How to Connect With Affluent Donors of Color

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By Dan Parks and Margie Fleming Glennon

The number of high-net-worth people of color is expanding rapidly in America, but many nonprofits still haven’t developed the approaches and strategies needed to bring more of them into the fold as donors, say donors and charity leaders assembled by the Chronicle for an online briefing.

One key is to get to know your potential donors and their values before asking for money. While that’s almost always good advice for fundraisers, it’s especially important for those seeking to build a more diverse pool of donors, the panelists say, because those donors often have very different backgrounds than the wealthy white donors that fundraisers are accustomed to approaching.

“Don’t rush it because you really want this to be a relationship that’s going to last a very long time,” says Mona Sinha, a major donor and board chair of Women Moving Millions, a group whose members commit to giving $1 million or more to efforts that help women and girls.

Sinha, who was born in India, was joined on the panel by Brenda Johnson, regional director of development at the anti-poverty nonprofit Year Up, and Hali Lee, founding partner of Radiant Strategies, a philanthropy consulting firm. The session, “A New, More Inclusive Era of Fundraising?” was hosted by Margie Fleming Glennon, director of learning and editorial products at the Chronicle.

Read on for highlights or watch the video to get all the insights.

Take Time to Understand Donors

Lee, whose firm recently helped produce a report featuring feedback from 113 high-net-worth donors of color in 10 cities across the country, shared a story of one interaction that went badly because the executive director of a small nonprofit didn’t do her homework before jumping to a request for money.

The donor, a successful lawyer whose family immigrated from Mexico, said he started the meeting expecting to be asked for about $25,000 and was ready to offer a gift of $10,000.

After giving her pitch, the executive director asked for $500, Lee said. The donor responded with a stunned look, and the fundraiser quickly lowered the request to $250. Had the executive director done some research, she would have known that the donor’s total annual giving hovered around $200,000. Unfortunately, the nonprofit leader secured $500 from that donor, forgoing $9,500.

“How could that conversation have gone differently? If the executive director had asked the donor instead about his family, his cultural values, his giving over the past few years, how his giving reflected his values in the world,” says Lee, “she could then have brought a connection to the mission-driven work of her nonprofit, and she would have had some idea of the levels of his giving to other organizations.”

Lee adds that the nonprofit executive could have “left that meeting with a lot more money for her organization, but even more important than the money, she would have left that meeting with a deeper understanding and a relationship with a potential major donor.”

The fundraiser made the mistake of “asking this gentleman for a transactional amount of money, instead of actually listening,” Sinha adds.

“The quicker you can unpack my value system and align with some of it, the more success you’re going to have,” Sinha says. But, she cautions, nonprofits and fundraisers should “move at the speed of trust” and avoid making a gift request too soon, especially not at the first meeting.

Tap Into Networks; Connect Peers

Johnson’s organization, Year Up, created the Black Opportunity Alliance, an affinity group of donors who care deeply about the advancement of young Black adults. Depending on how much they give, members get perks like happy hours, networking events, or speaking roles at national events. However, the goal isn’t to raise money but rather to build community among the donors.

Johnson noted that Black donors often have very different life experiences than their white counterparts. For example, Black donors’ wealth is more often self-made and not inherited. Some fundraisers have a misunderstanding that Black people do not have a deep tradition of giving when in fact they do; it’s just that they often use different approaches for their giving than white people do, such as donating to faith-based organizations more than to other charities. Also, she noted, Black donors often engage through certain kinds of affinity groups like sororities and fraternities. Understanding those differences in giving patterns and social circles is key to connecting with Black donors, she said.

Sinha shares that enthusiasm for what she calls “the power of collaboration” as a force multiplier when working with diverse donors.

“The person sitting in front of you may not be able to make a million-dollar gift, but who knows — that person may be able to gather 10 people, and together they can make a million-dollar gift,” she said. “So just be open to possibilities. The world is changing.”

Sinha adds, “As a donor, I can be your biggest ally. Peer-to-peer fundraising is one of the most successful strategies and most underutilized strategies in the whole biosphere of philanthropy.”

Seek Guidance From People With Identities That Differ From Yours

Johnson said that fundraisers who find themselves in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar setting would benefit from seeking out the right partner for help. For example, Johnson says she was tapped at a nonprofit where she worked previously to create an LGBTQ+ affinity group. Johnson said she was “terrified” that since she’s not a member of that group, she might use offensive terminology.

“Partnering with someone who can make that more comfortable is critical,” she says. She also urges leaders to invest in staff education to help fundraisers better understand people with different backgrounds and identities. “Solicitors have to have a comfort [level] to do this work,” she stresses.

Connecting with donors requires fundraisers to share personal stories about themselves, Lee says. You can’t have a high-quality human interaction with someone unless you’re willing to share experiences and motivations that are similar to what you’re asking them about, she says. “I have to be willing to share some of those things about myself as well for it to become a more authentic relationship.”

Ask Donors to Self-Identify

“Build on the assets that you have,” Johnson advises. Year Up now tracks the race and ethnicity of its donors in its database, although Johnson acknowledges that it is a work in progress. She recommends surveying donors and requesting personal information from them, such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity, so that it is gathered in an ethical way. Year Up includes an optional survey on its donation page to gather this information, and Johnson recommends creating an online survey to send out to supporters. “You want to allow people to share with you how they socially identify,” she says, and never categorize people based on photos or affiliations.

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