By: Megan Ealick
If you’re reading this, you’ll likely serve on the board of a nonprofit one day. Maybe you’re already serving on one—or three. That’s because you’re a hot commodity! Lawyers are highly sought after as nonprofit board members not only for their legal expertise, but also for their connections, potential contributions, and reputation in the community. Serving the community is also baked into a lawyer’s responsibilities. The American Bar Association’s Preamble to its Model Rules of Professional Conduct urges lawyers to seek to improve access to justice and act in the public interest.
As a former nonprofit development director, I can promise you one thing is certain if you join a board: you will be fundraising! They don’t teach fundraising in law school, but as a current or potential board member, it’s important you know that ideas and words used around fundraising are undergoing a dramatic change. Beginning around 2018, influential voices in the nonprofit sector became loud enough to start a long-overdue reckoning around how nonprofits engage with community members and donors.
Nonprofits are increasingly shifting from a donor-centric mindset to a community-centric one, and it’s shaking up how they raise funds for the communities they’re serving. At the heart of the community-centric movement is social justice. The movement recognizes that current fundraising methods can cause harm and seeks to rectify these harms by changing the way nonprofit organizations engage with their communities and donors. It also promotes the idea that philanthropy is more than just charity. This is because everyone benefits from social justice work, not just the targeted community a nonprofit organization is serving.
Community-centric fundraising encourages nonprofits to advocate for policies that would help their communities, even when taking a stance on these issues could result in losing donors. It demands nonprofit organizations change the way they interact with the people they serve, like placing them in leadership positions and compensating them for telling their stories at events or donor meetings. It also encourages organizations to take smaller steps, like engaging staff and board members in anti-racism training, ensuring all events are accessible, and recognizing donors who give time and talent rather than only donors who give money.
There are loud voices of opposition that are fighting to keep the donor-centric model mainstream. Described as “America’s Nonprofit Thought-Leader,” Dr. Kathleen Robinson called community-centric fundraising the “motherload of bad ideas.” She described it as a “Marist [sic] philosophy regarding re-distribution of wealth and dismantling of the U.S. economic system” while the donor-centric model remained “moral, tried and true.” The National Association of Nonprofit Organizations & Executives has also taken a firm stance against the community-centric model. NANOE chairman, Bishop Redfern II, wrote that the movement “is an attempt to tear down western civilization by de-positioning donor-centric fundraising.”
The donor-centric model puts the donor at the center of a nonprofit’s focus solely to raise more funds. It involves a well-planned, cyclical strategy of acknowledging, communicating with, and recognizing donors. Donors may even be invited to help make organizational decisions. The donor-centric model was first championed by Penelope Burke in the early 2000s, and it’s still the pervasive fundraising model among nonprofits. That’s mainly because it works for what it’s meant to do—raise money. There’s even research that demonstrates when donors receive donor-centric treatment from a charity, they’re more likely to give to that charity again and in larger amounts.
However, just because something works does not mean it’s just. Treating donors as the most important part of a nonprofit’s work only perpetuates the inequities the nonprofit sector seeks to fix. Today, philanthropy mainly benefits the super-rich. The United States is considered the most philanthropic country in the world, but only about one-fifth of donations make it to people living in poverty. Donations to top universities, arts, and sports teams receive the bulk of the funds. Tax loopholes also allow for wealth hoarding in donor-advised funds while donors reap immediate tax benefits. An estimated $160 billion is just sitting in these funds and not being dispersed to nonprofit organizations.
Donor-centric fundraising does not address these issues, but community-centric fundraising does. As a board member, your main goal will be ensuring the well-being of the community. I hope you consider community-centric fundraising as a tool to guide you in fulfilling your role as a board member and ethical obligation to act in the public interest. The naysayers are loud, but that’s why the nonprofit sector needs people like you to challenge the status quo. I look forward to the disruption you’ll cause and the transformational change you’ll create.
Megan graduated from the University of Arizona with a B.A. in Anthropology and master’s degreee in Public Administration. She is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her legal interests include civil rights, criminal justice reform, and social justice issues. Outside of law school, Megan enjoys spending time with friends and family, discovering new restaurants, and playing tennis.