Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during July/Aug 2014, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.


WHEN I WROTE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE “Why People of Color Need to be Good Fundraisers” 16 years ago, I lamented the lack of people of color who were professional fundraisers and explained why this existed. Much has changed since the original article, but, unfortunately, a lack of professional fundraisers who are people of color remains an issue. And so we have to question, what has changed about the fundraising field, what has stayed the same, and what opportunities do we have to shift fundraising culture?

What Has Changed?

There has been considerable growth in the number of nonprofits in the U.S., now estimated by the National Center of Charitable Statistics to be about 1.5 million. With this large growth, we have seen more fragmentation in the sector and in the fundraising field. Even in small nonprofits, you see staff who specialize in grant writing or special events but lack the overall knowledge and skills to be a development director.

The growth of the nonprofit sector has also led to a high turnover of fundraising professionals and a loss of institutional memory for nonprofits. A recent study, “Under Developed: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising” cites high levels of turnover and lengthy vacancies in development director positions, a lack of basic fundraising systems, and inadequate attention to fund development throughout the sector. With the average work span of a development director now less than 18 months, the need for a strong donor tracking system and cross training among development staff is critical. Having an organization’s primary contact with foundations and major donors leave every 18 months makes it virtually impossible to sustain the work.

We have also seen a professionalization of the nonprofit field as colleges and universities have created certificate, undergraduate and master’s programs in nonprofit management. However, many of these programs lack basic fundraising training. When executive directors of color do not succeed, it is often because of the lack of fundraising skills. If these programs include fundraising courses as part of their program, they often focus on federal grants or raising money from wealthy, white donors. Graduates of color who choose to work for social change organizations often find themselves struggling to translate these fundraising skills to a small organization with little development infrastructure whose grassroots donors may lack checking accounts.

Development positions in the past were often a stepping stone to becoming an executive director, but this dynamic has changed with the influx of “crossover” hires. These are people who are moving from the for-profit or government sectors to the nonprofit sector. As a result, new executive directors may lack the skills to build and sustain an organization and lack the knowledge of the community to respect its history and culture.

A number of programs and initiatives have been designed to diversify the nonprofit sector. These programs have targeted nonprofit boards and staff but have had little effect on diversifying the fundraising profession. Ironically, many of these programs are created by foundations who themselves are fighting the Greenlining movement or making their organizations reflective of the communities they serve. What is needed are programs that train people to respond to economic and cultural realities of communities. We must create a cultural shift in thinking about who asks for money, who we ask money from, and why we raise money for social change instead of social services.

Another big change has been the growth of both online giving and planned giving. Online giving continues to increase and has been successful in bringing in younger donors who are comfortable buying products over the internet. Planned giving has targeted the aging baby boomer generation who, in their prime earning years, are now thinking about their retirement and their legacy. Yet, few studies have been done to show how people of color have utilized both online giving and planned giving.

WE MUST CREATE CULTURAL SHIFTS IN THINKING ABOUT WHO ASKS FOR MONEY, WHO WE ASK MONEY FROM, AND WHY WE RAISE MONEY FOR SOCIAL CHANGE INSTEAD OF SOCIAL SERVICES.

What Has Stayed the Same?

Unfortunately, the percentage of people of color who are fundraising professionals has shown little growth in the past 16 years. Although this reality has been acknowledged by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and other organizations and books, knowledge and intent have not turned into action.

I have seen more people of color getting interviews and even becoming finalists for development director positions but not get hired. It often comes down to, “Who will our donors be comfortable with?” Most organizations, including organizations serving people of color, still cater to mostly white middle- and upper-class donors. White women have been the primary beneficiary of this dynamic as new development director hires.

A dominant mentality of who can give, who can’t give, and who should ask still exists. In study after study, people of color are seen primarily as recipients of philanthropy and not as philanthropists. Consequently, they are asked less than their white counterparts to give to nonprofits.

A lack of training programs and internships for people of color to learn fundraising skills still exists. With the growth in the nonprofit sector and the urgency to raise money now, organizations are reluctant to take a “chance” on hiring a person of color. At the same time, you see a number of organizations hiring development directors with no fundraising experience who have “connections” with donors. This often excludes people of color since they are less likely to have personal access to wealth.

Opportunities for Moving Forward?

A growing pool of potential donors, especially among middle- and upper-class people of color who came of age in the 1960s and 70s, are now in their prime earning years and are starting to realize their role as philanthropists. We also know that generous giving is done at all income levels. As illustrated by Social Capital Benchmarks survey, households making $20,000 donate 4.6 percent of their earned income, while households making $75,000 to $100,000 donate 2.4 percent of their earned income.

Donors of color are starting to be pursued by mainstream nonprofits but are often disappointed that they don’t see people like them in leadership positions among these nonprofits. These same donors also worry about the lack of infrastructure and systems in small, grassroots nonprofits. For social justice organizations of all sizes, cultivating and soliciting these donors based on shared values of social change can be the game changer they need to resource their work to scale and be sustainable for the long haul.

Now is the time to turn intent into action when considering hiring a person of color as a development director. It is not enough to recognize and acknowledge the lack of people of color as fundraising professionals. Organizations need to take action and hire people of color and ask people of color to become donors. Sixteen years is too long for such little action to be taken. Organizations must step up and do the right thing, not because of guilt, but because it will lead to long-term financial sustainability and an alignment of our fundraising with our values.