Look Before You Leap Into Diaspora Funding

By Craig Pollard, FRGS, Associate at AskRight

There is a gulf between the optimism of many nonprofits seeking funding from diaspora groups and the reality of just how challenging this can be. Before we take the leap and invest time, effort and cash, let’s explore the attraction of this funding stream, the real-life challenges, and ten practical things we can do to make diaspora fundraising work for us.

A natural donor group?

Migration has exploded during the past half-century and diaspora groups are everywhere. I’ve worked with nonprofits to raise funding from groups of Palestinians based in Chilé, Okinawans in New York, Somalis in Wales, Indians in Tanzania, Australians in Myanmar, Gambians in London, and many more.

As we constantly explore and review our most efficient and effective funding opportunities, diaspora communities can appear to be an attractive, natural donor group for many logical reasons, here are three:

  1. Donors within diaspora communities do regularly deliver big donations to major nonprofits in their country of origin. They provide financial lifelines to small nonprofits in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, where fundraising infrastructure and audiences are limited.
  2. Then there’s the gut feeling, that people like us (only living somewhere else) will understand our work, they’ll get it on a different level, so they’ll be easier to connect to our cause.
  3. And the global shift to digital donor engagement has made global fundraising much more acceptable to overseas donors and more accessible to smaller causes and projects.

These are all true. So far, it sounds like a great idea to invest our time, effort and cash into fundraising from diaspora! But, before we start throwing resources at this, let’s dig a little deeper into features of these groups that make them a bit more challenging to fundraise from, than they first appear.

Distant, diverse, and digital

By definition, diaspora groups are dispersed, they are physically far away. Physical distance between us and a donor always matters. Even with today’s powerful digital tools, connecting someone to a cause, demonstrating our impact, and keeping them engaged from far away are all more difficult.

Navigating this distance might require a shift in our mindset and that of our nonprofit, as well as investment in expertise, time, cash, and creativity.

Individual diaspora groups are also far from homogeneous; every person within an overseas community has a different definition of home, a unique reason for leaving, complex relationships with the place they were born (and where they live now), and the families and friends who remain.

It’s easy to assume that diaspora members feel a consistent warm, rose-tinted nostalgia for their country of origin.

“But this was the home I had chosen. I had a home, of course, when I was a child. But it was not one that I had chosen for myself. I had been born into it, presented with it as an established fact. Now, however, I lived in a world that I had chosen through an act of will.” – Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

In truth, there tend to be many (often conflicting) feelings related to their country of origin, that might include uncertainty, pride, relief, guilt, sadness, excitement, and concern for the future.

Overall, diaspora groups do tend to be well-connected via social media, email, video calls, etc., with friends and family in their country of origin, within their own local diaspora community, and with diaspora communities in other countries. Their relationship with formal diaspora organizations also varies, from those who are active – organizing events, connecting people – to those who opt out.

Understanding all of this complexity (from a distance) takes time and effort invested in building networks and individual relationships, but this investment is crucial if we’re to understand why the people within these communities might value our work sufficiently to make a donation.

Stereotyped, responsible, and great at saying No!

Family members living overseas are often viewed by those back home as having made it. A shiny car, a big house, and an impressive job title, in a famous city. They are assumed to be wealthy and successful and while this may be true relative to their country of origin, it’s often not true relative to their country of residence.

“My parents are in Columbo, they think I’m rich and proudly tell their friends about my success. Here, I’m just in an average job, on an average wage. I send home whatever’s left at the end of each month. It’s not much, but it makes a difference.” – Dili (Sri Lankan, lawyer, London-diaspora donor to a nonprofit in Sri Lanka)

We are rarely alone in our approaches to wealthy individuals within the diaspora community, there are many other powerful claims on them where they are now and from back home.

“Many people have legitimate claims… my second cousin’s father paid my mother’s hospital fees, my neighbor funded my secondary school education, my father’s church bought my first bus ticket to Banjul. Every month I pay tens of thousands of dollars, for food, rent, medical bills, school fees, to the village mosque, the local maternity ward.” – Mustafa (Gambian major donor living in Nigeria).

There are three things to take from this:

First, our nonprofits, however incredible, cannot compete with the direct, personal impact of overseas contributions to loved family members and friends. When it comes to crafting fundraising messages and describing our impact to diaspora groups, we must demonstrate our impact and value differently, we must elevate our pitch.

“Okinawans living in the US and even mainland Japan send money to their families back home for day-to-day expenses. You can’t compete with this, nor should you try. We are proud to be Okinawan, we want to help Okinawa thrive, we donate because we want to invest in projects that will drive the future economic, social and technological progress of the island.” – Saori (Okinawan-American communications specialist, working for a global nonprofit in mainland Japan, and donor to a project on Okinawa).

Second, digital connections make it easier than ever for diaspora to donate directly to causes back home that matter to them. This means we have a lot of competition but it also makes fundraising accessible to smaller nonprofits and project.

Third, what Mustafa (above) told me is true. But, wealthy diaspora members (like most global major donors) are really good at saying No. They have developed and refined, well-rehearsed narratives of rejection. Their justifications for not donating can feel like a door closed in our face but they are helpful. These narratives tell us what impacts a donor really values and how we might present our work, for the best chance of being included in their future narrative of rejection, when the third cousins come calling.

Community feedback

Diaspora fundraising comes with a unique, powerful and complex feedback mechanism between the home community and each diaspora community.

“Thank you for bringing me up to date, I appreciate it … oh, you don’t need to worry about this part, my sister met your project manager at an event in Cairo last week, she tells me good things about the outreach project.” – Osama (Sudanese diaspora donor living in London, supporting an education project in Khartoum)

Our fundraising messages may be brilliantly targeted and beautifully crafted, but they must match our real-life impact in the community. If there is a disconnect, or diaspora communities and individual donors are not convinced our impact from their friends and families, then we will struggle with our credibility and limit our fundraising potential. But, if we are able to navigate this feedback mechanism, it can be a powerful force that supercharges our diaspora fundraising.

Okay, that’s enough of the challenges, let’s cheer ourselves up with ten practical things that we can do in real-life to give our diaspora fundraising the best possible chance of success:

  1. Focus. Focus. Focus. We only need a few good-sized donors to make a diaspora fundraising program worthwhile or to justify more time or direct investment. So, before we start we ask questions that will narrow our focus and help us find the few diaspora communities and donors that will make the difference (for us). Questions like: Who is our future donor in this diaspora community? What does this individual value about our work, and why? Which diaspora groups can we most easily access and connect to our cause? With which groups and individuals do we have a clear competitive advantage?
  2. Choose a whole-community-approach. This is the foundation of effective diaspora fundraising (and resourcing this is one of the biggest barriers). We do this in three steps. First, our work must be delivering value and visible within our home community. Second, we identify and engage the key influencers and connectors on both sides, at home and overseas. Third, we plan and work closely with these people to actively engage our priority individuals within a small number of prioritized diaspora communities.
  3. Elevate our pitch. It is difficult for our nonprofits to compete with the individual impact of overseas remittances. So, we communicate our impact in terms of social, political, economic, cultural or technological progress, at a community, district, regional or national level (the individual impact is implicit).
  4. Being a member of the diaspora is a great starting point when it comes to identifying our donors, but it isn’t enough to assume an affinity for our cause. Continuing on our focus theme, our challenge is to overlay this single characteristic with other demographics and psychographics that help us understand which specific individuals within these diverse groups might value our work sufficiently to donate.
  5. Investment priorities. If we decide to follow the whole-community-approach then logic dictates we should first invest resources into community engagement, communications and media, before we invest in fundraising.
  6. Consider community and identity in our causes. Effective diaspora fundraising is about finding, understanding and building a tribe (google “Seth Godin Tribes” for more on this), a group of people connected to each other around a common idea, or cause. In this way, our nonprofit projects can be powerful ways for distant, disconnected diaspora to reconnect with home and their identity. Considering these at an organizational level and in project design will make our diaspora engagement more authentic and more successful.
  7. Explore, learn and reflect. A decision to invest in diaspora fundraising isn’t a binary (yes/no) decision, it’s about testing, learning and refining our approach. So, in every interaction, we hold our assumptions lightly; ready and excited to have them challenged by an individual donor, and we listen and use what we hear to improve our approach next time.
  8. Local partnerships. The quality of our partnerships is critical for any fundraising that happens across borders. Whether these are with diaspora associations, senior volunteers, embassies, satellite offices, corporate connections, and others. If well-managed these can give us credibility, proximity, additional resources and access to a diaspora group, if not, they can drain our time and reputation.
  9. Incentivize. A savvy donor based in Lima offered a local nonprofit a donation of $10,000 if they could secure 100 first time donations from Peruvians living in the US. They hit their target within a few months. Donors at home can be powerful levers for donations from overseas.
  10. They’re coming home. In the next 12 months, once we’re all allowed to travel again, diaspora members will be travelling in big numbers, returning home and reconnecting with family and friends. These are the perfect and rare opportunities to (re)connect them with us, our cause and our work, in-person. So now might be the right time to reach out and prepare.

Craig Pollard lives in Okinawa, Japan. When he is not looking after his two young children or on his paddleboard, he is a global fundraising consultant, author of The Fundraising Radicals, Associate of AskRIGHT, lead tutor for the Global Fundraising Programme, and a Fellow of London’s Royal Geographical Society.

During his 25+ years in fundraising, Craig has worked with thousands of donors, fundraisers and nonprofits in more than 90 countries, mainly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He once spent a year cycling 17,000 kilometres from London in the UK to Cape Town in South Africa.