By Nikkia Johnson, development and operations professional
While I have been involved in grassroots fundraising for years, in 2018 I officially entered the fundraising field with my promotion as a development manager.
It felt unnatural to talk about my communities in a way that was digestible to donors who had more wealth than I could dream of.
Before then, I still had my hand in quite a few fundraising activities at the organization. I worked closely with the board ensuring up to date policies and documents. I was the data entry queen, mastering the intricacies of our database. I came from various nonprofit organizations where I managed programs, volunteered to run events, or assisted in drafting communications. I was even national vice president of my sorority. All of this experience put me in a unique position of understanding how the organization ran and how fundraising and relationship-building are integral parts of that.
I thought my promotion would be a great time to implement all the new ideas I gathered over the years and shift thought processes of what fundraising is. (Because so many times in the past, I was swiftly told, “That’s not how we do things.”)
So I ramped up on my training, professional development, and education in the field. As I was doing so, however, I noticed that so many trainings and mentors focused heavily on donor-centric practices. As a woman of color who has been heavily involved in the community — none of it felt right. It felt unnatural to talk about my communities in a way that was digestible to donors who had more wealth than I could dream of. It felt eerie to uphold stereotypes through data bias and storytelling so that we pulled on donors heart strings for a gift.
When I first read about community-centric fundraising via Vu Le’s Nonprofit AF blog, a lightbulb went off in my head. Everything that felt icky to me about donor-centric practices was articulated. Once I started seeing more articles like this, I knew I was on the right track with shifting the narrative at my own organizations.
So, why does your development planning suck?
1. You’re not clear on your board-giving policies
Most board policies are focused on how much money we can get. In doing so, we are ignoring other factors members can bring — time and talent.
And while yes, give/get policies are popular, remember that not every person has connections to wealth. Utilize people’s time and talent.
At organizations I have been involved with, I have heard the argument for and against a robust giving policy. Those for it think we need high worth donors to sit on our board to reach fundraising goals. The issue with this is: How many of those types of members do you retain long-term when they roll off the board? How many people does that lock out of ever joining your board?
Really what we’re saying here is — if a person cannot make a gift within your board-giving policy, there is no place for them on your board.
Those against it think that focusing too much on board-giving minimums will hinder diversity efforts. This way of thinking signifies the belief that people/communities of color are not high worth donors. In fact, this 2018 study by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that there is no significant link to fundraising and board diversity.
So both of these are horrible viewpoints.
Listen — it’s all about how we communicate. How are we communicating fundraising goals to our boards? How do we work with board members to craft individual engagement plans to maximize their time and talent? Are we providing them with the tools needed to be successful?
While a board-giving policy is needed to institute a culture of philanthropy for a variety of reasons — it needs to be intentional. And while yes, give/get policies are popular, remember that not every person has connections to wealth. Utilize people’s time and talent. If you have a potential member who is an employment lawyer and is willing to do pro bono work on your personnel policies, that’s probably a fair trade off from a member who donates $5,000 but is never seen or heard from when needed.
Stop prioritizing board contributions over board time and talent.
2. Your donor relations tactics suck
A member of one organization I worked with said, “Well, we don’t have the time to get to know all our donors.” If we don’t have the time to get to know them — why should they take the time to give to us?
First off, donor relations is not the same as stewardship. If you are only reaching out to a donor when they give a gift, you’re doing it wrong.
Why are we still so obsessed and focused on major donors, to the point that we neglect other donors?
A member of one organization I worked with said, “Well, we don’t have the time to get to know all our donors.”
If we don’t have the time to get to know them — why should they take the time to give to us?
Good donor relation tactics start with tackling these kinds of questions:
Are we educating our donors on what’s happening at our organization? Are we okay having uncomfortable conversations with them? Do they understand that the mission is about uplifting the communities we work in and not about what they feel is urgent?
As fundraisers, building relationships is at the forefront of our work. But we need to also be able to do that in a trusting way that lifts up our communities. This brings me to the next point …
3. Your donor communications plan is trash
Does your development plan even include a communications plan? (No, I don’t mean just thank you notes and solicitation letters.) Do you have an actual, laid out plan of what is going out, when, and what the messaging themes are? Most importantly — do you know who is at the center of your storytelling?
We exist because there are problems of inequity (and that’s what our organizational missions attempt to fix) — yet our communications still say, “Look what your $20 gift helped us do.”
Like many others, I was drilled that donor-centric fundraising was the only way to go, that centering solicitations and thank you notes around the ever important “YOU” should be the focus of all communications.
During The Rooted Retreat (hosted by The Rooted Collaborative) that I attended in July 2020, Michelle Edgerton hosted a session called “How to (not) White Savior Your Donor Communications.” This led to a robust discussion about how donor-centered communications perpetuates saviorism and the “othering” of the communities we exist to uplift.
Let me say that again — we exist because there are problems of inequity (and that’s what our organizational missions attempt to fix) — yet our communications still say, “Look what your $20 gift helped us do.”
If you are telling a good story (which you should be), the person it highlights should direct the narrative. Not only will this cut down on saviorism, it will build a sense of community that we are all in this together.
We know communication is a big piece of donor relations, so make sure to be strategic and plan them out. When we shift to community-centric communications practices, we acknowledge we are not the gatekeepers of communities, but instead are working in partnership with them.
4. You’re not facilitating program engagement
As development professionals, we should be working with our program staff on a regular basis to really understand what is happening on the ground in order to be able to speak to it comprehensively, accurately, and compellingly.
Personally, I am all up in the programming world. At my current organization, I constantly help program staff execute their events and trainings.
As a community volunteer, I serve on numerous programming committees to effect change on a local level. As a donor, I’m interested in knowing how the on-the-ground work happens. I’m not so much interested in a contrived story about little Fulanita and how she’s better off with this new program or policy that took effect only last month.
Now, I understand different people want different things — but this is a part of relationship-building — finding out what works for each person and implementing those things to the best of our ability.
And this should be replicated on a bigger scale even though it’s often not.
COMMUNITIES ARE THE EXPERTS ON THEMSELVES!
As development professionals, we should be working with our program staff on a regular basis to really understand what is happening on the ground in order to be able to speak to it comprehensively, accurately, and compellingly. And, if possible, have program staff members be the impact speakers during donor visits. At the end of the day, your program staff members are doing the direct impact work that you are fundraising for and telling stories about.
5. You focus too much on only special events
I remember the first time I was given a huge chunk of responsibility for an organizational event. My first thought was: Whoa, these prices are high! How will we ever get young professionals involved here?
It’s so easy for fundraisers’ first line of defense to be a special event like a golf tournament, a benefit event, or our favorite — a gala. … After all the work staff and volunteers put into an event, was the ROI worth it?
I knew that had I not worked at the organization, there was no way I could afford to attend the organization’s event. The articulation of this realization started an important conversation about who our target audience is made up of and how we get them involved. While it had long been on our list to launch a young professionals board, including the addition of a YP price for this event, having the conversation enabled us to garner enough interest to start it.
It’s so easy for fundraisers’ first line of defense to be a special event like a golf tournament, a benefit event, or our favorite — a gala. This appeals to corporations for sponsorship. It’s a quick way to earn money while showing tangible benefits with flashy marketing and a good meal. I won’t vent on all of the issues there, but Phuong Pham tells you six reasons why tiered event sponsorship needs to go.
After all the work staff and volunteers put into an event, was the ROI worth it? While special events are great when done sparingly, we should be using most of our time building our communities and creating long lasting relationships with those interested in our organization.
When planning something, the first questions asked should be: What kind of event are we hosting? Do they make sense for the community we serve? How are we creating opportunities for the involvement of our target audiences? Are we only asking community members to participate so they can tell their story to high worth donors so that those high worth donors can gawk and shell out money?
After answering these questions, check out CCF’s aligned action list.
It is moral and just to center our work around the communities that we advocate for. When we look at equity, diversity, justice, fostering a sense of belonging in communities of color — and when we look at dismantling white supremacy and white-centric norms — we must take a holistic approach. We must look at all our programs and operations.
That especially includes fundraising.
While there is intentionality and conversation needed around how you can apply the principles in your organization — there is no option but to do the work.
Nikkia Johnson (she/her) is a nonprofit development and operations professional. She was born and raised in Queens, NY and currently lives in Richmond, VA — which greatly informed her career choice in nonprofits and fundraising. Nikkia is passionate about mentoring the next generation of leaders, and hopes more people will choose a development career instead of falling into the work. She serves on various organization committees in Virginia and is very involved with her sorority Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Señoritas Latinas Unidas, Inc. Nikkia’s biggest hobbies are dancing, cooking, and (in non-pandemic times) traveling. She can be reached via LinkedIn, or via email.