Every time that I talk about how arduous grant writing is, inevitably someone will say something like, “That’s why you should focus on individual donors! Statistically, individual donors provide 72% of the funds for nonprofits!”
“Why, I knew this one organization that was struggling, and they decided focus on individual donors. They were able to save the family farm—not only that, but the Executive Director was asked to pose for the Men of Nonprofit calendar because his stress melted away and he regained his youthful, radiant complexion!”
No one is disputing the importance of individual donors, but lumping all communities and organizations together and assuming they operate the same way is risky.
This 72% statistic—or 85%, depending on the source—is for all nonprofits in general. When disaggregated, the numbers tell a completely different story. According to this report by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and GIFT (Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training), and cited by Blue Avocado, of among 104 communities-of-color-led nonprofits surveyed, about half of the organizations reported 5% or less of their budget coming from individual donors. A third say more than 75% of their revenues come from foundations. Only 5% say that individual donors are their biggest source of revenue.
While the above report is six years old and samples organizations in California, I am willing to bet that these statistics would still apply today and be generalized to communities-of- color-led organizations in other states. I’ve been working with grassroots organizations long enough to say that there is a clear dissonance between accepted fundraising principles and how they play out in communities of color.
We need to accept the premise that fundraising—the way we currently understand and practice it—is historically designed for white fundraisers to work with white donors.
Taking these principles and practices and applying them to communities of color is like using a spoon to eat spaghetti—you can do it, but it will be slow, messy, and difficult. If we are going to engage communities of color in fundraising, either as donors or as fundraisers, we have to understand cultural context.
Development professionals know that demographics are changing, and that there are significant potential resources available from donors of color. Many, however, are trying to figure out what would motivate these donors. People of color are very generous, but factors, like where they give and why, need to be examined.
Here are few observations I’ve noticed:
“Nonprofit” is often a new concept for many communities.
In many communities, the con- cept of what a nonprofit is and what it does is pretty novel. To this day, my relatives have no understanding of what I do. Several parents of students in the after-school program that I used to run asked me if I had a “real” job in addition to my much-appreciated “volun- teering.” The unfamiliarity of the nonprofit structure affects all sorts of stuff, from board engagement to hiring, and it often makes giv- ing to a nonprofit a bizarre idea.
Homeland government plays a significant role.
People from different countries will often go by what they have experienced. Depending on the home country, the government takes care of certain societal issues. So it is confusing for people new to the United States, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, that nonprofits ask them to donate to support schools, or vet- erans, or people who should clearly be helped by the government. A lack of government trust is often prevalent, and nonprofits can be confused with government agencies.
Religious institutions have the trust of the communities.
Churches, temples, and other religious institutions have historically been the recipients of giving for many communities. They are organized, do a lot of important and visible charity work, and are seen as trustwor- thy. Plus, they’ve been around as community pillars for thousands of years and are relatively simple in structure. People continue to give significantly to these institutions.
Communities’ priorities often focus abroad.
For many people, the relatives and neigh- bors they leave behind when they left their countries weigh heavily on their minds. A significant portion of giving in communities of color goes to support family and community members abroad. When problems are still relatively awful for people you may have left behind, and when donations go so much further in other countries, it is understandable why so much giving goes abroad.
If we don’t understand these factors, it is easy and tempting to dismiss communities of color, wondering why they are so reluctant to give. People of color give a lot, but not always to nonprofits. Giving is affected by history, culture, and traditions. These things can’t simply be retrofitted into the current fundraising system. If we hope to change the culture of giving, it will take time and resources, investment in fundraisers of color, development of giving systems designed with communities of color in mind, and significant foundation support of organizations led by communities of color. And it starts with the willingness to put aside our preconceptions and unlearn some traditional fundraising techniques.