3 Problems a Diverse Fundraising Team Can Help Solve

Managing a development program is fraught with challenges. Add on the threads of a pandemic, racial reckoning, and economic disparities, and the challenges only seem to be getting more complex. For example, many of our clients are experiencing issues stemming from the lack of diversity in their team’s makeup. It plays out as their messages may not resonate with donors of color or their existing systems may fail to find promising diverse prospects.

Identifying the problem is important given that lack of diversity is often at the root of many challenges an institution may face. It also can’t be brushed aside; lack of diversity is a problem that stares right at you, with answers that are not visible to you.

I know all too well that many nonprofits are grappling with issues that arise when diversity intersects with philanthropy. I recognize that there are many dimensions to the intersectionality, but this article is going to focus on the positive impact of a diverse fundraising team. Odds are, if you’re in fundraising, then you’re likely encountering the same problems our clients are working to address.

Before I dive in, I want to note that I’m not a DEI expert and I don’t claim to be one. I am a Latino who was raised in America, with my own lived experiences. The ideas or solutions I offer here are not meant to be seen as “best practice,” but they have been part of my journey in the DEI and fundraising space. Throughout the coming weeks and months, I will be writing a series of pieces on this topic in the hopes that my encounters might help you and your organization.

The three problems

The majority of diversity- and philanthropy-related concerns that my colleagues and I hear about are related to one of three main areas:

  • The institution’s donors are not diverse
  • The institution lacks a diverse board
  • It feels difficult to speak with certain white donors about diversity

While there is no silver bullet that will solve any of these issues, diversifying the institution’s fundraising team can play a role in the solution. After all, diverse teams create better and more creative solutions to emerging problems. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on executive teams were 36% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile in 2019, according to McKinsey data. Diverse teams also tend to think more logically than homogeneous teams, according to Dr. David Rock and Paulette Gerkovich, Ph.D. Their research has shown that diverse teams are also more creative, and more adept at identifying errors in thinking.

That’s why a diverse team creates the conditions for a fundraising program to outperform a team that looks and acts alike. So, if you want to engage more people of color in your donor portfolios or develop gift propositions that inspire more donors, you need to diversify your team.

In my experience, diverse teams can help address these problems because their makeup offers three key benefits:

  • They typically provide a broader perspective from their lived experiences.
  • They are often equipped with proximity to a wider array of causes.
  • They can offer authentic storytelling.
A broader perspective

Diverse perspectives are essential to addressing the challenges nonprofits face. Diversity of thought helps organizations be more creative and innovative.

For example, Santa Clara University’s senior director of prospect management and analytics, Sharise Harrison, has sought to develop a holistic view of prospects to help ensure that development professionals aren’t overlooking donors of color. That means that in addition to using a wealth screening tool, the University examines information such as prospects’ job titles, affiliations, and connections to the institution.

At the same time, the University began working to record data from prospects’ student and parent records, alumni surveys, and other sources to develop a more thorough understanding of its constituency. If a prospect was a member of a student Asian American group, for example, the University can assume that that’s an area of interest even if it isn’t proof of her ethnicity.

While that type of data-gathering is difficult, it can provide a richer perspective to help inform fundraisers’ outreach.

A diverse team equipped with a broader set of information about the institution’s donors and prospects can also help the institution develop more inclusive marketing messages and events. For example, let’s say your team is developing marketing material for an annual giving campaign and you want to send a communication for an upcoming holiday. A diverse team is more likely to identify and emphasize images and messages inclusive of celebrations such as Ramadan, Hanukkah, Pride Month, or Juneteenth.

Proximity to the communities the institution serves

Diverse fundraisers may bring with them lived experiences from the communities you want to engage. This proximity helps create better and more appropriate outreach strategies.

As the head of advancement at a law school, I set a priority to engage more donors of color. As part of the work studies program, I hired a student who was active in the Black Law Student Association at the school. He introduced me to a Black alumni network that was not on anyone’s radar. The law school prioritized recruitment of diverse students and recognized the additional investments needed to engage nontraditional law students. One of those investments was to identify and commit mentors of color to help our students of color. The work studies student helped me make meaning of their law school experience as distinct from their white counterparts.

That experience solidified for me that proximity equips understanding. And that understanding enables a fundraising team to know the nuances that exist within a particular community, including the relationships and dynamics between people and the institution itself.

That’s important because authenticity is critical to effective fundraising. When fundraisers demonstrate that they understand and relate to the community, they’re more likely to be capable of effectively explaining why their fundraising efforts are necessary.

Authentic storytelling

Diverse teams broaden your ability to tell authentic stories about the communities you serve.

A chancellor of a R1 university asked me how to navigate difficult donor conversations about diversity. Some of her donors are flatly opposed to certain diversity initiatives. I suggested she speak to members of her team who are alumni of color. “Ask them if and how they benefited from additional support offered through the University’s diversity strategies, such as student aide, scholarships, or a fellowship,” I said. Then I suggested she retell those stories—along with those of her students—to donors, showing them how diversity programs helped a student flourish, whereas how, without that support, they might not have succeeded.

That tactic is important given that not every frontline fundraiser can authentically communicate her own firsthand experience. While I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community, I raised money on behalf of an organization that served the community. That required me to tell other people’s stories, which is only possible if you listen and understand their experiences.

While I’m not suggesting that diversifying a fundraising team will solve every problem within your organization, it can offer some concrete benefits that go far beyond it being the “right thing” to do. In fact, it is an approach that makes good business sense, which is a lesson that many within our industry are still learning. Throughout the coming weeks and months, I—along with my colleagues—will be exploring many more ways in which DEI issues are causing us—and our clients—to rethink how we approach our work.

If you are interested in learning more and applying these strategies at your institution, please contact us.


Authored by: CJ Ortuño

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