By Nicole Hoffmann, Strategic Growth Director at Kids Forward

I was trained, taught, and conditioned to be a successful traditional fundraiser. I’ve spent 25 years in this field, reaching and exceeding impossible goals. I excelled at donor-centric fundraising and moves management, finding all of the best strategies to fit a donor’s area of interest into the work we were doing. Celebrating the generosity of our financial donors was central to my work, and I put in the extra time needed to name rooms and buildings, give tours, ask advice, hold thank-a-thons and house parties, and present donors with beautiful documentation that highlighted all of the good work they had done with their money.

Internally, I was celebrated for creativity and exceeding expectations with marginal increases in pay and huge increases in responsibility. However, through every single reached goal came staff reductions, years without COLA and performance raises, and expectations to do more with less. 

The results? 

  1. The challenges our communities face are worse, and the racial disparities are devastating. 
  2. We are beholden to the wishes and expectations of donors. 
  3. We are expected to outdo other organizations and fundraisers to prove we are the most deserving of the funding.  
  4. More people than before are deeply struggling to live their lives. 
  5. And yet, we continue to feed this system of fundraising because that is how the system works.

These challenges go much deeper than my 25 years of experience.

The historic harms perpetuated by philanthropy go back more than a century. As a white woman in this work, I am increasingly aware of the harm we cause in the name of leadership opportunities, owning the work, and succeeding in the eyes of those in charge.

Discovering CCF

I didn’t wake up one morning with a big revelation that I was causing harm. It was a long and humbling process to learn that I was serving people with wealth instead of community and centering financial generosity rather than justice. For almost two decades, I thought I was doing the right thing. And now, on a daily basis, I am unlearning a system deeply rooted in money and power, a system where I was conditioned to succeed. I am engrossed in a lifelong unlearning process. 

A few months ago, I went to see Vu Le speak in person. We were all cheering him on, and I was especially excited to share the successes we are having by embracing Community-Centric Fundraising. 

At the end of Vu’s speech, he gave us a moment to talk with our table partners about what we can do to change philanthropy. After all the cheering, one colleague turned to the group and said, “There’s no way I’m going to stop sending handwritten thank you notes.” 

In that moment it was crystal clear that conceiving of change is hard when we are good at the work we do. Of course, we can still write handwritten notes. At the same time, we have a responsibility to do better, especially knowing the harms created and perpetuated in the name of philanthropy.

7 tips to operationalize CCF

I didn’t know what to say in that moment. What I wish I said was, Community-Centric Fundraising is more than a concept; it is possible to operationalize

At my organization, we embraced the Community-Centric Fundraising Principles and changed our approach to fundraising. In just two years, we increased our unrestricted revenue by 375%.

Here are a few tips to start making change for the greater good.  

1. Commit to a cultural shift in how you and your organization think about fundraising.

We can’t just cheer on Vu Le and listen to The Ethical Rainmaker (although you should still do these things). It is not enough to cheer for the idea of change. Commitment can be a scary first step, but commitment is necessary to make change happen.

You can start by asking why your fundraising activities and priorities exist. If you are centering wealth rather than the community you serve, it’s time to reimagine things. I promise you, we are not all competing with each other. There is enough funding to make change happen.

2. Continued personal learning and unlearning are critical to understanding why change is necessary.

For me, it started with Decolonizing Wealth; Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva, deep diving into Nonprofit AF blogs, and then I couldn’t stop. Racial justice workshops, reading groups, accountability groups, and so much more have become part of my daily commitment to learning.

It’s hard when you learn you could be part of the problem by upholding white supremacist systems. It’s worth it when you begin unlearning and start centering justice in your work. When we know better, we do better.

3. For all of my white colleagues, listen to people of color.

The leaders of color who gave new life to the Community-Centric Fundraising Movement gave us all a roadmap in the CCF Principles.

In all of my unlearning, the most important lesson is that when people of color tell you something needs to change and then tell you exactly what they need, do not hesitate. We are obligated to take action to meet those needs. If you aren’t sure why, see #2 above.

4. Be willing to take risks, especially financial risks, for the greater good.

You don’t have to overhaul your entire fundraising operation all at once. But you need to start somewhere. In my organization, we practice “small experiments with radical intent.” Our first small experiment was to stop doing our spring appeal and shift those efforts into Community-Centric Fundraising. We created a monthly giving program called Partners in Equity that recognized every monthly donor at any dollar amount equally. It was our first step to remove the hierarchy of philanthropy that celebrates wealth over other contributions.

We include volunteers because it’s crucial to acknowledge the inequities in people’s capacity to provide financial contributions. The results during our first year was a 50% increase over the usual appeal, with recurring contributions that we knew we could count on receiving. The Give, Learn, and Act model we created for this monthly giving program gave us natural opportunities to engage with more of our donors and helped us develop more meaningful relationships.

5. Lean into your values.

Not everyone will agree with the changes you make. It’s okay; they aren’t your people (especially when they ask to be centered over the communities you serve). Sure, losing some donors can be unfortunate. But, every single time you lean into your values, you will gain more support.

In 2022 we created our Fundraising Policies Centering Justice. These policies are heavily inspired by the Community-Centric Fundraising Principles. We asked for feedback from staff, board members, donors, community members, and fundraisers. Those collaborations created a beautiful commitment to community that upholds racial and economic justice.

Every single donor received a copy of the policies, we hosted a Zoom call for anyone who had questions, and we continue to use these policies in one-on-one conversations. The results? We lost a few donors. Many donors increased their gifts. Our year-end giving increased in a year many organizations struggled, and giving decreased nationally in the U.S.

6. Plan to make change, and then plan to make change again.

We participate in an annual Day of Giving every year in March. In the beginning, we asked all staff to participate by donating, sharing on social media, and doing peer-to-peer fundraising with aggressive goals and crossed fingers. Wow, was that an invasive lift for a multiracial team who is incredibly busy, paid nonprofit salaries, and has personal lives and commitments outside of work.

We made some changes, at first celebrating all staff equally who participated in any way they could with similar aggressive goals. When I look back, I made our team compromise, and we didn’t go far enough to uphold our organization’s antiracist values.

This year, staff participation is optional, and we use our Day of Giving space to promote our support for BIPOC-led organizations doing crucial work in our state. We raised less money on the day of giving this year, but we more than made up for it by building stronger, trusting community relationships, and focusing fundraising efforts elsewhere.

7. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

There is no perfect time. There is no perfect plan. You just need to start making changes today because dismantling harmful fundraising practices is the right thing to do.

I used to be a pro at fundraising metrics. With some form of mechanical precision, my metrics dictated to perfection how many calls, visits, and asks I needed to make to raise a defined goal.

The changes we are making to fundraising are so new to us; I have no idea what my metrics could look like today. But I do know we are raising significantly more money without a “best practice” system keeping us in line. We know we will learn lessons along the way and update our practices. Through all of it, we will talk to our donors about changes and bring them alongside us in the process.

I recognize that working for an antiracist policy center gives me a level of freedom you may not have working for a different type of organization. I can think of countless reasons why your arts, health care, environmental, higher education, and other organizations should make change. When you commit to your unlearning process, you will too. 

In policy work, we advocate dismantling broken systems that uphold racial disparities and continue to create generational harm. Philanthropy is another one of those broken and problematic systems. No matter what type of organization you work for, we all have a responsibility to change. Cheering for the voices of change in the CCF Movement and promoting our organizations’ public antiracism statements is not nearly enough.

I know we cannot change all of philanthropy, but we can absolutely change our corner of the work and how we approach fundraising. I promise that leaning into your values will only generate successful results. It is possible to operationalize Community-Centric Fundraising. I believe in us!

Nicole Hoffman

Nicole Hoffman

Nicole Hoffmann (she/her) is the Strategic Growth Director at Kids Forward, an antiracist policy center advocating for children and families to thrive in Wisconsin. With over two decades of experience in fundraising and nonprofit leadership, she is committed to joyfully changing the narrative of the fundraising sector’s historic and white supremacist norms to implement fundraising strategies that center equity, celebrate diversity, and stand up for justice. Nicole is the founder of the SPP Antiracist Fundraising Cohort, and she speaks with organizations across the U.S. about operationalizing an antiracist approach to fundraising. When she is not dismantling outdated systems, Nicole loves traveling, being the greatest Aunt, and playing with Gilbert, the bestest pup. You can find her on LinkedIn and via email.