Why did you first decide to pursue a career in nonprofits? Besides the fame and fortune, we mean.
For most of us, working in the nonprofit world is all about doing good and having an impact. But as we all know, good intention alone is not enough—and a lot of our proven models are, in fact, broken. One area that’s ripe for a makeover? Nonprofit fundraising.
Today, we’re getting intentional about the traditional donor-centric fundraising model, which focuses on individuals over communities. Now don’t get us wrong: we’re not here to tell you to throw out your development playbook and start from scratch. However, there’s always room for improvement.
Donors keep the gears turning and, for many of us, keep the lights on. And forging strong, long-lasting relationships with them is most nonprofits’ bread and butter. Here’s the basic problem: most of that butter comes from a small number of wealthy individuals, most of whom are white and many of whom owe their generational wealth to practices that perpetuated inequality and racism. And now, that wealth’s at the center of everything your nonprofit does.
It’s a lot to take in. So, what’s an equity-focused nonprofit to do?
Maybe it's time to look at community-centric fundraising.
What is community-centric fundraising?
We’re so glad you asked! Community-centric fundraising is a movement to ground your fundraising efforts in equity and social justice. Put simply, it puts the needs of the community over individuals and individual organizations and focuses on relationships over transactions.
I hope you’re not telling me to ignore my donors.
Absolutely not! Donor-centric fundraising and community-centric fundraising are not mortal enemies. You can infuse your traditional fundraising approach with community-centric fundraising practices—and you may find that this mindset actually brings your donors closer.
What’s the big problem with donor-centric fundraising?
There are many wonderful things about focusing on our donors. They’re crucial to our work, and we should continue to build meaningful relationships with them and celebrate their generosity.
That being said, we sometimes treat donors like gods and saviors, and this can be… a bit problematic. For example, we act like they get nothing in return for their donations, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Your donors are participating as conscious community members—not swooping in as superheroes.
But donor-centric fundraising works.
Yep, it tends to bring in money, and that’s a primary goal of fundraising. Logic.
But community-centric fundraising argues that there are other goals of fundraising beyond just financial gain: to advance equity and serve the greater good over a single organization or person. So, in that sense, donor-centric fundraising has some room for improvement.
So, what are some examples of equitable fundraising practices?
There are a number of ways you can advance equity in your fundraising practices. And keep in mind: this isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor. We’re all just doing our best here, so start where you can and do what feels workable for your situation.
To start, have those tough conversations. Train all your staff members in anti-racism, equity, wealth disparity, and other social justice topics. Whenever possible, have honest conversations with donors about these topics, too. You can even invite them to your staff trainings.
Then, focus on all your supporters equally. Volunteers are also donors; they just donate time or talent instead of money. Staff members put in long hours (for, let’s face it, oftentimes not-the-best pay) and give their all. Clients benefit from our services, but they also make our community stronger. And, while those big gifts are wonderful, small gifts from dedicated, diverse supporters are also crucial. Everyone deserves equal appreciation.
Next, reconsider your relationship with your fellow nonprofits—especially those led by marginalized and/or vulnerable community members. How can you support them? One example might be volunteering at another nonprofit’s event. Another might be featuring their work in your monthly newsletter. If you’re serious about equity, get serious about toning down that competitive mindset.
Finally, listen to the voices of those you’re serving. Donors are rarely the experts; the people experiencing the challenges you’re working to address are the ones whose voices need to be heard. Get out into the community and talk to members and leaders about what they truly need. By stepping away from the success stories and striving to include those you’re serving in your strategy, you might be surprised what you learn.
And again, it's not about what you can get from these conversations or from other nonprofits—it's about building the relationships that create a supportive, strong community.
I’m worried about offending my donors!
That's a valid concern. You need to strike a balance that works for your donors and your organization. Consider your relationship with individual donors and go from there. Supporting social and racial justice isn’t a zero-sum game; it’s about laying the groundwork for meaningful change. And one more thing: don’t sell your donors short. A lot of them will be excited to have these “tough” convos with you.
What else can we do?
Everyone can contribute to the community-centric fundraising movement—and you’re probably doing a lot of the work already. Speak out on injustices, support transformative work, and ensure your materials and events are accessible to everyone. If you’re an ally, that’s wonderful: be a bold ally. At the same time, defer to the voices of BIPOCs, LGBTQ+ community members, those with disabilities, etc. If you have BIPOC staff or staff from marginalized communities, invest in their careers and ensure they’re receiving fair pay. They’ve been fighting this fight for a long time, and they deserve the power that they've been denied.
We’re all in this for the long haul, trying to be better and do better. Do what you can, see what works for you, and go from there. The good news is that we’re all in this together.