Bringing Diversity to American Philanthropy: It’s Complicated

The mandate to promote diversity in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector has been trumpeted for decades by grantmakers and grantseekers alike—with arguably little to show for it. 

But here and there are some signs of real progress. For example: A national grantmaking program in the arts by Dance/USA spent a year completely redesigning its guidelines and making other changes to achieve greater diversity among grant recipients, all of whom work to engage and expand dance audiences.  

The Washington consultant who administers the nearly $1.2-million annual grants program told me she worked long and hard to change the application process, finally convincing small, minority dance groups that the changes do, indeed, go beyond one-time “token grants.” 

My latest bit of good news is Diversity and Philanthropy: Expanding the Circle of Giving, a new book by Lilya Wagner, a longtime source of mine in the Washington area who holds a doctorate in education and the CFRE fundraising credential. 

After offering to read and review her book, I’m not ashamed to admit I had a sinking feeling. So much material on diversity in the charity world is, well, preachy, lacking in substance, missing varying perspectives, or all of those things.

Not this book, I’m pleased and relieved to say. (Nothing like a bad review to ruin a relationship with a trusted source.) There are some things I could quibble with. In one instance, Wagner cites a study showing that only 2 percent of all United States fundraisers are Hispanic, but that study surveyed only members of one professional association. But that’s a minor point, given the richness the author brings to her book. 

Born in Estonia, Wagner fled with her minister father and other family members when the Soviet Union took over her country in the 1940s and Communists cracked down on religion. By age 10, she spoke four languages (Estonian, English, German, and Spanish) and had lived on three continents.  

As a result, Wagner’s interest in cultural diversity is lifelong and heartfelt. Working as a consultant to nongovernmental organizations all over the world, she spent 20 years gathering information for her book, a labor of love, she told me. She spent three years writing it. 

Rather than divide the book into a country-by-country analysis as others have done, Wagner considers philanthropy in a broader context related to Spanish-speaking populations, African roots in America, the influence of Islam on Arab American philanthropy, Jewish traditions in philanthropy, Native American philanthropic traditions, giving by Asian and Pacific Islanders, and more. At the end of each chapter, she includes a short piece by one or more experts from those same cultural backgrounds who offer their own views of philanthropy.  

Reading the book, I’m struck that people around the globe are far more alike than different in their giving to help others. Philanthropy emerges as a universal human tendency. The biggest differences come from nuances such as whether a society places more weight on individual autonomy as Europeans and Americans tend to do, or whether decisions about giving and other matters are made in a more communal fashion, by or for a larger group. 

Another cultural difference related to charitable activity emerges in parts of the world where religion and charity are suppressed by totalitarian governments. But even in some of those regions, giving is still practiced, it’s just behind closed doors.

The United States is becoming more diverse, no question. Wagner cites a projection that the country’s white mainstream population will sink to half of all Americans by 2050. The most useful chapter in the book for charity leaders trying to get ahead of this trend by promoting diversity and inclusion is “The Culturally Proficient Professional and Nonprofit.” 

It is here that Wagner scours the professional literature for what other experts say about bridging differences among divergent cultures, outlines barriers to becoming culturally sensitive (e.g., “You forget to invest in relationships”), and offers lots of cautionary advice about things you shouldn’t do when working with culturally diverse donors and other constituents. 

The list of things to avoid is long, indeed: “Be cautious about calling prospects and clients by their first names,” “In some cultures, writing on a business card defaces it and is an insult,” “Avoid colloquialisms such as 'ya’ll,'” and the list goes on. That just underscores the fact that forming strong ties among people from vastly different backgrounds isn’t easy. Neither is engaging donors from other cultures in American-style philanthropy.    

At the very least, we’d all do well to keep in mind a quote Wagner cites from a travel writer: “The joy of travel is to let different cultures seep into your identity. It’s not to bring your own culture with you so you can inflict it on the native populace.”