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Developing meaningful partnerships between DEI and Development Offices

Vice President, Higher Education Practice Group Leader

While talking to a DEI leader at a premier higher education institution, she mentioned that some of her colleagues—nationwide—were having trouble forging partnerships with their Development counterparts.

Recent movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have elevated the importance of DEI work in our society. Nonprofits everywhere are expanding their DEI efforts, both internally and in their programming, and donors are supporting these causes in record numbers.

A meaningful partnership between DEI offices and Development shops should be a win-win for nonprofits, yet many institutions are struggling to collaborate effectively. And the enduring question that our conversation left me with is: “Why is the process of partnering difficult for DEI and Development offices?”

Maybe the barriers are caused by a lack of understanding in each other’s fields. DEI officers could be concerned that their Development colleagues are beholden to fundraising metrics and the whims of donors, with little interest in actual DEI work. Development professionals perhaps believe that DEI principles might alienate some donors and are unsure how to navigate that space without polarizing the donor base…better to just steer clear, entirely.

Regardless of the reason, lacking a meaningful partnership between the two offices can cause missed opportunities. Let’s examine what nonprofits can gain through effective DEI and Development collaboration.

Benefits of a partnership

Collaboration will enable DEI initiatives to thrive, allow Development professionals to tap into resources such as DEI audits and training, and enhance how fundraisers cultivate diverse constituents through engagement and programming. Here are just a few specific ways nonprofits benefit from meaningful partnerships.

New fundraising opportunities around DEI

Your Development team can aid in framing DEI priorities as fundable initiatives that resonate with your donor base. Development professionals understand marketing, messaging, and how to package the existing work in a way that appeals to the philanthropic motivations of donors.

Additionally, having this partnership makes it easier to connect constituents interested in social justice and diversity to the DEI professionals who make the magic happen. Connecting donors to the work will showcase the impacts of their gifts and serve as a cultivation tool.

Access to DEI training for fundraisers

A partnership will allow the fundraising team to have access to professionals who may be able to facilitate DEI audits and trainings. DEI audits uncover hiring, onboarding, engagement, and organizational Development practices that may not foster diversity and inclusion.

Audits also create opportunities to work collaboratively to generate best practices that enhance organizational culture, promote diversity, foster inclusion, and increase cultural competency. Instead of the Development team seeking external support for these audits, they can rely on their DEI team member(s) to help assess DEI success within the fundraising space, identify the areas of improvement, and serve as a resource for internal training and workshops. If the audits and/or training are out of their scope or beyond their personnel capacity, they likely will be able to direct you to the right resources.

More inclusive programming

Another benefit of collaboration is improved engagement with diverse constituents and more inclusive programming. Having DEI partners will illuminate the blind spots in how fundraisers engage diverse constituents.

For example, DEI professionals can give insight into how to be more mindful and equitable in event planning. In my work, I regularly see organizations host events at country clubs and/or facilities named after plantations. Depending on the organizational type, history, and constituency base, these venues may be perceived as exclusionary or insensitive to people of color and those who have not historically had access to those spaces. DEI professionals can point out this type of issue, give context, and provide suggestions for more appropriate spaces.

Your DEI team can also provide you with insight on how to use gender-inclusive language in your donor outreach and engagement. Or they can work with the team on how to be more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ families in your Development collateral and funding priorities.

DEI professionals are also often skilled at curating programming that is inspiring and impactful – making for great donor cultivation opportunities. Consider inviting donors to events such as cultural graduation ceremonies, culturally relevant research presentations/symposiums, diverse historical figure celebrations, and inclusive holiday festivities so that they can experience these powerful stories firsthand. Even better, partner to identify opportunities to ask donors to participate and share their stories.

On the other hand, Development offices typically have more capacity and can assist with logistical and staffing needs at externally facing events coordinated by their DEI colleagues. Assisting not only helps the event planners, but it also gives Development the opportunity to interface with new people and build relationships.

Improved operations

Lastly, a partnership between the two offices will create a united front that allows the sharing of information and best practices. It will allow fundraisers to learn more about DEI and to be ambassadors within the community. The joint narrative and community presence show institutional progress and effectiveness.  Moreover, the partnership will help areas such as community relations, volunteer engagement, and student recruitment for educational institutions.

At Indiana University, the Diversity office and the Foundation partnered to create a Black Philanthropy Circle and a Queer Philanthropy Circle that allow their donors to fund programs that improve the recruitment, retention, degree attainment, and well-being of Black and Queer students. This type of engagement has the potential to elevate your entire organization.

Steps to Building a Partnership

The question that may be ringing in your mind is: “What actions should I take to form a partnership?” Here are four steps to get you started.

Step 1: Build rapport and a shared understanding

Start by inviting your counterpart to coffee or lunch to learn about them as a person. Your roles may be different, but your humanity is not.

Meet and discuss your individual and team goals. Explain how these goals drive the organization forward. Share the areas of your work that are experiencing success, and the areas where you are challenged.

Step 2: Map out a shared strategy

After you have a solid understanding of each other’s roles, begin brainstorming ideas on how the partnership will work. It is important to consider not just how your work could be enhanced, but how you will contribute to your counterpart’s success, also.

Before you begin, a word about brainstorming: Research shows that group brainstorming often isn’t effective. To be productive, brainstorming first should be done individually, and then collaboratively to refine ideas and find areas of synergy.

As you work together, anticipate challenges and questions such as, “How can we talk about the work in a way that is not disconcerting to the majority of our donor base?” Or, “How should we frame our efforts to communicate that they will elevate the organization?”

This type of open dialogue will benefit your organization in the long run and position you best for success.

Step 3: Document the agreed-upon strategy

Once you come to a consensus, it is pivotal to document the strategy, a partnership timeline, and metrics for measuring success. This document will serve as a guidepost as you execute the work and will hopefully keep you energized along the way.

Here are some examples of metrics and milestones you can use to monitor progress, depending on the strategy you created:

  • Number of trainings facilitated by the DEI team for fundraising staff and/or volunteers
  • Number of DEI initiatives featured as fundraising priorities
  • Increased board and/or staff diversity
  • Increased outreach to underrepresented constituents
  • Increased presence of donors at DEI events

Step 4: Celebrate the power of partnership

Last but not least, it is important to acknowledge the work that your partner is doing and how it increases the impact your organization will have.

For fundraisers, steward your DEI partners like donors, send thank you notes, take them to coffee, and invite them to fundraising events. For DEI professionals, steward your fundraising colleagues by participating in Development functions and donating to other initiatives (within the organization) that align with your interests. These may seem like small gestures, but they will ensure your partner feels valued!

Wrapping up

Forging a partnership can seem daunting for two areas with different purposes, but the benefits of the partnership are worth the challenge!