An Interview with Jenni Henry, development manager, Girls on the Run
Girls who participate in Girls on the Run Chicago programs aren't sprinting away from problems but making a mad dash toward a better, brighter future.
The nonprofit offers experiential learning programs for young girls that combine training for a 3.1-mile run with self-esteem enhancing, uplifting workouts. The program's goal is less depression and fewer adolescent pregnancies, eating disorders, suicide attempts, substance/alcohol abuse problems and confrontations with the juvenile justice system.
And each year the organization is helping more girls.
Since its beginnings nearly 10 years ago, Girls on the Run Chicago has grown from serving 60 girls to nearly 3,000 per year, development manager Jenni Henry said.
Here, we talk to Henry about the organization and its fundraising strategies and challenges.
FundRaising Success: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
Jenni Henry: The economic recession has certainly made fundraising difficult, especially concerning renewing corporate sponsors or signing on new ones. It's also hard because there are so many great nonprofits out there, and we're all competing for the same money.
In order to overcome this, we really try to make an effort to set ourselves apart and show potential sponsors how we're different from other nonprofits that might serve a similar demographic. We have a few different events that reach different types of audiences, so we use this as a way to persuade sponsors that they will gain visibility as a charitable institution to a large, diverse group of people.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
JH: We haven't executed much of an individual-giving campaign in the past, and this is an element of fundraising we'd really like to increase in the coming year. Last month we sent out our first-ever direct-mail piece in the form of an annual appeal, and we'd like to continue that once or twice a year.
We are also looking into electronic appeals as a way to reach potential donors. We capture a lot of e-mail addresses at various events, and in many cases it's the only way to get in touch with people.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
JH: My fundraising philosophy is constant communication with our supporters. I feel that people are more likely to give if they feel a connection to the organization, so I think it's important to always keep all donors and potential donors posted on achievements, news and upcoming events. Donors are more likely to give if they know that their money is being put to good use.
I also believe in asking for donations often. It seems obvious, but people aren't going to give unless they are asked. There is a fine line between asking often and bombarding your donors with appeals, but I think that giving donors a lot of opportunity to give (and at various levels) will increase both the number of donors and the dollar amount given.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with social-media sites like MySpace, Facebook etc., and online social networking?
JH: We send out an e-newsletter every two weeks to all our donors, friends, volunteers and program participants, and share updates about our program and the latest milestones we've reached. By always keeping our supporters up to date on our happenings, we give them a sense of involvement and a reason to give. We hold a number of events that are not fundraising-focused, such as our 5K races and Volunteer Appreciation Parites. Other events have a much lower ticket price and are used more for cultivation, such as our Associate Board Wine Tasting. We also have a Facebook page that we update regularly, and we use it to invite attendees to events and post pictures.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
JH: We celebrated our ninth annual Girls on the Run Chicago Gala in November 2008. The event, attended by nearly 700 people, was held at the Park West and was comprised of a VIP cocktail reception; award presentation to the volunteer, coach and community partner of the year; live music by Underwater People; and a silent and live auction and raffle.
This year we raised a record-high $103,000, which was 20 percent more than last year's event. All proceeds from the gala will help Girls on the Run Chicago serve more young girls. Funds raised underwrite program scholarships for needy families and support program expansion in low-income communities.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
JH: We've had some setbacks in terms of corporate sponsorships given the state of the economy. It's been increasingly difficult to sign on new sponsors. Recently we have been trying to streamline our messaging in order to give potential sponsors a clear idea of who we are and why we are fundable.
We are also redeveloping our sponsor levels so that we can offer our sponsors more visibility. Hopefully these changes will have a positive effect on our corporate sponsor solicitations.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
JH: I think it's important to be smart in your fundraising attempts. Large-scale events seem tempting and like an easy way to raise funds, but they can also be very expensive to execute, and if they aren't done well, they won't raise much money. They are also very time-consuming to plan. Individual giving makes up 80 percent of all fundraising, and I feel that it's often overlooked, so I would definitely advise that an organization with a budget like ours focus on getting a solid individual-giving campaign up and running.
There is also a lot of foundation money out there — applying for a lot of grants is a great way to raise funds too.