How to Jumpstart Diversifying an Organization’s Donor Pool (Part 2)

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

This article is the second in a four-part series. Click here to view part one, which serves as an introduction to the series, covers terminology and explores how prospect researchers can begin this work by first examining how they understand the world and how that impacts their work.

Thinking and Talking About Prospects

Prospect researchers play an important role at their organization as they surface new prospects and compile and present information about each prospect that guides the development of strategy. They communicate key information about a person that is then tracked or acted upon. As such, if an organization wants to change the makeup of its donor pool, it is important to consider how prospect researchers think and talk about prospects.

Where Are the Prospects?

The most common reasoning I encounter for struggling to increase the diversity of donor pools is that donors from historically-excluded groups simply do not exist in large numbers and those rare prospects from these communities are overburdened with many affiliations. This is partially true in that many prominent people from these groups are often stretched with multiple board memberships or organizational affiliations.

However, I believe that this is largely a “prospect scarcity” mindset. Research shows that philanthropists from historically-excluded groups have always been present and may fall into one of two categories: 1) high-net worth prospects who are simply overlooked or their numbers underestimated or 2) prospects who are philanthropic before reaching high-net worth status.

Studies like Aspen Leadership Group’s 2019 report, “Diversity and Inclusion in Healthcare Advancement: Changing Behaviors and Outcomes,” have shown that not only are there high net worth people from historically-excluded groups, but these donors have a track record of philanthropy and an interest in being engaged by organizations. A 2017 report from Donors of Color that there are approximately 1.3 million individuals of color with assets over $1 million and tens of thousands of people of color with assets greater than $10 million.

But prospect researchers should also not overlook potential donors from historically-excluded groups who have not yet reached high-net worth status. IUPUI’s Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s “Women Give 2019: Gender and Giving Across Communities of Color” report highlights that donors from all races give philanthropically at roughly the same levels when income, education and wealth are considered. The report also notes that donors may give financial gifts through different avenues than “traditional” philanthropists, such as through their house of worship or informally to members of their extended family.


 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.

Looking beyond monetary philanthropy, I argue consideration of other types of contributions could also be critical to reframing how we think about donors from historically-excluded groups. As Tyrone McKinley Freeman demonstrated in “Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow,” in addition to monetary gifts, Black women’s philanthropy has also taken the form of activism, volunteerism or education. At Massachusetts General Hospital, we have updated our research templates to include space regarding “non-monetary philanthropy.” This enables us to better capture the contribution of someone’s time or access to a network and their full connection to an organization, and give this type of contribution equal weight with a monetary gift.

The issue then is not whether potential large and small donors from historically-excluded groups exist, but whether they are being identified and engaged by an organization. As the Women Give 2019 report notes: “In many nonprofits, donors of color are as likely to give, but they are not engaged as often or with the same relationship depth as white donors.” Clearly, organizations, including prospect research teams, can be doing much more to engage these donors, starting with shifting the scarcity mindset that potential prospects from historically-excluded groups do not exist.

Relatedly, prospect researchers must examine how they are evaluating that someone is a “good” prospect. Based on training, past successes and workload volume, prospect researchers are often primed to look for specific evidence and use a specific framework to evaluate that evidence. If prospects check certain boxes, such as having at least two homes, circulating among certain social circles and maintaining a track record of large monetary gifts, it is easy to make the case that these are promising prospects. However, it often means that new prospects share many characteristics in common with current prospects, which does not move the needle on increasing the diversity of a donor pool.

A prospect from a historically-excluded group may or may not check the boxes of what is traditionally thought of as a good major gift prospect, but that does not necessarily mean they are not a good prospect. For example, a self-made Black business leader may live in a community not typically thought of as an area where wealthy people live, but is in a community they were raised in. How should a prospect researcher evaluate that prospect’s real estate? If a prospect gives directly to their house of worship, what weight is given to that philanthropy versus philanthropy to large institutions? The overarching question then becomes: how can a prospect researcher evaluate and present the unique qualities of these prospects, even though these prospects may not necessarily fit the mold of a typical major gift donor? I would encourage prospect researchers to be open to more possibilities about what makes for a promising prospect, as well as be able to analyze and present what these prospects bring to the table.

Communicating About Prospects

As organizations increase the number of donors and prospects from historically-excluded groups, it is critical for prospect research teams to define how to talk about these prospects in research and in the information committed to a database. This can bring up hard ethical questions (addressed in a later section), but prospect researchers must consider how to document information about prospects in an inclusive and sensitive way. Going one step further, since donors can request copies of their records at any time, it is incumbent on an organization to create clear and intentional guidelines about how they talk about their prospects and donors.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, the team has rolled out an inclusive style guide specific to prospect research. This resource provides guidance about how to communicate about prospects respectfully in line with current guidelines from Apra, CASE and AFP, as well as standards from other industries, such as journalism. Most importantly, prospect researchers do not make assumptions about the way a prospect would like to be identified and instead follow a prospect’s lead in how they identify themselves. Does the prospect publicly use they/them/their pronouns? Prospect researchers would use those pronouns in research.

Prospect research team members also do not identify a characteristic of a prospect in research, such as race or sexual orientation, unless it is both publicly disclosed by the prospect and relevant to the philanthropic conversation being had with the prospect. For example, it is not necessary to document that a prospect is gay if it is not relevant to the philanthropic conversation being had with the prospect.

This article is one of four-parts in a series celebrating Research Pride Month. Stay tuned for parts three and four – set to be released throughout March.


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

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