Skip to Content

5 DEI Strategies for Nonprofit Fundraising Success

By Guest Author August 20, 2021

By: Yolanda F. Johnson, Founder of WOC, Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy

The same historical and cultural structures that have held back diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in so many aspects of our lives are also mirrored in much of the nonprofit sector. In the past year, we’ve seen a swell of financial and human resource commitments toward DEI from all industries — but meaningful and data-backed progress is lacking. True inclusion and equal representation of all people requires overhauling both systems and ways of thinking.

In fact, while there are various acronyms for this work — ranging from DEI to EDI, EDIB, JEDI, you name it — I personally believe that inclusion comes first. So, our work is called IED for inclusion, equity, and diversity. An organization, company, or other entity can have all of the diversity numbers in the world, but until everyone feels included and that there is a place and voice for them, it is all for naught. However, with the standard acronym being “DEI,” that is what we’ll use for this post.

People smiling while packing food in bags
True inclusion and equal representation of all people requires overhauling both systems and ways of thinking.

Last year in the midst of the pandemic, I saw an empty space that truly needed to be addressed within the nonprofit community, so I created a new community called WOC: Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy. Workshops, panels, discussions, mentoring, a thriving job board, and networking are all part of WOC, as well as a sister branch, Allies in Action, for white allies to support and learn. A little more than one year later and we have over 1,000 members across all states in the U.S. and several countries. All it took was one idea, and a ton of hard work to push the needle towards equality for women of color.

For nonprofit fundraisers, the lack of diversity in donor bases, fundraising teams, and leadership at the top leaves organizations without a clear path to achieve equity. There are hurdles to overcome. DEI initiatives are often seen as separate projects that can distract from fundraising. It may seem like the upfront time and resource commitment of DEI initiatives, coupled with an expectation that development revenue is constantly growing, can create an environment where it is very difficult to innovate actual change with diversity programs.

Most importantly, there is often a lack of understanding across the nonprofit fundraising sector regarding the value that comes from a diversified donor base and fundraising team — preventing many development teams from even considering DEI programs in the first place. Nonprofit stakeholders, from individual contributors to development leadership teams, must affirm that DEI initiatives and strategies are critical for success.

The U.S. population is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before, and is experiencing significant demographic shifts, with implications for philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Moreover, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movements, communities of color are increasingly investing their time, talent, and treasure to make meaningful changes.

Diversification of donor bases and development teams represents an incredible opportunity for nonprofit fundraisers to grow revenue and access new donor communities. Increased donor diversity results in revenue goals exceeded, and team diversity creates access to new networks and better, broader perspectives among teams. Workstream priorities should reflect this knowledge. By executing on DEI initiatives, individual nonprofits and the sector at large will shift power dynamics in fundraising. Outcomes could include: more diverse fundraisers and pools of donors; equal funding for diverse-led organizations; and more seats at the table, especially at the executive and board levels, for people and voices across the spectrum of experience and perspective.

Despite these trends, research on philanthropy across diverse communities is limited and many questions remain unknown, including what motivates the giving practices of diverse donors, where they give, and what specific tools and techniques donors of color are utilizing to enhance their giving.

Here are five actions you can take right now to begin leveraging DEI strategies to drive fundraising success.

1. Change Organizational Culture

Take every opportunity to reaffirm to your fundraising teams the importance of a diverse donor base. This can include incentive structures, remembering DEI in programming, speakers, professional development, etc. When teams are encouraged and reminded to look beyond their usual circles, new fundraising opportunities emerge. Share a framework for DEI goal setting and use an innovation mindset to start small with new initiatives, track outcomes, and to use agility to build off successes.

2. DEI Benchmarking

Leverage tools that make it possible to understand the current state of the diversity makeup of your donor base. Tools and resources should be made available to all nonprofits regardless of their size — from donor data to automated marketing and even AI that can recommend full categories of people being left out of your donor base.

3. Intentional Marketing 

Personalize communications based on identity to attract diversity in donors and teams. Create a strategy that prioritizes diversity based on the communities served. Leverage holidays from various cultural celebrations to engage a diverse audience year-round and to remind your community that it is important to remain inclusive, and not only in a particular month.

4. Authenticity in Diverse Donor Relations

One important thing to remember when working towards diversifying an organization’s donor base, is to never make assumptions about donors of color. We want to move away from a transactional nature to fundraising, and while donor diversity may likely result in exceeding revenue goals, it is also important to engage donors as human beings with philanthropic priorities, gifts, talents, potentially fresh outlooks on life, and the good work that is to be done in the world.

In other words, think of diverse donors through a holistic lens and seek to know them entirely, instead of going directly to the nearest donor of color for your DEI initiatives and stopping there. Yes, they’ll likely want to help in this area, but it is also best to gain a broader picture of who they are and give them other opportunities to support and shine as well.

5. Connect DEI Strategies to Fundraising Impact

Most importantly, we must connect DEI Strategies directly to fundraising impact through data, research, and success stories.

Register for our upcoming webinar on September 9th.

Join Lilly School of Philanthropy, Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy (WOC), Pencils of Promise, and for a webinar to discuss the nearly two years of research on the current state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in nonprofit fundraising, the value that diversity plays in fundraising success, as well as immediate and actionable steps you can take to implement DEI strategies today.

About the Author

Yolanda F. Johnson, Founder, WOC President and Founder, YFJ Consulting
Yolanda F. Johnson
Founder, WOC President and Founder, YFJ Consulting
Yolanda F. Johnson is both a philanthropy and fundraising expert, successfully having led fundraising operations for a wide range of nonprofit organizations and having assisted donors with establishing philanthropic priorities. She is an active philanthropist through YFJ Philanthropies as well. Yolanda is the Founder of WOC, Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy and Founder of Allies in Action Membership Network in addition to the President of Women In Development, NY (WID).
Her leadership roles include: serving as an International Advisory Board member and the former Representative for the Foundation for Post Conflict Development to the United Nations; a member of the board of directors of the Lehman College Art Gallery; a member of the board of trustees of the Hudson River Museum and a member of the PowHerNY board of directors. Yolanda is the first African American President in the more than 40-year history of WID.