Why Aren’t We Engaging More Diverse Donors?

There’s a topic that we don’t talk about—at least we don’t in my Hudson Valley neck of the woods. It’s donor diversity. It’s what we’re doing—or not doing—to reach a broader base of support. I’ve written often about board diversity. And I’ll continue, as more diverse boards are critical in multiple ways for every organization’s short-term and long-term viability. Among those vital areas is developing the insight and means to connect with individuals of different racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and other identities in ways that engage them to give.

I know that we live in a time when conversations about diversity issues can become flashpoints. But I believe strongly that this is an important and necessary discussionnot only for my corner of the nonprofit world, but for all. As a sector, we can demonstrate in uplifting ways how diverse people come together around common causes and missions.

Toward a Broader Ask

Within the Hudson Valley, we have significant populations of Hispanics, particularly residents who have emigrated from Mexico or are of Mexican heritage, and African-Americans. We also have a sizable LGBTQ community, including numerous transplants from New York City.

As a development consultant, I’ve worked with many organizations on giving plans. Yet not once has there been a substantive discussion about tailoring a plan to the interests and giving motivations of these different groups within the region. This tendency to view donor engagement through one lens, rather than many, is confirmed in Diversity in Giving: The Changing Landscape of American Philanthropy, a 2015 study by the Blackbaud technology firm in Charleston, South Carolina. The study noted that “America is in the midst of a dramatic cultural shift, but evidence suggests that organized philanthropy may be stuck in the past… We built complex look-alike models allowing us to better fish the same fishing holes for the same donors.”

I found the foreword by Dr. Emmett Carson, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and a contributor to the study, powerful reading. Consider:

…notwithstanding America’s motto of e pluribus unum (out of many, one), fundraising in the 21st century will require a differentiated approach tailored to the interests, values, and traditions of the many rather than a one-size-fits-all approach based on the interests, values, and traditions of white Americans.

Also mirroring what I’ve observed is the study’s finding that African-American and Hispanic donors are being solicited less frequently. In follow-up responses, individuals indicated they would give more if asked more often. The study found that “The color of a person’s skin is not a significant predictor of giving amount.”

To its credit, the Association of Fundraising Professionals has been considering the issue of diversity and fundraising for a while now. It co-convened a summit on this issue in 2013, and is supporting a strong array of activities to achieve more diversity and inclusion in fundraising—which is essential to reaching new donors. (See more here.) Still, for many nonprofit leaders and fundraising, this is new terrain. 

Understanding What Motivates

The Blackbaud study surveyed nearly 1,100 U.S. adults who had given to a nonprofit in the previous 12 months (as of October 2014, the survey period). The findings point to differences in the types of needs that speak to particular groups and what can move a would-be donor to become a confirmed contributor.

For example, African-Americans in the study were more likely to give to social service organizations in their local community. Other organizations they support include those focused on children’s welfare, health, youth development, and anti-racism or anti-hate activism.

Compared with respondents from other groups in the study, African Americans are also more welcoming of opportunities to contribute to nonprofits through walks, dinners and other social events. They appreciate receiving a thank-you item, such as a T-shirt, to acknowledge a donation. Significantly, they’re more likely to see it as a responsibility to give to organizations helping other African-Americans.

Collaborating with Donors and Ideas

Clearly, this kind of detailed picture of a specific group can be valuable for developing giving appeals with greater impact. It’s knowing what really matters to donors in terms of where they give and how they want to be involved. It’s also recognizing that reaching out with a message of “can you help?” is a necessary step for engaging everyone. As the Blackbaud study concludes, when donors are not diverse, a question that has to be asked is whether an organization is doing what’s needed.

Changing giving patterns are also discussed in the "Philanthropy Outlook 2016 & 2017" from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. This forecast study spotlights giving by Millennials, a group that the report notes is considerably nonwhite and represents a blend of races and ethnicities.

The donor universe is changing. If your organization is already actively engaging a diverse donor base, you’re on the right track. If not, it’s time to directly engage this issue.

Susan J. Ragusa is a nonprofit strategist in the Hudson Valley region and metro New York. Email susan@susanjragusa.com or connect with Susan on LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Google+.