Give What You Can
Every gift matters. That was the message the greater Chicago Food Depository got across to donors as it undertook its recent capital campaign, which hinged on the tagline, "Give What You Can."
“Our development team is made up of dedicated professionals who have a lot of fundraising experience — we all know the rules of a capital campaign, but we agreed to throw out the rule book,” says Kate Maehr, director of development for the Food Depository, who led the campaign. “From the beginning, we didn’t want this campaign to be about 10 major philanthropists.”
The campaign, which ran from October 2001 to August 2005, raised $30 million in gifts from more than 50,000 individuals, corporations and foundations.
Reaching its fundraising goal enabled GCFD to qualify for a $1 million Kresge Foundation challenge grant to complete the campaign. With the donations, the organization built a 268,000-square-foot food bank and training center, and now can provide additional programs and resources for people in need in Chicago’s Cook County.
GCFD’s facility became operational in March 2004 and has the capacity to allow the food bank and its member agencies (600 soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters) to distribute up to 80 million pounds of food a year; double what it could distribute from its former facility.
Maehr, who’s been with the organization for nearly a decade, says GCFD’s capital campaign defied fundraising expectations.
“We had the horrible misfortune of launching this campaign three weeks after Sept. 11  — one of the most difficult fundraising climates I’ve known,” she says. “A lot of people running campaigns then lowered their goal or suspended their campaigns altogether.”
Maehr’s team felt strongly about continuing with the campaign since it was such a critical project for GCFD, a nonprofit food-distribution center that provides for about 90,000 people monthly. “From day one we said we were going to raise $30 million. We never wavered,” she says.
The project cost just less than $29 million, including purchasing the new site, tearing down the existing structure, and constructing and outfitting a new facility. GCFD has an overall operating budget of $14 million annually,
$10 million of which is contributed revenue.
Maehr feels her team’s strategy was different than what’s typical in many capital campaigns — fundraising efforts on all fronts were rooted in getting as many people as possible invested, for life, in GCFD’s work, and then asking for donations.
“This campaign had a very grassroots emphasis, from having volunteers standing in the grocery stores and going to different public events in the city, to doing a very blanketed direct-mail campaign that asked people to help us build a better future for Chicago’s hungry, to calling donors to ask if we could come talk to them about our mission,” Maehr says.
Informally, the development team wanted to garner more individual gifts for the capital campaign than any other campaign in Chicago.
Maehr’s team chose to solicit from individuals from all economic backgrounds. “We wanted $1 and $5 donors to feel this was a response to hunger they helped build,” she says.
Getting the word out
“The food depository enjoys a very high profile, and that’s partly due to the way we get the word out to our donors,” Maehr says, adding that the organization has many points of contact with its donors, including direct mail, food drives, events and its Web site.
Over the four-year campaign, Maehr’s team found the most effective ways of soliciting donations were face-to-face meetings and the direct-mail campaign, with less of an emphasis on the Web and e-mail.
Volunteers called donors, typically women in their 40s and 50s, to ask if they’d like to meet with someone on GCFD’s staff to learn more about the organization and the capital campaign. Although she doesn’t know the
exact number of people they met with, Maehr says, “We harnessed the power of talking to every donor we could.”
The lion’s share of donations, about 80 percent, was generated by those meetings.
Ironically, GCFD’s strong direct-mail program — and donors’ subsequent comfort level with receiving information and making donations via mail — at times seemed to work against the capital campaign.
“It was a challenge for us to break into a new kind of relationship with our donors,” she says. “When we got face to face with people, not only were we able to ask for a gift, but it also was a chance to really talk to them about
the organization’s mission and vision.”
Also useful, Maehr says, was inviting people to visit the new facility, which her team did from day one, even when it was an unfinished site, “to show them the dream.”
GCFD also has a large, successful direct-marketing program that solicits gifts from about 45,000 donors a year, many of whom give two or three gifts a year in response to direct-mail appeals. The organization is growing a monthly giving program that’s becoming an important stream of support, Maehr says.
Over the four-year capital campaign, the development team mailed five direct-mail appeals to its housefile of 55,000 to 60,000 donors, commissioning a new package that included a brown kraft-paper outer that matched other campaign materials.
GCFD raised $1.4 million through direct mail, with an average gift of $182, compared with a $63 average gift in its regular direct-mail program. Maehr’s team didn’t send capital-campaign appeals to the acquisition file, choosing instead to build on the sense of community with existing donors. However, working off the mailer’s success, the team sent out a kraft-paper package as its fall 2003 regular acquisition package (not linked to the capital campaign), and it did so well that it’s now the control.