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How to engage with donors of color

By Tyrone Freeman, assistant professor of philanthropic studies, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Save the dates

Interested in learning more about diversity and philanthropy? The Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy Speaker Series will feature Dr. Noah Drezner of Colombia University speaking on LGBTQ philanthropy on March 27 and Sandra Vargas, the former head of the Minneapolis Foundation discussing Latinx philanthropy on April 24.

In the nonprofit community, donors of color are being referred to as ‘new and emerging,’ by fundraisers and organizations looking to engage them.

However, this phrase belies the fact that people of color have given for hundreds of years and continue to give via mechanisms such as individual giving, giving circles, donor networks, donor advised funds, family foundations and other forms.

Let’s start with history. Donors of color like Thomy LaFon, Colonel John McKee, Madam C.J. Walker, Annie Malone, Sheila Johnson, LeBron James, and Oprah Winfrey reflect the reality that people of color have been significant donors for generations. These individuals and their generous philanthropy have supported causes ranging from schools to churches to social services to arts and arts education to scholarships throughout the past 200+ years.

This generosity, however, is not the sole domain of the black elite or wealthy. Donors of color across various economic levels have utilized diverse giving tools and approaches to participate in philanthropy. In recent decades, giving circles, the latest version of the generations-old habit of pooling and sharing resources to meet personal and social needs, have become a particular area of focus. Groups like Black Benefactors in Washington, D.C., Sisterhood of Philanthropists Impacting Needs in Denver, the Community Investment Network in North Carolina, and the more recently created African American Legacy Fund of Indianapolis are organized by black donors at all income levels and ages who support their communities.

What’s more, organizations like United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall Fund have long existed to develop black and other donors who support black advancement, and black religious, educational and social service organizations attract donors of color to support an even wider range of causes.

The Young, Black and Giving Back Institute in Washington, D.C., is engaging young, highly educated professionals of color, a group it says has been ignored as the nonprofit world focuses on how best to cater to millennials. Regional Blacks in Philanthropy groups, along with others such as the Association of Black Foundation Executives and the African American Development Officers Network, have long brought together grant-making and fundraising leaders of color to advocate for social justice, equity in funding and diversity in the grant-making and fundraising professions.

These groups and individual donors of color have given and continue to give at all levels and in different ways. Indeed, African-American families have contributed the largest proportion of their wealth–including savings, cars, land, and investment accounts – to charity since 2010, according to the Urban Institute.  

As a result, the true “new and emerging” phenomenon is not donors of color, but rather the sudden interest being shown in them by nonprofit organizations, which will not ultimately benefit the community unless tough questions are asked, resources are committed and honest relationships are built.

Here are several suggestions for engaging with, cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding donors of color.

  • Diversify your board, staff and programming.  

Generally, donors of color, and prospective donors of color, will want to see evidence of commitment to diversity and inclusion represented across your organization or cause. Be prepared to educate them about what you have done and are doing.

  • Learn about the rich traditions and histories of giving in communities of color.

Understanding your donors of color as individuals within a broader historical and cultural context of giving is critical to building relationships and successfully engaging them. It’s vital to understand donors of color on their own terms.

  • Analyze your donor database and your social network.

Who have you reached out to, and who have you not? Why? You must understand the current situation in order to determine a way forward, and you may have to expand beyond your organization’s traditional networks.

  • Engage with racial, ethnic, gender, sociocultural, and other identities as appropriate for cultivation and solicitation activities.

Ask questions as part of your cultivation strategy to connect with donors of color as individuals on their own terms. How would they like to be engaged? What are they currently drawn to within your organization? What gaps in services or programs do they see and want to help address. Use the answers to inform your strategy on how you want to engage with that donor.

  • Be intentional.

Be deliberate in investing the time, resources, and attention necessary to successfully engage diverse donors. If they have not been responsive to existing efforts and approaches, find out why and then figure out how to adapt. Don’t place the onus on them for not being responsive. Figure out why your efforts have not resonated with them and fix it.

A related article by Freeman appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Tyrone Freeman, Ph.D., assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, researches and analyzes donors of color throughout history, and previously worked as a professional fundraiser and directed educational programs at The Fund Raising School.

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