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Season 2, Episode 65

Join Amy, Andrea and special guest Bob Osborne of The Osborne Group as they explore the need for DEI with regard to campaign and leadership. How do your early choices affect who participates, who leads, and who benefits?

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Amy Eisenstein:
We have a special guest today on the podcast. We’re interviewing Robert Osborne, principal of the Osborne Group. Bob has more than 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector and is a well known international speaker and workshop leader. He works with all types of organizations and all sizes.

Today, we’re going to have a thought-provoking conversation to get you thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion when it comes to fundraising.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Bob, I’m so happy you’re here with us today. It’s just wonderful to have a chance to talk to you about campaigns and about diversity and equity and inclusion, but let me start by saying that I am super happy to know that you are beginning to collaborate with my old friend Andy Robinson, with whom I wrote this book on training exercises. And Andy and I initially created the website, Train Your Board, together. Then I withdrew to do this business with Amy, and now you are collaborating with Andy Robinson on the website, trainyourboard.com, I think it is.

Robert Osborne:
I think so too. First of all, thanks for having me. I appreciate you inviting me on the podcast.

Yeah, so we are doing some collaboration with Andy. I think I met him maybe two years ago during the pandemic, and we were at a mutual virtual conference and he added me to his mailing list. And I really liked just the look of it and the specificity of the board training he was doing. And then I saw that he was specifically looking out for people of color that are consultants.

And so, I reached out to him and we’ve been doing some co-training together, and now we’re doing Train Your Board together. Yeah, it’s always fun to meet fellow consultants. And I was surprised that our paths hadn’t crossed before. We know certainly some of the same people, but it’s been nice to get to know him.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes. Well, and I’ve sort of felt the same way about you also. I’m sort of surprised our paths haven’t crossed before. You and Amy and I are really in the same and sort of tangential businesses. So, your firm not only works on fundraising and diversity, equity and inclusion, but you have done a ton of strategic planning and fundraising, and your firm is long and well established in this fundraising business. So, we are delighted to have you.

Robert Osborne:
Yeah, I’m delighted to be here. Thank you.

DEI as it Relates to Donor Identification

Amy Eisenstein:
Alright, so let’s go ahead and dive in. So, today we’re going to be talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion as it relates to donor identification and boards. So Bob, why don’t you get us started?

How do you think about, or why should nonprofits be thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion with regard to donor identification?

Robert Osborne:
Yeah. Well, I would say overall, I think it’s a good thing for people to be thinking about for a variety of different reasons. I mean, as you both know, just have diversity of all kinds — not just ethnicity, but geographic diversity, professional diversity, just different backgrounds just makes not for profits stronger, right? You get different thinking. And then having representation from whatever communities that you serve is also really important because, again, you get the perspective of those communities, and again, you’ll be stronger.

So, I’d say overall, those are the kind of big-picture reasons. Around identification, I think this is kind of an ongoing debate. I definitely have a point of view, but I will headline it by just saying that when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion, specifically how it applies to any fundraising practice, I don’t know that there’s established that’s practiced or an established consensus yet.

So, it’s really an ongoing conversation, and I think that’s always important to say as part of these conversations, that it is a conversation. And so whatever I say today, I may have different feelings about it a year or two from now. And I think together, we’re all kind of get there and figure it out. But I think it’s important because people of color have traditionally been left out of philanthropy in many instances. And I think one of the things I think is powerful about our sector and important about our sector is that it’s ultimately pretty democratic, and whatever we may think about the origins of philanthropy and how it fits in with everything else.

Ultimately, most philanthropy is local organizations trying to do something for their community of whatever kind, and it’s essentially a marketplace and people will vote for those organizations that either through volunteering or through donations that are making the most difference.

And so, when we leave out whole communities as part of that conversation, then I think that becomes problematic. And so, I do think it’s important in the sense that we want to be as inclusive as possible and let people make their own decisions about whether they want to support an organization or not. And that means that they have to be at the table and they have to be part of those conversations in the first place.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. One of the things that always on my mind about this is the diversification of boards and the diversification of campaign steering committees, for example. As you know, we’re in the capital campaign business, so we see a lot of this through that particular lens. And we know that it’s easiest to reach out to people who are in your own immediate community, whatever that community is, and it takes effort and energy to expand outside of your immediate community. And I’ve come to understand, to believe, that that’s why we need to prioritize the diversity, equity, and inclusion aspect of what we do, because it’s just easier not to… It’s to reach out to people who are not like us in all sorts of ways, not just racially, but in all sorts of ways.

Prioritizing DEI in Donor Communities

And when we prioritize it, in the capital campaign, for example, when we say, “Well, listen, why don’t we spend some time really looking in our community to see who the donors are, who are not the rest of the people in our immediate community?” that’s going to benefit us. What’s your sense of how best to do that or how to be intentional about it?

Robert Osborne:
Yeah, I mean, it could be tricky and there’s a nuance to it, but I would say overall, yes, you should do it. And my colleague Laurel McCombs and I are always… We talk about board diversification a lot, but we usually kind of headline it with like, yes, you can find bipoc board members. Yes, you can. You’re probably not looking hard enough. You probably just need to try harder. But that’s said, I don’t want to minimize… We know who we know, right? We kind of move in our own circles, and it can be hard sometimes to reach outside of those circles, as you mentioned.

And so ultimately, I think how this works is a pipeline question. It’s how do you build that from the grassroots? And there’s a little bit of a chicken and the egg question around this as well. What I would say is, I actually wrote a piece in Andy’s blog just last week around board diversification, because as you might imagine, right after the last two years, I was asked suddenly to be on a bunch of boards.

And so on the one hand, that’s nice and good, on the other hand, a fair number of these organizations, I had no real prior knowledge of or involvement with. And so it was pretty clear what they were trying to do. And it’s not even necessarily that I have a problem with that, but I would wish that they had been more upfront about it, just saying, “Hey, haven’t been good about this. We want to be good about this. Would you help us be good about this?” as opposed to just pretending that they’ve given this deep thought about why I, Bob Osborne in particular, should be on this board, as opposed to, “We need an African American or some diversity on the board, and Bob seems to fit the bill.” One board chair didn’t even know I was a fundraising consultant. I at least assumed that that was on the board, but it was like, “What do you do again?”

Amy Eisenstein:
Wow.

Robert Osborne:
So, it was very clear that they had had no actual discussion about me other than my ethnicity. So, yeah, we got to start somewhere, and so I certainly don’t fault organizations for attempting to bring on people of color onto their boards. I think it does have to start somewhere. And if that hasn’t been something you have historically done, then it’s going to kind of feel a little bit out of the blue, but I think we just have to be honest about it. And it’s just like anything. You might invite a board member on and say:

“Hey, we need to change the board in this way. We need more donors. We need more people with influence. Can you help us do that?”

So, I would say this isn’t any different and it feels badly when it’s not that way. So, I have other thoughts about it, but I would say that’s kind of the big highlight around boards.

A Cautionary Tale About DEI

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I have a cautionary tale. I haven’t thought about it for quite a while, but I have a friend who I met because she was on the board of an organization I was working with some time ago here in New York. And my work with that organization was challenging, actually. The committee I was working with was had some challenging members, and this woman and I ended up going down the elevator together.

So I said to her, “Gee, was that as difficult a meeting as I thought it was?” And she said, “Yes, you want to go and have a cup of coffee?” Now, this was a woman of color. She had been the only woman of color in the room on that committee. And over the year… We became friends. And over the years, I got to know one another. And what I learned from her was about her board experience there and elsewhere, which is that people would invite her to serve on a board because she was a woman of color.

And then she knew that board members were socializing, but nobody would ever invite her to socialize with them. And it felt like she was really there just because her face was a different color and nobody wound her into the life of the organization in any more effective way than that. And I thought it was such a wonderful cautionary tale.

You can’t just invite someone to be there to be window dressing. It has to be a deeper commitment to understand how other communities live or to really embrace the people, all of the people who are on your board.

Just that story really… Because I got to know her so well, I got to understand how damaging it was for her to be treated in that way.

Robert Osborne:
Yeah, I mean, it’s a great point.

Creating a Real Sense of Belonging

So, recently, over the summer, we at the Osborne Group were debating which acronym we were going to use. Are we going to use DEI, DIB, JEDI? And we went ultimately with DIB, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, for that reason. Because it isn’t just enough to invite people on, but once they’re on, you have to… Once they’re part of the organization, you want them to feel like they are part of the community as well.

And I would say as a person of color and as someone who served on boards and continues to serve on boards, I think that’s the toughest part, in some ways, is creating that feeling. And it can be as blatant as you just said, just people just not making an effort to socialize. It can also just be topics of conversation that you have. For me, the hardest thing is… My parents obviously started the Osborne Group, and they do just fine for themselves. But the reality is, when I grew up, we were pretty middle to working class.

And so the times that I feel most sort out of place probably evolve around class. Now, I’ve learned over the years I do for myself as well, but often, I’m in spaces where we’re just talking about things that I just don’t do. Talking about helicopter skiing, I don’t do that. I’m not going to do it.

Amy Eisenstein:
Most of us don’t. Only a certain sector of donors, a certain segment of donors. But yeah, that’s a good example.

Robert Osborne:
But it can be a subtle thing like that where no one means any harm. And I certainly don’t fault people for wanting to talk about things that are important to them, but also, I think we have to be aware, we should try to be aware, are we talking about something in this space regularly that is going to make some people feel uncomfortable. It’s just something that they can’t relate to. And it’s not to say that you shouldn’t talk about what you’re interested in, but it’s just… I think just being conscious of, are we creating an inclusive environment where people feel like they belong, and what can we do around that? Because it’s often those subtleties that actually drives board members out. And it will be just that subtle.

It’ll just be an accumulation of those kind of things where people just say, “I just don’t… This isn’t the board for me. I just don’t feel comfortable here. It’s a good organization, but my time is valuable. There’s lots of good organizations out there. There’s lots of things I care about, and I’d rather find the place that where I do feel like I belong. And I wish them well.” It’s not hostility or even anger about it. Usually, it’s just kind of like, “Eh, this just isn’t for me.”

And so, I think we just have to be conscious of those kind of interactions. And then that could be for women, it can be… I think probably the most common example is just men talking a lot and not really leaving space for other people to speak. That can be a belonging issue as well.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Amy and I understand that.

Robert Osborne:
I’m sure you do.

Amy Eisenstein:
Well, I think that’s such a good specific… I’m always into concrete, tangible specifics. So, if you’re in a board setting and you design an opportunity for people to do introductions and get to know each other, and then have everybody participate by contributing at least an idea or two throughout the course of the meeting, as opposed to only letting the loudest voices in the room speak, and everybody else, unless you specifically call on them, will just sit there and listen and melt into the background.

So, there are concrete things that you can do to be more inclusive and make sure that every voice is heard, the people are actually getting to know one another a little bit, other than the surface, the obvious skin color issue. I mean, your story, Bob, about being recruited to a board and the person didn’t even know you were a fundraising expert is totally appalling to me because every board wants people that can help and are experts in fundraising, and the idea that they didn’t even know that is shocking, is shocking, but shouldn’t be. I guess it shouldn’t be shocking, but it just is.

Robert Osborne:
Yeah, it can be unsurprising and shocking at the same time, right?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes.

Robert Osborne:
So, I think that’s kind of the story of our times. I mean, we all have stories, right? And we all, I think, probably from Me Too on, have really, I think, been thinking about our work differently. And I think… I don’t know about the two of you, but there’s certainly things that I look back on and say, “Oh, I can’t believe that we just accepted this or just let this go.” I mean, certainly as women fundraisers, sure you have stories to tell around that. And in the past, I think… And too often, we’ve probably just accepted that as just, “Well, that’s just fundraising. That’s just what you do.”

And so I’m happy now that people are approaching these topics with more intentionality and really thinking, just because we’ve done things this way always doesn’t mean that we have to continue to do it the same way. And usually, the things that just create a stronger board in general are the things that are going to also make people feel included and in part of the community. It really isn’t a separate effort, right? It’s like all the things you should be doing anyway.

Concrete Steps to Take in Favor of DEI

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. Yes, I think that is so true. I’d like to go back to this idea of donor diversification efforts around research and identification. Can you either give an example or share a story or something that you’ve seen that’s worked or is starting to work, or something concrete that an organization could try as they aim to diversify their donor pool? And we’ve already established that it is hard if you run in circles of the same kind of person, it is hard to outreach. So, what has worked, or what do you hope people will try?

Robert Osborne:
Yeah. Well, it’s not well explored. We have a number of clients that we’re working with right now, thinking about what is the theory around this? And these tend to be larger clients. So, I think it’s easier when you’re a community group or… I think a lot of this boils down to having the right volunteers as you might imagine, having people that are part of the organization that can make those introductions.

But I think before you even consider that, you really just have to ask yourself the question of, well, why are you doing it in the first place? And I would say that this actually is the biggest barrier to it. A lot of DEI efforts laudably just start off as, “Hey, we haven’t been doing this. We should do it.” Right? And it just kind of becomes this collection of things that you’re doing. But there’s not necessarily a commitment at the organizational level to really commit over the long term, because just like any acquisition effort, it’s a long-term commitment.

If you just do it for a year or two, it’s probably going to lose you money as you’re going to… It’s just not going to be worth it. And just as we talked about before, if you’re doing it with your volunteers, you may alienate them because you’re not doing all the other things that you need to be doing. So, the first question any organization has to ask itself is:

“Well, why are we doing this? Why is this important to us?”

And again, while it’s laudable to do it because it’s the right thing to do, that probably by itself isn’t enough. You probably need more of a plan, more intentionality. This is important to us because of our values, because it’s an opportunity for us to reach out to more donors and be more inclusive. We work with a lot of environmental organizations. For them, it’s really important just to be successful in terms of their mission, right?

They need a broad coalition of people who are in support of their work. So, that’s where I would say you have to start. And then I think it’s really hard to do. I think a lot of organizations think about donor diversification from a direct marketing standpoint, which I think is really hard to do if that’s all you’re doing. With retention rates being like 44.5% and first year retention rates being like 20%, it doesn’t take a lot of math to see how that is going to be a challenging thing in and of itself. And so it really does have to become a broad effort across the organization where the board is bought in, you have a volunteer base that’s bought in, you have a donor pipeline that’s being created through those volunteers, and there’s clarity about why all this is important so that you commit to it over the long haul.

And so I think there’s different models and it’s easier to do, certainly if you’re a small organization. I think it’s very possible. I think it’s much more challenging to do if you’re a larger organization, but I think all of it really boils down to, yeah, clarity, commitment, and then starting to build a volunteer base at the board level, but also probably to support your mid-level giving, I think that’s an area where you can get a payoff, where professionals reside of whatever ethnicity, whatever identity.

And so, I think that, as a practical matter, helps sustain it because you can see the money come in. Because at the end of the day, we’re about the money and there has to be the return on investment. And I do think that’s important and sometimes gets lost in these conversations. And not important just because we’re fundraisers, but because if we’re not getting return investment, we’re not going to do it. Because ultimately, as soon a recession happens or something goes wrong, we’re going to revert back to whatever it is that we were doing before.

So, I think any DEI effort around donor diversification or any other kind of DEI effort as it pertains to fundraising, that ROI has to be there not purely for capitalistic reasons, but just for sustainability reasons.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah.

Robert Osborne:
I worry that it’s just going to be, “Well, we tried that. It didn’t work, so we reject all things DEI and fundraising and we’re going to go back to what we did.”

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. I think that’s a good point. There has to be some understanding that some of this is trial and error and you’re in it for the long haul. I thought it was interesting that you said it might be easier for smaller organizations. I bet some of them are thinking, “No way, we don’t have any resources,” but I’m sure it’s challenging in different ways for all types of organizations.

Andrea, you looked like you had some thoughts or a question.

Challenging Assumptions About Diversity

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well, I think it’s easy for white people to assume that people of color don’t have resources and aren’t generous, and that actually for the most part turns out to be not true. I did a campaign years ago actually for the Brightside Baptist Church and they were building a community center, and we worked very hard to draw from both sides of that community, from the congregation people who were involved in the church and from the wealthier people in the community who gave the largest gifts, the foundation people in the community.

And I think it was a real eye-opener, that when the people who traditionally gave the largest gifts in that community began to understand the power of the generosity within that church and how people of color gave. They gave differently from the way the white community gave, but they were more generous. Certainly relative to proportional wealth, they were more generous. So, I think we make assumptions that often aren’t true.

Robert Osborne:
Yeah. Well, I think that’s a big assumption that gets made, even by people of color too. I mean, I get into this argument with people of color as well, where we can’t ask money in this community for this reason. And the underlying premise of that trepidation is that there’s no money there and there’s no generosity there. And there’s not lots, but there’s solid research, I think at this point, that people of color are often more generous relative to their wealth. The Smithsonian and the African American Museum in DC, 74% of the 1 million gifts in that campaign were from African Americans. And so I think lots of time, we just don’t really give it the thought and we don’t know where to look, right?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right.

Robert Osborne:
Most people of color have networks, but they’re not necessarily connected to the traditional networks that organizations look at. And so it feels like it’s just not there.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
That’s right.

Robert Osborne:
But you’re just not looking in the right place. And so, again, we kind of throw up our hands and say, “Well, it’s not there.” Or we don’t think… When we think of black wealth in particular, let’s say, we’re thinking about Oprah or Robert Smith, and we have five names that we’re thinking about. Instead of thinking about this managing director of this bank or the local C-suite. There’s guy, there’s lots of professionals who in every community that have wealth. And we generally don’t think about that in general, I would say, not just for people of color, but we don’t always look that layer down.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right. And there is much more wealth in that next layer down than you might imagine. I mean, I think I’ve experienced people who, for example, own McDonald’s franchises. So, somebody buys one McDonald’s franchise. Well, and if you start to pay attention after a while, they own five McDonald’s franchises. Now, there is serious money to be made in that part. And we don’t think about that. We don’t think about people who are entrepreneurial and successful in that way, and they can be people of any color who do that.

So, I think, once again, it goes back to the fact that we started with, which is that it’s easier to go where we know and feel comfortable, and it is harder to go to places we’re less comfortable. We’re afraid we might make mistakes in doing it. We don’t know if there’s a payoff or not. We don’t know how to tiptoe in without… I mean, there’s a lot of trepidation about all of that, but we need, I think, to start making decisions that we’re willing to do that.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent.

Robert Osborne:
It’s just… Oh, sorry, Amy, go ahead.

Amy Eisenstein:
No, that’s right. Yeah, I was just going to start to wrap us up, but please, share your thought.

Wrapping Up

Robert Osborne:
No, I was just going to say, I mean, it’s exactly that, and that’s why I think you have to just make the effort, and it does have to be at the organizational level, ultimately. Now, that’s not to say that an individual contributor can’t contribute. We have a model of activators and advocates, and I think deciding sort where you are and what your role is.

Is this something that you can change within your organization, within your sector, within your department, or is this something I can advocate for? I think is helpful because I think people get frustrated with this work sometimes, because either they feel like their organization or the sector is just moving way too slowly and they want to kind of push for more change, or they feel like that change isn’t possible. And I think thinking about, am I an advocate in this situation, or am I an activator?

Am I someone who can actually enact that change in some way? I think is a helpful framework to think about this work, because it really is a journey. It really is something. We’ll wake up 20 years from now and we’ll have some best practice around this, but for now, it’s conversations like these where we’ll work out what the right thing is and how to do this work, how to do this work well.

So, we’re always happy to be part of these conversations because we think they’re important. And we’re always happy to be challenged as well. Just, we’re not a positive that we’re right. We definitely have a point of view, we’ve definitely thought about it, but I think just the fact that we’ve been having these conversations is exciting.

Amy Eisenstein:
Great. Well, we completely agree, so thank you for being willing to have the conversation with us and help us on our journey. And hopefully by sharing this with others, we’ve helped you on your journey. Bob, why don’t you share a little, just briefly, about what you do at the Osborne Group, who you serve, and who would be helped by calling you up?

Robert Osborne:
Sure. Well, we’re generalists, so we do most things for not for profits at the Osborne Group, other than branding. We don’t really do that, but we do development plans, feasibility studies, capital campaign plans. We are lately doing a lot of values based, values driven fundraising and what that looks like, and that’s been exciting. We do opinion research and focus groups, and we’ve done that in the DEI space as well as it pertains to fundraising, so that’s been interesting. And then we do a lot of strategic planning as well. So, pretty soup to nuts consultancy. We have clients as big as couple hundred million a year budgets, we have clients that are 2 million a year, and everything in between.

Amy Eisenstein:
Great.

Robert Osborne:
Yeah. And we love working with all not for profits. It’s exciting for us.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent. Where can people find you? What’s your website?

Robert Osborne:
The website is theosbornegroup.com.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us.

Robert Osborne:
Thanks for having me.

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