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Turning Challenges Into Opportunities: Fundraising in a Diverse Community

Resource Center - Foundation


There is no doubt that fundraising has its challenges. Everyday fundraisers face an uphill battle to meet the needs of organizations who are worthy of every dollar raised. How do we overcome these challenges? Well, we do a lot of research, we ask questions, we meet with stakeholders who have a vested interested—but most importantly, we listen.

At The Scarborough Hospital, we’ve been listening to our community for quite some time now. As a hospital serving a population of 650,000 where more than 60 per cent of its residents are born outside Canada, we have had our share of challenges both on the hospital side and with fundraising. 

In 2006, IPSOS Reid dubbed Scarborough the most diverse community in the world. Why was this fact important to us? First, we didn’t know who our community was. Second, we couldn’t communicate with our donors and patients as more than half spoke a first language other than English or French.  And third, the hospital wasn’t meeting the needs of the majority of its patients. The food that was served was unfamiliar and the hospital gowns were humiliating and not modest. These issues did not bode well for us as fundraisers.

As a foundation, we were struggling to communicate with potential and current donors. We thought that our message was quite clear: hospitals need donors to help purchase much needed medical equipment. This message did not seem to resonate with our community. After many discussions with community groups it was immediately apparent why we were struggling. This is what we heard: “Health care in Canada is provided by the government. The government will pay for new equipment. Why are you asking me for money?” 

It really is about building relationships

We have found that relationship-building has been the key to success at The Scarborough Hospital and its foundation. In particular, the hospital’s relationship with its patients is where the foundation’s success began. At The Scarborough Hospital, it is called the “patient experience.”  Once the hospital began working with local Mosques and Imams, we started serving Halal food to the patients. Once we understood why the hospital gowns were immodest, we started to pilot modesty gowns that cover the entire body of our female patients. The hospital has listened and has built this great relationship with the community. The relationship was so great that the Muslim community presented an award to hospital president and CEO Dr. John Wright for contributing skills, talents and energies towards a healthier society.

On the fundraising side, our donor acquisition is based entirely on former patients from the hospital. We have learned, by attending cultural events at both the hospital and through the community, that the use of language is crucial to building relationships. In turn, we have had to adjust some of our programs in order to educate and communicate with our diverse community.

We have translated our patient acquisition mailing into Chinese and are currently working on having it translated into Tamil. We worked with one of our local mosques and had created a brochure highlighting issues of interest at the hospital to the Muslim community for a joint mailing during the holy month of Ramadan. We have also realized that having “grateful patient” and memorial/tribute information scattered around the hospital may mean something to us as fundraisers, but really doesn’t mean much to others. Each culture treats death in a different way, and it is our job to learn and respect these customs.

Understanding cultural beliefs

As mentioned earlier, we have attended many cultural events as a way of introducing ourselves to the community and expanding on the relationships that the hospital has built. My first experience attending a Muslim event was earlier this year.  I didn’t realize that there are many customs that are required to be followed, mainly out of respect to the group. Thankfully, as a hospital in a diverse community, we are fortunate to have a “director of diversity, equity & stakeholder outreach” on staff who can be consulted on what to expect at a Muslim event.

Out of respect, women are asked to wear Hijabs, a scarf that covers the head, as well as modest clothing. Men and women, or brothers and sisters (as commonly referred to in the Muslim culture), enter the mosque at separate entrances and once inside sit in different or divided rooms. I thought that this would be difficult as some of my guests were males which meant that I couldn’t speak to them.  That thought changed as I met new sisters who were interested in hearing the story of The Scarborough Hospital. This was all part of understanding the customs and beliefs of our community.

Diversity and fundraising

Why is this important to all of us as Fundraisers? Well, here are some facts:

  • By 2031, the projection by Statistics Canada is that one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority.
  • More than 60 percent of Toronto’s population will belong to a visible minority in 20 years.
  • South Asians, those with origins in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, will make-up the largest visible minority group.

We at The Scarborough Hospital have embraced these facts. We do not think in terms of “us” and “them.” We view each other as partners working towards a common goal. In 2008, after extensive community consultation, The Scarborough Hospital launched its new Vision: “To be recognized as Canada’s leader in providing the best healthcare for a global community.” 

As a foundation, we have learned that before we send out a direct mail piece or hold an event, we must check the calendar to ensure that we are not encroaching on a cultural event being held at the same time. We look at each program to ensure that words are used carefully and there is no hidden meaning. We learn to say what we mean and be direct.

In October, AFP launched a new program in training and development on diversity and inclusion issues. This three-year project will focus on understanding the giving traditions and interests of a wide range of communities in Ontario. Organized by the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy Canada, in cooperation with its Greater Toronto and Ottawa chapters, the project will offer in-depth inclusion-oriented education, training and networking activities for Ontario-based non-profit leaders, fundraisers, volunteers and donors.

This is fantastic news for all fundraisers. This initiative will allow us to take the work we have been doing with our diverse communities to the next level.

It isn’t just the community of Scarborough that will face diversity challenges. All of us will, and when you do, keep these things in mind:

  • Remove the barriers – don’t stereotype or make conclusions
  • Recognize and respect that there are differences
  • Find a commonality with each cultural group – there will always be at least one
  • Build partnerships with leaders within the community

Michele Varela is vice president of philanthropy at The Scarborough Hospital Foundation where she works with groups from the Chinese, Muslim and Tamil communities. Michele has found that each cultural group brings new ideas and insights on how to fundraise in a diverse culture. It is fascinating work. You can contact Michele at

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