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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Philanthropy needs to change, but what can be done in fundraising for equity now?

Unbalanced scale

There is increasing recognition that philanthropy is founded upon antiquated principles and values of the wealthy elite.

Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s philanthropy continues to remain the main model for funding nonprofits, yet with increasing diversity (over the next two decades minorities will comprise more than half the population) these models based on white dominant norms will become increasingly irrelevant. Fundraising practices reflect the divisive, destabilizing and limiting function of today’s philanthropy, which is often centered on the needs and wants of white donors. Centering donor needs, rather than community needs, limits potential for better community solutions that are innovative and relevant.

The current fundraising model is donor-centric fundraising, which is based on building relationships and creating tailored approaches to engage donors in giving. While donor-centric fundraising has effectively raised funds for the nonprofit sector, there are challenges to using this approach.

Donor-centric fundraising…

  • Fails to engage donors who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), therefore missing important parts of the community.
  • Generates scarcity-mindset, competition, and is anti-collaboration.
  • Has messaging that appeals to donors but encourages poverty porn, or imagery that entices donors and elicit strong monetary responses, and reinforces stereotyping.
  • Encourages savior complex and the drama triangle (“perpetrator, victim, and savior” roles).
  • Centers white donor needs over the needs of the community.

Therefore, calls for fundamental shifts in philanthropy are necessary and important if the sector is to truly reflect the needs of the community and stop perpetuating systemic oppression and white supremacy. Yet, while this fundamental system change in philanthropy takes place, what can fundraisers do now to fundraise from an equity lens to encourage this change? There is so much to learn from community-centric fundraising practices and professionals in the field who are already doing the work of equity, that can function in a donor-centric environment.

  1. Have hard conversations with donors about their expectations and biases.
  2. Consider sharing resources if the organization is able, by providing ‘strategic partnerships funding’ that supports BIPOC-led nonprofit organizations.
  3. Combat scarcity-mindset and push for unrestricted funding.
  4. Select socially responsible investments.
  5. Engage the board of directors in equity and increase representation to reflect the community.
  6. Re-define the definition of “donor” and think of ways to engage individuals who bring unique talents outside of money.
  7. Avoid the use of poverty porn and stereotypes. Use inclusive language and person-first language in donor and community communications. Elizabeth Slater, CEO of Youth On Their Own, a Tucson human services nonprofit serving youth, gives an example of this in practice, “Some of our donors expect the tearful story, they want to cry; they want to hear the trauma. Every time they ask for a tearful story, I have a chance to say ‘actually let me talk to you about that’…we are so conditioned to see the dog in the cage with the Sarah McLachlan song, so we think that’s what we need to feel to know we’re making a difference. Unlearning that takes a while. I don’t think people are opposed to it because when we do it in little conversations, one at a time, people are like ‘oh that makes sense.’”
  8. Use data from an equity perspective. For example, when listing demographic information about donors or program participants, list by alphabetical order rather than race.
  9. Use other Community-Centric Fundraising practices from the Aligned Actions list, such as, equity training for fundraising professionals and stakeholders, advocate for BIPOC-led nonprofit partners that can benefit from the use of the organization’s reputation, and balance the use of “you” with “we” language.
  10. Commit to equity work: do the learning.

These strategies are only the beginning of the work of equity, which requires stamina and audacious action. However, fundraisers can begin this work now and create an environment for change by altering donor expectations and centering community need. In this way, as Edgar Villanueva describes in Decolonizing Wealth, leaders can be “bridge builders” that “envision opportunities for change.” This will ensure the sector remains relevant, ethical, and most importantly, better for all communities.

Daniela Figueroa is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and director of programs for Youth On Their Own. Daniela has worked with Youth On Their Own for six years and serves on the Metropolitan Education Commission of the City of Tucson and Pima County, and also serves as the chair of the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness board, the continuum of care for the county.

Daniela Figueroa


ASU Lodestar Center Blog