Creating an Inclusive Philanthropy Program

Posted October 30, 2023

What exactly do we mean when we talk about inclusion and philanthropy? That’s a topic on everyone’s minds as giving to organizations becomes both easier and more necessary than ever before.

Through forward-thinking vision and practice, nonprofit leaders are redefining what it means to be able give to an organization. As a result, the demographics of who gives, what gifts matter, and how we think of donors is shifting. The result is a more inclusive sense of philanthropy where all people, regardless of financial capacity, have the ability to give and a desire to feel like part of a wider nonprofit community.

Below are steps nonprofit organizations can take to prioritize greater inclusion of all contributors to their development efforts.

Embrace the Power of Smaller Gifts

Getting more people involved in giving is always a priority for nonprofit organizations. Yet organizations often overlook the key role played by donors who give at a lower level.

Organizations would be wise to refocus some energy on donors able to provide smaller gifts. Take, for example, the presidential campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders. In 2016, his emails to small-dollar donors included the tagline “paid for by Bernie 2016 (not the billionaires).” Three years later, within a week of launching his 2020 presidential campaign, Sanders raised $10 million from more than 350,000 supporters, with an average contribution of $27.

Perhaps inspired in part by this success in the political arena, nonprofits are increasingly asking for small donations. According to one study by the Urban Institute, cash donations of $250 or less increased from 2015-2019 and even through 2020 for nearly half of surveyed nonprofits. By now, we are all familiar with asks for small contributions. For example, the homepage of the National Resources Defense Council prompts visitors to give as little as $15 a month and  the website for WBUR, the Boston NPR affiliate, prompts website visitors for just $10 a month. The psychology of this is clear: when donors are reminded that their gift is equivalent to one or two coffees, giving feels more realistic.

Make Space for All Ages

The numbers show that people more often give charitable gifts later in life, with giving peaking between ages 65 and 71.. But the demographics are always changing and organizations should remain abreast of these changes. As generations mature and a greater number of younger donors with evolving gift capacities enters the giving pool, giving trends continue to shift and evolve. The next generation of donors—Gen X, Millennials, and even Gen Z—will dictate the future of philanthropy. According to The Giving Institute and their special report, Giving By Generation, younger donor groups – Millennials especially – are emerging as an influential body.

With this in mind, many organizations are carving out space for younger donors – those who can give small gifts as well as those with greater gift capacity – by creating Young Donor or Young Member programs. For example, The Philadelphia Opera runs a successful young adult membership program, VIVACE. The program is just $80 a year (or $6.50 a month) and allows young people to receive priority ticket access. Other large cultural institutions have similar models with larger annual fees. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s young donor program, The Apollo Circle, is open to people aged 40 and under. For gifts of $1,200 a year (or $100 a month), members of The Apollo Circle receive invitations to special exhibits and openings.

These programs, which represent both ends of the giving scale, lay the foundation for a lifetime of future involvement in philanthropy by providing an age-inclusive entry point into giving.

Reexamine The Meaning of a “Gift”

Many organizations talk about a give-get model – in which those involved with an organization, such as donors and trustees, agree to either make financial gifts (give) or encourage donations from others (get) – but few embrace the idea wholeheartedly. Organizations can put the give-get idea into practice by reevaluating what it means to give and get. When the net of giving is cast beyond the confines of financial gifts, there is room to see the important value of volunteer hours, advisory board participation, and special committee idea generation.

Often, those who give in ways other than financial are excluded from fundraising galas and events. Organizations can shift this dynamic by reevaluating how they define giving and getting. Some organizations are allowing people to trade volunteer hours for tickets to fundraising galas. In looking at volunteer hours as a tangible contribution—as tangible as a financial gift—nonprofits can effectively change the very nature of what a fundraising gala is. What is traditionally a space for those making larger financial gifts can become a space for those at all levels of giving who are engaged with the mission of an organization.

Change The Way Gifts Are Acknowledged

Donor recognition is a bedrock of every fundraising program. All fundraising professionals and organization leaders are well versed in the power of offering the ability to name something physical in acknowledgment for a gift. From buildings named for donors to benches for patrons, there is seemingly no shortage of imagination when it comes to finding donor naming opportunities. The price of naming has become one of the biggest selling points in the world of philanthropy – such as the widely reported example of Harvard’s School of Engineering recently changing its name to honor a donor who gave the school a $400 million gift. But what happens when organizations take the practice of naming and spin it on its head?

The ways in which donors are recognized has changed significantly. Firstly, lists of donor names increasingly appear in alphabetical order rather than by financial ‘ranking.’ Secondly, in some cases gifts are acknowledged by indicating their purpose, or even by honoring influential leaders. For example, in late 2021, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that several megadonors of the Obama Foundation – each having donated $25 million or more – had named their gifts in honor of people like author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Chicago historian and civil rights activist Timuel Black, the first black woman in space Mae Jemison, and more.  


To create a philanthropic system that is truly inclusive, organizations would do well to create multiple points of engagement, from small financial gifts to volunteer opportunities to active networks of young supporters. In doing so, organizations will be taking the necessary steps forward to ensure that all people, regardless of financial capacity, have the ability to contribute meaningful to the wider nonprofit community. And when all people have the same right of engagement, we all win.

Identify opportunities and tactics that create the strongest, most sustainable philanthropic program for your organization. Learn more about our fundraising, campaign and interim management services and contact us today.


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