Why individual donations strategies often do not work for communities of color


easter-eggs-684450_640Hi everyone, this week is my organization’s first annual fundraising reception, where we formally introduce our Fellows to the community. Doing special events, to be honest, freaks me out, and I have been banned by planning committees in the past from attending meetings. Sheesh, and all because I get stressed out and occasionally go into catatonic states and murmur things like, “Beware…the storm is gathering…registration lines will fill up…time will stop…guests will beat their chests in anguish and despair as volunteers weep in the darkness…beware…”

Anyway, today I want to talk about cultivating individual donors and how it relates to communities of color. Every time that I talk about how arduous grantwriting is, either on this blog or in person, inevitably someone will say something like, “That’s why you should focus on individual donors! Statistically, individual donors provide 72% of the funds for nonprofits! Why, I knew this one org that was struggling, and they decided focus on individual donors, and they were able to save the family farm, and not only that but the ED was asked to pose for the Men of Nonprofit calendar because his stress melted away and he regained his youthful, radiant complexion!”

OK, let’s calm down a bit, because this issue is complex. No one is disputing the importance of individual donors, but we are risking lumping all communities and organizations together and assuming they operate the same way. This 72% statistics—or 85% or whatever, depending on the source—is for all nonprofits in general. When disaggregated, the numbers tell a completely different story. According to this report by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and GIFT (Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training) and cited by Blue Avocado, among 104 communities-of-color-led nonprofits surveyed, about half the orgs reported 5% or less of their budget is from individual donors. A third say more than 75% of their revenues come from foundations. Only 5% say that individual donors are their biggest source of revenues.

While the above report samples organizations that are in California, and is six years old, I am willing to bet that these statistics can be generalized to communities-of-color-led organizations in other states and still apply today. I’ve been working with grassroots organizations long enough to say that there is a clear dissonance between accepted fundraising principles and how they play out in communities of color.

We need to accept the premise that fundraising, the way we understand and practice it currently, is historically designed for white fundraisers to work with white donors. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it often works. But taking these principles and practices and applying them to communities of color is like using a spoon to eat spaghetti—you can do it, but it will be slow, messy, and difficult. If we are going to engage communities of color in fundraising, either as donors or as fundraisers, we have to understand cultural context.

Engaging communities of color as donors

Development professionals know that the demographics are changing, and that there are significant potential resources from donors of color. Many, however, are tearing out their hair trying to figure out what would motivate these donors. People of color are very generous, but where they give and why and other factors need to be examined closely. Here are few observations I’ve noticed:

“Nonprofit” is often a new concept for many communities: In many communities, the concept of what a nonprofit is and what it does is pretty novel. My relativesmaze-2264_640 to this day have no understanding of what I do, even after countless attempts at explanation. Same goes with many community members. Several parents of students in the after-school program I used to run asked me if I had a “real” job in addition to my much appreciated “volunteering.” The unfamiliarity of the nonprofit structure affects all sorts of stuff, from board engagement to hiring of staff, and it often makes giving to a nonprofit a foreign and bizarre idea.

Homeland government plays a significant role: People from different countries will often go by what they have experienced. Depending on the country, the government takes care of certain societal issues (or at least claims to). So it is confusing for many people when they are in the US, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and nonprofits are asking them to donate to support schools or veterans or other people who should clearly be helped by the government. And, as one commenter noted below, there can be a lack of trust of government, and nonprofits are often confused with government agencies.

Religious institutions have the trust of the communities: Churches, temples, and other religious institutions have historically been the recipients of giving for many communities. They are organized, do a lot of important and visible charity work, and are seen as trustworthy. Plus, they’ve been around as community pillars for thousands of years and are relatively simple in how they are structured. People continue to give significantly to these institutions.

Communities’ priorities often focus abroad: For many people, the relatives and neighbors they leave behind when they left their countries weigh heavily on their minds. A significant portion of giving in communities of color goes to support family and community members abroad. There is a role that guilt plays—when you are able to escape to the Land of Opportunities while most people you know are left behind, this can affect your conscience. And when problems are still relatively awful for people you care about, and when donations go so much further abroad, it is understandable why so much giving goes across the sea.

If we don’t understand these and other factors, it is easy and tempting to dismiss communities of color, wondering why they are so reluctant to give. In my earlier years, in frustration I was tempted to write an op-ed to be published in the popular Vietnamese newspaper, something like, “Hey, if you want the community here to be strong, start donating money to nonprofits, and not just to churches and temples!” For a long time, I also thought my parents were cheapskates, always buying used clothing and generic crap. Then I realized that they were saving up and sending money back to our relatives every month; and plus, used clothing and generic “crap” are awesome! People of color give a lot, but just not usually to nonprofits. 

Giving is affected by history, culture, and traditions; these things can’t simply be retrofit into the current fundraising system. It will take time and resources and then more time if we hope to change the culture of giving in many communities. And it starts with putting aside our preconceptions in order to understand cultural dynamics.  

Organizations of color as fundraisers

I remember being on a board of a community-of-color-led nonprofit once, and a fundraising consultant was hired. “OK,” he said, “so what we’re going to do is have birger-kollmeier-910261_640each of you board members think of five people you know who can each give $10,000. Only five people to start. Can everyone do that?” None of us knew anyone who could give anywhere near that much.

The assumption that communities of color and other minority communities have access to the same relationships and resources as everyone else is completely false and is often damaging. It parallels the “why don’t poor people just pull themselves up by the bootstraps” argument—“Why don’t small organizations just learn how to cultivate individual donors. All they need to do is create a plan, develop a culture of philanthropy, engage the board to use its connections, build relationships, and money will just come pouring in. They need to work smarter, not harder.”

This assumption is damaging because it makes it easier for foundations to dismiss the important role they play in supporting these communities. We all know it takes dedicated staff and a CRM and professional development and several years of relationship building before results appear. Who is going to support the organization during those years while it builds fundraising capacity and relationships?

Another problem we need to seriously look into is the lack of fundraisers of color. Attend any fundraising conference and it will be mainly white. Development directors of color are the unicorns among unicorns. The lack of fundraisers of color creates a dissonance in the sector, making it challenging for organizations led by communities of color to seek individual donations from their own communities.

Putting it together

No one is denying that individual donations play a significant role in our sector. But the widespread belief that individual giving is a magic bullet that should work for all communities is culturally incompetent and shortsighted. The combination of cultural factors in giving, lack of fundraisers of color, lack of fundraising capacity, and lack of connections to wealthy individuals means that fundraising is extremely challenging for many organizations and communities of color. So what should we do?

First, let’s get our facts correct about individual giving. It may make up 72% of revenues for the nonprofit sector in general, but the numbers greatly decrease when you remove churches and universities, and when disaggregated, it is way, way less for organizations led by communities of color. As we see in the study above, most rely heavily on foundations and will continue to do so.

Second, let’s understand the role that foundations play. Fundraising is harder for communities of color, for all the factors mentioned above. Foundations, then, play an even more critical role in supporting grassroots organizations so they can sustain their programs and build their infrastructure in order to fundraise more effectively.

Third, we have to invest in developing more fundraisers of color: I get emails occasionally from development professionals of color who feel lonely and isolated because they are so few. We have to invest in programs that bring in more people of color into the field in general, as well as into development in particular, and we have to support them so they’ll stick around.

easter-349026_640Fourth, we have to create fundraising models that focus specifically on organizations and people of color: As I’ve mentioned, the current fundraising principles and practices have been developed historically with white fundraisers and donors in mind. They often fail when applied to grassroots organizations led by communities of color. 

If these suggestions seem unsatisfying, that’s because I haven’t figured it all out either. But if we aim to engage communities of color in fundraising—and we absolutely should, considering that a significant number of people we serve are people of color, and that the demographics of donors is changing—then we need to put aside assumptions, understand the unique strengths and characteristics of these communities, and invest time and resources into it.

It’ll take a while. In the meantime, think about working on an earned-income strategy through selling Men of Nonprofit calendars.

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  • Wow, this came at an opportune time because I’m getting ready to get started on organizing fundraising for another production of my play, “Encanta” (for my fiscally sponsored project, Crossroads Theatre Project), and I was wondering why cultivating individual donors didn’t seem to work as well for me as it did for my more affluent white peers. Glad my intuition was on point, but I’m wondering where to look for foundations that will give resources to lil’ ol’ me.

  • This is, as usual, a really coherent precis of the challenges of fundraising within communities of color – thank you Vu. But it can be done. My organization, Cause Effective, works with many grassroots groups in NYC every year to do so, as does GIFT (as I am sure you know) in CA. Not through the $10k per person level (who was that person and was she/he fired as fast as they were inappropriately hired? Or did they come through a foundation and couldn’t be fired?) but by, as you say, building a community of ambassadors both within the community served and through bridges to “allies.” I would be happy to refer you to a few groups that have done it very effectively – it takes a couple of years to take root, but what it does is return unrestricted monies to do what YOU think is important, not a project packaged for a foundation. And, when the foundations move on from your cause, as they almost all do eventually, individual donors will remain loyal for years – and bring in their friends, if you do it right.

  • Heather Yandow, Third Space St

    Thanks for the great blog, Vu! The report I’ve put together on individual donor fundraising for small and mighty organizations (those with budgets under $2 million) found that they raise about 36% of their budgets from individuals. The 72% number often includes large institutions and churches and greatly skews towards individual donor fundraising. You can read more about the report and download it here: http://www.thirdspacestudio.com/idbproject/.

  • Susie Purves

    http://www.rosenwaldfilm.org/home.php I just saw this film about philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and how he and Booker T. Washington devised a way to raise enough money to build over 5,500 schools in very poor African American communities in the south in the early 20th Century. It is fascinating and inspiring and considering the circumstances of the time, miraculous. One third of the support came from the communities themselves. Hugely inspiring and perhaps with contemporary applications.

  • Maggie Dennis

    Eye-opening as always, Vu. This post has me thinking in a new way about a capital campaign I worked on to raise funds for a senior center. The campaign was run by a 501c3 made up of passionate seniors who love the city-owned facility in need of expansion. I quickly realized that traditional fundraising methods weren’t going to work, due to many of the same issues you’ve outlined – but also due to generational differences regarding talking about and asking for money. In the end, the campaign was successful – the group exceeded their fundraising goal, the facility was expanded and includes amenities important to the local senior community – and most of all, the committee felt really good about their success. They did it their own way, but I think I could have done more to help them if I had been more culturally competent about their community.

  • LKitsch

    Your joke at the end touches on a real potential solution, actually. Nonprofits should seriously explore social enterprise (fee for service, etc) as a key component of generating revenue.

    You make good overall points, but it needs to be emphasized that organizations need to start today to address these issues and build individual donor programs — as you say, “invest time and resources.” Yes, it sucks, so lets move on and do something about it, understanding that it will take time and effort.

    I also think there is an “iceberg” effect — when we see successful individual donor programs and think we cannot do the same, we fail to realize we are seeing the fruits of years of groundwork. It’s not easy raising money anywhere.

  • CtotheA

    Great post. As a fundraiser, also has me thinking of the “accidental career” and why we need a pipeline of young, diverse folks who want to grow up to be development professionals!

  • McPierogiPazza

    Thought-provoking piece. Thanks for raising these issues. I’d be curious to see more research since we’re talking about organizations that can be as big as La Raza and NAACP, though obviously there are far more very small organizations.

    Can we just be clear that $10,000 gifts may be more likely from white donors but that few of us who are white would be able to make a list like that, especially if our work is community service-oriented?

    Also, there’s overlap between immigrant communities and people of color, but in my city I’d encounter the immigrant scenarios with people from Eastern Europe. While immigrants from most countries are unfamiliar with nonprofit giving the way Americans do it, people from former communist countries, particularly those aged 40 and up, may fear that a group is really government or a political party masquerading as a nonprofit.

    I’d add that African Americans have a truly strong tradition of individual giving but do so in ways that whites (and probably others who aren’t black) wouldn’t fully “get” — through churches and organizations with broad missions. The boxes many of us are accustomed to putting around issues and organizations don’t fit the same way for many African American organizations where, for example, a professionals networking group may also be active in addressing poverty in the community. I imagine that there are also particulars of giving in Native American communities that are distinctly different than with any other groups as well.

    In terms of more fundraisers of color, and boy is that important, those of us who are white need to do a lot more listening to those who are already on board. While learning person-to-person is best, another way to get informed is to follow fundraisers of color to follow on Twitter or to read sites like http://www.blackgivesback.com/ and http://www.nativephilanthropy.org/.

  • Rhiannon Orizaga

    This is fabulous. I think it’s important to remember that many communities of color have a different context for how to give and what to give to. I know a lot of people who will give to the church’s food pantry or toiletries pantry, although it might never occur to them to give to a nonprofit doing the same thing.

  • Once again, you provide some really great information and observations, Vu. A great reminder for fundraisers and especially consultants that each community, each organization is unique. There really are few one-size-fits-all solutions.

    And as another commenter noted, building a good individual program does not happen overnight. It starts with those community connections, not with gifts. People will probably come around – just as the enlightened foundations that support your work have.

    Really interesting, Vu. Thanks so much!

  • verucaamish

    This is the post I was waiting for. Thank you!

  • Dearest Vu, Thanks again for always engaging us in thoughtful and critical discussions. While all of this is true, communities of color are developing their own methods of engagement. Creative, innovative ways to listen and understand what does work, not want has worked for the caucasian communities.
    Also, over the last 25 years I have had the honor and pleasure to work with families whose roots happen to be European. Each of those 3 families have committed 6 and 7 figure gifts that address the needs of communities of color. They have a passion to rectify an issue that is not “their” issue. Let’s not throw out the baby unicorn with the rainbow bath water.
    The actual amount from individuals is 87% when you add bequests and the nearly half of foundations that are directed by individuals. Listen, learn and let me know if there is any way that I can help!
    Brian, GiftPro, LLC

  • Jon

    Most individual donations go to religious congregations, as shown in the Nonprofit Quarterly’s Illustrated Nonprofit Economy:


    One way to craft a realistic fundraising plan is to find out what the revenue picture is for other similar organizations (comparable activity area, budget size, geographic location, constituency, year formed, etc.) and project similar percentages of revenue from major revenue types (government grants, foundations, earned income, individual donations, bingo, etc.). It is not easy or likely that any given organization will have completely different revenue streams from its counterparts, though many try…..

  • Kenneth Foster

    Vu this is great! And tracks with so many other issues in the NP world just now – that our structures, values and strategies are from a different era that does not cohere with the contemporary world. We definitely need to be thinking about and developing new ways of raising money from our communtieis and let go of some of these old ideas that NP’s repeat like they are truth. They are not.

  • Natalia Fior

    Spot on. There is a huge discrepancy and the system of traditional fundraising is completely set up for white people to ask white people for money. I think Social Justice Fund is doing great work with their giving circles to promote one alternative model for a grassroots-focused fundraising approach, and hopefully one that may be able to transfer to fundraising with communities of color…

  • Wonderful post (as usual), Vu. Early in my career I interviewed a legendary nonprofit fundraising guru. I remember being mildly frustrated when he responded to several of my questions with “it depends.” But the longer I am in this field, the more I find myself answering with ‘it depends.’ We all face different challenges. Thank you for this. I’ll be sharing it with my foundation colleagues. Oh, and lousy consultant, btw. I hate that approach.

  • nicole

    Have you read the Blackbaud Diversity in Giving report? https://www.blackbaud.com/nonprofit-resources/diversity-in-giving

    Culturally, people give differently. And it’s important to understand that.

  • Lisa Haderlein

    Vu – great post as always. Just wanted to tell you I was at a restaurant last night that had a drink on the menu called “unicorn tears.” I ordered it even though I did not recognize any of the ingredients, except one: magic. It was good, so I had a second! I felt much lighter the rest of the night!

  • You always DO make Mondays suck less, Vu! Your latest post is, as others have said, excellently thought-provoking. I wanted to note that these same issues have relevance to recruiting volunteers (time donors) as well. People give money to causes in which they have a personal stake, which is why volunteers consistently rank among the most generous givers of money, too. Yet many nonprofits struggle with recruiting volunteers of color. They often conclude, incorrectly, that new Americans simply don’t come from a “tradition” of volunteering. But there is no culture in the world that does not include communal activities, care for the sick and old, and more. It just doesn’t follow the same model (or vocabulary) of Western philanthropy. But it is well worth the effort to invite and welcome diverse “skill-anthropists,” first for the ideas and talents they offer and also for the eventual link to financial gifts as well.

    Perhaps you can do a post sometime separating “people of color” into some categories that seem to have important distinctions: immigrants or refugees who themselves were raised in another country; their second generation children; non-African black people; wealthy immigrants vs. poor ones; and more.

  • Toni Francis

    hey Vu! Thank you for another great post! I love and agree with everything you’re saying here and wanted to respond to your third suggestion- invest in developing fundraisers of colour. I was recently accepted into a fellowship through the Association of Fundraising Professionals (Toronto chapter) “Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy” which specifically aims to do just this- increase the capacity and skill level of mid-level NPO professionals with intersecting identities (check out meet the fellows) http://www.afpinclusivegiving.ca/ I am quite excited about the opportunities this fellowship will provide to discuss critical race/gender issues in the philanthropic sector, and recommend connecting with your local AFP chapter to see what similar opportunities exist in your community.

  • Tegan

    I know that some churches and other religious organizations have a “share the offering plate” program, in which donations to the religious group are split with a local nonprofit for a month. In my experience, it’s always a social service organization, but that may vary place to place. I imagine this system would need to be modified for different religious groups, such as ones that request annual pledges from their congregations but do not ask for weekly contributions. I wonder whether forming stronger relationships with religious organizations could be a plausible fundraising strategy for local and regional nonprofits? It can be dicey for groups unaffiliated with a religion, but “sharing the plate” seems to have good results.

  • From Jennifer of GIFT, who is having trouble getting her comment to post: “Thank you for this post. We have a number of case studies in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal of groups based in communities of color who are doing very cutting-edge resource building in their communities, I invite you to check them out: http://bit.ly/1V664pL. You’ll also find our response to CompassPoint & Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s “Underdeveloped” report, in which we interview fundraisers of color about their experience working in development. And while *most* fundraising conferences continue to be predominantly white, Money for Our Movements: A Social Justice Fundraising Conference remains an exception–we’ve consistently had 2/3 people of color in attendance–you can learn more here: http://bit.ly/P9mwoP.