top of page

Moving Beyond Donor-Centric Fundraising to Prioritize Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Dignity

Over the last few weeks there has been consternation from White, male fundraisers [specifically, Tom Ahern] about the Community Centric Fundraising movement, implying that those who support CCF’s methods are “wanna-be fundraisers” or “novices.” This year marks my *cough* 20th year in the nonprofit field, and I have spent almost as long within the fundraising field. The early aughts were when the donor-centered mindset hit its stride and authors churned out books about how to retain your donors and raise more money from those same donors.

White woman in an SUV getting a carwash from three young people and making a donation to a young woman for their service

The donor-centric model makes a lot of sense within America’s capitalist framework – since nonprofits are not “selling” a product to a consumer they instead “sell” an experience to encourage donors to “unleash” their philanthropy at a much higher level. The model itself is not inherently bad; it prioritizes relationship building, encourages donors to see themselves as philanthropists, centers transparency, and helps nonprofits see fundraising cost as an essential investment in a sustainable future. However, donor-centrism is often taken to extremes within organizations that insist on treating donors as the most important element of our work. When we center donors above our missions and the communities we seek to serve, we actively support an inequitable power differential that prevents us from advancing to a more equitable society.

Donor-centrism is effective, but it comes at a cost. Vu Le wrote a nuanced article several years ago, How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising. He outlines the costs as:

  1. Perpetuating the nonprofit hunger games

  2. Proliferating the savior complex

  3. Perpetuating the othering of the people we serve

  4. Crowding out the voices of people served

  5. Further marginalizing already underserved communities

  6. Reinforcing money as the default measure of people’s worth

  7. Minimizing other elements needed to do this work well

  8. Furthering the idea of transactional charity

  9. Preventing honest conversations and true partnerships

  10. Short-changing our donors

To this list, I would like us to consider adding:

  1. Prioritizing development staff as “superstars” of an organization

  2. Creating staff burnout with unachievable fundraising goals and sponsor/donor benefits, particularly among fundraisers of color

  3. Perpetuating racial inequities within the fundraising community to make donors “comfortable” with White development officers.

  4. Limiting the ways in which we interact with donors to a fundraising model that inherently centers Whiteness

  5. Ignoring how donors’ wealth is derived, particularly for those whose wealth can be traced to practices that perpetuate racism, inequity, and potentially undermine the mission of the organization

Prioritizing development staff as “superstars” of an organization.

Two boys wearing superhero outfits and reaching toward the sky in an attempt to fly

Cause Effective’s Money, Power and Race: The Lived Experience of Fundraisers of Color 2019 report found that fundraising is where the narrative of organizations is shaped, development professionals are entrusted with representing their institutions to individuals with the ability to make a game-changing difference in their constituents’ future, and fundraising carries the power to bestow resources and enable programming. Often fundraisers hold more power than other employees and are afforded a “seat at the table” with those in power – board members, major donors, and community leaders. This paints fundraisers as heroes saving the day, raising money to support programming, and further the mission of the organization. They are often provided higher salaries, benefits packages, flexible schedules, bonuses, and opportunities for advancement.

Do we really want to hold fundraisers above other staff members who are providing equally as important mission-driven work? What is the cost to an organization that under-compensates non-development staff positions? How do we understand and work to overcome systemic inequity if we perpetuate it in our own staffing structures?

Creating staff burnout with unachievable fundraising goals and sponsor/donor benefits, particularly among fundraisers of color.

Young Woman in a blue buttondown shirt with head in her hand, leaning on her desk in frustration or worry

Often, organizations create lofty fundraising goals that overlook the amount of work that goes into each ask and then expect the fundraiser to fulfill on donors’ expected benefits. When I worked at a high-profile arts organization, I regularly made five and six-figure asks of corporate donors and sponsors while also being required to coordinate, manage, and attend sponsor receptions, hand-deliver performance tickets to corporate offices, set up donor meet and greets with prominent artists, write grants to corporate foundations, regularly attend events to connect with donors, and in the case of an official vehicle sponsor, drive cars in and out of the lobby of the building on performance nights.

I was burned out. The staff turnover was around 150% (primarily within the fundraising and marketing teams). The fundraising staff was berated when we did not meet grossly over-estimated fundraising goals. I was considered a troublemaker when I brought up inappropriate donor behavior (e.g., the husband of a corporate donor grabbing my thigh under the table at a black-tie donor dinner) as the organization prioritized donor comfort over the staff’s right to dignity and equity. My performance was evaluated on the amount of money raised, the success of corporate events (even when outcomes were outside of my control), how I dressed, what I said in conversation, and how much I smiled and engaged with donors. These issues were even more compounded for my colleagues of color. Many were required to “code-switch,” the act of changing behaviors, speech, dress, and mannerisms to conform to a different cultural norm than what we do authentically in our personal spaces. Furthermore, they endured explicit and implicit bias and microaggressions, were questioned about their fundraising knowledge and felt isolated because of a lack of organizational mentorship and professional development opportunities. Do we really want to prioritize fundraising through whatever means possible with complete disregard for the potential harm? Do we want to perpetuate a fundraising process that burns out and disillusions good fundraisers? What are the organization’s responsibilities to protect and ensure a safe and healthy working environment when donors have an outsized power differential over fundraisers?

Perpetuating racial inequities within the fundraising community to make donors “comfortable” with White development officers.

Young woman in a blazer speaking to a business colleague

Fundraising is a field where people of color are implicitly or explicitly viewed as outsiders either as donors or as fundraising professionals. Because White people are over-represented in donor populations (75% of donors are non-Hispanic whites although they account for 64% of the U.S. population according to Blackbaud’s Diversity in Giving report) they are often viewed as the “default” when it comes to creating fundraising programs and stewardship plans. Establishing a career in fundraising means entering white-dominated spaces daily and being comfortable with the privileged lifestyle of donors with wealth.

Too often, success in fundraising has less to do with skill and more to do with class background and “assimilation” or “code-switching” to make donors feel more comfortable. I have worked in Black-led organizations where the executive director felt it took longer for her to close major gifts. She had to have more meetings with donors before they were as comfortable with her as they were with a White fundraiser or executive director. With this knowledge, it is unsurprising that 2017 research by the Lily School of Philanthropy shows that fundraisers are 74% female and only 12% are people of color. Furthermore, a Cause Effective report found the longer a BIPOC fundraiser stayed in the development field, the more they cited experiencing discrimination along their career trajectory.

By fueling donors’ comfortability to receive donations, we create a destructive mindset that says fundraisers of color are less effective because they are not able to raise the same amount of money in the same amount of time as their White counterpart. It maintains harmful and racist stereotypes of BIPOC communities; placing them in roles that are less powerful due to a false narrative that they are not capable of effective fundraising.

Limiting the ways in which we interact with donors to a fundraising model that inherently centers Whiteness.

African American, Latinx, and Asian donors are solicited less frequently than White donors. These communities suggest they would give more if they were asked more often. About one in three donate time as volunteers in addition to making a financial contribution. Blackbaud’s Diversity in Giving study shows that the color of a person’s skin, age, education, or how long they have lived in this country is not a significant predictor of giving. Rather, what drives how much a donor gives, is that person’s connection to faith or house of worship.

Despite that data, we have built a one-size-fits-all fundraising machine that forces nonprofits to fish the same holes for the same donors. We use predictive analytics to determine a donation probability, an expected donation amount if they donate, and the most effective ways to engage with potential donors based on these probabilities. However, that means a nonprofit with a list of 1,000 past donors and 1,500 potential donors may only be able to contact 900 donors through in-person meetings, phone calls, and direct/digital mailing due to budget constraints. Too often, fundraisers prioritize major donors who have the capacity to make high-value contributions even if they only have a 40% donation probability rather than donors perceived as low-value who have a greater than 90% probability of donating. We need to imagine new ways and new channels to reach diverse communities of color.

This means embracing culturally responsive fundraising tools that identify how donors of color want to play a philanthropic role within their communities. That requires understanding cultural giving strategies, non-monetary philanthropy, non-organized philanthropic giving, and other intersecting identities that play a role in how donors of color give.

  • With Latinx donors, personal relationships play an important role– with remittances to relatives living abroad or other family members before giving to non-religious organizations. Social networks, personalismo (emotional giving), and spontaneity are common motivators within the Latinx community.

  • Whereas Black communities have some of the oldest and most deeply entrenched identity-based funds (e.g., Black churches, civic and fraternal orders, Greek societies, mutual aid societies, and giving circles). In particular, the African American community favors youth development groups and is twice as likely to say they will support anti-racism or anti-hate groups (12% versus 7% overall). Despite structural barriers that have blocked asset building and wealth-creating within the African American communities, Black families have contributed the largest proportion of their wealth (including savings, used cars, land, and investment accounts) to charity since 2010.

  • In Asian American communities, we see that mutual aid societies are an important part of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino communities in the U.S. Personal relationships also play an important role with billions of dollars in remittances to relatives living abroad. Numerous countries, diverse cultures, and religions make up the expansive Asian American diaspora. While faith is not as relevant in overall giving decisions, within specific communities, there is still a tie to faith-based giving. For instance, among Koreans and Japanese, a significant amount of giving is tied to Christianity and Buddhism. Within Muslim communities, Ramadan is a time of giving with a focus on humanitarian issues and a proportion of wealth is donated each year to charitable causes through zakat (tithe).

Ignoring how donors’ wealth is derived, particularly for those whose wealth can be traced to practices that perpetuate racism, inequity, and potentially undermine the mission of the organization.

White Americans control nearly seven times as much wealth per household as Black Americans do, this translates into a racial philanthropy gap including a bias in how wealth is dispersed and minimizes donations to groups run by people of color for the benefit of communities of color. This is explored by Edgar Villanueva in his book Decolonizing Wealth. What we find in the philanthropic community is that many families and institutions have amassed wealth on the backs of people of color and indigenous people. Two examples of this are:

The hands and covered head of a tobacco farmer
  • The R.J. Reynolds Foundation, funded by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, offices on a plantation, and slave labor helped build the Reynolds family fortune. Even after slavery was abolished, migrant agricultural workers were among the last laborers to organize. The tobacco industry depended on a vast labor pool made up of a class of exploitable workers and child laborers. The work was carried out by migrant farmworkers from Latin America and the West Indies with activities structured by racial/ethnic division of labor and each working group would be geographically and socially isolated and subjected to hazardous and exploitative working conditions.

  • The Russell Sage Foundation is the U.S.’s oldest nonprofit, established by Margaret Olivia Sage in 1907 for the “improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.” The foundation’s assets came from her husband, Russell Sage, a robber baron, and director of the Union Pacific Railroad which constructed the transcontinental railroad. The project took about six years to complete and relied primarily on the help of Irish and Chinese immigrants. Due to widespread prejudice over hiring ethnic groups, the Irish and Chinese railroad workers were required to work in harmful and dangerous areas for extremely low pay. White railway workers were entitled to higher wages, meals, and shelter. They often did not have to work directly with explosives or inside caves where deadly accidents often occurred. Sage was also a financier who was convicted of usury, granting loans at unlawfully high-interest rates, as high as an annualized rate of 80%.

As philanthropists attempt to address social problems, they do so without acknowledging that their business practices were at the root of social problems, systemic racism, and colonization. We need to ask ourselves; what responsibilities do philanthropic organizations have to the communities of color and indigenous communities they harmed in their wealth acquisition? How should power be redistributed to compensate for these practices, with the knowledge that wealth does not mean you know how to repair social problems?

Where Do We Go from Here?

Fortunately, fundraisers and philanthropic organizations are starting to come around to the injustice and racism perpetuated by the philanthropic industrial complex. Regrettably, we continue to see supposed “thought leaders” sharing their opinions in a way that perpetuates inequality, undermines the lived experiences of fundraisers of color, and centers White supremacy. In the case of Tom Ahern, his comments have earned him a formal ethics complaint with the Association of Fundraising Professionals against him by Liz LeClair, current chair of AFP Global’s ‘Women’s Impact Initiative’ and major donor fundraiser. As we move forward, we need to consider, who are the thought leaders in the nonprofit industry? Are they representative of the communities we serve? What are they saying, and does it prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility within fundraising practices?

As the fundraising and philanthropic communities seek to redefine fundraising models, we need to take into consideration the communities with whom fundraisers should be engaging and what constitutes philanthropy.

  • It transcends financial contributions to include volunteer time, remittances to family and overseas relatives, and nontraditional funding models like mutual aid and giving circles.

  • It includes identifying culturally responsive fundraising activities and channels that consider donors’ lived experiences and intersecting identities.

  • It questions and identifies ethical frameworks around whether organizations should accept funding from organizations that have historically perpetuated harm against the communities they are now seeking to support.

  • It prioritizes the use of culturally responsive language to create fundraising and marketing materials that reduce implicit bias and center the program recipient in their own stories.

  • It requires equity, inclusion, diversity, and accessibility within the fundraising framework to eliminate systemic barriers so future generations do not have to be “fixed.”

  • It balances donors’ rights and needs against the rights and needs of beneficiaries to create a horizontal philanthropic relationship.

This process will not be easy, especially as donor-centered fundraising has reigned supreme for three decades. As we challenge current paradigms, we need to consider what aspects of current fundraising methodologies are outdated, perpetuate inequity, and how we want to move forward.


bottom of page