Wednesday, July 17, 2024



Let’s agree to leave our assumptions about donors and potential donors behind

January 21, 2021 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPurpose
It’s a brand new year, and with new years come new goals. As we move into 2021, I invite my fellow fundraisers to join me in leaving assumptions about donors and potential donors behind — for good.

We are taught to qualify our donors. That means research: look into their real estate holdings, political and philanthropic giving histories, income, career, household size, and any other details that can tell us about their capacity to give.

That also means weighing how invested they are in our mission. That can be done through a conversation with the donor, but more often than not is based on giving history. Did they give once, and never again? Do they open our emails? Do they answer the phone when we call? Do they interact with us on social media?

This qualification process, though, is flawed.

We all have biases, both implicit and explicit, that play into our review of that information. If they’re not homeowners, don’t have a history of large gifts to other orgs, or aren’t in historically high-paying positions, they’re immediately relished to the mid- or low-level donor segments and, thus, receive a much lower level of communication from our organizations. Even if they give multiple times per year and comment on every one of our social media posts.

If they don’t make a second gift, open our emails, or attend events when invited, but they have all the traditional markers of wealth, they remain on the major gift list. We continue to reach out and make attempts to connect and build a relationship with these folks, very often older white folks, who seem to not want a relationship with us.

Of course, there are also the more implicit biases that play into the connections we make that are automatically discounted based on how they look, speak, or act. How many of us make time to follow up or speak to donors who made one $25 gift so they can answer additional questions? Or accept that random coffee invitation from someone who doesn’t match any of our wealth markers? More often than not, those folks get tossed to the wayside in favor of catering to the wealthy major donors your organization has on their prospect list.

Yes, I understand that there needs to be some way to determine how to spend your time as a fundraiser and prioritize those who are most likely to give. When you have a few thousand donors in your CRM, you can’t personally steward them all. I wonder, though, how often we’re qualifying our way out of donations because the person doesn’t fit the picture of a good (white, older) prospect?

From our Partners

First things first: it’s a myth that BIPOC and other marginalized communities don’t give.

Women Give 2019: Gender and Giving Across Communities of Color found that race does not have a significant impact on the amount given to charitable causes. When viewed as a percentage of income, there is no significant difference between the charitable contributions made by African American, Latino, and white households.

According to the Brookings Institution, Black folks give at a high rate even though their median household income was around $20,000 less than all other families in America. Despite the gap between Black and white median income that has persisted for more than 50 years, financial contributions from Black folks have been consistent and dependable for generations.

I couldn’t find any statistics on the LGBTQ or disability communities, but my personal experience is that there are no significant differences between their giving and the giving by individuals not in those communities.

Aside from the fact that a donor doesn’t necessarily always present as white and over 50, in this new social media heavy world we live in, you’re not just talking to your donor any more. You’re talking to their friends, family, neighbors, high school friends they haven’t spoken to in 25 years, college buddies that have moved across the country, and random strangers who follow them on the internet. People who are inspired by what you do and are proud to support you will talk about it and post about it on social media. Your reach as a fundraiser is larger than ever before because it’s amplified by your donor.

In 2015, I helped launch the #CouchesDontCount campaign to raise awareness for youth homelessness. We hauled a couch all around the city to the places where you might expect to see someone experiencing homelessness, to bring attention to the many, and largely invisible, youth who are couch surfing and without a home. We didn’t expect to receive a lot of donations on the street, but we did meet a lot of people and gain awareness for our work. Months later, we got a major gift from a family foundation in Alabama. The aunt and uncle of a student we met and chatted with during the campaign heard about what we did and wanted to help.

A friend recently told me that a local filmmaker was in town shooting a project, and was really impressed by the kids he met hanging out in the neighborhood while shooting. It wasn’t performative — they really were kids who were hanging out in their own neighborhood, curious about the movie. Once filming wrapped, he unexpectedly made a major gift to Philadelphia Young Playwrights in honor of those young people as a result of his conversations with them.

Yes, these are two random stories that seem like needles in the haystack, especially to a smaller organization that struggles with major gifts. But it’s happened over and over again throughout my career. Folks you wouldn’t necessarily tag as a prospective major donor turns out to be either a donor themselves, or a connector for a wider network of prospective donors.

I’m leaning into this in 2021 and doing my best to stop making assumptions about donors. I will continue to treat everyone as if they have vast resources and steward them equally, and I’m sure I’ll be back here in the not so distant future with even more stories of donors who were inspired to give both large and small gifts as a result.

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