How can community foundations rally their donor advisors to promote equity?

Written by: Lisa Ranghelli

Date: July 07, 2016

“When [donors] come here … they get an invitation to be part of a group of donors that can solve important problems or be more aware of what’s going on in specific communities or around the state.” – Max Williams, President and CEO, The Oregon Community Foundation (OCF)

“There are very few foundations that are willing to get beyond the comfort level of social service to fund social change. … If they can only understand that what politics is about is building communities better, maybe they could open themselves more.” – A DAF holder at OCF

All community foundations face the challenge of serving the different and often divergent charitable interests of each individual donor while also generating investment that will systemically address community issues and needs. According to CFLeads, a key building block of community leadership by community foundations is to “engage donors and other co-investors in community leadership work.” How well do community foundation staff walk that fine line in their relationships with donor advisors to cultivate their leadership?

Our recent Philamplify assessments of Oregon Community Foundation and the New York Community Trust examined each institution’s donor engagement approach. The Trust is a big-city grantmaker with a donor relations team of six. OCF is a statewide foundation with regional offices and a donor relations staff of 14.

As we reported, “OCF’s donor engagement is proactive and robust. The community foundation connects donors to community grant applications, invites support for its special initiatives and offers educational events where donors can connect with staff, professional advisors, other donors and nonprofit organizations.” OCF has also begun efforts to reach new and more diverse donor audiences, for example by hosting a targeted event, Women Give: Creating Impact with Money.

In contrast, we found the Trust’s donor engagement approach to be less dynamic and effective. The foundation hosts around six donor briefings per year, yet staff reports that attendance among its 1,300 donors is low. Trust program officers serve as a resource to donors with particular interests, and the Trust solicits DAF funding for some of its special initiatives and funder collaboratives. Attracting more diverse donors is an ongoing challenge, despite the diversity of the donor relations staff. Yet the Trust has a low financial threshold for establishing a DAF: $5,000, compared to $25,000 at OCF.

To serve a geographically dispersed set of constituencies in urban and rural areas, OCF has developed unique structures to engage donors, volunteers and residents that include regional offices, leadership councils and volunteer grants evaluators. Regional and statewide events bring these constituencies together, often with grantees.

Both OCF and NYCT could do more to connect their donor advisors to social change nonprofits, especially those led by people of color and other underserved groups seeking to advance equity. NCRP research has found a significant return for investments in such organizations: as much as $115 for every dollar spent.

Social change leaders in Oregon see DAFs as mysterious and OCF staff as “gatekeepers” who are reluctant to connect their donors to advocacy and organizing efforts. As part of OCF’s recent commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, the staff is grappling with how to do this effectively. Senior donor relations officer Kirsten Kilchenstein explained, “There are polarizing trigger words … We’re learning how to use language and bring folks together around shared interests to improve lives for underserved … communities who have been historically disadvantaged.” An OCF donor survey found that many donors already have an appetite to “engage more deeply with other donors and OCF around key issues in the state,” including equity.

And both foundations could do a better job of communicating publicly their vision for an equitable community and how donors can be part of realizing that vision. For example, NCRP Impact Award winner the California Community Foundation (CCF) communicates on its website very clearly that it “advocates for those who struggle” and invests in systemic change. CCF offers donors the option to invest in the Future of Los Angeles Fund to address pressing issues, as well as encouraging donors to help “transform L.A.”

If you are interested in rallying your donors to advance equity, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How does your website convey this purpose? How do your newsletters and other communications with donors make the case?
  2. Do you have strategies and benchmarks for donor investment in community change organizations, and offer vehicles for donors to easily invest?
  3. How do you foster interaction between donors and residents of color and culturally specific nonprofits?

A public vision for an equitable community that donors can rally around; intentional conversations with donors about equity, and networking among donors and social change nonprofits; and specific funding vehicles that provide an easy way for donors to contribute to advancing systemic change – these are three ways community foundations can exercise leadership in partnership with their donors to address longstanding disparities for communities of color, LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities and others.

Community foundations are complex institutions, distinct from place to place, but they have much to learn from each other in a common pursuit of equity and justice.

Lisa Ranghelli is director of foundation assessment at NCRP.

What other strategies are you aware of? Share them in the comments section or join the conversation on Twitter @NCRP and #Philamplify.

Images by Michael Silberstein, van Ort and Eli Duke. Modified under Creative Commons license.