It’s Time To Democratize Fundraising

By Rob Bull Feb 23, 2024

It took me a long time to realize what kind of activist I am and how I impact the world. As an African American man learning more about social justice in my graduate studies, I realized my impact is different from most. Others work at the grassroots level. As a fundraising consultant, I have the skillset to impact social justice from the top. In 2020 as conversations around social justice and equality escalated, my vision crystallized further: We have an opportunity to democratize fundraising and share our expertise with the neglected in the nonprofit world. There are too many worthy organizations that fail to thrive, or even survive.

Just as parents don’t have a favorite child, I don’t have a favorite client. But during our country’s heightened dialogue there is one client that caught my attention—and it’s one that we could have easily overlooked due to its size: the Jack Hadley Black History Museum (JHBHM). The impetus for the organization came in 1979 as a response to his son’s concern about a lack of a Black History Week (now month) curriculum at his school. This prompted Mr. Hadley to create a display of press clippings of achievements in the Black community. A collection began and over decades it grew to include more than 5,000 objects that portray African American history in America.

The museum opened in 2006 on the campus of a high school that historically educated African Americans in Thomasville, Georgia. It continued to grow through additional contributions to the collection and in 2018 charitable gifts enabled them to make an important purchase. They acquired the Imperial Hotel, which was featured in The Green Book, a guide for Black travelers listing hotels, restaurants, and shops that would reliably serve them during the Jim Crow era. With the purchase of the hotel, the organization has the opportunity to think bigger. They are working towards creating the “Jack Hadley Yards” with a campus encompassing the hotel and its neighboring (and historic) shotgun house as well as a new museum facility. The campus not only allows the existing collection to relocate from one historic African American neighborhood to another, it also places the name of a Black man on boutique-lined West Jackson Street, Thomasville’s “Main Street.” In addition to reinvigorating part of the community and protecting the historic buildings entrusted to its care, the organization is focused on elevating its programming to provide Black History education, preserve and promote African American culture, engage the community, and boost economic development and tourism.

When I first met JHBHM, they were small, but their tremendous potential was evident. Their community agreed and a small coalition of community philanthropists invested in hiring The Compass Group to ensure the museum had the right fundraising counsel to be successful. We have worked with them for two years on strategic visioning, a planning study, board development, and now campaign management for one of the largest community efforts in Thomasville history. Given their limited budget, it’s an organization that many consulting firms might have shied away from, but we make every effort to turn no nonprofit away. At The Compass Group our commitment to Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is exemplified by as much as 40% of our client portfolio being either BIPOC-led or BIPOC-mission-driven to support underserved underrepresented communities.

I want to commend the foundations that have made investing in capacity building a priority. We continue to see institutions such as the Ford Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Lilly Endowment, Inc., Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Humanities and others commit resources to supporting nonprofit sustainability, particularly for organizations who have been historically overlooked and under-resourced.

The momentum is encouraging.

Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched its Preserving Black Churches Project with a $20 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to help save historic Black churches. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s announcement, the project will focus on “strategies that model and strengthen stewardship and asset management, interpretation and programming, and fundraising activities of historic Black churches.”

Additionally, there has been progress in strengthening and protecting the archives of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In 2021 The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) announced a consortium of five HBCUs to support their museums and archives. With financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, NMAAHC launched a five-year pilot with the goal of securing the cultural legacy of HBCUs while also enhancing resources to share under-told history and culture of African Americans and their essential role in the story of America. This work is spearheaded by NMAAHC ‘s Office of Strategic Partnerships which was established to fulfill a mandate from a Congressional Act—The National Museum of African American History and Culture Act of December 2003. As a partner to The Smithsonian and NMAAHC, I have witnessed the significant progress in their work to give prominence to those telling the stories of African American History and Culture.

Beyond support from the federal government and institutional funders, individuals are also giving more to fuel these causes. In its report entitled Everyday Donors of Color: Diverse Philanthropy During Changing Times, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy reported that American households’ giving to racial and social justice issues increased from 13% in 2019 to 16% in 2020.

This unprecedented level of funding and support for neglected causes is encouraging. What’s missing in many cases is the expertise to build sustainable capacity to raise funds. More fundraising consultants are needed to build off this momentum.

I was moved by a quote from Tyeshia Wilson, director of engagement for Philanthropy Together, an organization focused on diversifying philanthropy through the power of collective giving. In Philanthropy News Digest she said, “For too long, philanthropy has been a select few deciding the impact on many: who should and shouldn’t get funding, what is and isn’t considered impactful.”

It is in this spirit that I encourage all fundraising consultants to join us in championing the little guys, rather than just focusing on the “elite” organizations. Our expertise is key to driving change in building fundraising capacity.

It’s time that we all work together to democratize fundraising.

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