A Seat at the Table
May 22, 2019
Your Board Needs to Know: Fundraising Doesn’t Happen by Magic
June 5, 2019

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Fundraising: Questions to Consider

As a Community Foundation Boulder County board member, I’ve been in many different discussions about equity over the last couple of years. That’s because many foundations around the country, including the Denver Foundation and the Community Foundation Boulder County, have been exploring in depth what a real focus on equity could look like in their communities.

As a nonprofit professional and volunteer for 30 years, I’ve generally thought of myself as someone who is walking the road towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m learning all the time on my journey. But at my core I believe that the inclusion of people from different backgrounds, races, economic circumstances, sexual orientations, and ages makes our organizations stronger. Better. More sustainable.

I’ve always felt like our sector had good intentions in that direction, too. But progress has been glacial.

How many times (and for how many years) have you heard board members say how hard it is to find people of color that want to serve in their ranks? Or an executive director lament how hard it is to hire diversity on to their staff? Or a fundraiser say that they just can’t attract donors of color? They might really want the different perspective or they might just want to tick a box, but clearly just wanting it to happen isn’t the solution.

It’s not enough for nonprofits to want to diversify. It’s not even enough to invite people in an attempt to include them. People of diverse backgrounds have to be comfortable walking through the door. They have to see themselves there. Not as guests or tokens. But as much a part of the organization as anyone else. Our organizations will have to change to make that happen.

And while most nonprofits espouse a vision of equity where all people have the opportunity to thrive, there are significant barriers to entry, especially for people of color, when it comes to nonprofit employment, leadership, and involvement.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in environmentalism, where I started my career. Board members, staff leadership, and donors in the environmental sector have been predominately white for decades because there are very few pathways to connect people of color with the movement. It’s been a great setback for the environmental cause as it only now seems to realize how much stronger it could be with more diversity within its ranks.

And in fundraising – where I’ve spent so much of my career – many of the tried and true practices reinforce systems of inequity in our society and hold them in place across the nonprofit spectrum, despite the changing times.

We fundraisers might talk about including people of color, but my experience is that most of these efforts are abandoned before they get started. They take too long, are too expensive, or people don’t know where to begin.

The system has been set up to fail in this area. As fundraisers, our performance incentives are to make as much money as possible with as little expense as possible. Our boards and leadership are clamoring for higher and higher return on investment.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion might be separately articulated in organizational goals, but these principles don’t figure into that ROI calculation. Change that might cost more in the short term is not rewarded.

In fact, many of the successful techniques of fundraising developed over time are exclusive and meant to be that way.

Giving clubs, high-end events, expensive donor walls – all are trying to make the donor feel like part of an exclusive club, part of an inner circle.

The long-tested and proven method of capital campaign fundraising is to cultivate a small group of the largest donors first, in a “quiet phase”, bestowing naming rights on those who give big.

Through these methods, we cultivate donors who often look alike and have shared experiences of privilege, sometimes creating a donor base that is one-dimensional and literally a world away from the front line work of the organization. (This very white donor base is also aging rapidly.)

Think about the theory behind the donor pyramid. It’s hard to deny that it is hierarchical, and represents a power dynamic that really isn’t so equitable. The more people give, the more attention they receive.

Look, I’m not saying that we should throw these fundraising principles out. Fundraising has been tested endlessly and has been successful for many years in raising money for world-changing impact. At Front Range Source, we still believe in efficiency and effectiveness. We are devoted to bringing best practices of fundraising to organizations so that they can raise the money to realize their vision.

But we are devoted to learning, to authenticity, and to sustainability, too. Fundraising will have to evolve to meet changing demographics, social norms, economic patterns, and problems. It will need to be more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive to meet the challenges of the future.

So, we are asking ourselves these questions:

  • How can we – as fundraisers – influence the way our organizations integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into their DNA?
  • How can we change our hiring, management, and leadership cultivation in fundraising so that people of color see themselves in our fundraising operations?
  • How can we adapt fundraising cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship methods to build relationships with people outside of our usual circles?
  • And how can we change our organizational evaluation systems so that the long-term investments of time and resources inherent in these questions are measured and valued?

Are you thinking about this, too? Are there ways that you are seeing fundraising through the kaleidoscope of diversity, equity and inclusion? Send us your ideas. We’d love to learn from you.


  1. Deborah Clair says:

    This is a great article. I have been wondering for weeks how to make changes in my field of corporate and foundation relations fundraising. Wondering what is fundraising going to look like pass the double pandemic that our world is facing and this article helped me to articulate exactly what I was thinking. Leslie and Ann!

  2. Leslie,
    Thank you for this thought-provoking article! We plan to share it as food for thought in an upcoming discussion on institutional racism in our fundraising practices hosted by PANO (the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations.)

    • Leslie Allen says:

      How exciting! Thank you, Marcella, for letting me know! And thanks for all the work that you do – it’s very exciting to know that there are so many of us talking about these very important issues in fundraising.

  3. Kanani says:

    May I ask what an example of Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice types of fundraising would look like as this seems to be the direction all fundraising efforts should move toward.

    • Leslie Allen says:

      Hi Kanai and thank you for writing! When I think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in fundraising I think about access for people of any community to have the opportunity to participate in giving. So often we make assumptions about who will give and who will give the most. But those assumptions are grounded in philanthropic practices that depend heavily on white donors from wealthy, privileged families that passed down money from generation to generation. My feeling is that breaking our dependence on these donors necessitates finding, engaging, and serving donors from communities across races, economic classes, and geographies.

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