Equity Is the Future of Nonprofit Fundraising

By Tracy Vanderneck, MSM, CFRE

The nonprofit industry is evolving. It is slowly moving on from its history where decisions were regularly made without appropriate representation from all stakeholders, and fundraising methods didn’t always address the wide array of ways people want to support mission work.

We know that it is not unusual for a nonprofit to be run by an exclusive group of people who may or may not have any firsthand experience with the situation the organization exists to address. We’ve tended to exalt certain donors and grantors while unintentionally treating those we serve as a less than equal part of the equation. This is especially true in the social service sector, where there is more likely to be a significant gap between the socioeconomic status of donors and the people being served than there is in, say, the arts sector.

How People Give

In the same way that organizations have frequently operated and governed from a relatively narrow perspective, we’ve also clung to a seemingly immovable set of principles that drive the way we seek funding to support the missions of organizations in the independent sector. It’s time to normalize the fact that different generations and varied demographics like to engage with nonprofits in disparate ways. 

Some like to have a close partnership with organizations they support, some like philanthropy to be a part of their social life, others like to remain at an arm’s length while supporting through purchases of cause-marketed goods. Still others enjoy tying philanthropy to pop culture and influencers they follow. None of these are wrong. They simply represent a variety of people’s styles. 

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There have been numerous research articles outlining differing giving styles influenced by age, gender, race and religion. Unfortunately, some nonprofits still continue to treat some methods of fundraising as “not right.” But what is not right for me may be perfect for someone else, and, as a nonprofit professional, it is my job to find that out.

We must leave our judgments behind and acknowledge that any way people like to engage with philanthropy is the right way. My mom may like to write checks to charities with a long history. I may like to give online to nonprofits I’ve thoroughly vetted. My nieces may prefer to participate in giving that is tied to a viral dance phenomenon on TikTok. Some people may want to give by cryptocurrency, others by Cash App or Venmo, some by stock transfer, and still others through the collection plate at church. As long as we act strategically, do our best to sift fundraising efforts through an ethical sieve, and honor the privacy of everyone involved, we’ll be OK.

It Is Still About Relationship Building

The core tenets of fund development have always been about relationship building. For the last few decades, the practice has been to center the lion’s share of energy on donors and prospective donors. Building relationships with people who want to help others is certainly a good thing. But if we spend too much time exalting specific donors, we may end up excluding others who should also be involved in the process of addressing societal needs.

In recent years, there has been a movement that redirects the focus away from donors and lifts up the communities nonprofits are serving. A wider array of stakeholders are involved from beginning to end, and there is a desire for partnership-building. This approach removes the pedestal the industry has built under donors and seeks to educate the sector about the harmful effects of inequities between stakeholders. But we don’t need to devalue donors in order to intentionally raise others to an equal level.

As an industry, our eyes are now more open, and we know there is always more to learn. Those within nonprofit organizations and foundations who drive the strategy behind how the agencies operate, govern, raise funds and deliver services have a better understanding of how focusing so specifically on the donor has led to an us-and-them scenario that can be doing harm at the same time we’re working to do good.

Creating an Evolved Nonprofit Ecosystem

Now is the time to leave some of the rigidity of the fundraising process behind. That is not to say we shouldn’t be strategic, organized and professional, but that nonprofits must be willing to incorporate flexibility into their core tenets. We need to engage in metaphorical yoga, if you will; we gain core strength by being flexible and pushing past our comfortable boundaries.

Let us create an industry-wide ecosystem that encompasses the issues and problems to be addressed, viable solutions, and how to secure the funding needed to deliver those solutions (for the purposes of this article, I’m considering mission delivery its own entity, but do recognize that it also exists within the ecosystem). The most important aspect of this more evolved sector is the recognition that humans are involved at every stage and are all stakeholders equally crucial to the process. Without equitable human interaction, the industry that provides society’s safety net can end up being as much a part of the problem as it is the solution.

Human-Focused Fundraising

I like to consider the ideal scenario as being a human-focused approach. Human-focused fundraising is a methodology for securing philanthropic dollars to support the missions of nonprofit organizations across the globe.

Human-focused fundraising encompasses the people involved at every level of the funding process; it:

  • engages appropriately representative and qualified humans to determine needs and posit solutions
  • requires diverse and representative governing leadership
  • employs broad, inclusive fundraising strategies that honor the triadic relationship between funders, nonprofit organizations, and the individuals and communities served.

Human-focused fundraising requires inclusivity and equity among everyone involved in the process. We each have a part to play; some are experts in identifying root problems that need to be addressed, others have firsthand knowledge of specific situations, many have resources that can be pooled with others’ to implement solutions. Fundraising professionals endeavor to stay engaged with the ways a variety of people want to give. One nonprofit may find major gifts are still the best place to spend the majority of their time; another organization may raise thousands of dollars by educating and engaging audiences through TikTok.

As long as nonprofits are intentional about including the right people at every level, show gratitude for the part everyone plays, and treat everyone involved with an attitude of equity, we’re laying the groundwork for an incredible future in the nonprofit sector.

Tracy Vanderneck, MSM, CFRE is president of Phil-Com, a training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits across the U.S. on fundraising, board development, and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership, a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and a DEI in the Workplace certificate. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer, and holds a BoardSource certificate in nonprofit board consulting. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.