What and who is a major donor?
Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Alyssa Wright, founder and principal of Wright Collective, about what and who is a major donor and encourages organizations to have deeper conversations with donors about the diverse ways they contribute to nonprofit missions.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, “What and who is a major donor?” And we’re going to have this conversation with Alyssa Wright. I first had the pleasure of meeting Alyssa at a project we worked on together, supporting a collaborative of organizations to help the unhoused community in Phoenix, Arizona, through the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. And then we discovered we had lots of mutual friends and colleagues, and were just happy to continue to get to know each other and have had lots of conversations about fundraising and communications over the past few years.
Farra Trompeter: Alyssa, who uses she/her pronouns, is the founder and principal of Wright Collective. With a background in community organizing and the arts, Alyssa leads the Wright Collective and is an accomplished facilitator, consultant, and coach. She has helped hundreds of both domestic and global social change organizations successfully launch major gifts programs, capital campaigns, and create sustainable funding models resulting in over 100 million dollars of resource flow. Her experience and wit have also allowed her to become a sought-after speaker on philanthropy and fund development, as well as a regular contributor to ForbesWomen, Global Giving, and Network for Good. Alyssa, welcome to the show.
Alyssa Wright: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
Farra Trompeter: Well, I’m so excited to have you here. And let’s just start off so folks out there can get to know who you are, and talk a little bit about your journey. According to LinkedIn, which I did a little, you know, recon before we got on this conversation, I saw, and I didn’t know this before, that you got your start as an actor and teacher at Serious Play Theater Ensemble in North Hampton, Massachusetts. And then, of course, you had several jobs in fundraising and marketing for a variety of nonprofits. That part I know about you, but I want to hear a little bit about these early days. How did you transition from theater to philanthropy? And do any of those early experiences actually inform your approach to fund development today?
Alyssa Wright: Yeah, thank you so much, Farra. I feel like I meet so many people in philanthropy that have a background in the arts and we don’t really talk about it a ton. And then it kind of comes to the surface and it’s so amazing to see so many people that started as artists and creatives arriving to philanthropy and fund development. So I appreciate the question today, for sure. I guess to start out, I’ll just share that I grew up working-class poor in rural Massachusetts. And much like running away to perhaps join the circus, I ran away and joined a theater company at a very young age. And was given the gift and the opportunity to actually travel with that theater company for quite a few years.
Alyssa Wright: And one of the places that we actually went, we did this amazing cross-cultural collaboration between artists in Belgrade, Serbia, and in Amherst, Massachusetts. And so I got to be a part of this production where we were talking about the stories surrounding Milosevic at The Hague and a lot of human rights dynamics. And Serious Play was a theater company that took serious topics and put them into play, literally getting on your feet and exploring in a very physical-based theater style that work. So I have to say I got really, really excited and involved in that theater practice. And what ended up happening was I saw the power of it when I got to actually go live and work in Serbia. And coming home to the US, I saw how under-resourced this storytelling work was. And so I guess from a place of being frustrated, I was like, “Hey, like we should really be funding this work. It’s very powerful.” So that actually got me to get into fund development and I was known as the girl running around downtown North Hampton, Massachusetts with a t-shirt on that said, “Add an extra zero for the arts,” trying to invite people to be thousand-dollar donors to small organizations that were doing this work.
Alyssa Wright: And before you know it I got on the radar of a larger firm and entity that was doing both fund development and philanthropic advising. And it just really propelled me into the work that I now do today. And I guess to just share an early experience informs my work. One of the biggest things for me is just always remembering that there’s no harm or anything wrong in asking. I feel like so many people think that fundraising is extractive, and you’re like taking something from someone by inviting them to get involved in a cause or an organization. And for me, running around downtown North Hampton with that t-shirt on, talking about giving to the arts and social justice, so many of the folks that I talked to gave because it was the first time they had been asked. So for me, so much of this work is about creating the right invitations for people across so many different causes that are important to the times that we’re living in today. And just making sure that they feel warmth and connection, and they get the opportunity to be part of building movements.
Farra Trompeter: I love that. Well, speaking of that, I know at Wright Collective you describe your organization’s work as building bridges between funders and movements. And, I know that we are both fans of the Community-Centric Fundraising Movement. And I’m curious how tthose principles have informed the way that you and your team work with organizations, especially those launching significant capital campaigns where we do see oftentimes organizations privileging donors of extreme wealth status. And so yeah, talk a little bit about Community-Centric Fundraising and that connection between that movement and relationship building with funders.
Alyssa Wright: Yeah, so I’m going to start with a story because I’m an artist first and a storyteller. So to start with a story I think that really exemplifies that, is the recent capital campaign project that we are doing in Detroit. We are helping a community of BIPOC midwives open and operate their first own birth center, Birth Detroit. And one of the things that was really important to the narrative of that work, when we came in as part of the fundraising team, and when we were sort of all starting to organize and think about how we were going to resource this project, it was really important that it was true and genuine to the fundraising story, that this property, that this organization, was invested in, and held by those who it would mostly serve. So we went into that project realizing that we live in a time of vast income inequality. We are going to have to talk to some millionaires and maybe billionaires about giving to this work because they have the resources to move the project forward in a timely fashion.
Alyssa Wright: But that being said, we also wanted to make sure there were elements of the project where real community investment could happen. For us it was rooting in a grassroots community organizing strategy and selling t-shirts. Part of the fundraising narrative of that campaign was making sure that the land was bought by the community. So we sold $64,000 worth of t-shirt sales up front, early on in the campaign, to buy the land from the city land bank. And that was really critical to the story that we were telling. Of course, there were going to be bigger investors over time, because to raise $4 million and open a birth center, you know it’s really difficult to do it t-shirt by t-shirt.
Alyssa Wright: But that being said, we wanted the story to be that this land was purchased by those who would come and be a part of the birth center ecosystem, and get those services and get that love and get that warmth from the community. For me, one of the things that I think is really important that you can hear in that story about Birth Detroit is just how important I think it is to make a narrative around how you are funding the work that you also share with donors. That you share with the community. That’s really important. There’s a story to how things are resourced and how people step up to give to the work, as much as there is the story of the actual mission that’s being fulfilled or the work that’s happening. And I think the reason in doing that is that it’s really important that on both sides, you know, with funders and with movement builders, leaders that we are all educating each other and making each other feel really seen and heard in the process.
Alyssa Wright: So for me, a lot of the community-centric work that I’ve been a part of the Maine chapter here, and I’ve got to work in a few other chapters throughout the country, is just really working on getting everyone to talk to each other about historically where wealth has come from, how power has been held in community, what differences class make, and then how we actually think about building community wealth from that process. So I actually think I’ve been most surprised by the more I’ve deepened into Community-Centric Fundraising, the more I’ve realized just how often I spend in conversations with folks that have a lot of privilege points, particularly are very wealthy. And have been able to talk with them about where their wealth came from. How they sort of fit into all the other forms of capital, the community’s pooling together to make something happen.
Alyssa Wright: I had a donor recently that wrote to me and he said, “I always thought that I should get more attention because I was giving the most money.” And he said, “You made me realize that there’s so much intellectual and social and political capital that’s being put on the table by other members of the community to drive this forward. We really are all in it together.” He just had a different way of thinking about money, based on how he was raised and stewarded around finances.
Alyssa Wright: So I’m grateful to the Community-Centric movement because it’s allowed me to have new and different conversations with funders, and it’s also allowed me to talk a little bit more. I really see myself as a white woman, as a bridge builder for a lot of Black leaders and movements trying to raise capital. So it’s allowed me to have the opportunity to work with those folks to also say, “You take that space, have that conversation, ask for what you really need.” And I think that’s why a lot of our projects have raised three to $5 million in an 18 to 24-month window. Then some other efforts where on both sides there hasn’t been a real dialogue around where the wealth came from, how it was generated, and where we’re moving it to better wellness and really collective liberation and new models for everyone.
Farra Trompeter: Amazing. I love that all. I’m snapping in my heart of hearts here, but I don’t want to disrupt the recording for our listeners out there. So snap along as you listen to Alyssa here.
Sponsored by the Singles Project: This episode of the Smart Communications Podcast is brought to you by the Singles Project, an app that connects donating and dating. You invite your supporters to join the Singles Project dating app by making a monthly donation to you through their platform. Then, the donation connects them to a community of people who share their values and interests. Is raising money and helping your supporters find love a fit for you? Find out more at singlesproject.org/bigduck. That’s singlesproject.org/bigduck.
Farra Trompeter: Well, I want to come back to the main question that came up after our last time that you and I were chatting. And I know that it’s been bothering me, this term “major donor.”
Alyssa Wright: Hmm.
Farra Trompeter: I’ve been working in nonprofit communications and fundraising for almost 30 years, and ever since I can remember, I’ve heard in-house staff, board members, consultants, and others praise the quote-unquote “major donor.”
Alyssa Wright: Mm-hmm.
Farra Trompeter: In your mind, what and who constitutes a “major donor” for the nonprofits you work with? And what are some ways you’ve been challenging yourself, and maybe other people you’ve been working with, again in this practice of just valuing the amount of wealth someone provides over all other contributions? You obviously just shared that story of the person who you’ve changed. Maybe we could talk a little bit more first, like, do you use the term “major donor?” Do you talk about donors based on their levels or how do you think about donors in that way? And what other ways have you grown or thought differently about this over the past few years?
Alyssa Wright: Yes. Oh my gosh, so much to unpack in that series of questions. I guess the first, maybe, thing to share is that whenever I work with an organization, I always find, which I think is so interesting, is that they actually don’t have a definition of “major donor.” They kind of have gone by industry standard of “Oh it’s anyone who gives $5,000 or more.” And I know there are some again, like sort of standards out there by different networks for what constitutes a “major donor.” But what it really does in so many ways, as I know we both shared these values and this thinking, it upholds this sort of like real class privilege that is a lot of white privilege, that is a lot of gendered privilege with males. You know, it upholds this idea that the Bill Gates and Warren Buffetts of the world have a different category and they get a different sort of engagement and opportunity to be a part of fulfilling the mission and doing the good work.
Alyssa Wright: So, for me that always felt really uncomfortable. I remember I had a personal experience, actually, I’ll never forget this, I was 23 years old and I had donated to some fundraising event for an organization that I actually was the beneficiary of as a teenager. It was like a scholarship program. And I remember I was at one of their events and I had given a donation in the room. I remember seeing all the tables up front, which you’ll probably laugh, Farra, like all the tables over there were like gold. And like my table in the back was like, “Oh you get like, I don’t know, there was like a burlap or like cotton on the table.
Farra Trompeter: A paper napkin, be happy that you have a seat.
Alyssa Wright: Yes. Exactly. I was like, “Oh yeah, my iceberg lettuce is like a little brown. They have like fresh field greens.”
Farra Trompeter: Right? “So you will get a slab of tofu and that’s our vegetarian meal for this evening.”
Alyssa Wright: Yes. Yes, that’s true. Yes. But I remember being at one of those events and I remember having that feeling of “Wow, like I know I only gave a hundred dollars to buy my ticket and the people in the front row gave $1,500 to buy their ticket.” But I just remember feeling this power because I was such an extrovert and I was such a like social-connector type person. I’m very millennial in that way. I fit that stereotype for sure of being like a social butterfly. And I just remember thinking, “Wow, I bet I could mobilize this network that I have of people who are sitting at this table, to raise so much more than $1,500. So why is like what I have to bring to the table to help the mission different because it isn’t a certain type of metric which this in fundraising is financial, right?” It’s who can cut the bigger check.
Alyssa Wright: So I remember having this moment and then, you know, kind of getting more involved with this particular organization, and a couple years later realizing that I got a letter from the organization. They said, “Thanks to your, like, I’m forgetting whether it was my birthday fundraising campaign I ran for a few years, I had raised something like over $40,000 in like two or three years for the organization.” And I just remember thinking like “Wow, I bet some of those people in that front row, not that it’s always about money, but I bet they didn’t mobilize and bring all those resources and relationships to the work in the same way that hundred-dollar-donor me had done.” And so it was this first time that I started to question, as somebody who was middle class and at that point trying to figure out my relationship to philanthropy overall, just really feeling into like “Wow, there’s so much more that we all put on the table to make organizations flourish, to help missions be fulfilled, to help movements grow.” Why don’t we have some different language around that?
Alyssa Wright: One of the approaches that I think is so important is every organization first defining what a major donor is for them. And actually going into a deep substantive conversation about it before they decide who gets what type of engagement, and who gets what type of access to different things within the organization. So for instance, again, we run a lot of capital campaigns at Wright Collective and one of the capital campaigns we’re running, we’re going through this process right now where we’re basically saying what’s going to be the engagement of those that we’ve defined as ajor donors?” And for us, it’s thinking about the major champions. Yes, some people are giving a lot of money. Some folks are really giving political capital and helping pass legislation to make missions happen. Some people are mobilizing social networks. Others are intellectual capital. They’re coming to be a part of the thinking for the design.
Alyssa Wright: So, I think we all need to be more expansive at how we think about major donor as a term. And I also think that when we do blanketed appeals and campaigns based on financially how much folks give, we need to have a way to kind of balance that out. So, in the advising work that I do and that our practice does, we’re really challenging ourselves to think about other metrics that we want to hold ourselves to, so we really help people feel significance when they’re working with our organization as a funder or an investor, whether they give 25 bucks or $25,000. So yeah, I think that’s a really important conversation to have. And I also think we say major donor in certain rooms because it’s what people know and relate to, right? But then we build the bridge to saying, “Well, actually, how are we talking about the donor base here?” And I’ve seen some organizations doing really innovative work to think about that. Sort of again, beyond just what some of those transactional components are to different relationships. And I’m really inspired and encouraged by it for sure.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I think one of the things that you’re speaking about reminds me of one time I was at an event and somebody got up on stage and said, “Make a gift that is significant and meaningful to you.”
Alyssa Wright: Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: And it’s the same kind of thing of what you’re talking about. That what is significant to one person is different to another. And let it be significant to them as opposed to just saying it has to be $5,000 or $25,000 or $25 million.
Alyssa Wright: Mm-hmm.
Farra Trompeter: That said, I think what I’m still stuck on is, when I hear major donor, it then implies “Is there a minor donor?’”
Alyssa Wright: Right?
Farra Trompeter: Or like we have our small donors. Sometimes they are called grassroots donors, small-dollar donors, small-level donors, and then major donor or transformational donor. I haven’t quite found the right wording that doesn’t completely put one group on a pedestal and the other in that kind of back of the room.
Alyssa Wright: Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: Hardly in the room. So I don’t know if anyone out there has figured that out, but I think this is an important thing for us all to think about.
Alyssa Wright: And I’ll just share, too. I think that this is again the deep work that we need time to have to discuss within our organizations and discuss with our funding communities. Because, for me, so much of it is rooted in our money stories. One of the things that I think is a really great practice is when organizations take some time to actually talk with donors. You know, maybe a gift or two in like, “What’s your money story? Where did this wealth come from? Is it inherited, self-generated? Do you have a donor-advised fund? Are you on the board of a family foundation?”
Alyssa Wright: The more comfortable we get on the movement nonprofit side talking about where money came from and how it’s flowing into our work, I think the more we become effective in changing and challenging these terms in the way in which we’ve again created these systems to uphold so many harms. Into, like you said, “Make people think that they are the minor donor, to make it less significant when there obviously is a system that has made major donors become major donors with the ease and comfort that many of them have.
Alyssa Wright: So I just named them because I feel like one of the coolest things I’ve seen an organization do is they actually have a group of donors that are, I think they’re called like the reparations donors or like the rep donors? And they’re the donors that all inherited their wealth and are contributing a certain percentage back to this particular organization across several initiatives that they have. So, that’s again where spending some time with your donors that you do consider right now major and saying like, “How could we redefine you as a community and give you sort of a new way of showing up in this work that honors the many ways that you support it, but also acknowledges that you are resourcing this financially in a certain way because of a certain system,” I think is really powerful.
Alyssa Wright: One of the things I’ve always kind of tried to say and teach because it’s been my own experience, is you actually create social change when you’re fundraising for social change. And we just don’t often have the time to slow down and do it. But we have to. We really do.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. There’s a lot that you’re saying here. I’m hearing you talk about, first of all, have conversations with your team about how do we even talk and think about our donors. Have conversations with donors themselves, one-on-one.
Alyssa Wright: Mm-hmm.
Farra Trompeter: But also maybe bringing some of them together and see what they can learn from each other or what they might do together.
Alyssa Wright: Mm-hmm.
Farra Trompeter: So in the spirit of these great ideas that you’re sharing, I wondered if you had any other tips out there for people listening that maybe are looking for new ways to think about donor stewardship and cultivating their donors looking for new and fresh approaches they can try. Any other pearls of wisdom you want to share with folks?
Alyssa Wright: I personally approach life, as well as my professional life, as a great experiment. It’s funny, but I think the theater has rooted me in this mentality of, you know, “I’ve got maybe an 80 to a hundred-year runway to be here and to think about the role that I play.” And so I think the same is often for our movements and our organizations. I think a lot right now, as someone in my mid-thirties about like, “I have about double my lifetime where I really want to be active in the movements and things that I’m a part of, and so what does that mean?” I guess one of the other things to share today as you’re maybe re-imagining your development program, or how you relate to fundraising, or how you speak about different things, is just to remember that all of this is rooted in experimentation.
Alyssa Wright: One of the best things that I think our practice does is we really try to root people in this idea of fundraising as philanthropic advising. You are working and talking with donors to help them to relate more intentionally, more effectively, get right relationship to causes and movements to try to accelerate change together. So we kind of have this practice where we think “Act” with donors, you know, really work together to take some action. We do a lot of planning and planning and planning in nonprofits. We try to say like get to a point of action and then talk about what you’re learning in those donor communities, and then move to a place of being able to share. So I think that’s really important. Just like we talk about this Act/Learn/Share model a lot. Another tip is just as you’re kind of maybe thinking again about the way in which equity is fitting into your fund development program, don’t be afraid, again to bring everyone to the table to actually talk about that piece.
Alyssa Wright: I’ve heard from a lot of folks who’ve said, “Hey, I was left out of those conversations because I’m not in the fundraising program or I’m not an executive leader.” I think that everyone in your organization should really be a part of thinking about the fundraising program because we all have money stories. We’ve all had class impact us in a certain way. And so it’s really important there are no elephants in the room, sort of as you’re thinking about new ways of bringing funders and your organization together over time. So yeah, I think those are some tips for today, and just really grateful to be here, Farra. Thank you for the good questions.
Farra Trompeter: Of course. I’ve loved having you. Well, if you’re out there and you’d like to get more insights from Alyssa, be sure to check out her contributions in ForbesWomen. I want to thank you. Alyssa invited me to contribute to an article previously. We’ll link to that in the show notes. You can also learn more about her agency, Wright Collective, at wrightcollective.co. Just in case you don’t know Alyssa, that’s spelled W-R-I-G-H-T-collective.co. They are also active on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. We’ll link to all of that through the transcript. That will be on our website at bigduck.com/insights. You can also connect with Alyssa directly via LinkedIn at Alyssa F. Wright.
Farra Trompeter: And yeah, Alyssa, before you go, other than telling me what the “F” stands for, because I’m guessing it’s not Farra, is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?
Alyssa Wright: It’s Felicja and it’s got a “J” at the end. So it’s Felicja, but it’s Polish because I am of Polish and Lithuanian roots.
Farra Trompeter: I have a Polish background, too, that I recently found out on Ancestry. Well, it’s a topic for another conversation.
Alyssa Wright: So fun! Pierogi fundraisers.
Farra Trompeter: There you go. Well, anything else you’d like to share with our listeners out there?
Alyssa Wright: Just gratitude to everyone who’s in the work. I feel like I’ve got a soft spot for fundraising folks because I know that you do a lot and it often goes unseen. So, just thank you for staying in it and continue to move money to the places where it matters.
Farra Trompeter: Amazing. Well, thank you, everyone. Have a great day and thank you, Alyssa.
This podcast has been sponsored by Singles Project