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Building connections with funders as Black nonprofit leaders 

A group of Black business people having a discussion around a laptop.

Research has shown that Black nonprofit leaders face unique challenges, particularly in securing adequate funding for their organizations. A study by Candid found that nonprofits with Black CEOs are more likely to have smaller revenues than those with white CEOs. Similarly, Cause Effective’s study Money, Power and Race: The Lived Experience of Fundraisers of Color sheds light on the systemic issues Black individuals encounter in fundraising. From navigating predominantly white spaces to facing questions about their competency while enduring belittlement, the experiences of Black fundraisers are starkly different from their white counterparts. Black nonprofit leaders often find themselves lacking the necessary networks and connections to secure the grant.  

In this article, we’ll share real-life stories from Black executives who participated in Candid’s Collaboration Circle for leaders serving boys and men of color. These firsthand accounts offer insight into obstacles to funding and what can work to address them with a commitment to change from the sector as a whole. The narratives of M. Mena Davis, AJ Lockett, and Janice Malone attest to the resilience, innovation, and adaptability that define Black nonprofit leadership.  

Challenges Black nonprofit leaders face 

Mena Davis, executive director of All Things Women, finds funders to be unresponsive. “We have great meetings, and a funder will say they will be in touch, but there is no follow-up. How many emails do I send without being pushy? How often should I send them? Is a phone call better than an email? I have even tried the nice ‘Hello, I wanted to follow up on our meeting,’ and it often goes unanswered and without acknowledgment,” she said. 

AJ Lockett, executive director of Que Blackout, emphasizes this power imbalance. “The gatekeepers and their language in interactions make the process feel like I am an inconvenience in their day. The relationship can be very one-sided. We seem beholden to the funder; unfortunately, the non-corporate foundations are worse for me. I believe this is because they get more requests. Their defensive stance and the distorted power dynamics between funders and grantees make building connections with funders difficult,” he said.   

Often without a referral or introduction, it’s hard to get through to funders. Janice Malone, founder and executive director of Vivian’s Door, finds the interaction challenging at many levels. “When I try to establish a connection with a funder through cold calling, a gatekeeper usually stands in the way of reaching a program officer who can guide me in applying for their grant,” she said. The lack of an introduction can be a dead end: “If the grantor is not accepting Letters of Inquiry, I usually give up because I am unsure of what steps to take next.”  

Power dynamics can make even a successful connection daunting, Malone said. “When I finally get in touch with a potential funder, I often struggle to explain our organization’s programs and impact quickly, clearly, and concisely. I get nervous when they express interest and ask me to send more information, as I may not come across as confidently as I would like, or [I feel like] I may not have the proper material readily available to send them immediately.” Malone said. Negative experiences with funders can create anxiety and nervousness that impact one’s ability to prepare for a funder meeting. 

Overcoming barriers to help Black nonprofit leaders succeed 

Power—and the lack of it—make overcoming these obstacles difficult, but each of these leaders persevered. Davis’s story highlights the importance of peer and funder. Her transformative journey was shaped by frank and invaluable feedback from a potential funder, also a Black woman. The funder told her quite directly that her nonprofit’s work and goals were unclear and too long as written to follow. In Davis’s words, “She ripped me to shreds!” Yet the funder was invested enough to let her try again…and again. Davis rewrote her materials and revamped her website, making the nonprofit’s whole story more understandable. It took two years, but the funder awarded All Things Women $100,000 and, beyond that, taught Davis how to tell the organization’s story better. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” she said.  

Lockett’s experience demonstrates the importance of perseverance and creative thinking in overcoming the gatekeeper structure. After years of rejections, he took the unconventional route of directly engaging a potential funder through LinkedIn. This personal approach not only led to a fruitful partnership but also opened doors to additional funding opportunities. Lockett’s story illustrates the efficacy of unconventional strategies in circumventing power dynamics.   

Malone’s experience underscores the strategic importance of seizing unexpected opportunities. She invited the USDA to answer questions at one of the Town Halls she hosts that connect Black farmers to resources and organizations to help them scale their businesses. It turned out that the USDA also provided financial support for organizations like hers. “We ended up getting a good solid funding relationship with them and they have increased our funding for the last two years,” Malone said. Her experience highlights the importance of networking and taking steps to build connections. 

Each of these executives found a way to overcome some of the barriers faced by Black nonprofit leaders. Their stories serve as an inspiration for a more inclusive and equitable sector that empowers Black leaders to continue driving positive change.  

Photo credit: LumiNola via Getty Images

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