How to Jumpstart Diversifying an Organization’s Donor Pool

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Editor's Note: This article is featured in Best of Connections 2021. Read Apra Editorial Advisory Committee Chair Jessica Balsam's editor's message to learn more about the top articles of the year. 


By Kristal Enter (she/her), Massachusetts General Hospital

Increasing the number of donors from historically-excluded communities can have major positive impacts for an organization, including strengthening the base of financial support and growing its circles of supporters. As such, many non-profits have identified growing the pool of these donors as a key priority to sustain a healthy financial future and create a better connection with the communities in which the organizations serve.

The prospect development field is starting to better understand that donors from historically-excluded communities practice philanthropy in different ways than donors who are traditionally thought of as philanthropists. Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) has two important centers: Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, both of which are dedicated to examining the patterns and behaviors of philanthropists from historically-excluded groups and how to increase focus on these donors. The Chronicle of Philanthropy has an entire toolkit on attracting these donors, how to connect with different groups and how these groups’ giving priorities/patterns might differ.

However, this work has been largely focused on exploring how frontline fundraisers can engage these communities and there has been less exploration of what role prospect researchers play. My perspective is that prospect researchers have tremendous value to add by identifying potential donors who have not traditionally been thought of as philanthropists, and creating prospect research and management practices that value these prospects. Prospect researchers can contribute by critically examining what the donor pool of their organization is currently like, developing strategies to identify new donors and exploring how current portfolio management strategies may be undermining the pursuit of these prospects for giving to their organization.

My goal in this article is to identify and discuss key next steps and tools for prospect researchers that can help jumpstart growing the number of donors to an organization who are from historically-excluded groups. This includes two streams of action:

  • Evaluating and addressing how prospect researchers typically think and communicate about prospects
  • Examining and shifting the fundamentals of prospect research work, including prospect identification and portfolio management

I will also discuss issues related to diversity and prospect research that do not have easy solutions, including determining where prospect research fits into broader organizational change related to diversity, the collection of data related to prospects from diverse communities, and building the time and resources to dedicate to this work.

I wish to acknowledge my own background and bias at the outset. Like many professionals in the development field, I am a white, cis-gendered woman. My exploration of my own bias, examination of the role I play in supporting the structures that benefit me and the development of my personal action steps is a continual and lifelong journey. I have worked in development and fundraising in healthcare organizations for much of my career, initially in corporate and foundation fundraising and, later, in prospect research. These all ultimately shape my viewpoint, the kind of prospect researcher I am and the recommendations I am making in this article.

Apra is committed to ensuring that our association lives the values of diversity, equity and inclusion espoused in our Diversity and Inclusion Statement of Principles and delivers on the objectives set forward in the Diversity and Inclusion pillar of our 2019-2021 Strategic Plan.

Additionally, the tools and next steps I suggest are not meant to solve the paternalism and white-savior complex that have historically been embedded in philanthropy. This approach is unfortunately frequently baked into nonprofit operations, but undervalues and undermines the contributions of historically-excluded communities. I aim to surface and explore action steps that prospect researchers can take, with the goal of growing the circle of donors to an organization, which is a small part of shifting the way philanthropy is practiced.

A note on terminology: In using the terms "historically-excluded" or “diverse,” I am talking broadly about groups that are not reflected in the typical white, non-disabled, cis-gender male donor pool. If your organization serves specific groups, there may be specific historically-excluded groups you wish to reach. For example, an organization serving in Haiti may aim to increase the number of Haitian or Haitian American donors to authentically represent those served and incorporate the viewpoint of those with lived experience into its mission, operations and goals.

Prospect Researchers as Individuals

There is a perception that prospect researchers are unbiased; that they dig into data and present the facts as they are. However, I argue that individual prospect researchers bring different knowledge, experience and skills to the role that colors their approach to the work.

Critically, each prospect researcher holds a bias related to groups of people that they do not belong to, even if this bias is unintentional. This may be because of the way they were raised, where they went to school, where they live or the very human instinct to make quick judgements to make sense of a complicated world. It may be compounded by the demands of a prospect researcher to juggle multiple priorities and the constant flow of data, and the critical role of “quick takes” to balance these demands.

To make authentic progress toward increasing the number of donors from historically-excluded groups at their organization, prospect researchers should examine how they understand the world and explore how this impacts their work. This means going beyond standard diversity, equity and inclusion training sessions to individually unpack what perspectives prospect researchers bring to their work and what in those perspectives might be important to shift. In the appendix to this article, there are suggested readings and resources for prospect researchers to self-examine their biases. If there are no other tools from this article that can be implemented, this is the most important and critical action step that I believe every prospect researcher in any development shop can carry out.

Numerous studies have shown that diverse teams are more productive and creative. Ideally, prospect research teams would be more diverse so that there are multiple perspectives represented within a team. The Aspen Leadership Group’s 2019 report, “Diversity and Inclusion in Healthcare Advancement: Changing Behaviors and Outcomes,” makes it very clear that the development profession has a long way to go in terms of increasing diversity of staff and leadership, though organizations like the African American Development Officers organization and Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy have created important communities to support fundraisers who identify as African American and women of color, respectively. Prospect researchers must be ambassadors for the profession with the goal of increasing the diversity of teams, as well as the leadership of these teams.

This article is one of four-parts in a series celebrating Research Pride Month. Read the rest of the series here:

Learn more about the author on the Connections Thought Leadership Page.

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