Donor Base Class Issues

Dear Kim,

I chair the Development Committee of a Resource Center in the Northeast. Our most recent board/staff retreat focused on the issue of class. During our discussions, one of the issues that was raised is that our fundraising is highly focused on economically upper-class persons, to the exclusion of lower-class persons. We have been very successful in raising major gifts, and so this is where most of our energy is focused. We make relatively little effort to raise small gifts ($25 to $50). I want to be fully class-inclusive in our fundraising work, but I also feel we need to make the best use of our limited resources (which means putting them where they will give us the best return). I’m not sure how to begin to create meaningful change in this area. What are your thoughts on this topic?
—Sitting in the Primary Contradiction

Dear Sitting,

You raise a dilemma that most fundraisers struggle with. On the one hand, we have a commitment to social change and to appreciating everyone’s gifts. On the other hand, we have an obligation to all our donors (large and small) to use our time wisely and raise money efficiently, which means that we spend more time with donors who give more. I don’t pretend that this is an easy question to solve, but I would share these thoughts:

1) Those people who give you $25 and $50 are not necessarily lower income than those who give you more. To some extent, a small gift indicates a smaller interest in the work of the group than a bigger gift. Most of us who give away money give more to some groups and less to others. No one can tell our income or our class background from our giving record.

2) Similarly, those people who give you $1000 or more are not necessarily from wealthy households. They may instead be people who really value your work and give you the biggest gift they possibly can.

So, watch your assumptions here. I know a donor who is a schoolteacher, supports herself on a salary of $30,000 a year, has no partner, and no other source of income and gives $3,000 to one group. That is her only gift, but she loves this organization. Now, of course, her situation means she will be unable to give a group $20,000, which is not going to be the case for someone with a significant inheritance or much higher income. I am not pretending it is a level playing field.

What we really want to do with as many donors as possible is figure out where their donation to us ranks in their list of donations. Are we their favorite group? Are we just one of many groups they give to, but their favorite group is a completely different group from ours? Then we spend time with those for whom we are their favorite group and we spend time trying to move as many of our donors as possible into a position where they describe our group as their favorite. Class becomes much less of a variable because a person who gives us $100, for whom $100 is a stretch gift, is actually a more important donor than someone who gives $1,000 but for whom $1,000 is just one of many gifts of that size he or she makes. Our $100 donor can help us find other $100 donors, can speak about us to friends, and also may someday be in a position to give more money. So, when you think about “best return for your effort” you need to take into account a number of variables besides size of gift.

A broad base of individual donors, all giving whatever they can, gives us the most stability. If you keep that in mind, the class issues will fade because the lens through which you look at fundraising will take into account numbers of donors, numbers of gifts, longevity of giving, frequency of giving, what else the donor can do for us besides giving money, and the size of their gift will be only one of many considerations.

I hope this is helpful.