FUNDRAISING WHILE BLACK: A REAL TALK & 6-STEP GUIDE
“You just need to eat sh*t.”
I recently heard this at a conference in a session geared towards social entrepreneurs raising money. The context: a panelist was making a point about how ego shouldn’t show up in meetings as you raise money. Their point: raising funds is about the health of your organization, your mission, and the people that you serve. That, fundamentally, it is not about you.
Some of you may agree with that sentiment. That fundraising is ultimately about making sure the lights are on––not your feelings or who you think you are.
But let’s get real. Fundraising is about you (and your feelings). It has to be. Yes, as social entrepreneurs, we have to fundraise, build relationships, grow a community, win over supporters––keep our eyes on the prize––but we’re still humans who care. To truly be effective in this endeavor, we can’t change who we are at our core.
Yet, all the time, I see people try. In my work, I collaborate with brilliant entrepreneurs who are eager to raise funds to support their organizations. They’re inspired, honest people who believe genuinely in their cause. But, often, they try to hide or downplay their identity in order to raise funds.
It’s far too common for early-stage entrepreneurs (and, if you’re reading between the lines, particularly for entrepreneurs of color and women, and especially those in social impact or nonprofits) to think they have to give something up, change who they are, subject themselves to degrading treatment, or, put bluntly, eat shit, to make the world better.
I’m calling BS. There’s a bell hooks quote that sums up my feelings about this: “I think Black people need to take self-esteem seriously.”
I take this to heart. There’s a way to fundraise as yourself. Your racial identity, academic pedigree, and physical appearance are not deal-breakers. I know this from experience. I’ve helped founders across all spectrums of race, sexuality, class, and type of venture. They’ve all been able to raise funds. There is no magical formula, but it is possible to raise money while keeping your soul intact.
So, let’s discuss how to do that.
We first have to acknowledge that startup fundraising is difficult, but not impossible. It does require hard work and strategy. It’s much more than googling a grant opportunity and blindly applying because you need momentum and you think you’re a shoe-in.
I’m a fundraising optimist AND a proud realist. Early in my career, as a first-year teacher, I read an excerpt from Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. He discusses The Stockdale Paradox, named after the first three-star officer in Navy history to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Collins came up with the concept after a conversation with the Admiral in which he asked him about how he was able to survive his capture and eight-year detainment in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. Collins captured his sentiment in what he calls The Stockdale Paradox, the idea that to succeed you must maintain an “unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’”
Fundraising is not as hard as being a prisoner of war. And, in order to do this well, we have to “confront the brutal realities.” So let’s talk about them.
“If current trends persist, it will take 228 years for black families to accumulate the same amount of wealth as whites... For Latino families, it will take 84 years.”
People of color have significantly less wealth, which seriously limits access to it. (Check out Camelback’s Strategy Plan if you need more proof.) Naturally, entrepreneurs of color are underfunded, when compared to their white peers. And unsurprisingly, funders of color only represent a minuscule proportion of venture capital firms and other institutional funders.
The truth is, it’s highly unlikely that the funders we need to solicit have anything in common with us. We are people of color, they are white. We’re talking about equity, they think we’re talking about diversity. We hate the status quo, the status quo got them the job.
I’m simplifying this, but the point I’m trying to make is that we may have nothing in common with our prospective funders. And just because we build something doesn’t mean that misogyny, racism, homophobia, and elitism go away. However, this hasn’t stopped every underdog who didn’t fit the mold from attaining success. It doesn’t have to stop you either.
Step one is deciding not to downplay your identity. It’s only a matter of time before you’re found out. Make a commitment to showing up as you. Warts and all. It’s mentally, spiritually, and emotionally exhausting to be someone else. If your venture is going to crash and burn, then YOU (the real you) should proudly drive it into the ground. Now let’s explore some of the more concrete stuff—the next steps you can take to start your authentic fundraising journey.
Six steps you can take for (more) authentic fundraising
Don’t just know your mission, know yourself.
Most founders have their mission, vision, and model internalized. That’s expected, and I’m sorry, but it isn’t enough. It’s critical to know what you are good at, why you do what you do, and why you are the only one who can solve your chosen problem. Self-awareness and having the wisdom to leverage it correctly will help you double-down on your strengths, and ask for help with your weaknesses.
Understand your ideal donor profile.
Fundraising is just like dating. Be honest with yourself, you have a type. Effective fundraisers know exactly what qualities make for the best donors. You should spend the time reflecting on who will be the right champions for you. This is absolutely key and it is the step that is most overlooked. There are funders who are interested in who you are and will not require you to kiss the ring, change the way you talk, be someone you’re not. List prospective donors who fit your profile. This will come in handy as you develop an outreach strategy and story.
Develop a compelling story.
Now that you have a prospect list, it’s time to come up with a story that will speak to that audience. It’s likely that a funder from a national foundation will have different interests than a small regionally focused funder. Create a narrative that speaks directly to your target donor and communicates your strengths.
Plan and launch an outreach strategy.
a) Here is where it comes together. Revisit what you are best at. Do you excel in 1-on-1 conversations? Do you love writing? Public speaking? Are you a long time practitioner? Whatever you are good at, incorporate it into your outreach strategy. Take your ideal donor list and plan with whom and how you would like to reach out.
b) Here is where it gets tricky. You’ll need to do some research on your target list. Figure out if you have a mutual connection. Perhaps you should publish commentary and push it to your target, or follow them on Twitter. There are a ton of ways you can get an initial interaction with your prospect. Once you’ve planned your outreach, start it.
Reflect and iterate. Keep going.
Save what worked and tweak what didn’t. As your organization grows you will have to diversify your funding sources, but first, start where you can best leverage your strengths. This step is critical to success. Without being thoughtful, you will waste time and resources, not to mention you’ll feel that fundraising is hopeless. If you’re not sure how to improve, then don’t waste your time and hire a strategic coach who knows your space and wants you to win.
Ultimately, the journey is yours and it is about you. Your vision, your venture, and your legacy. So put in the work.