Nonprofit organizations facing fundraising shortfalls in the sluggish economy need to focus on at least five things, a panel of experts said March 11 during a social sector leadership development program funded by the American Express Foundation at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.
“This is a very stressful time for all of us, and it’s equally hard for donors,” said panelist Carolyn O’Malley, executive director of the Dorrance Family Foundation and a 1971 Thunderbird graduate.
Thunderbird Corporate Learning designed and implemented the weeklong program, which included 26 participants from nine social sector organizations: The Peace Corps, American Cancer Society, Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, International Rescue Committee, Fresh Start Women’s Foundation, The Grameen Foundation, National Audubon Society, Habitat for Humanity and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
“It’s a highly competitive environment that’s gotten even more competitive,” said panelist Brian Spicker, senior vice president of community impact for Valley of the Sun United Way in Phoenix.
Start with your board
Spicker said social sector organizations worried about fundraising should start by looking at their own boards of trustees. He said organizations need to target specific people to serve on their boards who have influence or affluence.
“They need influence to open doors,” Spicker said. “Or they need affluence to make gifts.”
Panelist Lisa Budinger, CEO of the Arizona College Scholarship Fund and a 1998 Thunderbird graduate, said her organization asks each board member to make at least five fundraising referrals each year.
“The board is the biggest key to success in fundraising,” she said. “They can open doors for you that would take you months to open by yourself.”
Panelist Christa K. Burkhalter, director of corporate affairs and communications at American Express Cards in Phoenix, offered the donor perspective. She said organizations seeking funding need to focus on developing close relationships with potential donors.
“The handwritten thank you note goes miles,” Burkhalter said. “It says volumes for the organization when you can add that personal touch.”
O’Malley said she often sends handwritten notes to potential donors. “Many donors have been hit up multiple times by multiple organizations,” she said. “Don’t invite them to lunch because everybody’s inviting them to lunch. Do something more personal.”
Budinger, whose organization creates college scholarships for high-potential, low-income students, said fundraisers need to keep the focus on people.
“People like to give to people,” she said. “They don’t like to give to a nameless, faceless entity.”
Keep people informed
Another key during times of economic hardship is to keep stakeholders informed about fundraising goals. Spicker said Valley of the Sun United Way has lowered its overhead costs in the slow economy, and communicating this to donors is important.
“Let people know how prudent you’re being,” he said.
Panelist Cindy Schwab-Salem, a major gifts director for Opportunity International and a 1989 Thunderbird graduate, made the same point. “Be honest and transparent,” she said. “Demonstrate that you’re being prudent with the money they donate.”
Tell a compelling story
Schwab-Salem said organizations also need to tell compelling stories. Her microfinance organization makes sure donors see the faces of the low-income entrepreneurs who benefit in developing markets.
“Show pictures. Tell stories,” she said. “Make sure your donors understand who they’re funding.”
Use the Internet
Schwab-Salem said Opportunity International uses the Internet to help tell many of these stories. Donors can go online and track the entrepreneurs they help finance.
“You can choose your own entrepreneur and track that person’s progress,” she said.
Spicker said organizations that fail to tap into the power of the Internet quickly will fall behind. “If we’re going to be around in the future,” he said, “we need to adapt.”
Richard Tollefson, a fundraising consultant and 1983 Thunderbird graduate, moderated the panel.