Donor Focus: African Americans
African Americans currently make up 13 percent of the population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 1990, the bureau charted the African-American community to grow by 68 percent before 2030. But despite this growing demographic — currently 38.3 million individuals representing a buying power of $631 billion — many majority nonprofit organizations have only recently begun focusing efforts on soliciting support from the black community.
“African-American donors used to be ignored by virtually all fundraisers,” says Dr. Emmett Carson, president and CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation, a philanthropic center for Minnesota, and author of “A Hand Up: Black Philanthropy and Self-Help in America.” “There has been this view by mainstream organizations that the African-African community consists of people who receive charity, rather than people who give charity. The recent breakthrough for many organizations was, ‘Wow, African Americans give.’ “
Today, more than ever, when the need for contributions is higher and revenue sources are shrinking, the African-American donor is a far more influential individual on the fundraising landscape.
“[This] much-touted demographic change has made some nonprofit organizations sit back on their heels and say, ‘We don’t know these people. We have to get to know these people so we can raise money from them,’ “ says Alice Green Burnette, principal of Advancement Solutions in Palm Coast, FL, and a fundraising veteran since 1964. In the late 1990s, Burnette compiled “The Privilege to Ask,” a qualitative national report on how African Americans view philanthropy and fundraising in the United States. What Burnette discovered is that fundraisers must overcome the skepticism and discomfort felt by many black potential donors.
“African-American people, in my history and my life, have been excluded from participation in society,” Burnette says. “What we did as a community was form a parallel social, educational and cultural structure.”
And even though racial integration is more prevelant than ever before in certain aspects of American culture — higher education, for example — there are still obstacles to overcome.
“African Americans are skeptical, though,” Burnette adds. “People don’t want to be wanted so that they could give money.”
Burnette cites a consulting experience with a majority educational institution where many African-American alumni failed to respond to a year-end direct mail campaign. The institution was dumfounded by the results.
“I understood perfectly,” Burnette says. “There was no effort to get to know this donor constituency. There’s a sense [among some nonprofit organizations] that if we ask you to become a participant, you will. It doesn’t work like that.”
Throughout U.S. history, there have been many organizations that have had less than ideal relationships with the African-American community and, equally, many that have failed to adopt culturally specific fundraising approaches.
“[Organizations] must recognize that they have to be responsive to the needs and interests of a different community if they want to get their involvement, in terms of donations,” Carson affirms, “and be very intentional in acknowledging their history [with the black community] and working deliberately to change it, if it is impaired.”
To illustrate, Carson shares a personal story: His mother, who recently turned 80, was not permitted to join the Girl Scouts when she was a young girl. The exclusion left a deep, emotional scar that he says might never heal. Today, her granddaughter is a proud, happy Scout. Says Carson: “History matters. But history is not predeterminate. You can build a new story.”
A desirable constituency
Some 52 percent of African Americans surveyed by national nonprofit coalition Independent Sector in the late 1990s gave to a charity, and 47 percent volunteered. According to the 2001 study, “Giving and Volunteering in the United States,” blacks are more likely to contribute to an organization than Hispanics (80.6 percent versus 77.6 percent, respectively). Based on nonprofit consulting firm Wirthlin Worldwide’s 2002 year-end study of donor behavior, African-American respondents are significantly more likely than others to be first-time donors, and they gave more in 2002 than in 2001.
More recently, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University conducted a national survey of 4,200 households, yielding a report, “The Effects of Race, Gender, and Survey Methodologies on Giving in the U.S.”
“When you look at the raw averages, white households reported giving 40 percent more than non-white households, but when you control for differences in income, education, age and marital status, that percentage difference disappears,” says Patrick Rooney, director of research for the center. “What we found was that there are many differences in terms of where [donations] go.”
Causes related to family, education, health, social reform, housing and community development, job readiness and self-help tend to attract the most support from black donors. To spur a solicitation from these charitable givers, organizations must make them feel that their gift is benefiting the black community, some would argue. But according to Carson, the composition of African-American contributors is much more complicated than it was 20-30 years ago.
“The benefit of desegregation, of integration, has been that African-American donors are far more likely to have a multiplicity of interests,” he says. African Americans exist in more diverse circles today “that they feel a part of ... are accepted in, in addition to — not in opposition of — being African American.”
Faith in giving
Even as African Americans establish new networks of involvement, the one institution that has perpetually sustained the black community is the church.
A study conducted in the late 1990s by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found that 59 percent of all donations from African Americans are to religious causes, particularly churches.
Between 1800 and 1900, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, for instance, established 20 colleges and universities and raised more than $1 million to support them, according to research conducted by Rodney M. Jackson, president and CEO of The National Center For Black Philanthropy, for his book, “At the Crossroads,” co-authored with several other philanthropists. Jackson’s research affirms that the church has had — and continues to have — an irreplaceable role in black philanthropy.
“The church doors were always open for people to gather, and therefore, is trusted,” Burnette confirms. “That’s why when you see community coalitions coming together around all kinds of subjects, the preachers are part of that. Because [African Americans] trust the church.”
There has been much talk swirling throughout the nonprofit community about renting catalog and publishing lists in lieu of nonprofit lists to more effectively reach prospective contributors. Some, however, contend that the best indicator that someone will give is if that person has given to related causes.
But Rick Blume, ethnic targeting expert and vice president of multicultural marketing at the list firm 21st Century Marketing, reports that its Family Digest magazine file is rented the most for appeals to black potential donors. Organizations such as the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association all have rented this subscriber file.
The Family Digest file gets a lot of fundraising mailers, Blume shares, because of the person who reads it: a family-oriented, potentially religious black woman.
Make the connection
Fundraisers fail in the black community when they sit down with a prospective donor and say, “We’d like you to give us money” — without explaining how their organization connects with that person.
“You have to put in time and energy cultivating donors to be excited about what you do, not what you say you do,” Carson advises. “If you say you serve a diverse population, do that.”