By Christine Bariahtaris, consulting prospect researcher and writer
Diversity plans are hard, and they should be. But we’re making them impossible
If you’re hoping for a brighter 2021, we need to have an honest talk about your diversity plan. Spoiler alert — it’s not going as well as you think.
I’m telling you this as a prospect researcher, the person whose professional goal is to make fundraising folx confront reality. Diversity plans are hard, and they should be. But we’re making them impossible.
This isn’t a new issue. When I joined my first nonprofit in 2014, increasing diversity was already a stated priority.
We didn’t make much progress though, which I chalked up to my inexperience.
But it happened at my next job, and then again at the next job. And I tried many methods to make headway, from creative sourcing to custom predictive modeling.
Six years, three nonprofits, and three sectors later, I can report that I had the same experience across the board. Each organization recognized that diversity and inclusion was important to the mission and was sincere in its intentions, but progress moved at a snail’s pace.
This year has made me think harder about why these projects have had the same difficulty. As the root of the donor cycle, I was able to watch the movement of diverse prospects through a pipeline from the beginning. I spent some time examining the data of my own experience, and I’ve concluded that, most often, fundraisers are getting in their own way.
There are many knee-jerk reactions and entrenched behaviors that we, as an industry, need to examine and resolve. From a researcher’s perspective, these are the four biggest obstacles to prepare for when you’re ready to start the practical work of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion).
One of the hardest parts of a DEI project is just starting. It’s a huge undertaking requiring resources and, most importantly, time. I have never met a fundraiser who felt like they had enough time in the day. Taking on any new project adds to the stress, but the magnitude of DEI work almost causes paralysis. In my case, I noticed that our inability to get started could morph into a notion that we were having trouble finding diverse donors.
Diverse donors are actually out there — and they’re not even hard to find!
Researchers have many existing tools to get DEI work started. Many financial publications and advocacy groups compile lists of diverse individuals and businesses making their mark, findable with a quick Google search. These have become even better in the wake of this summer’s protests against police brutality. High-end tools such as LexisNexis and D&B Hoovers contain searchable indexes relevant to DEI work. It might require a little more time to get creative with sourcing, but nothing extravagant.
After that, the qualification process is the same as with any prospect. Researchers should make sure they are familiar with these sources and call upon them regularly.
This is where you can — and should — ask your prospect researchers to take on a large amount of work for your organization. Frontline fundraisers may be able to source a few individuals, but they simply do not have time to do the legwork to radically diversify a donor pipeline. If prospect researchers are proactively bringing diverse donors up for review, DEI work will get off the ground much more quickly.
2. Narrow standards
There is a certain calculus to adding a prospect to a gift officer’s portfolio. The prospect needs to be good for the organization, but also worth the effort for a fundraiser trying to hit their yearly goal. Unfortunately, this balancing act can get in the way of diversity and inclusion.
Nothing in my life has been more illustrative of the economic realities of systemic racism than working as a prospect researcher, mired in finances. We often talk about “time, talent, and treasure” as if they’re of equal weight, but we know that treasure always tips the scales. And BIPOC donors will always lose to white donors on treasure. With more nonprofits looking into predictive modeling, this comparison has the potential to become truly insidious. Predictive models only use the information that already exists in a database. If a nonprofit has very few BIPOC donors, the model will reinforce the idea that diverse donors are not a first choice for a fundraiser’s portfolio.
I wish the diversity training I had attended had a module on economics. Fundraising provides experiential education on finances, but usually only in the communities that strongly support our organizations. It is imperative that both researchers and frontline fundraisers also be educated on the financial impact of systemic racism. Researchers must be able to speak about what wealth looks like in non-white communities in their organization’s area of impact. Portfolio managers need to be open-minded, since there is no financial equity in measuring a prospect from a diverse community by white donor standards. Until broad economic reforms exist at the national level, the task of leveling the playing field falls to us.
Diversifying the board was a priority at every organization in my career so far — an important goal plagued by tokenism. I have noticed an assumption that BIPOC board members are the magic key to opening doors to their communities. Nonprofits channel massive energy into finding one or two candidates per BIPOC bucket, ask them to invest time and invite their friends, and wait for the results.
It’s akin to a “trickle-down” approach to diversification. And tokenism isn’t just an ethical issue — it does not work.
I have not seen major community support take root from any board appointment. Tokenism also is not subtle. A diversity candidate will recognize the situation for what it is. If they become rightly frustrated and leave, the nonprofit has possibly lost its only foot in the door with a community. It is extremely short-term thinking.
It is difficult to change this mentality, since board candidates are often sourced by leadership or existing board members. Most of the time, I was not asked for input, just to write a profile. I bring up tokenism because it reinforces how important it is to successfully integrate diverse donors into your regular pipeline, and that will take a massive group effort within your staff. Community support should come first because it is stronger and healthier for the pipeline in the long-term. With a strong base, the organization should be spoiled for candidates. That is the problem you want to have.
As a researcher, I like data. I believe that data helps us make better decisions and design better processes. Therefore, I am an advocate of assigning DEI metrics to fundraisers. Any new metric has also usually been my least popular proposal to colleagues. As I said earlier, fundraisers are already under pressure. Adding a new measure of success can feel onerous. I am sympathetic — to a point.
I firmly believe that you measure what you care about. We measure our quarterly and yearly goals. Many teams assign a yearly goal to individual fundraisers with their input. We measure the effectiveness of our programs. If these metrics were not important, we would not publish them on our websites and in our annual reports. It stands to reason that, if diversity and inclusion is a major priority, an organization should measure its efforts. If you have prospect researchers on staff, you have a team that is able to track these measurements in development.
Be willing to assign DEI metrics with teeth. It is not possible to do all of the other work well if you have no idea if you’re on the right track. It’s like hunting for treasure without a map. And be prepared to feel uncomfortable. There is safety in not measuring this work, because then no one can prove the organization is not succeeding — or worse, not trying hard enough — in achieving change. It is the single biggest thing I wish I had pushed for more in my career so far.
We’re out of excuses. We have the tools to accomplish this task. The fundraising industry has to stop talking about how much we care about diversity and start proving that we do. We have to put our words into action. We have to shake up our portfolios even if it comes at a temporary cost. We have to engage with whole communities and not a handful of donors approved by our gatekeepers. And we have to show the receipts. This is no longer a matter of “can’t”, but “won’t”. And if you won’t? We’re all going to know why.
Christine Bariahtaris (she/her) is a consulting prospect researcher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut. She has a special interest in helping small nonprofits access research resources and develop good data practices. In her free time, she is an avid gamer and knitter. She writes about her amateur genealogy work and family history at www.heartscrapsblog.com. Pictures of her very cute dog (and sometimes food) can be found on Instagram at @cbariahtaris. She’s still learning to Twitter at @CEBariWrites.