Donor relationships seen as key to fundraising success

By Todd Cohen

HIGH POINT, N.C. — A coach at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater High Point with a natural gift for connecting with people has helped cultivate important relationships for the nonprofit. When a parent of one of his soccer players was sick, for example, the coach sent get-well cards.

Later, that parent’s spouse phoned the Boys & Girls Clubs and asked how to help the organization. So it invited the spouse to serve on its board of directors. That individual, in turn, invited the nonprofit to apply for grants from the family’s foundation. Then the donor began volunteering for the organization, reading with children and helping them with their homework.

Over the course of a 10-year relationship, the donor has become one of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ top contributors, making a string of individual gifts of more than $10,000 each, compared to an average gift to the organization of roughly $150.

“All you have to do is say, ‘This is what’s going on,’ and that donor will say, ‘Let me write a check, let me help alleviate that problem,'” says Holly Ferree, vice president for development at the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Managing relationships

At a time of growing competition among charities for donor support, continuing uncertainty about the economy, and increasing expectation from donors for a measurable return on their investment, nonprofits increasingly are focusing their fundraising on building relationships with donors who have the ability to make large gifts.

“The number one lesson for any nonprofit is maintaining a close relationship with donors,” says Whitney Jones, president of Whitney Jones Inc., a fundraising consulting firm in Winston-Salem. “Fundraising is all about relationships management.”

Ferree agrees.

“The key to any fundraising is establishing relationships, making sure you’re letting donors know how the money is being used, and reporting results, being transparent,” she says.

Keeping it personal

At many charities, Jones says, 80 percent of the income comes from 20 to 30 donors.

“Even in a small organization, some donors are giving significantly more than anyone else,” he says. “The key is to maintain really close relationships with them, which is regular, personal visits to keep them informed.”

The goal of those visits, which should take place every three months, he says, is not to ask for money but to talk about “here’s where we are, here’s who we’re serving, here’s a touching story of someone we’ve served.”

Ferree says building relationships with donors requires “constant communication, making sure you have touch points throughout the year where you’re trying to reach your donors through quarterly publications, and having them in for special recognitions.”

The best approach is to have one-on-one conversations with key donors, she says, “making people feel special, making them feel they are part of something and really contributing to something that is making a difference.”

Board role

Jones says many nonprofits are small and lack sufficient staff to maintain relationships with donors, making it “incumbent on the board to get involved.”

And that makes it important that the CEO of a nonprofit work to build the board by developing relationships and identifying potential board members who are “connectors” who can connect the nonprofit to prospective donors.

To help find those connectors, a nonprofit CEO can ask either a board member or community leader to host a “friendraising” event in their home at which they can “share the vision and the passion for the organization,” Jones says.

A nonprofit also could host a luncheon both to raise money and identify prospective board members, he says. The organization might recruit sponsors to contribute, in advance, 90 percent of the total to be raised, and ask existing board members and donors to invite prospective board members and donors to the event. At the event, the nonprofit also would spell out its “vision and passion,” Jones says.

Setting priorities

With small staffs, limited resources and significant demands on their time, nonprofit CEOs need to focus and be resourceful about how to invest their time and the organizations’ efforts to raise money, Jones says.

“You’ve got to set your own priorities, goals in terms of the people you’re going to visit based on the potential return on investment of your time,” he says.

Accompanying the CEO on those targeted donor visits, he says, should be a member of the nonprofit’s board or development committee, which typically might include individuals such as those connected to foundations, corporations or local businesses, or a lawyer who handles trust work, or a banker who focuses on wealth management.

Peer connections

At Guilford College, a key strategy has been to recruit “passionate” major-gift donors to help secure major gifts from their peers, says Mike Poston, vice president for advancement.

“If somebody gives $100,000, put them in front of someone else who can give $100,000, he says. “Here is a passionate person, and make sure they talk to another person who hasn’t given but will give if they see someone who has the same passion and will invest. It’s matching the passion with the ability to invest through a gift.”

Equally important, he says, is to “cluster” those volunteers around a set of core needs, so existing donors who have made gifts to support a particular need will talk to prospective donors with a passion for the same need.

Organizations also should give prospective donors an opportunity meet people who have benefited from the programs that donors are supporting.

“You want to know that what you’re giving your money to is appreciated,” Poston says.

Volunteers as leverage

Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro has engaged volunteers to work closely with its staff on developing and soliciting key prospective donors, says Gordon Soenksen, chief development officer.

That requires communicating effectively with key volunteers “so you’re developing strategies that are appropriate for the prospects but also comfortable for the volunteers,” he says.

It also requires “engaged volunteers who are passionate about the mission of the organization and who are clear on the vision of the organization,” and “who are confident enough that they are willing to ask for the commitment or the gift, or appropriately set up the fundraiser to ask for the gift,” he says.

“Most of us at nonprofits are small staffs,” he says, “and engaging volunteers appropriately allows us to leverage our activity.”

Investing in infrastructure

Boys & Girls Clubs of America is promoting a program known as “Advancing Philanthropy” that encourages its more than 1,140 independent local Clubs to invest in their infrastructure “to get the best payoff for the kids we’re serving,” Ferree says.

“Donors want to see what their investment is doing,” she says. “That takes a greater investment of time and more people. We’re starting to see we have to do things differently.”

Instead of spending time on special events that might raise $20,000 and consume staff time, for example, local Clubs could assign a staff member to work with prospective donors and make requests for major gifts that might generate as much in donations, if not more, she says.

“It’s a culture shift,” she says. “It takes time.”

Telling stories, and selling

To raise money, Jones says, nonprofits need to create a “compelling vision” and two or three stories that reflect that vision and show how their organizations have helped transform the lives of the people they serve.

Soenksen says nonprofits should focus their fundraising on individuals — who account for well over three-fourths of charitable giving in the U.S. — and avoid “the trap of grantwriting as the sole fundraising activity.”

Grantwriting can consume “enormous amounts of time that could otherwise be spent with individual prospects.”

Nonprofits also should not be “afraid to hear ‘no,'” he says.

“It gives you a chance to come back to the conversation later on,” he says. “Fundraising success comes from relationships that have been carefully developed over time.”

Catholic foundation counts on gift planning

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After dropping 15.6 percent to $15.1 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, the period that included the collapse of the economy, assets at The Foundation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte grew by nearly $1.8 million and $4.7 million, respectively, the next two years.

In each of those three years, including the year the markets plunged, bequest gifts to the foundation totaled $1.3 million.

Those gifts reflect a strategy the foundation actively has pursued since its founding in 1994 to encourage donors to make planned gifts, or those that are deferred such as bequests, trusts or charitable gift annuities, says Judy Smith, director of planned giving for the foundation.

“If you’re consistent, you will build a pipeline of bequest gifts, and that’s certainly been made obvious during the recession,” she says. “Annual funds may have suffered, but if you had a mature planned-giving program, you would continue to receive bequest gifts.”

The foundation’s gift-planning strategy recently yielded its 200th endowment gift, bringing its total assets to over $20 million for the first time.

Formed to provide financial security for the diocese, which serves 92 parishes and missions, 19 Catholic schools and 20 diocesan agencies in 46 counties in western North Carolina, the foundation raises endowment funds that generate income.

That endowment income helps pay for parish maintenance, seminarian education, faith-formation programs, tuition assistance, food pantries and outreach programs.

The foundation also distributes grants that focus on the poor, minority communities and evangelical initiatives.

In the most recent fiscal year, it awarded a total of $41,000 in grants to 19 churches, schools and agencies.

And in the first nine months of the fiscal year that ends June 30, it received $147,627 that created seven new funds, including two bequest gifts totaling $79,914.

Endowment gifts can take a variety of forms.

A member of the diocese and his wife, for example, made provisions in their wills to leave bequests to an endowment they agreed to create at the foundation, Smith says.

But after she died, he decided to give $100,000 to the endowment while he still was alive in addition to the bequest gift in his will.

Endowment funds also can grow through gifts from donors other than those who created the endowments.

Father Ed Sheridan, a retired priest who lives in Hickory, established an endowment with a gift of $52,714 to provide tuition assistance for students at Asheville Catholic School.

Sheridan had served parishes in Asheville, Brevard, Charlotte, Hickory and Winston-Salem, and was superintendent of schools for the diocese in 1972.

After a story about his gift appeared in the Catholic News Herald, the diocesan newspaper, the endowment received another $7,000 from other donors.

In addition to talking with individual donors about their gift planning, Smith works with parishes, schools and other agencies in the diocese to help them establish new endowment funds or grow existing funds, and to help make their parishioners aware of those funds.

Those groups, as well as any nonprofit, can begin a planned-giving program by identifying donors who have given to their annual fund consistently for six to eight years, letting them know about gift planning, and promoting planned giving on the organization’s website and in its newsletter and other publications, Smith says.

It also is important to recognize donors who have made planned gifts. Through its Catholic Heritage Society, for example, the foundation has recognized nearly 900 donors who have agreed to make a planned gift to the diocese.

And patience is critical.

“Don’t start and stop,” Smith says. “Make a commitment to it.”


Children’s museum counts on collaboration

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Every Wednesday at about 5 p.m., roughly 25 to 30 students from fourth through eighth grade arrive at the Greensboro Children’s Museum, where for 90 minutes to two hours they learn about nutrition and cooking, and play in the interactive exhibits at the museum.

The program, which began as a tutorial effort launched in the Glenwood neighborhood by Grace Community Church, is sponsored by Dow Corning, which makes Silly Putty at a local plant.

The sponsorship reflects a larger strategy by the museum to expand its programs and reach through collaboration with local companies and organizations.

“We want to continue to develop new community partnerships,” says Marian King, who became CEO of the museum in February after serving as interim CEO starting last July.

Launched in 1999, the museum operates with an annual budget of $1.4 million and full-time staff of 23 plus about 15 high-school and college students who work part-time as “program and learning specialists,” or PALS.

Annual attendance totaled about 127,000 people in the fiscal year ended last June 30, including nearly 16,000 students who attended with school groups, as well as visitors from 24 different states.

“We want to be accessible to everyone,” says King, a Greensboro native and veteran nonprofit executive who worked for the Girls Scouts’ 13-county Tar Heel Triad Council in a broad range of posts for 26 years, including the last 12 as chief operating officer.

Popular features at the 37,000-square-foot museum, which is located in a former car dealership, include an “Our Town” exhibit, as well as a half-acre “Edible School Yard.”

For Our Town, children can play at working in a variety of roles in hands-on exhibits depicting such “Main Street” locales as a grocery store, theater, health center, book store, construction zone, media center and post office.

The museum also includes a big transportation area featuring a race car donated by NASCAR’s Petty family, as well as a fire truck, police car and airplane cockpit.

The Edible School Yard, one of only five in the U.S. and the only one housed at a children’s museum, is part of a national project based in Berkeley, Calif., and coordinated by the Chez Panisse Foundation created by Alice Waters, a chef and restaurateur.

Offering programs after school, evenings and weekends, the Edible School Yard includes a garden and kitchen and lets kids and their families grow and harvest vegetables, learn to cook, and visit a nearby farmers market and buy fresh foods.

The museum generates about 60 percent of its revenue through earned income, including memberships, and counts on contributions, mainly from institutions, for the remainder.

Annual giving, for example, totaled $56,000 in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011.

And the museum’s “Green Acres Gala,” scheduled for May 18 in its outdoor garden, aims to raise $50,000, up from $35,000 last year.

King says the museum is counting on partnerships like the one with Dow Corning to help it continue to grow.

Thanks to a new sponsorship from Greensboro-based Volvo Trucks North America, for example, the museum in May will open a new exhibit featuring a 13½-foot-high sleeper cab that kids can climb on and see.

King also hopes to build on a fundraising event the museum co-hosted Feb. 4 with the Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art and the Greensboro Public Library Foundation.

The event, which attracted 450 people and raised $60,000 that was divvied up among the three organizations, featured cocktails and appetizers at Green Hill, followed by dinner at the downtown branch of the library a two-minute walk away, followed by dessert and dancing to a live band at the museum across the street.

The Children’s Museum, which has an endowment totaling roughly $300,000 and is in the final year of collecting pledges for a capital campaign that raised $1.2 million for the Edible School Yard, aims to grow by offering new and different programs, and finding new partners, King says.

On April 27, for example, the museum will host a reception celebrating the opening of a new exhibit, “Larger than Life,” that aims to give children a bug’s eye view of the world from tactile, visual and auditory perspectives.

The exhibit has been developed by a group of undergraduate and graduate students in a class taught by Jonathan Anderson, an assistant professor in the department of interior architecture at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

A grant from UNCG paid for about half the $5,000 project, the students have raised funds for it, and Unifi has agreed to make up the difference.

“We want to develop new community partnerships,” King says.


Legal Aid works to cope with cuts

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Roughly three million households in the state, typically working-poor families with median annual income of $11,000 to $12,000, are eligible for assistance from Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Of those, Legal Aid serves 30,000 households a year.

Yet despite growing demand for its services because of legal issues related to the economic downturn, Legal Aid has faced big cuts in government funding, cuts it has tried to help offset with private funding and new initiatives to enlist private lawyers on a pro-bono basis.

One effort, launched in 2011 through the North Carolina Bar Association, has recruited 500 volunteer lawyers who field phone calls at Legal Aid’s call center in Raleigh.

Spearheaded by Martin Brinkley, a lawyer at Smith Anderson in Raleigh and current president of the Bar Association, the effort is expected to handle 5,000 pro-bono cases a year.

“Those are 5,000 households that otherwise would not have got service,” says George R. Hausen Jr., executive director of Legal Aid. “You’re providing life-altering solutions to their legal problems, and their lives are going to be different.”

Formed in July 2002 through the consolidation of four independently-funded programs that in turn had been created through the consolidation of 18 programs, Legal Aid operates with an annual budget of $20 million and a staff of 150 lawyers, including 135 working full-time.

But it lost $2 million in government support in 2011, and another $1.8 million this year in federal and state support and from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program, or IOLTA.

Legal Aid has been able to offset much of those cuts through other public and private support, but a lot of the new support is restricted to particular programs, while the funds that were cut represented unrestricted dollars the organization was able to use to support general operations.

The bottom line is that Legal Aid has been forced to close four offices, bringing its total to 20, and eliminated 20 positions, including 10 lawyers.

And to keep up with demand for services, Legal Aid has counted heavily on volunteer work from its pro-bono roster of 2,500 lawyers.

Its statewide toll-free number, for example, gets 1,500 to 2,000 calls a month requesting legal assistance, such as the need to write a letter to a landlord or creditor.

Those calls generate 8,000 to 10,000 actual cases a year, with the more complicated ones referred to Legal Aid’s local offices.

Now, instead of 15 Legal Aid lawyers who work at its call center spending an hour or two with each client, a cadre of pro-bono lawyers trained through the Bar Association initiative can handle calls, roughly doubling the call center’s productivity, Hausen says.

Another initiative, piloted in Durham and then launched in Winston-Salem through a $330,000 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, now is being expanded to Greensboro through seed funding from the Greensboro Bar Association.

That effort, often with the help of pro-bono lawyers, trains health-care professionals at local hospitals and clinics to identify possible legal issues related to patients’ medical conditions, and then refers patients to Legal Aid lawyers.

“These are the kinds of activities private lawyers need to engage in, Hausen says. “They make a difference in people’s lives.”