Fundraisers at the United Negro College Fund have been riding a dizzingly steep wave. In the two years following the police murder of George Floyd, which spurred equity funding, the organization raised $450 million — this when giving previously ran about $100 million annually.
To help sustain that wave as best as possible, the organization accelerated plans to create its first major-gifts team. It now has six front-line fundraisers working with donors — many of them new to the organization — who made gifts of between $5,000 and $100,000. “We’re making sure we get deeper with them,” says Diego Aviles, the group’s vice president of development for the Northeast.
Organizations with a racial-equity or racial-justice focus have been doing similar work to beef up fundraising in the past two years. Like progressive nonprofits whose giving swelled following former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Black causes experienced a moment when donors saw their work as urgent and vital. To try to turn that moment into momentum, some revamped development operations or even began to court donors for the first time — work that’s critical now racial-equity headlines have faded.
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To help sustain that wave, the organization accelerated plans to create its first major-gifts team. It now has six frontline fundraisers working with donors — many of them new to the organization — who made gifts of $5,000 to $100,000. “We’re making sure we get deeper with them,” says Diego Aviles, the group’s vice president of development for the Northeast.
Organizations with a racial-equity or racial-justice focus have been doing similar work to beef up fundraising in the past two years. Like progressive nonprofits whose giving swelled following former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Black causes experienced a moment when donors saw their work as urgent and vital. To try to turn that moment into momentum, some revamped development operations or even began to court donors for the first time — work that’s critical now that racial-equity headlines have faded.
Boston Medical Center, which cares for the largely underserved residents of the southern part of the city, deepened investments in communications, stewardship, and major gifts. The pandemic put a spotlight on racial disparities that brought new donors to the hospital who more regularly give to one of the region’s many higher-profile medical institutions like Mass General and Boston Children’s, says Justin Williams, chief development officer.
“To say that we’ve doubled down on our investment is an understatement,” Williams says, adding that the hospital wants to remain “relevant and attractive” to current and potential donors.
The National Black Women’s Justice Institute, a research and policy nonprofit, hired its first development director and is building an individual donor program. This follows an outpouring of $100,000 in small-gift contributions in 2020 — roughly a fifth of its revenue that year. Contributions poured in from donors who discovered the group through internet searches or GoFundMe.
The organization has introduced an ambitious virtual-events program — a book club and discussion series — to bring these new donors closer to its work and win support over the long term, says executive director Sydney McKinney. Last year, it organized 10 events and had 11 scheduled for 2022; it did only one in 2020.
“We’re small and building,” McKinney says. “We want to convince [donors] that this is where they should make a long-term investment.”
Even organizations that missed the wave of giving are ramping up fundraising. Jennie Joseph is a Black midwife who runs a clinic and midwifery school outside Orlando, Fla., while also building a national network of perinatal health-care and service providers committed to improving care for people of color. She saw only a trickle of new funding for her group, Commonsense Childbirth — this despite a profile of Joseph in Time magazine’s “Women of the Year” package.
Racism may be at work, as research suggests that the Black-led organizations don’t enjoy the same trust or support from organized philanthropy as groups with white leaders. But Joseph points to an additional challenge: She has no development team and little time for fundraising.
“I’m busy,” she says. “I’m catching babies and running the clinic and running around creating all this national work.” In the more than 20 years since she founded Commonsense Childbirth, the group’s held one gala. “And somebody else did it for me.”
Joseph has hired Alyssa Wright’s consulting group, the Wright Collective, to guide her as she builds out a fundraising operation. “It’s Alyssa’s team that’s helping us to understand how you marry the value and capital in a Time magazine piece to translate that into more funding,” Joseph says.
Inflation and Backlash
Regardless of their fundraising strength, equity-focused organizations are likely to face strong headwinds. Issues of equity and justice are being crowded out by news and crises related to gun violence, abortion, Ukraine, climate change, politics, and more. “People still care, but they are also distracted,” says the United Negro College Fund’s Aviles. Fundraising for general operating support has been particularly challenging recently, he adds.
Also, the end of multiyear commitments is sneaking up on many organizations, says Nat Chioke Williams, executive director of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation. Organizations are working hard to make good use of the donations. “But they’re not thinking about what happens next. The money’s going to hit the time limit and it’ll be: ‘What do we do?’”
Those groups that didn’t receive multiyear grants are forced to steward donors repeatedly. “There’s still this awkward dynamic of donors putting it on the organization to retain them rather than saying, ‘I’m in it for the next decade no matter what,’” Wright says.
We’re hearing from a lot of our smaller organizations that donors feel like their racial-equity box has been checked.
Organizations also are navigating the backlash characterizing equity efforts as “woke” and extreme. Mainstream groups that deepened their racial-equity commitments report that some supporters are balking, says Tyrone Freeman, a scholar at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy who studies philanthropy in communities of color. “Some of their donors are upset and threatening to withdraw because of DEI statements and inaccurately perceived understandings of how critical race theory may or may not be influencing their programs.”
There’s also a sense that some donors believe racial-equity groups already have received enough. More than a third of the roughly 900 members of Giving Gap, a digital giving platform for Black-led nonprofits, reported that the Black Lives Matter movement had little or no impact on their revenue.
“We’re hearing from a lot of our smaller organizations on the platform that donors feel like their racial-equity box has been checked by giving to some of the larger, more established organizations,” says Aisha Alexander-Young, CEO of Giving Gap, formerly known as Give Blck.
Vedet Coleman-Robinson, executive director of the Association of African American Museums, says she approached a donor last year about helping the organization become a regranting agency for its members. The response, according to Coleman-Robinson: “Sounds amazing, but we’re hearing on the ground that a lot of your museums are doing really, really well with donations.”
Ultimately, fundraisers will have to do what they always do: “fight for the relevance, value, and inherent worth of supporting Black communities,” says Williams of Hill-Snowdon. “Black folks and Black issues are not seen as that important relative to other things. That’s the fundamental challenge for fundraisers and for society.”