Inclusive Conversations: Are Your Communications Making FRIENDS or FOES with People of Color?

CultureStrike’s Julio Salgado reimagines 90’s sitcoms with diverse casts.

A lot of my peers grew up watching the popular 90’s sitcom FRIENDS. But not me. I refused to watch because the characters lived in a diverse community in New York but looked nothing like the melting pot that I knew existed beyond their famous apartment building (Please don’t go there about Ross’ black girlfriend). I think about FRIENDS in nonprofit meetings when people ask?

“Why aren’t more people of color giving to our fundraising campaigns?”

“Why aren’t more people of color volunteering for our organization?”

“Why aren’t more people of color coming to our fundraisers?”

After serving on dozens of boards and as a nonprofit staffer, I have heard these questions in so many meetings as if it’s “our fault.”

Communities of color are growing. As of the 2000 census, the African-American, Latino, Native American, and Asian/Pacific Islander communities represented 30 percent of the U.S. population. This number is expected to increase to 50 percent by the year 2050. Although all areas of the country won’t experience these demographic changes in the same way, it is likely they are affecting your organization, no matter where you are located.

So why are communities of color not reflected in giving to YOUR nonprofit?

There could be a number of reasons (lack of organizational diversity, a perception of otherness, lack of connection with the mission, fundraisers held in places that aren’t neutral). Not all of these can be impacted by communications professionals but there are some that can.

Some communities don’t see themselves reflected in your communications.  

The Denver Foundation Inclusiveness Project concluded: “Despite well-known shifts in demographics in the United States, most fundraising practices in mainstream organizations still target the ‘traditional’ donor: wealthy, older, and white. Many fundraisers do not attempt to raise money from communities of color – even if they may spend much of their time serving such communities through their programs.”

Corporations have long understood the power of marketing directly to communities of color. Fortune 500 companies such as Kodak, IBM, and Microsoft have divisions dedicated to such efforts. In 1997, Continental Airlines launched a “Latinization Initiative” to increase the company’s attention to language and culture in Latinx markets. They conducted market research regarding how their customers in the U.S. and abroad respond to different styles of customer service and learned customers prefer to receive culturally-appropriate services. Since Continental began its Initiative, its revenues increased ten-fold. Not for profits organization can learn from this insight.

The American Zoo Association (AZA), through its Diversity Committee, developed numerous strategies for reaching out to increasingly diverse audiences. “Strategies include training programs on communications and cultural differences, multilingual brochures and signage, and partnerships with multicultural media sources. The AZA believes these efforts are critical to building relationships with zoo visitors and supporters of the future.”

Here are five tips to help you get started:

1) Invest in Training & Education. It’s important to learn about what it means to have an inclusive community relations and marketing strategy. Things are always moving in this space so staying informed is important. When people of color give charitably, they often do so through less “traditional” vehicles – methods that do not register in studies by the Foundation Center or Giving USA. In context of each community, these practices are usually based in meaningful traditions and deeply held beliefs. “These vehicles often involve giving support directly to people in need. In Asian-American and Latino communities, many more recently-immigrated people send billions of dollars in ‘remittances’ back to their home countries, to help family members and to build housing, schools, churches, and hospitals.” Many donors of color also give through numerous membership and community associations traditionally associated with specific cultural groups.

2) Make Friends & Allies. Partner with other causes/organizations that engage people of color.  The Foundation for Giving USA Research shows that some preferred charitable vehicles among communities of color include:

  • Family and friends
  • Mutual aid associations
  • Emergency aid, loans, human services
  • Faith-based institutions
  • Fraternal, cultural, social organizations
  • Professional, occupational, business associations
  • Tribes, tribal organizations, funds
  • Community organizations and funds
  • Civil rights/social justice organizations
  • Cultural/community centers
  • Health clinics, hospitals, nursing homes
  • Historically Black and tribal colleges

3) Match your communications strategies as closely as possible with your audience’s interests and ability to hear your message. Invite persons of color to share stories about what resonates with them related to your mission, vision, and values. Avoid tokenizing by being open to an authentic story in a voice that might not sound like your own.

4) Avoid shortcuts in the process of understanding your audiences. You may believe at the outset that a behavior is common to all members of a particular group, only to find that many members of the community don’t embrace that behavior at all. Allowing people to share their personal experiences will help avoid generalizations. 

5) Assess what “you’ve always done.” One of the biggest mistakes nonprofits make is getting stuck in the cycle of saying, “This is how we’ve always done it.” Diversity in Giving: The Changing Landscape of American Philanthropy, a 2015 study by Blackbaud Institute for Philanthropic Impact™ in Charleston, South Carolina, challenges that thinking. “The study noted that ‘America is in the midst of a dramatic cultural shift, but evidence suggests that organized philanthropy may be stuck in the past… We built complex look-alike models allowing us to better fish the same fishing holes for the same donors.”

What would your agency look like with a diverse donor-base?

Imagine a world with donors from a broad range of communities financially supporting your organization.

It can happen!

The Denver Community Foundations said it best:

Charitable giving is an exchange of values in which a donor essentially says: “I value the mission of your organization, therefore, I give you my money. The value I receive in return is the accomplishment of your mission and your communication of that accomplishment to me.”

Want to learn more…

Kim Pevia & I will share real stories and examples in our upcoming webinar on April 19th.

Inclusive Conversations: Beyond Policy into Practice will cover:

  • Real life scenarios of communications pros who have implemented the Inclusive Conversations tools
  • Best Practices in Diverse Communications
  • Tools for keeping your allies— allied during these difficult conversations
  • Tools for promoting diversity throughout the entire agency
  • How diversity communications can impact your bottom line in fundraising and friendraising

I hope you’ll join us.



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Author: Antionette Kerr, Contributing Writer

Antionette Kerr is a nonprofit leader, syndicated journalist and lover of poetry. After a decade of serving as an executive director, her passion for storytelling led her back into the world of nonprofit writing, consulting and publishing. She continues to serve as a board member for multiple statewide nonprofit agencies.

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