Putting Theory into Practice for Donor-Client Engagements

The cornerstone of my life’s work has been to understand what helps people communicate and collaborate more effectively across human differences. When I first started Philanthropy without Borders, my intention was to was to dismantle the exploitative elements often inherent in donor-client interactions by making the very best research in the social sciences readily applicable and actionable. When I first heard of Intergroup Contact Theory, I saw its immediate value in the context of donor-client engagement.

First proposed by Gordon Allport in 1954, Intergroup Contact Theory poses a serious question (to paraphrase):

“Does increased contact among groups of people who differ from one another, lead to a reduction in prejudice [of the dominant group]?”

My readers familiar with U.S. history will instantly clue into the date: 1954 was the same year of Brown vs. Board of Education – when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The timing is not coincidental. Contemporary social researchers were watching closely to see if increased contact among Black and white students would lead to a reduction in the white students’ prejudice.

In the 50 years that followed, numerous studies were done looking at how increased contact affected prejudice across numerous human differences, not only racial. Studies were conducted with children, as well as adults in a variety of professional contexts. Then in 2006, two scholars (Pettigrew and Tropp) conducted a meta analysis of all the studies that put Intergroup Contact Theory to the test.

So, “does increased contact lead to a reduction in prejudice?”

The answer is…it depends

While it may be nice to think that contact with people who are different from us would automatically reduce the prejudices we have learned, we have many examples indicating that not to be the case. Have you ever seen well-traveled tourists treat local people horribly? Wouldn’t increased contact with other cultures help those tourists be more patient, kind, and empathetic? Have you ever met someone who refuses to acknowledge their racist comments or behaviors because they “grew up in a diverse neighborhood?” Wouldn’t such a lived experience help that person to better identify racist comments or behaviors, rather than excuse them?

The unfortunate truth is that increased contact with difference sometimes reduces prejudice…and sometimes it increases it….and sometimes it has no effect at all.

So as I said, it depends. And what it depends on are four conditions, according to Pettigrew and Tropp.

#1 Legal Integration

For an encounter to have a good chance of reducing prejudice, groups coming together must be able to do so without putting their livelihoods, or even their lives, at risk.

When Cuba opened up to tourism, there were laws preventing Cubans from engaging informally with tourists. A person could be arrested and jailed just by meeting a foreigner in a café and having a conversation with them. In other words, interactions between locals and foreigners were not sanctioned.

In Saudi Arabia (back in 2010), a female coworker of mine could not even enter a restaurant because there was no female section (she had to order take-out and eat on the street, while our male colleagues dined inside). That same year in Uganda, not only was homosexuality punishable by prison sentence, but a person could also be jailed for up to 3 years simply by not reporting their LGBTQ+ friends to authorities. It’s very hard to make any impact on reducing the prejudice of an individual if prejudicial beliefs are codified into law. So, the foundational variable of intergroup contact theory is that the encounter amongst groups must be legal and safe.

#2 Equal status

The donors and clients must encounter one another in a setting that is not skewed by a pre-existing hierarchy. They must meet under equal terms, on equal footing. This can be as straightforward as seating them beside each other, as opposed to sitting on opposite sides of a room, or even worse – at entirely different tables. For instance, at your next in-personal gala, I do not want to see a “beneficiary table” (or patient table, or student table) in the back of the room – I want to see folks spread out so that when I look at your audience I can’t tell who is a donor and who is a client.

But achieving equal status is not always a simple matter of arranging chairs, especially when we talk about differences in material wealth and the power dynamics that go along with that. For international donor trips, I have to consider that some donors may have only engaged with people in a particular culture through customer service settings, (hotel staff, waiters, tour guides, etc). In this case, it is important to get people out of their roles and to find shared identities and experiences between the two groups that can show more of their similarities than differences.

For example, if I’m bringing a group of philanthropists from the U.S. to another country, I try to arrange for them to meet with a local philanthropist in that country, which helps connect them to local people through a shared identity as philanthropists, as well as provides more understanding of local-led change initiatives.

Another example poignantly reveals how the condition of equal status is often missing from a donor trip design: All too often on trips to Africa, I observe African program staff putting in long hours to ensure their donors have a good experience, only to have the donors get whisked away to a safari after the site visit. Many of these staff have not experienced a safari themselves because the costs are prohibitive on local salaries. My advice: pay for your program staff to join donors on the safari. Not only is this more equitable and honoring of your staff, but it also allows staff to step outside of their roles and connect with donors more deeply in new contexts. 

The same goes for US-based organizations hosting local events. Don’t just put your program staff or clients on a stage, make sure they are in the audience, enjoying the dinner and conversing with donors as fellow guests of the event.

#3 Cooperation

Cooperation means that members of different groups should work together in a noncompetitive environment. There are so many ways of achieving this on a site visit or donor trip. Donors can learn a skill from the clients, they could engage in a collaborative game or sport with them, they could learn to cook a meal together and then sit down together to enjoy the results of their shared labor.

There are even ways of integrating cooperation into the discussion of your programmatic work, by facilitating interactive group dialogues where people can share. You can do other activities around storytelling, photo-sharing, problem-solving, or team-building so that both donors and clients contribute skills, knowledge, and insight in a balanced way.

At one lodge in Namibia, staff would join the guests after dinner, but instead of just making themselves available for the guests’ questions, both groups would ask questions about each other’s lives, families, and cultures. In fact, the questions posed by the Namibian staff led to some of the greatest discussions and cross-cultural sharing. The point is, the story-sharing and questions went both ways, allowing for people to connect outside of their roles as “staff” and “guest.”

#4 Common Goals

Common goals is where the mission of your organization plays a critical role. Your organization is the link between these groups of people that may otherwise have never met. Your shared goal is the desire to see the positive change in the world that your organization is working to achieve.

Don’t be afraid to use these encounters to facilitate dialogues around big-picture goals like world peace and global equity and environmental sustainability. Sure, how we approach something like sustainability can be very different from culture to culture, but the goal is still the same—and the different paths to it can encourage a fascinating discussion.

Lastly, I want to make a case for why this matters in our sector. Most of the studies in the meta-analysis were simulations or experiential activities that took place in controlled environments, like classrooms or offices. That is one of the biggest criticisms of psychological research, that the findings are not reflective of the “real world,” and that even if they are, we can’t replicate the conditions in our ordinary lives.

As an individual, I could travel or volunteer or find a way to deliberately increase my contact with others from different backgrounds, but I can’t control the context or conditions under which that contact occurs.

But that’s precisely why this research is so useful for us nonprofits: we can control the context. We already provide our donors with opportunities to experience the impact of their philanthropic giving: through donor trips, site visits, tours, and events where clients and community members are present.

Indeed, to a great extent, we already have the ability to design an experience that utilizes these four conditions, and in doing so, we increase the likelihood of creating a transformational encounter that decreases prejudice and has lifelong impact.

This article is complemented by the Intergroup Contact Theory Worksheet, which summarizes the research and provides key questions to help you begin applying the findings.