npEXPERTS: The Great Reset

Moving into the New Normal with Intention

Welcome to npEXPERTS 2021! Scroll below to hear from our 12 social good experts as they explore the areas of disruption over the last year and identify the adaptations and trends that will carry forward and shape the future of philanthropy. They provide their unique perspective on digital adoption, equity, organizational strategy, leadership, and more.

2021 Contributors

Managing Director, Blackbaud Institute

Ashley Thompson

Associate Dean for Research and International Programs, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Una Osili, Ph.D

Chief Innovation and Optimization Officer, NextAfter

Tim Kachuriak

CEO, TurnKey | vice president, psychological strategy, TurnKey

Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton

Founder and Principal, Gladiator Consulting

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert, MPPA

Principal, Clairification

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE

President and CEO, The Alford Group

Brenda Asare

Senior Consultant, The Alford Group

JoAnn Yoshimoto

President and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

Marcus Walton

CEO, Concord Leadership Group

Marc Pitman, CSP

CEO and Co-Founder, PFNA & DSIL Global

Kyla Shawyer

Editor, The Agitator

Roger Craver

Managing Director, Blackbaud Institute

Ashley Thompson

Managing director for the Blackbaud Institute responsible for driving Blackbaud’s extensive research, thought leadership, and best practice content.

[Read] Foreword

Associate Dean for Research and International Programs, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Una Osili, Ph.D

Economist, philanthropy scholar, and global citizen with significant experience in research and policy in the fields of household behavior and economic policy.

[Read] Introduction

Chief Innovation and Optimization Officer, NextAfter

Tim Kachuriak

Nonprofit thought leader, author, and researcher with extensive experience working with charities, nonprofits, and NGOs to help them grow their resource capacity.

[Read] The Digital-First Fundraising Revolution

CEO, TurnKey | vice president, psychological strategy, TurnKey

Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton

A nonprofit strategist and a social psychologist thinking deeply about about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making.

[Read] The Future of Event Fundraising

Founder and Principal, Gladiator Consulting

Rachel D’Souza-Siebert, MPPA

Founder, consultant, and justice philanthropy catalyst seeking to re-center community and create belonging for those who have been disenfranchised or targeted by institutions, systems, and policy.

[Read] Pursuing Equity in Philanthropy

Principal, Clairification

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE

Visionary coach, nonprofit frontline development veteran, and writer bringing a practical approach to the social good space.

[Read] The Case for Coexistence: Donor-Centered and Community-Centered Fundraising

President and CEO, The Alford Group

Brenda Asare

Long-time nonprofit manager, speaker, and executive at the intersection of diversity and philanthropy with a focus on campaign execution, strategic planning, corporate partnerships, board leadership development, and organizational design.

[Read] The Investigative Case of the Missing Donors of Color

Senior Consultant, The Alford Group

JoAnn Yoshimoto

A nonprofit veteran at all levels providing tailored consulting services to organizations in projects ranging from capital campaign design and counsel to fundraising plan development and interim staffing.

[Read] The Investigative Case of the Missing Donors of Color

President and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

Marcus Walton

Nonprofit management and ontological learning model veteran specializing in operationalizing frameworks, racial equity facilitation, leadership and management strategy, and stakeholder engagement and program development.

[Read] Adopting Racial Equity Grantmaking Strategies

CEO, Concord Leadership Group

Marc Pitman, CSP

Leadership coach and author bringing deep expertise to engaging presentations in person and online as well as in the media.

[Read] Leaving What Was Lost

CEO and Co-Founder, PFNA & DSIL Global

Kyla Shawyer

Global nonprofit sector change leader teaching organizations how to to break down silos, connect with core values, and unleash ideas, innovation, and potential.

[Read] Liberating Structures

Editor, The Agitator

Roger Craver

Founder, writer, and editor with track record dating back decades and an active publication providing fundraising analytics to the social good community.

[Read] Conclusion



For many years, we have talked about the emergence of community-led engagement. With information at their fingertips, people no longer wait to be called on to communicate or contribute. Constituents desire autonomy—as consumers with causes—in their communities. Last year brought new challenges and opportunities. As organizations were forced out of their comfort zone and into remote home offices, it demanded a reimagining of service delivery and community education.

For all its devastating consequences, the disruption to our lives also carved out space for us to be more reflective and intentional. Not only did we begin optimizing communication channels, but we opened our eyes and hearts to see the realities of racial injustice. We bring you this book through recognition of this and the changes needed to achieve greater impact toward social causes. Below, you will find wisdom from 12 of the sector’s foremost experts on digital engagement, equitable philanthropy, and leadership.

We are proud to gather thought leaders on these and other essential topics year after year. Since the npEXPERTS series began in 2013, many concepts have evolved, some predictions were realized, and a few new ideas even surfaced. We are glad you are here to learn alongside us. I hope that you use these insights to spur your thinking. We invite you to consider how commitment to these areas could yield greater impact at your organization.

Stay curious,

– Ashley Thompson, Managing Director, Blackbaud Institute


Una Osili, Ph.D. | Associate Dean for Research and International Programs, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Una Osili is the Efroymson Chair in Philanthropy and the associate dean for Research and International Programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the world’s first school for philanthropy. She also serves as a dean’s fellow for the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy.

As an internationally recognized scholar in economics, Osili leads the research and publication of the Global Philanthropy Tracker and the Global Philanthropy Environment Index. She has provided expert testimony at the Joint Economic Commission and the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee on philanthropy, international development, and the role of the public sector.

At IU, she leads the research and publication of Giving USA, the annual report on American philanthropy, and is the founder of Generosity for Life, a digital platform providing new data tools for financial decision-making in the area of philanthropy and social impact. She chairs the school’s signature research project, the Philanthropy Panel Study, which is the most comprehensive study of American families’ generosity over time.

Osili received her bachelor’s degree in Economics from Harvard University and her Master’s and Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

Dr. Osili is a member of the Blackbaud Institute Advisory Board. 

You’ve likely heard these words many times lately: “Philanthropy is at an inflection point.” The nonprofit sector has seen unprecedented shifts in the past year.

As a researcher and data enthusiast, I have watched for emerging signs of recovery. After a challenging year, indicators now show a path to recovery. Nonprofits and the communities they serve can start to look ahead with cautious optimism.

The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy projects that total giving is estimated to grow by 4.1% in 2021. However, increased economic and social volatility is now part of the landscape of global economic and health burdens and the national reckoning on racial and social justice. Therefore, it is encouraging to see resilience and innovation even in uncertain times.

The convergence of the pandemic and the social and economic justice movement will serve as a catalyst. Leaders and fundraisers need a more intentional approach to navigate current trends and create a more sustainable and equitable future.

Some of the key trends include:

A focus on both communities and donors. This is a moment to reimagine funding models and inclusive fundraising approaches that consider both communities and donors. Fundraising professionals and funders can no longer focus exclusively on a donor-centric model. Certainly, cultivating and engaging individual donors is still vital, but so are the communities they represent. Shifting funding realities will require understanding and including community issues and voices now and in the future.

Technological advances are here to stay. The nonprofit sector has adapted during the pandemic. Nonprofits moved events online, conducted donor visits via Zoom®, and shared unique content virtually, sometimes to even broader audiences than they would have typically reached. From virtual galas, interactive websites, artificial intelligence, e-commerce tools, to crowdfunding, technology had an outsized impact on philanthropy in the past year. Crowdfunding has become a growing part of the giving landscape. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s 2021 report, Charitable Crowdfunding: Who Gives, to What, and Why? shows that nine out of 10 crowdfunding donors indicate that they plan to increase or maintain their charitable crowdfunding over the next three years.

Hybrid approaches are also emerging. In a recent survey of nonprofit organizations conducted by Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, over four-fifths of organizations had made at least one change in response to the current challenges (80.5%), including modifying fundraising campaigns, donor meetings, and closing offices. Because in-person fundraising was not feasible during the pandemic, fundraising norms of cultivating, engaging, and building trust with donors were challenged and broadened. A new model will likely mix in-person and virtual “events.”

Today’s climate calls for an authentic and sustained commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The increasing diversity of the US population gives the nonprofit sector an unparalleled opportunity to engage community partners, bring new voices to the table, better understand and engage with donors from diverse backgrounds, and involve new talent and leadership. However, embracing DEI goes beyond what’s written in a mission statement and adopting strategies to diversify your donor base. It also includes inviting a wider array of people to the tables where the decisions are made and programs developed. The School’s report The Impact of Diversity on Nonprofit Boards highlights that nonprofit organizations still have a long way to recruit and engage diverse board members. However, by intentionally pursuing diversity and building an inclusive environment, nonprofit organizations can achieve impact and advance their mission.

At the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, we have found that in these fast-changing times where we see evidence of disruption in our work and models, data and research can continue to provide guideposts.

This edition of npEXPERTS serves a similar role.

Here, from the perspective and experience of some of the leaders in our field, you will find what you need to expand your knowledge and toolkit in a more nuanced way as we work together to find our way through “the great reset.” I am confident that nonprofits can transform this challenging era into future promising opportunities.


CHAPTER 1: The Digital-First Fundraising Revolution

Tim Kachuriak | Chief Innovation and Optimization Officer, NextAfter

Tim Kachuriak is the founder and chief innovation and optimization officer for NextAfter, a fundraising research lab consultancy and training institute that works with charities, nonprofits, and NGOs to help them grow their resource capacity.

Kachuriak is a nonprofit thought leader, the author of the book Optimize Your Fundraising, lead researcher and co-author of the Online Fundraising Scorecard, Why Should I Give to You? (The Nonprofit Value Proposition Index Study), and The Midlevel Donor Crisis. Kachuriak has trained organizations in fundraising optimization around the world and is a frequent speaker at international nonprofit conferences.

Kachuriak is also the co-founder and board member for the Human Coalition, a member of the board of directors for Open Doors USA, an advisory board member for the SMU Digital Accelerator, and an advisory board member for the Blackbaud Institute.

Kachuriak lives in Prosper, Texas with his wife Rebecca and their four children: Max (15), Charlie (14), Gracie (12), and Joe (6).

If there is one good thing that has been brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic, it is that the nonprofit industry got a much-needed shove into digital fundraising. With fundraising events completely shut down and face-to-face meetings with donors on hold, digital has emerged as a lifeline between many nonprofits and their donors. According to the Blackbaud Institute’s 2020 Charitable Giving Report, digital giving increased by 20.7% and now represents 13% of all giving. Considering that giving, which includes both digital and non-digital channels, increased by only 2% overall, this is explosive growth.

While these statistics are certainly encouraging, I believe they point to something even more dramatic—the case for digital-first fundraising. 

First, let me clarify: Digital-first does not mean digital-only. That would be a huge mistake. Direct mail is not even close to being dead. Telemarketing is still the greatest donor reactivation boomerang. Events will stage an epic comeback. And sitting down with your donors face to face will always rule supreme as the most effective form of fundraising.

But when it comes to scaling your donor base, where are you going to invest? This is where digital-first fundraising makes a pretty compelling case.

A digital-first strategy provides significant efficiencies when it comes to acquiring new donors. Digital enables you to “micro-test” different offers and messages without having to make significant up-front investments. For example, instead of putting 10,000 pieces in the mail to figure out if your offer works, you can spend a few hundred dollars running Facebook® ads to test your appeal and gradually scale up over time. In addition, using Facebook’s donor look-alike audiences can help to ensure that you are targeting prospects that share characteristics that are similar to your existing donors. This enables you to refine and optimize your messages, offers, and targeting strategies first before having to make larger capital investments into donor acquisition. For a startup acquisition program, a digital-first strategy is perfectly suited to help you learn and adapt messaging quickly based on real-time market feedback.

Another reason for a digital-first strategy is the fact that it is the most efficient pathway to a multi-channel donor. For most organizations, a multi-channel donor (someone who gives a gift both online and offline in the same fiscal year) will contribute more than twice as much annual revenue when compared to any other type of broad-base donor. In addition, multi-channel donors are always retained at much higher rate.

The logical question, then, is “What acquisition channel produces the largest percentage of multichannel donors?”

The answer is: Digitally-acquired donors.

Recently, we conducted an analysis with 20 large nonprofit organizations and found that digitally acquired donors are on average 209% more likely to migrate to multi-channel giving when compared to donors acquired via direct mail. The primary reason for this trend is that donors acquired via direct mail rarely provide their email address on the reply device whereas donors that are acquired online are almost always required to provide both an email address as well as a postal address to complete the transaction. What this means is that when you acquire a donor digitally, you have two ways to reach and cultivate them, both via email and postal mail. This factor alone is the primary reason that we see higher migration from digitally acquired donors to multi-channel donors.


For the last five years, I have sat on the board of a nonprofit organization that has been moving aggressively to a digital-first fundraising strategy. In that time, the organization has grown revenues by 64%—from $17.7M to $33.6M. In 2020 alone, digital giving grew by 64%, which is 205% greater than the industry benchmark. Digital now accounts for 40% of their total revenue.

What separates this organization from many others in our space is what psychologists describe as the Pygmalion Effect, or more commonly, the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Simply stated, higher expectations lead to higher performance while lower expectations lead to lower performance. If digital fundraising isn’t growing fast enough, it’s because we don’t expect it to. We don’t invest in it. We don’t dedicate staff to it. And then we are frustrated by our lack of progress.

The time to make the shift to digital-first fundraising is now. It requires commitment, investment, and focus. Organizations that have made the shift are already experiencing the benefits of greater efficiency and faster growth. The global pandemic may have provided the spark, but now it’s up to us to kindle the flame and lead our organizations bravely into digital transformation.

CHAPTER 2: The Future of Event Fundraising

Katrina VanHuss | CEO, TurnKey
Otis Fulton | Vice President, Psychological Strategy, TurnKey

Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a US-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients have included most of the top thirty US peer-to-peer campaigns—Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations like UNICEF.

Otis Fulton is a social psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO, and dozens of other organizations.

Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making—much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.

Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at bbcon, Nonprofit Pro P2P, P2P Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for Nonprofit Pro and are the co-authors of the book Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising. They live in Richmond, Virginia.

The official bird of 2020 must be the Black swan.

The Black Swan Theory describes an unexpected event with enormous consequences and because of which, in hindsight, we concoct sometimes far-fetched explanations that rationalize our actions.

When we talk about the pandemic, we’ll say, “That’s why things changed.” We will rationalize that the pandemic was responsible for the change.

But that won’t be true.

The reality is that the pandemic just pushed us faster to a place where we were already going. We were going there despite our great reluctance and avoidance. Our black swan moment exposed the biases that kept us locked into practices that were fast outliving their usefulness. We weren’t listening to our constituents.

As an example, email deliveries, opens, and click-throughs all fell and kept falling. How did we react? We tried to get more people to open emails instead of trying to understand the “why” behind the decline. Participation, retention, and activation—everything was falling off for many nonprofits and had been declining for years. What did we do? Most of us invested enormously in trying to fix it, not understand it. If we really understood it, we’d be required to change. In the emotional part of our brains that can’t talk out loud, we said, “NO!”

I hear experienced fundraising professionals still talking about “When we get back to…” They are still saying, “No.”

What I Really Want 

With their feet, our audience was telling us, “I want more from this relationship with you. I want satisfaction.” And here’s a handy bit of information: People who have their psychological needs satisfied tend to stick around. We know that thanks to the findings of “positive psychology.” Positive psychology studies what makes life worth living—what makes life worthwhile and satisfying.

Positive psychologists have found three factors that result in people being satisfied with various aspects of their lives. We refer to them as the “trifecta of satisfaction.”

  • Mastery: I can become good at something important and am recognized for it.
  • Autonomy: I’m in charge; I’m making decisions for myself.
  • Connectedness: I want a connection to something bigger than myself, like a cause or a community.

The most successful nonprofits deliver autonomy, mastery, and connectedness to their supporters. You can self-diagnose the experience you provide to your supporters by looking at your retention rate. The higher it is, the more you have succeeded regarding the trifecta.

And Then I Was Alone

When the pandemic struck, the one place and time we gave our constituents community—the event—was gone. Our three-legged satisfaction stool only has one strong leg in COVID Land—mastery. The products we pivoted to allowed virtual fundraisers to be good at fundraising and arguably gave them some autonomy but provided almost no sense of connection or community.

At the onset of the pandemic, nonprofits rushed to come up with something—anything—that would preserve revenue. Efforts were (and continue to be) driven by preserving revenue, not fostering fundraiser satisfaction. Few nonprofits write job descriptions around the trifecta of satisfaction. But satisfied constituents are the only path to meeting goals for revenue, retention, and activation. As a result of the focus on revenue at the expense of satisfaction, we collectively created experiences that retained only the most dedicated fundraisers, preserving only about 50% of peer-to-peer revenue.

Where are our constituents’ needs and the pandemic’s influence taking us?

Give Me What I Want

Our constituents are demanding more satisfying experiences. We believe new programs designed for satisfaction will do the following:

  • Deliver community first and foremost. We must design experiences that allow constituents to talk to EACH OTHER; this is far more critical than using our megaphone on our constituents.
  • Deliver autonomy. We must give constituents a sense of control while building a guardrail and support system for their engagement.
  • Deliver an opportunity to become masterful at something. And then we get to recognize the heck out of them. Whether it’s fundraising, organizing, or recruiting doesn’t matter. Our job is to celebrate the constituent for being good at it.

You’ll note the conspicuous absence of words like “walk,” “ride,” “endurance,” “challenge,” and “DIY.” These are the terms we insiders use to categorize how we fundraise. We often start the design process with those words, driven by the needs of the nonprofit, not the constituent.

Our constituents don’t care about our categories. They care about being happy, which is to say, satisfied. In the end, whatever name you put on it doesn’t matter. The design must be all about their needs. Who knows what fundraising beasts we might create if we let go and say, “Yes.”


CHAPTER 3: Pursuing Equity in Philanthropy

Rachel D'Souza-Siebert, MPPA | Founder and Principal, Gladiator Consulting

Rachel is a proud lifelong resident of St. Louis, Missouri. Born to parents who immigrated to the US from India, Rachel has always been passionate about bridging differences and celebrating what’s possible when we collaborate from a mindset of abundance, learning, and risk-taking.

Rachel is the founder of Gladiator Consulting, a boutique consultancy with a holistic approach to nonprofit organizational capacity-building. Through Gladiator, Rachel has combined her knowledge of organizational culture and resource development with her deep personal commitment to centering community, seeking justice, and creating belonging for those who have been disenfranchised or targeted by institutions, systems, and policy.

In the last year, we have all been faced with an uncertain reality. The double pandemic—COVID-19 and continued racial oppression—have highlighted the volatile and uncertain ground we walk on and spotlighted the inequitable practices and policies embedded in our sector. Over the last decade, nonprofit organizations have experienced the rise of digital giving and crowdfunding, changes to the federal tax code, a boom in donor-advised funds, and a reckoning with the inequity perpetuated in the philanthropic system. These realities have caused us to look inward and explore how we contribute to systems of oppression and identify what models and tools no longer meet the needs of our changing world. As such, many organizations have considered fundraising models and identified a need for a change.

For decades, donor-centered fundraising has been the prevailing best practice for fundraising professionals. Donor-Centered Fundraising is:

“[an] integrated and collaborative model to raise money that inspires donors to remain loyal longer and give more generously sooner. It is easy to understand; it focuses on the things that make fundraising profitable; and it comes from donors themselves.”

Donor-Centered Fundraising is the model taught to new fundraisers. Significant sums of money have been raised by using these practices. And yet, by putting donors at the center of our organization and work, we disservice our organization and communities. Even with happy donors and sustainable revenue, nonprofit organizations have not made the leap from hard reduction (mission) to systems change (vision). Philanthropy means “love of humankind” and to live into this value, we must consider a new way forward.

In 2017, Vu Le, author of the Nonprofit AF blog, offered a new set of fundraising values organized around the impacted communities nonprofits seek to serve. And in the summer of 2020, community-centric fundraising launched as a movement. Based on 10 core principles, community-centric fundraising first challenges fund development professionals to cast a critical eye on the inequities that exist across the nonprofit sector: Who holds power, how wealth is acquired, hoarded, and allocated, and how individuals within nonprofit organizations have perpetuated inequity. Second, it offers a way to shift the sector from within.

As a practitioner of community-centric fundraising, I should note: donor-centered fundraising and community-centric fundraising do not exist at different ends of a spectrum. Rather, community-centric fundraising offers a new world of opportunities for building transformational relationships with donors. Transformation requires a little bit of risk, imagination, partnership, lifelong learning, and trust. Community-centric fundraising lends itself to an abundance mindset. When we choose abundance, vision moves from aspirational to achievable.

But how do you begin to shift your fundraising practice to implement the principles of community-centric fundraising? This task may feel monstrous, especially when the sector upholds a set of formal and informal rules and agreements about how various stakeholders engage with each other, with power and with money. This culture is one of a scarcity mindset, competition, resource-hoarding, and weaponized data and evaluation practices. Yet, as fundraisers on the front lines of our organizations, we have a tremendous opportunity to get uncomfortable, perhaps unconventional, and lead change with our organizations and across the sector.

Step One: Reflect

Before you can change what’s happening around you, you must reflect on your own values and practice. Where do the characteristics of white supremacy culture hold you back? Where do they hold your organization back? Sit in a little bit of discomfort and then offer yourself forgiveness.

Step Two: Listen

Do you want to know what your donors think about the community-centric fundraising movement? Ask them. Be transparent about how donor-centered fundraising has worked and where it no longer works for your organization and ask them for feedback. You will be surprised at how many donors and funders are excited to learn about the movement and new ways in which transformative work can be done. Don’t stop there. Ask the community you serve what they think about your fundraising practices. Use their important feedback to guide incremental change in your organization.

Step Three: Build

Do not try to do this work alone. It is complex, time-consuming, and requires the energy and patience of many smart people. Invite colleagues, organizational leadership, funders/donors, community members, and partner organizations to a new table. Include those with opposing viewpoints and listen to what they have to say. Transformation can only happen when we make space for everyone to join the movement—wherever they fall. Lean on the wisdom and experience of this table to pilot new fundraising initiatives.

Step Four: Try and Fail

There will never be a good time or enough resources or agreement to change—so pick a place and start. Maybe you hold a lunch and learn for a small group of individual donors. Maybe you request meetings with institutional funders to talk about the power dynamic and brainstorm ways to have more equitable conversations and opportunities for transparency. Maybe your organization decides to change the way you define what a “major” gift is by allowing a donor to share with you what is major for them—or maybe you dismantle recognizing donors by ranking the size of their gift and instead recognize donors based on the effort or program they choose to support.

Wherever you start, give your organization some time and patience for transformation. Take note of what works and what doesn’t and continue to integrate new information into your fundraising approach. When you fail, take the loss and transform any disappointment into your next try.

Step Five: Celebrate and Share

When you experience your first success with community-centric fundraising, share it loudly. Help demystify and normalize this work. Share stories in your newsletter or via social media and invite other nonprofits and their donors to learn from your work. In my hometown of St. Louis, we are seeing early successes with community-centric fundraising and justice-/trust-based philanthropy. Check out the nonprofits Forward Through Ferguson and Generate Health and funders such as Deaconess Foundation and Roblee Foundation for examples of how this work is beginning to transform our region.

The community-centric fundraising movement creates the space for fundraisers to meet this unique moment in our sector’s evolution. Now is the time to reimagine and transform the way we think about, organize, and use power and influence in resources. We can and must do this in a way that respects everyone while centering the lived experience, individuals, and community named in our mission statements.

CHAPTER 4: The Case for Coexistence: Donor-Centered and Community-Centered Fundraising

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE | Principal, Clairification

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30 years of frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. After leaving the trenches 10 years ago, Claire began her coaching practice and founded the online “Clairification School”, the best bargain in fundraising! Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, and is a regular contributor to Candid, NonProfit Pro, Network for Good, and Top Nonprofits, among others. As a member of the California State Bar, Claire resides in San Francisco.

First, a hat tip to Vu Le for issuing a call to arms to rethink fundraising as usual. To make it community-centric, not simply donor-centric. To remake institutions, not simply perpetuate them.

Vu suggests, “Our communities cannot afford for us to doubt ourselves, be too deferential, or always default to philosophies and processes that we were trained in.” Ouch. Have I, as Vu suggests, been complicit in “furthering the injustice we are trying to fight?” After reading “It’s time we fundraise in a way that doesn’t uphold white moderation and white supremacy,” I think it’s time for me to shift my approach to fundraising.

I prefer to do so without throwing the baby out with the bath water. There’s a lot about donor-centered fundraising that works, benefitting both the donor and the community.

One of our favorite human games is the blame game. We love it. It riles up the savage beast. BLAME! Underneath, we’re all savages when it comes to survival. BLAME! Racism offers the temptation to blame the weak rather than the powerful. BLAME! Anti-racism offers the temptation to blame the privileged rather than the exploited. BLAME! The problem becomes race, and class, and war. BLAME!

I sincerely hope there’s a way to fundraise and not ascribe blame or instill guilt. A way to “ask not what your donors can do for you, but what you can do for your donors”—and still adhere to what both of you, together, can best do for the community. There must be a way to instill joy in the process so we lift people up rather than beat them down.

Today, I become an advocate of community-centered fundraising. To me, this involves putting philanthropy—translated as “love of humanity”—front and center. In philanthropy, there should be no room for pitting donors against institutions and clients…pitting board against staff…pitting supervisors against their reports…or pitting Cause A against Cause B. The way I understand community-centered fundraising is to lift everyone up. Beginning with those who are the farthest down. Until they matter, no one matters.

Here are my thoughts about what being community-centric may involve:

  • Enlisting fundraisers, staff, board, and volunteers, who are black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and commit to bringing diverse viewpoints to the table—from bottom to top. Consider bringing in an expert to facilitate positive dialogue around how to accomplish this goal.
  • Adding equity principles to vision, mission, and values statements and address them with regularity in meetings and public events—don’t just put them in a file.
  • Remembering the meaning of philanthropy—“love of humanity”—and consider the whole of humanity when facilitating philanthropic investments. This may mean turning down short-term “tainted” gifts in the interest of long-term purity of purpose—i.e., the greater good.
  • Taking a long, hard look inside your organization to see who’s in leadership, who’s promoted, who is overlooked, and why. People tend to hire people who are like themselves, so start at the top and diversify.
  • Listening more. When you’re white like me, and believe you’ve been called a racist, it’s a comfortable default to respond defensively. I’ve done it and thought it was perfectly appropriate. It’s not. It’s better to look for the truth in the complaint by asking questions and using your two ears more than your one mouth.
  • Taking uncomfortable risks to do what you know in your heart is right—don’t fear reprisal. If you see, feel, or hear something, say something. As you learn more, especially if you’re in a leadership position and can lead the way forward to a new culture of philanthropy, just do it.
  • Knowing that successful fundraising begins with a quest for meaning. Existentialists say, “Existence precedes essence,” which I find a particularly useful framework when engaging donors. I ask myself: What essence do they seek? Perhaps now we must ask a larger question: What essence do we want to see reflected from ourselves into the community and back again?

“Justice demands that we support those who are most affected by injustice, whether or not we understand or feel empathy for them. It demands the recognition that our thoughts and feelings are secondary, if not irrelevant, to the realities facing many people with whom we will never completely empathize.”

—Vu Le

Justice plays an important role.

I grew up in the Jewish community, where giving is called tzedekah. The root, tzedek, means justice. It also means balance. Justice is an important concept in fundraising because it differs from the common conception of charity, from the Latin caritas, meaning caring. Within this understanding of philanthropy as tzedakah, the common question posed to students is the following:

Which is better:

  1. To give the homeless mother on the street, to whom your heart goes out, $10?
  2. To give the aggressive panhandling mom who totally annoys you, and who you care not a whit about, $100?

The answer is #2. Yet many people say #1. Because we place such a premium on caring over justice. Or as Vu Le says, on empathy over justice. It’s not that caring and empathy aren’t important. They are. They can definitely move people to give, and cause communities to survive. Yet from the perspective of the person needing help, how you feel doesn’t matter. $100 helps more than $10. Justice matters.

Can we balance caring about donors with caring about community? Can we balance the quest for personal meaning with the quest for community justice?

We’ve reached a turning point. In fundraising, and many other things. We must adapt to survive. Let’s hope we’re up for the challenge.

CHAPTER 5: The Investigative Case of the Missing Donors of Color

Brenda B. Asare | President and CEO, The Alford Group

Brenda Asare joined The Alford Group in 2004 and assumed the role of President and CEO in 2014. Brenda brings nearly 30 years of management and cross-sector experience and has assisted clients in raising over $2 billion, focusing on campaign execution, strategic planning, corporate partnerships, board leadership development, and organizational design.

Prior to joining The Alford Group, she was Chief Development Officer with the American Red Cross in Chicago, where she led various disaster fundraising efforts raising over $100 million.

Additionally, Brenda is second vice chair of The Giving Institute and serves as a board member for numerous philanthropic organizations. Brenda is a frequent speaker on the intersection of diversity and philanthropy and has mentored many talented development professionals. In 2019, Brenda was recognized as Crain’s Notable Minorities in Consulting for her remarkable work in the nonprofit sector.

JoAnn Yoshimoto, CFRE | Senior Consultant, The Alford Group

JoAnn Yoshimoto began her nonprofit career in 1977 and has served continuously as a staff member, board member, donor, and/or consultant ever since.  As a senior consultant with The Alford Group, JoAnn works with diverse client projects ranging from capital campaign design and counsel to fundraising plan development and interim staffing. JoAnn—like all members of The Alford Group—particularly enjoys providing customized services to meet an organization’s unique circumstances.

Before joining The Alford Group, JoAnn worked as a major gifts and planned giving officer, foundation executive director, and capital campaign director. As a board member, she has served a community land trust, regional museum of culture, art and history, and international bicycle transportation effort, as well as the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Washington Chapter.

“Black philanthropists, as with other donors, need to be able to see how their passion and expertise intersect with the mission of the organization and how they can add value. We all have limited time, talent, and treasure, so demonstrating how you keep community impact front and center will help attract and engage us in the work.”

—Liz Thompson, Black Philanthropist

“We are frantically looking for them, but just can’t find them! We’ve looked everywhere!”

There’s no argument that elevating equity-centered philanthropy as core to the values and actions of development practices fosters authentic, inclusive engagement of diverse donors and builds a foundation of trust, belonging, donor loyalty, and transformational giving. Isn’t that what every high-performing development department aims to accomplish?

And yet, donors of color are missing.

With the lessons of 2020 in mind, rewiring strategies to engage donors of color more effectively presents one of the greatest opportunities for tapping significant resources to create a tidal wave of sustainable change and resiliency for our collective futures.

The urgency of developing stronger relationships with diverse donors must go from trying to doing because lives are at stake, missions are at stake, and futures are at stake.

So why are donors of color missing?

Let’s open with these facts:

  • Stereotypes and implicit biases exist regarding “who is a philanthropist” and how diverse donors participate in philanthropy.
  • Less than 45% of development plans include strategies on engaging diverse donors.
  • Donors of color are not asked for gifts as frequently.
  • 20% of diverse donors indicate they would give more…if they were asked!

Now is the time for the social sector to acknowledge, appreciate, and work to more effectively engage BIPOC donors.

“Rewiring strategies” is an interesting concept as it relates to diversifying an organization’s donor base because it assumes that there was already something in place that will now be changed, adjusted, or done differently. For many organizations, however, engaging donors of color will be a new undertaking—or at the least one with greater intentionality.

Getting Started: Gather Your Admissible Evidence

Why: Understand your organization’s “why” and be acutely aware of how your practices, policies, and behaviors reinforce or disrupt systems of oppression or exclusion.

Cultural Competency: Develop cultural competency to understand diverse donors’ historical and cultural context as part of your engagement strategies. Doing your homework involves primary research, reading what they are reading, tuning in to what they are listening to, showing up at events where they are present to deepen your understanding of issues facing their respective communities, and most importantly, talking with diverse donors to gain insights into the complexity and changing dynamics of how they approach philanthropy. Diverse donors’ communities are not monolithic; therefore, diversifying your base of support cannot be prescriptive.

Trust: Building trust is critical. Diverse donors desire to see evidence beyond representation that the organization is not asleep. They want to see that it is awake and committed to the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Quality engagement happens at the speed of trust.

Leave no rocks unturned: When approaching donors of color, be honest about your intentions and understand that relationships evolve and take time. Here are just a few outreach points to keep in mind:

  • Giving Circles: There has been an explosion of Giving Circles where diverse donors are working within and outside of their respective communities to support causes and issues that matter to them.
  • Social Networks: Identify and connect with business associations, wealth advisors, and social community organizations that are affinity-based to learn who is in their social and industry networks.
  • Connectors: Find connectors and build relationships outside of your usual networks. Take proactive steps by inviting donors of color to participate in one-to-one conversations to gain their perspectives and to better understand their world view, life experience, what matters to them, and potential areas of alignment with your work.
  • Families: For many diverse donors, giving is a family matter. They model the importance of giving back by encouraging their children to do the same. Seek out ways to engage the entire family in different aspects of your organization.

Cracking the Case: Four Actions to Take Today

Like a good defense attorney, we can take a moment to cross-examine our own plans:

  1. Take another look around the table to see who is missing.
  2. Identify “expert witnesses,” i.e., connectors to missing populations. Often, you can find those connectors among board members, staff members, and leadership of your own organization—if they themselves are representative of and networked with diverse communities. Move forward confidently and deliberately to invite the missing individuals and communities to the table.
  3. Assess your culture of equity periodically. How are your values and commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging showing up? Are your new donors engaged and are you leveraging their life experiences to inform and advocate for proximate solutions to longstanding problems?
  4. Remember to offer seats at the table to allies. These are individuals with a personal commitment to social justice, as reflected in their willingness to ask, listen, show up, and speak up in the face of oppression and prejudice.

In Closing

With nearly 2.3 million high-net-worth households of color in the US and fast-growing consumer buying power of $3.9 trillion*, effectively engaging donors of color (who, by the way, are not new to giving or being generous) can unlock increased and essential support that will enable nonprofits to thrive and achieve greater resiliency. According to the Census Bureau, by 2042, people of color will become the majority. Donors of color represent the future of philanthropy.

Diversifying your donor base advances your organization in many ways, including revitalized volunteer leadership, more enthusiastic solicitors, new and energized donor communities, and, of course, greater philanthropic support that will pay dividends long into the future…beyond a reasonable doubt!

* The Multicultural Economy 2018, Jeffrey M. Humpreys, March 2019

CHAPTER 6: Adopting Racial Equity Grantmaking Strategies

Marcus Walton | President and CEO, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

Marcus F. Walton, the president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, brings his experience in nonprofit management and the ontological learning model. He specializes in operationalizing frameworks, racial equity facilitation, leadership and management strategy, stakeholder engagement, and program development.

Prior to joining GEO, Marcus worked as director of racial equity initiatives at Borealis Philanthropy. Before that, Marcus served as vice president and COO for the Association of Black Foundation Executives. Prior to ABFE, he worked as a program officer with the Cleveland Foundation and senior program officer with Neighborhood Progress, Inc.

Marcus is a Newfield Network-trained ontological coach. He received a B.A. in History and Political Science from Bowling Green State University and continued graduate studies in Public Administration at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Public Policy as well as Rutgers University’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

  • Philanthropy: noun, plural, phi·lan·thro·pies: Benevolent altruism with the intention of increasing the wellbeing of humankind.
  • Dehumanization: verb (used with object), de·hu·man·ized, de·hu·man·iz·ing: To deprive of human qualities or attributes; divest of individuality.

Just over a year ago, scores of philanthropic leaders, including my home organization, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), canceled all in-person events and transitioned to working remotely, full-time. As a community of grantmakers learning alongside each other as peers with attention to transforming philanthropic culture and practices, this was a sobering blow. The months of sheltering in place that followed defined a historic year which will forever be characterized by a global awakening to health inequities from COVID-19, economic disparities from political instability and wide-scale unemployment, plus a series of sensational racial atrocities that shocked the world into reckoning with the cruelty of recurring systemic violence toward multiple generations of black citizens in the United States. Collectively, we witnessed firsthand how public policy forms the infrastructure that blocks access to opportunities, resources, and inclusion into mainstream acceptance for countless groups of marginalized people. And, once again, the construct of race proved a reliable indicator of health and wellbeing, which perennially reveals patterns of systematic dehumanization.

Escalating events came to a head in March of 2020 as we witnessed Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities grieve the increasing loss of psychological wellbeing and fear for their physical safety in reaction to a global wave of racialized violence. Meanwhile, a full spectrum of communities representing the global diaspora remain at risk as uncoordinated vaccination protocols bypass the most vulnerable among us. Additionally, divisive political messaging and misinformation mobilize those who self-identify as a disaffected majority into increasingly brazen acts of hate and desperation. All the while, leaders of industry, including philanthropy, wring hands and resist acknowledging or reversing the generational impact of inequitable policy, privilege, and power on current conditions as demand for meaningful societal change simultaneously escalates. Taken together, it is reasonable to wonder how grantmakers can make a difference. Where exactly does one start?

The collective genius of communities like GEO offer plenty of resources to do just that. With community support, philanthropy can return to its functional roots of affirming humanity by standing with all communities who are impacted by inequitable systems and using its power of influence to denounce any messaging that mobilizes hate to reinforce false superiority and power-hoarding. As servant leaders, we can assess and leverage our power to advance change, recognize our critical role as influencers in this societal moment, and demonstrate the centrality of equity* to effectiveness by:

  • Working cooperatively rather than competitively to target investments that close any gaps in access or opportunity and learn how the policy decisions that reinforce inequity can inform the development of grantmaking strategies for eliminating them;
  • Providing flexible multi-year funding and supporting at full cost the nonprofits, movements, organizers, and communities of on-the-ground leaders who continually shape our democracy to embody and deliver on the promise of its professed ideals for a vibrant thriving citizenry; and
  • Loosening burdensome grantmaking restrictions to build trust, increase responsiveness, and boost the flow of resources to the people closest to the issues to accelerate the development of viable, resilient solutions to the most persistent societal challenges.

Resembling the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, when the undoing of the American caste system was briefly attempted but abruptly halted, institutional philanthropy currently sits at an inflection point. Either we can choose to operate within a familiar set of practical improvement strategies that have tended to fall short of any aspirations for sustained collective wellbeing, or we can opt for a set of possibilities for societal transformation which promise to reconcile the errors of American history that have locked us in perpetual cycles of dehumanization. Indeed, we may be at a precipice where honor and dignity can be restored, and the forces of shame and fragility can finally be outweighed by our commitment to leadership, making amends, and healing our nation. The existence of vibrant, supportive peer communities, like the one we have cultivated here at GEO, suggest that our collective will, support, enthusiasm, and genius are and continue to be sufficient for cultivating the courage to complete the journey of reconciliation for which philanthropy is perfectly positioned to lead.

*Racial equity is an analysis or approach to grantmaking that identifies the historical impact of inequitable/ discriminatory policies on populations to understand the extent to which race is a factor in marginalizing, excluding, or isolating any group. Though there is no biological basis for distinguishing one group of people from another (i.e., there is only one race, the human one), the construction of racial categories as well as the related hierarchy of human value expressed through racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, etc., has made it necessary to acknowledge this as a critical identifying variable.

Organizational Strategy

CHAPTER 7: Leaving What Was Lost

Marc Pitman, CSP | CEO Concord Leadership Group

Concord Leadership Group founder Marc A. Pitman, CSP® helps leaders lead their teams with more effectiveness and less stress. His latest book is The Surprising Gift of Doubt: Use Uncertainty to Become the Exceptional Leader You Are Meant to Be. He’s also the author of Ask Without Fear!®—which has been translated into Dutch, Polish, Spanish, and Mandarin.

Marc’s expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences around the world both in person and with online presentations and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Al Jazeera, Fox News, SUCCESS magazine, and Real Simple. Marc Tweets regularly at @marcapitman.

He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family!

As leaders look at what they will keep in a post-pandemic world, I hope they will choose to leave some things behind.

Many nonprofits had fallen into a false sense of what their work was. The pandemic upended everything. And, surprisingly, many found they were still able to do their real work. In that experience, they were able to discover new ways to measure the work and the engagement of their team members.

I worry that in a push to “get back to normal,” leaders will unreflectively fall back into habits that weren’t moving their work forward. Habits like:

  • Making decisions for donors;
  • Equating “doing the work” by being on site; and
  • Thinking being on the board means showing up for meetings.

Making Decisions for Donors

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns brought into stark relief one of the worst habits nonprofits have: Choosing if donors will give without even asking the donors. Throughout much of the pandemic, many boards, executive directors, and even fundraising staff held back from asking for donations. This decision was justified by comments like, “This isn’t a good time to ask,” “Asking may appear tone deaf,” and “It’s not appropriate to ask for money right now.”

These sounded logical. Even virtuous. But they hid the fact that these nonprofits were not treating donors as adults, as people capable of making their own decisions. These nonprofits were essentially making the decision for donors. By not offering a way to give, these nonprofits were essentially deciding they were not going to give.

The nonprofits that did ask were amazed: Donors were incredibly generous. And not just one time. Donors gladly gave multiple times—sometimes multiple times a month. Even in what we had previously considered slow times like April and May. Many nonprofits that clearly presented the problem and showed donors how they could be part of the solution saw their giving double and even triple. In the midst of a global pandemic and the accompanying recession. Even symphony orchestras and other organizations with entire seasons canceled benefitted from this outpouring of generosity.

Many of us who had been through past recessions assumed there would be an initial surge in giving, as there had in the past. But we did not see the anticipated drop in gifts. This time, the giving only stopped when the nonprofits stopped asking.

I hope that moving out of the pandemic we will leave behind the desire to decide if this is the “right time” to ask for money. I hope we will let donors make up their own minds about giving. It takes so much humility and a little vulnerability, but we have learned that we can respectfully ask without it being pushy or off-putting to donors.

Equating “Doing the Work” to Being on Site

Many leaders struggled with having their staff work remotely. Not being able to see their staff at their desks throughout the day. Some of the struggle was from a real need to connect with their team. But a lot of the struggle was from bad management habits preceding the pandemic. Social distancing and remote work showed many leaders the uncomfortable fact that they were not really sure what their employees did.

Major gift fundraisers have struggled with this for years. Too many executive directors equate “being at work” with “doing the work.” But in pre-pandemic times, major gift officers are often doing their best work when they are away from the office.

In this past year, everyone needed to be away from the office at times. And leaders were forced to figure out how to measure work done without being able to see their staff. And without being able to know if their staff were able to do that work while binge-watching a show.

I hope that after moving out of the pandemic, we will learn to measure people’s jobs by what really matters, not by sitting at a desk.

Thinking Being on the Board Means Showing up for Meetings

Another struggle I saw nonprofit leaders have was keeping their boards engaged. To be clear, many boards were amazing through the pandemic. They went above and beyond, helping the nonprofit navigate the unknowns.

But some leaders made the mistake of equating “board engagement” with “attending board meetings.” Worse, some board members believed that, too. Suddenly, they were not able to be in the same physical room, so they felt they had nothing helpful to do. These were the nonprofit leaders and boards that really struggled. Rather than redefining board engagement, they tried to recreate the feeling of being in the room together. Rather than discovering how new technology could help the board focus on the nonprofit mission, they used tech to try to recreate an experience that was gone. Focusing on what was gone made it painful for board members, causing engagement to slip even more.

As we emerge into whatever is coming, I hope leaders will leave that “being in the room” mentality behind. I hope they’ll double down on what activities really help both the nonprofit and the board members. Things like phone calls to donors. And making connections with community leaders. And attending meetings, even if they are doing it virtually.

The Past Is Not Coming Back

As we move beyond this pandemic, I am hopeful about what nonprofits will be able to keep from the experience. And I am hopeful that nonprofit leaders will have the courage to leave behind systems and expectations that were not serving them well even in normal times.

As we move forward, I hope we can speak more and more clearly to donors. And respect donors enough to let them make their own giving decisions. I hope we will be more intentional about our organizational core values and job performance—freeing us and our staff to carry out our mission without having to micromanage the process. And I hope we will improve the way we ask boards to support and advocate for our organizations. Both by being explicit with what we are excepting of board members. And by honoring them enough to do proper board orientations and ongoing training.

There is no way to “go back to normal.” Let’s use this experience to ensure we can serve our mission through any coming recession—or even any future pandemic.

CHAPTER 8: Liberating Structures

Kyla Shawyer | CEO and Co-Founder Leading Transformational Change in the Social Good Ecosystem, PFNA & DSIL Global

Kyla has been leading transformational change in the global nonprofit sector for 15 years. She is currently working at the intersection of systems innovation and leadership in the social good space, serving as both CEO and Co-Founder of Philanthropy & Fundraising North America (PFNA), a nonprofit executive leadership program that builds nonprofit capacity for fundraising growth and innovation, and as an Innovation Leadership executive for DSIL Global, a social innovation company.

Kyla has served in numerous executive positions in the global nonprofit sector including CEO for the Resource Alliance and IFC (International Fundraising Congress), a vibrant community of global nonprofit fundraisers and change makers from across the social good ecosystem, and COO/SVP, Operation Smile, where she was responsible for programs, fundraising and resource mobilization.

Her extensive knowledge and work with INGOs and NGOs now bring her to projects across sectors engaging with organizations on the future of fundraising innovation and leadership for broader sector learning and development. She is passionate about inspiring new ways of leading and collaborating to break down silos and unlock the full potential of every person’s unique contributions to the greater team.

Kyla is a member of the Blackbaud Institute Advisory Board.

The world is changing. COVID-19, advances in technology, and powerful social justice movements are at a confluence. Workforce expectations are evolving, driven by a desire for more authentic connection, engagement, values alignment, and shared purpose as Millennials and Gen Z increasingly become the majority of contributors.

How we respond to this moment as leaders in the nonprofit space is vital to the future of the causes we care so much about. As we strive to innovate and adapt to the world around us, we need to cultivate key leadership skills like courage, empathy, and connection in order to remove barriers to inclusion and increase engagement. Metrics are still important—there’s so much at stake for the causes we serve—but lack of inclusion and authentic engagement is stifling innovation.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that 51% of fundraisers plan to leave their jobs this year alone, fueled by dysfunctional work environments that lead to silos, lack of communication, and a less than desirable work culture. This situation is sadly much more prevalent than we think.

Leaders know that they would greatly increase productivity and innovation if only they could get everyone fully engaged. The challenge is how.

Luckily, a new wave of social innovation, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship is helping to unleash potential, foster inclusion, and shift outdated mindsets. What these daring thinkers at every corner of the world recognize is that actively engaging people in collaborative ways unlocks ideas and innovation, builds trust, and increases a sense of shared alignment and fulfillment. In an environment in which everyone flourishes, they can do the work of deeply listening to the communities they serve. And by embracing transparency and flexibility, they successfully co-create and prototype solutions together. Sounds radical, doesn’t it? It is. But it’s also possible.

Liberating Structures encourages new ways of working together that lead to innovation and cultural change. By introducing shifts in the ways we meet, plan, decide, and relate to one another, they put the innovative power, once reserved for experts only, in the hands of everyone.

Liberating Structures (LS) is about coming together and organizing in a way that makes it possible to include and engage more people. And what inclusion and collaboration can do is the real magic of LS. With the simple techniques it offers, a humble acknowledgement that good ideas can come from everywhere, and the willingness to upend the top-down approach, you can unlock ideas and unleash potential and innovation across any organization.

Unwittingly, the conventional structures used to organize how people routinely work together stifle inclusion, engagement, and innovation.

Think about how most organizations go about their work. Teams tend to adopt one of these conventional methods of working together: 1) the presentation, where one person shares their expertise while others passively listen; 2) the status update, which involves reporting on events with no real opportunity to address challenges or solicit the wisdom of the group on how to solve them; and 3) the brainstorm, an unstructured gathering that generates ideas but doesn’t necessarily lead to outcomes. I’m sure each of you reading this can picture a meeting you’ve sat in that fits one of these descriptions. These meetings are either over-controlled or under-controlled.

By contrast, LS offers 33 different options for organizing meetings that are sure to innovate and transform the way we work together and expand the opportunities for participants to contribute to a group’s success. Here are just a couple of examples:


Immediately include everyone regardless of how large the group is, generating better ideas by tapping into the know-how and imagination of the group. Use after a speech or presentation, when it is important to get rich feedback (questions, comments and ideas), instead of asking the audience, “Any questions?” Start with silent reflection by individuals on their key takeaways, then move into pairs to share and build on ideas. Share and develop ideas from your pairs in foursomes and then report back to the group the stand-out ideas from each foursome.

15% Solutions

Discover and focus on what each person has the freedom and resources to do now in response to a challenge presented to the group. Ask “What is your 15%? Where do you have discretion and freedom to act? What can you do without more resources or authority?” These simple questions reveal the actions, however small, that everyone can do immediately. At a minimum, these will create momentum, and that may make a BIG difference.

By changing the ways we interact with each other, LS inherently sparks a culture shift that enables innovation, builds bridges between teams, and revitalizes whole organizations. Leaders are better able to meet the expectations of a changing workforce. Most importantly, when we flourish, so do the causes at the heart of our organizations.


Roger Craver | Editor, The Agitator


Roger M. Craver is a fundraising pioneer who’s helped launch and build organizations like Common Cause, The National Organization for Women, ACLU, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and dozens of other major organizations, both in the US and in Europe. Roger is the author of the classic Retention Fundraising: The Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life. Now he’s the editor-in-chief of the fundraising blog The Agitator and founder of DonorTrends, which provides fundraising analytics.

Roger is a member of the Blackbaud Institute Advisory Board.

It takes a mighty big catastrophe to break the stupor of complacency and force a hard, fresh look at the world around us—especially in our parochial realm of fundraising.

Even an event as jolting as the Great Recession of 2008 failed to knock more sense into most nonprofits. Of course, we aren’t alone. For nearly 50 years, the American nation has ignored racism, poverty, a crumbling infrastructure, a healthcare system on life support, and a diseased political culture. The pandemic is the “mighty big catastrophe that exposed the naked horror of the failure to admit to issues, summon up the will to change, then change.”

Every author in this book speaks eloquently and specifically about the parade of essential changes—in both mindset and practice—required for the nonprofit sector to meet its future obligations and deliver on its promises and potential.

I acknowledge, deeply appreciate, and accept that most of the prescriptions for change outlined are both desired and essential. However, you and I must be alert and ever-vigilant to the reality that the iron grip of the past has its fists locked on the ankles of the future in a never-ending effort to drag us back to pre-pandemic days.

A growing, successful future depends on resisting the all-to-easy temptation to backslide and “keep on keepin’ on” fueled by the self-admiring belief that it’s “always been this way” and that “we’ve always done it this way.”

We must remind ourselves that those “good old” pre-pandemic days weren’t all that great. For the 15 years of The Agitator’s history, I’ve chronicled with more than a little dismay and concern the statistics of decline—our sector’s crumbling infrastructure of lower and lower retention rates, fewer and fewer donors, the dearth of diversity—all exacerbated by the failure to invest time, talent, and resources in truly understanding donors, diversifying the universe of donors, and becoming truly involved in the communities we serve.

All of the above are regressive genes interfering with the healthier DNA required to survive and grow to meet the future.

As most of this ebook’s authors acknowledge, the coronavirus pandemic may be the calamity that saves us. Unlike the slow-moving problems and poor practices that accreted like the proverbial frog incrementally boiling to death, solving the new problems requires a readiness to quickly try new approaches. We’re now entering a major period of economic, political, and psychological change that will not only expose what’s broken but will also give a new generation of nonprofits and their fundraisers a chance to build something better.

Perhaps we will need to start over. I don’t mean begin from scratch—much of our knowledge and experience will prove durable and improvable—but I do mean we’ll be forced to look at first principles, which means challenging virtually every assumption we’ve taken for granted. And each chapter in this ebook offers a fascinating glimpse at the roadmap forward. The wise leader and fundraiser will carefully study and reflect on each section of this map.

No area will prove in more need of reexamination and new thinking than the area of nonprofit leadership. For it is the mindset of its leaders that forms the seedbed of an organization’s culture and its future. From reexamining biases and decisions on how time, money, and skill is expended, to aggressively abandoning past practices in favor of what to some may seem risky or “new” is essential. The admonition of Dr. Una Osili in the Introduction is most appropriate: “Leaders and fundraisers need a more intentional approach to navigate current trends and create a more sustainable and equitable future.”

Mediocre, same-as-before leadership won’t cut it for what I believe will be a vastly different and more difficult future. This need for change in the leadership mindset goes all the way from the board to the CEO, to the fundraising and communications staff, and, most importantly, to each of us individually.

A change in mindset means willingness and desire to tackle the issues long-avoided or glossed over: Racial inequality, gender inequality, inadequate skill levels, unrewarded training, and and piss-poor service and accountability to donors and the communities we should be serving. Only then will our organizations—and we as fundraisers—be capable of meeting challenges we can hardly imagine today.

In short, we sure won’t meet those challenges by adding an extra three appeals, a couple of matching gift challenges, and an endless stream of digital goodies all pumped out by overworked, under-trained staff overseen by the uninvolved board’s intent on saving a buck—all selfishly ignoring the wants and needs of the donors and communities we claim to represent.

After 55 years at the fundraising oars, I’m more charged up than ever because I’m convinced our sector will indeed build something far better, far greater, and far more relevant to society’s needs than ever.

To succeed—whether novice or veteran—each of us must do our part to challenge the assumptions too many in our trade take as gospel. Those challenges go to the way organizations spend—or don’t spend—money on listening to donors and providing what they want…on recognizing and acting to engage with communities we should be serving and aren’t…on investing quality training and continuing education for staff that are too often ignored…and giving long-overdue investment and effort to board recruitment, training, and accountability.

Heavy lifting? Hard work? Scary? Risky? Sure is. But if we take the insights and recommendations contained in this book seriously and begin acting on them, I believe the so-called “disaster” of the pandemic will turn out to be the switch that triggered the Great Fundraising Reset.

Published May 2021

You might also like:

npEXPERTS Series
Resource Library
The Explorer