Tyrone Freeman

In recent years, it has become commonplace to refer to donors of color as “new and emerging. It suggests that a shift has occurred, or is occurring, in the philanthropy landscape, as if people not previously seen are suddenly appearing.

August was Black Philanthropy Month, a 7-year-old movement to recognize and celebrate centuries of generosity. It’s a key moment to explain why it’s time to refocus our thinking and remember that people of color have been giving for centuries; it’s just that many nonprofits have ignored this group for too long.

America’s anticipated transition to a majority-minority country over the next three decades means that such neglect cannot continue.

Something else is also at play that makes use of the label “new and emerging” harmful, because the term threatens all genuine efforts to engage and connect with a rapidly changing society. The label obscures the very thing it purports to recognize.

The label may rightly apply to any person of color whose recent giving gets media attention in a world dominated by familiar names like Gates, Buffett and Zuckerberg. In this context, the term is not a problem. An individual may, indeed, have splashed onto the philanthropic scene, seemingly out of the shadows. That person’s wealth and position may suggest the potential for more giving down the road; so, in fact, a new donor may have emerged.

The problem comes when entire racial and ethnic groups are categorized as “new and emerging,” a designation that seems increasingly common.

 Long tradition of giving

First, the label denies history. People of color have deeply rooted traditions of giving that are centuries old.

For instance, African-American philanthropy spans the period from slavery to the present, but originated in precolonial West Africa. This history includes many informal ways of giving and sharing as a matter of daily living, as well as formal volunteering, donating, advocating, and other activities, especially through the Black church.

The contributions also consist of generous monetary gifts by people like Thomy LaFon (1810-1893), Colonel John McKee (1821-1902), Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), Annie Malone (1869-1957), Kenneth and Kathryn Chenault and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few major donors over the past 200 years. So, to label African-Americans as a “new and emerging” donor group is simply wrong historically.

Second, the term perpetuates a limited definition of and harmful misconceptions about what philanthropy is and who counts as a philanthropist.

A definition of philanthropy focused only on wealth creates an excessive preoccupation with the social and economic elite and the number of zeros attached to their announced gifts. Such a view also reinforces prevailing myths that people of color are primarily recipients of philanthropy but not agents of it, especially within the context of the very real racial-wealth gap.

Third, the term misses the robust landscape of philanthropy among people of color today.

In African-American philanthropy, the Black church is still the community’s primary institution teaching and practicing philanthropic values every day. A large portion of Black giving is directed to the church, which then distributes it to causes locally and around the world.

Informal and communal ways of giving still occur among families, friends, and neighbors, as well as through organizations such as fraternities, sororities, and women’s clubs. African-Americans with high net worth are using family foundations, donor-advised funds, and community-foundation funds to advance philanthropic agendas locally and nationally. 

Shift of Perspective

It is time to right our vision and our language. When we label donors of color “new and emerging,” we violate a cardinal principle in philanthropy and fundraising: donor-centrism. We demonstrate that we are not approaching donors of color from their perspective — a donor perspective — but from our own organizational perspectives and a sense of what the donors can do for us. We view them with preconceived and ill-fitting glasses that obscure the truth of their generosity, the historical depths of their practices and their own uniqueness as individuals connected to cultural giving traditions.

Such spectacles frame a utilitarian view of donors of color in which they become a new frontier of “untapped markets” and “low-hanging fruit” — other unfortunate but common language in our field — that our fundraising apparatus must tap and pluck. We pride ourselves on making a Columbus-like discovery of what was known among the so-called discovered for generations.

Donors of color may, indeed, be “new and emerging” in any given organization. But that says more about the organization than the donors. It says the organization has little history of meaningfully and consistently engaging these donors on their own terms — a difficult admission to make, but a step in the right direction.

The nonprofit world’s adoption of “one size fits all” approaches to philanthropy and fundraising has tended to overlook the specific motivations, interests, and needs of donors of color. The unfortunate result is misalignment in our identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship strategies, which fail to effectively engage this important group.

Until nonprofits recognize and correct this major discrepancy, we will continue to inappropriately engage them on our philanthropic terms, not theirs.

Tyrone McKinley Freeman is assistant professor of philanthropic studies, director of undergraduate programs, and affiliated with the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Reprinted with the permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, philanthropy.com.

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