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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