Community Foundations: Changing the Fundamentals of Engagement in Communities of Color

The Denver Foundation and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo have each been around for nearly a century. But with their Catalyzing Community Giving grants, both have begun shifting some of the fundamentals of how they operate in order to attract more diverse donors and elevate their profile within communities of color. “We realized that we would be losing out on an amazing amount of assets if we didn’t try a new approach,” says LaDawn Sullivan, the Denver Foundation’s Director of Community Leadership. “It’s about remaining relevant and living up to our identity of being a community foundation.”

Ultimately, it is about building on existing relationships and encouraging leaders of color to see themselves as donors.
— LaDawn Sullivan, Denver Foundation

“Engaging donors of color is on everybody’s radar,” adds Sullivan. “We are all trying things, and failing, and hopefully trying again. It really is an iterative learning experience. Ultimately, it is about us building on existing relationships and encouraging leaders of color to see themselves as donors.” Below are three things that both foundations are doing to expand their reach and influence in communities of color.

Organizing for impact. The Denver Foundation does $67 million of grantmaking a year, about $62 million of which is directed by donors through roughly 1,000 funds. But until recently, fewer than 100 of those funds were led by people of color. Rather than make modest tweaks to its donor engagement strategy to attract donors of color, the Foundation created cross-departmental teams—featuring a mix of donor services specialists and program staff—that better reflect the diversity of the donors they hope to engage. While the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo had great success growing its Communities of Giving Legacy Initiative (CGLI) into a $500,000-plus identity fund, it wanted to raise its profile not just among donors of color but among other nonprofits in the region doing similar work. With its Kellogg grant, the foundation has begun identifying and building a more formal network of regional organizations of color that, collectively, might help bolster everyone’s impact.

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Creating events that compel. Both foundations are also (re)introducing themselves to communities of color through new kinds of cultivation events. “We’re building agendas that are incredibly participatory rather than having ‘we talk at you’ kinds of events,” says the Denver Foundation’s Sullivan. For example, the Foundation recently brought together a multigenerational panel of donors of color to discuss how they talk about philanthropy with their partners. These new events—all part of the Foundation’s Elevating Philanthropy in Communities of Color (EPIC) initiative—have drawn more than 80 prospective donors who hadn’t heard of the foundation. “We never had that kind of audience or exposure before,” says Sullivan. Meanwhile, instead of blindly surveying nonprofits and foundations in the region to assess their interest in joining a network, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo created a unique community cultivation event, built around a local lecture by NBA Legend and philanthropist, Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “We had 107 respondents but only 100 tickets,” said CGLI director Landrum Beard. “That’s how we began reintroducing ourselves to the community and talking about our initiative.”

Building trusted relationships. Both foundations are also taking a more relationship-based approach to engaging diverse donors. “The strategy of writing a compelling letter and them sending a check doesn’t work in communities of color,” says Beard. Adds Sullivan: “Without a built-in relationship with someone of color that they trust, there can be an automatic distrust of financial institutions.” Working across departments and races has built relationships that weren’t there before, both inside the organization, and with donors and prospects. “Being authentically inclusive has yielded great results,” says Sullivan.