and to share some further insights in response to questions we had on the day.

Yvette: during the session we talked about the challenges we face at work that lead us to be passive, rather than assertive. Passive means sacrificing your rights for someone else’s, rather than seeking a win-win outcome. Can you tell me about the challenges you have faced in a bit more detail?

Ruby: I think the biggest challenges I face are feeling like I will not be taken seriously as a young woman in the workplace and the constant struggle between being confident and assertive and the likeability penalty I inevitably experience as a result. Lots of small things contribute to this, from being expected to be the one to make the drinks and take the notes in meetings, to people making assumptions about my seniority and sign-off responsibilities. I have that inner voice that tells me if I don’t dress smarter, people won’t take me seriously. If I assert myself and speak directly I’ll be seen as ‘aggressive’ etc, etc. It’s a double-bind that I struggle with every day.

Yvette: You’re not alone. We often hear similar issues on our training courses. People will tell me that they worry about being ‘too young’, ‘too creative’, ‘too pushy’ or ‘not serious’, ‘not experienced’ ‘not professional’. They are held back by this imposter voice, even though conversely, most of us never think the same negative things of other people, such as ‘you’re too young / casual / inexperienced’ etc. It strikes me that assertiveness is not something we are explicitly taught, either in formal education or when we are working. Rather it is something we have had to learn – and with varying degrees of success. For example, I learned to be assertive quite late in my career, and to finally ask for the pay I thought I was worth, rather than accepting any offer given to me. As a consultant, I have to be assertive in order to be in the role of trusted advisor. I have got to tune out those negative thoughts but also remember my role is to add value, and being liked may not always be part of that. 

Yvette: What do you do to stay assertive now? How might other people be able to do this?

Ruby: Staying assertive will always be a process; even for people like me who people perceive to be naturally so. Three key things for me are making sure I have prepped for difficult conversations I need to have, with a particular focus on what key points I want to make and what I am not willing to compromise on. Language and not softening it is also something I really struggle with e.g. “I just wondered if” “Sorry to bother you but”. I found that keeping a tally of all the times I minimized myself or my points for a while really helped to raise my awareness of how often I do it. Now it’s an essential part of proofreading anything I write. Finally, I think as women in particular (and undoubtedly this is even more acute for women who are not cis, able-bodied and white), we’ve been conditioned not to take up space in any aspect of our lives and this can impact on confidence and assertiveness. This is something I am really interested in so I try to read a lot around the topic, go to events etc. I’d really recommend the book Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly and the Too Much of a Person project by Diana Patient.

Yvette: You are so right about this. It takes practice and it takes time. I try to stay assertive by sticking to facts, and trying to keep things neutral rather than taking things personally (or worse, trying to make them personal!). It can be harder to do this when you are feeling an emotional response, so I have learned to manage those too. At the Convention you highlighted that being assertive is not about taking your feeling away – you can be angry, frustrated, sad etc. Assertiveness is about using those feelings in productive ways and having conversations that move us on. I try to get to a place in conversations where there is either an agreement, or if we cannot agree, then we agree on a way forward. Being action orientated is helpful. Thanks for the book recommendations too!

Yvette: one of your tips during the session was to amplify other people. What does this mean and what does it involve?

Ruby: I think amplification is one of our greatest tools as allies. As many women will tell you, it’s quite commonplace in work situations for men to repeat a woman’s idea without crediting her (a term that’s been coined “he-peating”) and as white women we do it to women of colour too. This renders the other person’s contribution as invisible and positively reinforces the more privileged person. We also know that women tend to talk less in meetings, be interrupted more often etc, etc. Amplification is a way to make sure marginalised voices get heard in these scenarios. Practically, it looks like those of us with privilege speaking up and saying things like “great point Coleen” or “good point, Matt. Sounds like you agree with Sharon’s original idea about XYZ”. Essentially, when a marginalised voice makes a key point, repeating it and giving credit to its author.

I think it’s also about being aware of how much you are talking in any given situation, let’s say a meeting. Be aware of who is speaking the most and create space for others to talk and contribute. If you see a woman, a woman of colour looking like she has something to say, purposely pipe down or interrupt the overbearing person in the conversation and invite her in.

Yvette: I see, so it’s about supporting and speaking up with others. And being self-aware enough to hold yourself back when other people are contributing. We spoke at the conference about ‘leaning in’ not always being the answer (the idea that women need to be more confident and speak up to change the way they are treated). Being assertive means seeking ways to create a more level conversation. Amplifying then is about supporting other people assertively – holding them up, without taking other people down.  At work we have so many meetings and conversations, we can get into bad and even toxic habits. Breaking those takes energy and effort. 

Yvette: We often read or hear that inclusion and diversity requires leadership, and that “leaders should” be role models, have zero tolerance of bad behaviour etc. But what can we do at an individual level to get this leadership support? What has worked for you?

Ruby: Organise. I co-chaired the women and non-binary staff group when I worked at Amnesty and co-founded and now co-chair the gender equality network at the British Red Cross and have found the experience of staff coming together in this way to be transformative. It demonstrates to leadership that there is a movement that care about these issues and not just some opinionated individuals.

Yvette: a couple of people shared with us in the session that at times they have been let down by bad management practice and awful leaders. They had been treated so badly that they were left with no choice but to quit their jobs. Leaders need to understand the implications of this – they are losing incredibly valuable people and all the risks that goes with a bad reputation for this kind of behaviour.  I would also advocate speaking to a trusted senior manager, HR person or even a well-liked colleague to get personal support if you have been treated badly. And get active – join a network, find like-minded people, understand your options, and give feedback. Lots of organisations do staff surveys and ask for staff input. Give feedback that way, don’t hold back.  

Yvette: If you could get all charity CEOs to make a change, what would that be? And have you got any good practice examples to share?

Ruby: Unfortunately, I think we have long way to go in this space and I don’t know anyone off the top of my head who’s really doing it right. I think leaders in our sector need to really invest in educating themselves on these issues and not in a tokenistic way. I want them to embrace their vulnerability and discomfort and do the work on their own bias, privilege, whiteness (given our very white leadership), before they go out into the world and talk about how great EDI is and how committed they are to it.

Yvette: It’s encouraging to see these issues being more widely discussed. I would ask Charity CEOs to reflect on their own behaviour and decision making. Are you consciously making decisions that are inclusive?  What are you role modelling to others? What inadvertent influencing are you having? Are you condoning bad behaviour by turning a blind eye to it? Do you really see how your senior managers interact with others, or only how they act with you? I do think the sector has some great leaders, who do amazing things. Leaders who are able to be honest, transparent, willing to challenge the system and work hard on their own imperfections. Being a CEO is a tough job – and perhaps even more so in mission-based organisations.  And we do need more of this, I agree with you. 

Yvette: Finally, you’ve been championing and working hard to shine a light on the problems in fundraising when it comes to discrimination and harassment.  This must be exhausting! What do you to take care of yourself and stay resilient?

Ruby: Yes, it has been. I don’t think I appreciated how much the issue would explode and the impact that would have on me. I’m very lucky in that I have a great support network in my partner, friends and colleagues, as well as allies who I didn’t know who got in touch over social media to offer their support. When things were particularly intense, I had to force myself to have down time and switch off by doing things like having my boyfriend hide my phone in the evenings (really) and deleting Twitter over the weekend. I also had to learn almost overnight how to say no to things and put boundaries in place with people who want to ‘pick my brains’ or have me at their events.

That said, my general approach to self-care is grounded in a brilliant Brianna Wiest quote I read once: “true self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from”. So I am trying to do that. I’m very privileged that recently I was able to change my working hours to work 9 days in 10 and having that extra day off makes a big difference. It will always be a process!

I also think we have to be okay with not feeling great all the time and not put the onus on the individual to be ‘resilient’ in the face of a neoliberal world of work which we know is damaging to our mental and physical health. We need systems change! But that’s a blog for another day…

Yvette: thanks Ruby. Both the session at the Convention and this follow up are all about what we can do as individuals to speak up for ourselves and take care of ourselves. Personally, I make sure I ring-fence time for the things that give me energy. I too have learned that saying no is also a way of saying yes – if I say no to doing more of the things that are draining, then I am saying yes to doing more of the things that are energising. I’m assertive about that!

At the convention, we provided participants with useful tools and techniques on being assertive. Read more about the model we used: I’m Ok You’re Ok.

And if you want to understand more about these issues more broadly, Ruby has compiled a great reading list. You can also follow Ruby on twitter: @RubyBayleyPratt

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...