Fundraising for Diversity Officers: An Overlooked Opportunity

At the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) conference this year, we expected our workshop on fundraising to have a small audience. After all, fundraising is a fairly new competency for chief diversity officers (CDOs), and competing workshops concerned hot topics such as student activism and free speech. To our surprise, though, our workshop was standing room only. 

Fundraising may not sound exciting, but it was clear that we had tapped a need. 

Diversity practitioners are experts at community-building, bias response, and the facilitation of demographic change. However, their success often depends on a task that they did not expect — raising money for their institution. 

Work focused on diversity and inclusion is expanding at a rapid pace on college campuses. According to a 2017 Witt/Kieffer survey, 62 percent of CDO survey respondents were the first to hold their position. Yet less than half said that they “were given adequate resources to perform [their] duties.” Too often, in other words, CDOs are being handed unfunded mandates, effectively leaving them to secure the monies necessary to support diversity programming.

Diversity work is expensive. It requires funds to organize training and events, manage affinity-based centers, support travel for student and faculty recruitment, and pay staff members. These activities help colleges and universities fulfill their values and proactively enhance their campus culture, but this important work is frequently underfunded. According to a NADOHE survey of diversity officers, 45 percent of respondents said that the annual operating budget for their department was less than $100,000 (not including salaries), even though 64 percent report to the president, chancellor, or provost of their respective institutions. 

The Challenge of Funding Diversity Work
Why is such important work under-funded? To start, many current budgets reflect past ones. In earlier eras, diversity and inclusion were not institutional priorities and therefore not supported financially. Current paucity of funding is likely a continuation of past budgeting processes.

Second, many colleges and universities still treat diversity work as marginal. Even though campus diversity and inclusivity initiatives drive faculty and student recruitment and improve campus climate, too many people fail to understand the well-documented links between diversity and excellence. Only when inclusivity and the funding that supports it become recognized by external organizations — such as INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine through its annual Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award — and embedded in processes across an institution does diversity move from the margins to the center.

A third hurdle is the mistaken belief that diversity work can be done inexpensively by appealing to people’s good intentions. This approach prioritizes feelings and devalues the way that structures and systems affect outcomes. It is possible to gradually change some individuals’ behavior through training, but behavioral change doesn’t pay for the multicultural center.

To be sure, diversity work is not just about money. Leadership, strong campus collaborations, and effective policies and procedures also play necessary and important roles. However, these elements are not sufficient in and of themselves. 

Effective Fundraising
In order to succeed at fundraising, CDOs need to develop key mindsets and skills. First, expect to invest time. 

Although it may feel like a distraction from the core work of community-building, fundraising is essential. Within the institution, practitioners must navigate budget allocation processes effectively. They should understand which budget items can be endowed and which ones are best handled with spendable funds or grants. It will be necessary to develop collaborative relationships and learn from colleagues in the offices of development, corporate foundation, government relations, finance, alumni relations, and communications. Fundraising professionals may not always realize how campus diversity and inclusion efforts support institutional growth and success; thus, there are opportunities for mutual learning.

The case for funding must be made effectively, using both quantitative and qualitative evidence about program outcomes. The link to priorities must be clear. How is diversity essential to institutional excellence? How does it align with strategic plans? How does it help recruit and retain the most talented students and employees? It may be necessary to counter the myth that diversity and inclusion can be handled in ad hoc ways rather than systematically.  

Another common misperception is that diversity and inclusion work only benefits people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. This mindset can trap diversity practitioners on the periphery of the institution. Every member of the campus community benefits from a diverse and inclusive environment. (Keep in mind that diversity encompasses more than just race and ethnicity — another common mistake made by colleges.) The best allies and donors may be those who aren’t members of underrepresented groups but who understand the value of the work. Take the message to everyone and insist that it should matter to everyone.

Creating a diversity-focused advisory or visiting committee can be an excellent way to involve alums and community leaders. These individuals can offer feedback, guidance, and personal connections as well as philanthropic support.

Take the time to learn the business of fundraising, which includes competencies like drafting a good annual appeal letter, organizing and attending galas and events, and conducting personal solicitations. Seeking grants from foundations, corporations, or the government requires further skills, such as grant-writing, data collection, and research. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and the Foundation Center all provide excellent training and professional development opportunities.

There are also pitfalls to avoid. Raising money requires a thick skin. If colleagues or donors are not supportive, don’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean they are racist, homophobic, or otherwise biased. Although some individuals are opposed to diversity work, many simply have other priorities. In such circumstances, persistence in building partnerships and making the case for a program will be critical. 

As colleges and universities seek to attract more funds for scholarships and programmatic needs, effective fundraising raises the profile of the CDO as a partner to the president and other senior-level members of the administration. So, when signing up to advance diversity and inclusion on campus, expect to fundraise. Instead of viewing it as a distraction, see it as an opportunity to secure the resources needed to advance and thrive.●

Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University. Marilyn S. Mobley, PhD, is vice president for inclusion, diversity, and equal opportunity and a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. This article was published in our January/February 2019 issue.