A Latent Force: Inside the Collaborative Organizing Wealthy Donors of Color

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There are about 1.3 million people of color with fortunes of at least $1 million in the U.S., but little is being done to engage them in philanthropy, according to a report compiled by a group calling itself the People of Color Donor Collaborative.

High-net-worth individuals of color give philanthropically, but tend to be isolated from each other and absent from networks that connect wealthy white donors, say authors of the report Urvashi Vaid and Ashindi Maxton. 

Vaid is a lawyer and organizer working with social justice groups focused on justice and inclusion. She cut her teeth as an LGBTQ rights activist and later served as an executive at the Ford and Arcus foundations. Maxton works as an advisor to donors with a focus on democracy reform, racial justice and education. She’s worked with the Democracy Alliance, the Ford Foundation, Women Donors Network and the Sandler Family Foundation, as well as individual donors.

Vaid came up with the project while at a conference for progressive donors and noticed that the only people of color at the conference were either presenting or serving. “That wasn’t intentional, but that’s what was going on,” she said. “So we asked each other, 'What’s this about? Where are high net worth people of color? Where are they congregating? Where are they to be found?'”

These questions set Vaid and Maxton on a mission to learn about and engage wealthy donors of color. They started with the report and are presenting their findings around the country. They’re joined by Hali Lee and Tuhina De O’Connor, who are conducting interviews with donors of color to get a fuller picture of how they give.

Lee and De O’Connor are both members of the Asian Women Giving Circle and co-founders of Faces of Giving LLC, which advises and coaches donors from diverse backgrounds. Also involved in the collaborative are Mario Lugay from Giving Side, George Suttles, formerly of Philanthropic Advisor US Trust, consultant Nitika Raj and Brent Swinton from Advancement Project.

The People of Color Donor Collaborative has picked up some big backers, including the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Ford, Arcus, and the New York Women's Foundation.

Through reviewing the scarce research on donors of color publicly available, the collaborative found donors of color give differently from wealthy white individuals and from each other. Every ethnicity has a “culture of giving,” Maxton said, but the culture and habits differed by ethnicity and even generation.

However, some similarities emerged. High-net-worth donors of color are more likely to have earned, rather than inherited, their wealth relative to their white peers, because of structural inequality, Maxton said.

High-net-worth donors of color give generously, largely to the people who ask them, Maxton said. That usually means big gifts to universities.

The reason ties back to how they acquired their money. “Donors of color are looking to increase opportunity. Most of them have made their own wealth. They didn’t inherit, for the most part,” Maxton said.  “They’re conscious of the opportunity that allowed them to make that wealth. So they’re giving to create opportunity.”

The downside is that this type of gift to a university, or often a cultural institution, only helps a certain type of person, who has already made it to college or has access to the cultural opportunity, Maxton said. “Donors of color give to promote opportunity. They’re not necessarily giving to change systems.”

The idea is that a network for donors of color could push them to look upstream. Instead of pumping tens of millions of dollars into the system, someone should talk to donors about how their resources could change the system, Maxton said.

That’s the long-term plan for the collaborative. For now, the group is working to reach more donors and deepen their research, but ultimately, the goal is to build a network for wealthy individuals of color and organize them around racial, economic and social justice.

The hope is to replicate the work wealthy gay and lesbian donors did for marriage equality, Maxton and Vaid note. “Twenty-five years ago, there was no such thing as a field called ‘gay and lesbian philanthropy,’” Vaid said. “Every one was closeted. They didn’t want to be known as gay, much less as rich.”

Vaid credited Tim Gill and his foundation’s OutGiving conferences for fostering an LBGTQ philanthropic movement. The conferences brought together wealthy individuals donating to LGBTQ causes on their own and allowed them to network, meet and collaborate with other donors, advocates and thought leaders. “Twenty years later, we have a field called LGBT philanthropy,” Vaid said.

Maxton called the marriage equality movement and the role donors played a “North Star” for the collaborative.

There’s a narrative from progressives that depicts marriage equality as inevitable, Maxton said. “It was actually a story about organized money. What actually won was a disciplined, state-by-state strategy that was driven by gay donors, who wanted to put their money, their resources and their political capital into achieving something that no one thought was possible when they started.”

“What would happen if you did the same with donors of color? Where could you fuel massive, impossible change? How do we organize this money?” Maxton asked. The People of Color Donor Collaborative hopes to find out.

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