Charities need to respect donors

The news about the charitable marketplace is mixed, underscoring the tough job charities face in securing the resources they need, as well as the possible payoff for that hard work.

New federal tax data, for example, show that while Americans with the highest incomes account for a bigger share of national income than they have held since before the Depression, and that total income in the U.S. grew almost 9 percent in 2005, average incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent fell slightly, The New York Times reports

So those with the biggest paychecks may be even more productive targets for fundraisers than in the past, while securing funds from everyone else may require even more work.

But while giving by living individuals totaled 76.5 percent of the more than $260 billion given to charity in 2005, average charitable giving per household in the U.S. for 40 years has totaled 2.2 percent of average household disposable income after taxes, according to Giving USA.

So whether targeting the upper or lower end of the income food chain, effective fundraising depends on engaging donors in a meaningful and personal way.

Underscoring the growing disenchantment with fundraising as usual, with charities treating donors like faceless change machines, is a report in The Wall Street Journal that says school officials and parents alike are fed up with traditional school fundraising strategies.

The Journal cites a survey the National Association of Elementary School Principals that says nearly two in three school principals would stop fundraising if they could because it is a distraction, puts too much pressure on kids, and burdens parents and teachers.

The Journal also says some schools and parents are bucking traditional fundraising methods like auctions, car washes and the sale of raffle tickets, and instead are donating money and gift cards directly to teachers, or giving cash to schools or even starting fundraising businesses.

To be more effective in their fundraising, charities must find ways to connect with donors and make a compelling case for support that is personal to the donors and engages them in causes they care about.

That of course is easier said than done, but charities cannot continue to approach fundraising as if they simply are entitled to support.

To raise the money they need, charities must approach donors the old-fashioned way, with passion, respect and connection.

Changemaker faces critical changeover

The decision by Tom Ross to step down this summer as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C., to become president of Davidson College is a big loss for philanthropy.

Ross, a superior court judge who six years ago succeeded Tom Lambeth on his retirement after serving as the foundation’s executive director for 22 years, simply deepened the organization’s legacy as an open-minded grantmaker and progressive change agent.

Philanthropy is diverse and includes approaches and strategies ranging from support for programs to address immediate needs to the funding of operations and the support of policy work to take on the underlying causes of deep-seated social and economic problems.

As North Carolina’s largest general-purpose funder with a statewide focus, the foundation for well over a generation has been diverse both in its programmatic and strategic focus.

Rooted in tobacco wealth, the foundation has funded organizations large and small that deal with a broad range of immediate needs, both local and statewide, while also taking on complex issues like poverty and racism.

As PJ reports, Ross has overseen big changes at Reynolds, including a reorganization of its grantmaking programs; development of online grantmaking that focuses on outcomes; and greater focus on helping nonprofits strengthen their internal operations.

Foundation executives occupy a privileged and pivotal role, looking for matches between nonprofits’ funding requests and the priorities of foundations’ founders and boards.

But their positions also can give foundation executives an opportunity to look beyond the foundation’s own grantmaking focus and play a leadership role in philanthropy and the charitable marketplace.

Thanks to its board, the Reynolds Foundation has been not only a committed grantmaker but also an important changemaker.

Under Ross, for example, the foundation has looked for ways to address urgent social problems like domestic violence.

As PJ reported at the time, the foundation two years ago launched a strategy for fighting domestic violence that included paying consultants to help a handful of nonprofits fighting domestic violence strengthen their fundraising, funding a study to find alternative funding streams for domestic-violence groups, and examining software for use in evaluating the cost of domestic violence to the state.

And Ross, like Lambeth before him, has served as a thoughtful, responsive and respected champion for the nonprofit world and voice for change and progress.

Ross helped spearhead development of what has become the North Carolina Network of Grantmakers, and helped persuade other foundations to join the state’s Hispanics in Philanthropy Initiative.

Philanthropy is what donors and the stewards of their funds choose to make it.

North Carolina is fortunate for the leadership that the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and leaders like Tom Lambeth and Tom Ross have provided.

Our state will be even more fortunate if the foundation’s next executive director continues that legacy of leadership.