Is Your Nonprofit Ready for Black Donors? Cultural Wealth Appropriation and the New Donor Diversification Fad

Christina Bourné

Now that the wealth of BIPOC is being socially recognized, many organizations are hoping to diversify their donor base by looking for ways to include Black/African American philanthropists in their work.

As these initiatives are pursued, it’s important for us to remember a few things. 

Philanthropy as we know it today centers whiteness and the incredibly wealthy. It was born in the early 20th century out of the mentality that, “I have so much money, I can literally just give it away.” 

But true philanthropy – which literally means the “love of people” – began much sooner than that, and Black philanthropy in particular is not a new concept.

Black philanthropy has always existed. Although traditional, mainstream narratives show Black individuals exclusively on the receiving end of aid, the truth is, Black families contribute the largest portion of their wealth to charity of any racial group, as shown in a report by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.  

From traditional wealthy donorship, to foundation support, to established funds, to mutual aid societies, to organizing within black churches, to community members rallying to help a neighbor…Black philanthropy is philanthropy, and it’s been around for centuries, but has been carefully excluded from society’s modern philanthropic picture.

Now, majority-white organizations are soliciting Black and other non-Eurocentric individuals to come into this system that was not designed to include them. Much like the cultural appropriation of a people’s customs, this is essentially attempting to appropriate other cultures’ wealth.

So, to avoid this unfortunate trend, before you launch into a campaign or new program to attract Black donors and dollars, I recommend you ask yourself and your organization these important questions:

  • Am I doing this from a place of true philanthropy — a “love of people” approach — or from a strictly transactional one?
  • Am I making an authentic attempt to include Black/African American donors in my organization as a whole, or am I just targeting them with information about our one Black initiative?
  • Have I done any research to understand the background and lives of the cultural group, in this case, Black people, I’m looking to include in my work?
  • Is my main motivation the eradication of racial barriers and the uplifting of racial justice and equity through the support of Black communities, or is it to find a way to funnel Black dollars into my organization and capitalize on Black wealth by using “Black causes” as bait?

I think we know what the equitable answers to those questions should be. Hopefully, from a truly philanthropic – love of people – place, you’ll be able to see your motives and your organization through a clear lens and advance your new diversification initiatives!

I’ll leave you with this “LensCrafters vs. LASIK” metaphor that I think about all the time when reflecting on racial justice work in philanthropy.

The thing about LensCrafters, glasses or contacts, is that they’re external lenses that you can put on and take off. The correction of your vision is, therefore, transient.

Glasses are performative, announcing to everyone that while you have a sight problem, you’re “doing the work” to correct it; while contacts hide the deficiency altogether and give the impression that your vision is perfectly fine.

And there’s folks like me…I wear glasses purely for fashion. I have a pair for every outfit. Sometimes they give me a studious look that cultivates added respect in certain spaces, and many have blue-light blocking lenses, but it all boils down to the way they make me look.

LASIK, however, corrects your eye’s lens–you’re basically getting a new eyeball! It’s a commitment. It’s a painful surgery that is permanent. Recovery takes time, and getting there is uncomfortable, but the correction is an internal one that is a part of your actual person and is not removable.

Oftentimes, when it comes to racial justice work in the philanthropic sector, organizations are valuing LensCrafters over LASIK - they’re doing the work because it’s the fad of the time, it looks good, and many really are correcting their past failures toward equity, but it’s a put on/take off type of fix.

Nonprofits who are not willing to surgically correct their lenses and get a brand-new, permanent outlook are not ready for Black donors. 

Folks need to be ready for the discomfort of being called out, confronting internalized racism and biases, and pursuing authentic change by doing authentic work in order to create a space where Black people and other POC are truly welcome to join their mission.

So, before you launch your new donor diversification campaign, I’d encourage you to make sure you’re starting with a “love of people” and a LASIK over LensCrafters mentality.