Ashindi Maxton, co-founder of Donors of color network

Vassar and UC Berkeley alum Ashindi Maxton started out as an elementary school teacher, then worked at the NAACP, and later for the Democracy Alliance. In the past decade, she’s launched several power-building organizations including the Donors of Color Network, a collective of high-net-worth donors building community power to win systemic change around racial equity. Launched in 2016, the Donors of Color Network has identified some 2 million people of color with assets over $1 million, and tens of thousands of people of color with assets greater than $30 million. For her efforts, Maxton has been on Washington Magazine’s “Young & the Guest List” and the “NAACP Power 40.” Inside Philanthropy named her “Donor Organizer of the Year” in our 2018 IPPYs.

In February, Maxton stepped down from her role as executive director of the Donors of Color Network, so I thought it would be a good time to catch up with her. Last we spoke, I was reporting an article about Black environmental donors. This time, I pulled back the lens and asked her a few questions about the state of racial justice power-building on the ground. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

What do you really think it’ll take to mobilize more donors of color?

I think the first thing that was different about how we did the work at Donors of Color Network is that we asked them what they wanted. I mean, that shouldn’t sound revolutionary, but it actually is. Because what most people are doing is kind of creating an agenda and trying to plug donors of color into it. Now, you can do that, but I do think taking the time to understand and learn from the set of donors about their own passions and interests, and recognizing that they’re not the same as white donors, is a huge part of what it’s gonna take. So Donors of Color is still doing research, and there’s a new report coming out soon called “A Portrait of High-Net-Worth Donors,” based on interviews of 110 donors of color, directly hearing from them in their voices what matters to them. There aren’t many places to do that.

How have you gone about finding who these donors are and connecting with them?

It’s limited. But there’s another way to approach it. If you’re centering racial equity in your work and creating a true racial justice agenda, there’s a natural gravitation of these donors. I think that’s maybe the most of what I have to recommend. But one of the things about Donors of Color is that we didn’t make it the center of our mission to help other people figure out how to find these donors because that’s what everyone else wanted us to do. I understand it’s what the field wants. But the work we do is pretty deep. So we really tried to focus our energy on talking to and seeing these donors, and building their missions. Here’s my advice to organizations: Do the racial equity work and you’ll have a foundation upon which donors are going to be attracted.

Now, I do think the organizations that are successful have really deep resources to spend on donor cultivation. I think at Penn, there were some 400 people on their development team. 400. Harvard, I think, has 1,000. So those places are being pretty successful, out of sheer manpower. But it also creates inequality. Who gets resourced? And what about longer-term support for smaller organizations?

What do you think about the idea of getting these donors to pledge and make a public commitment, hopefully having an effect on others in the field?

Well, we have two. We have the Climate Funders Justice Pledge, which I’m super proud of. We asked climate funders to sign a pledge saying they would give at least 30% of their resources to organizations led by and accountable to people of color. That means the leader is a person of color, and the majority of their board, and their mission is related to racial equity. When I was there, we talked to 37 of the top 40 climate funders, so it was a really unique conversation to have had. And in that conversation, there were heroes that stepped up and said they would sign the pledge.

What are you reading right now?

I’m re-reading The Book of Joy which is a delightful conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. I love the book because these are two leaders who have legitimately suffered from intense political oppression in life- the Dalai Lama living in exile and Tutu surviving the brutality of apartheid. But here they are talking about joy. Because of their lives and their work I believe them- that we can do heavy work and still find internal peace and joy.

I’ve also just started All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis which is a collection of writing by and about women in the climate movement and how a lot of the values we lead with as women are crucial to solving climate crisis. The idea resonates for me.

Given that you’ve stood up several organizations, what are you looking for in the people you staff, and what qualities do you think you’ve had to lead with and cultivate in your work?

Great question. In hiring, first I’m looking for the right skills for the job- not just enthusiasm for the work, but a real ability and interest in executing with rigor. I’m also always excited to work with people with imagination about how things could be very different than they are and with lived experience in communities that have traditionally been marginalized.

Personally, I think one of my most important skill sets as a leader has been building shared vision. I base everything I do on the best research and analysis I can find (or do with a team), but it’s just as important to be building deep alignment with the right people. With Donors of Color our founding team spent months in the planning phase on our “ikigai”, the intersection of what was financially viable, what was most needed, what we were good at, and what we loved doing. The biggest secret I can share for building effective and durable organizations and campaigns is that there is no substitute later for doing that kind of purposeful alignment on the front end.