An Interview With the Center for Family Representation's John Linder
Simply put, the Center for Family Representation’s (CFR) mission is to keep families together. It provides disadvantaged families in crisis with free legal assistance and social-work services to enable children to stay with their parents safely.
"Because of the detrimental effects of long-term stays in foster care, CFR works to keep kids out of care entirely or keep their time in care to a minimum." says John Linder, chief development and communications officer at CFR. "In addition to direct legal and social-work services, CFR trains organizations locally and nationally on our unique team-based model to representing families as well as advocating on behalf of families at the local and national levels."
Here, FundRaising Success talks more with Linder about CFR and its fundraising model.
FundRaising Success: What is CFR's annual operating budget?
John Linder: CFR’s annual budget in 2002 was $250,000. In 2012, we have a projected budget of $7 million, enabling us to more than double the number of new families we serve each year.
FS: How does the organization fund its mission?
JL: CFR has two large contracts with New York City, one in Manhattan and one in Queens, which cover the bulk of our direct services to families. Because our team-based model is not fully supported by the city contracts — yet it is this unique model that gives us dramatic results — we raise about 25 percent of our funds from competitive corporate, foundation and government grants, as well as from individuals and an annual gala.
FS: What are CFR's fundraising strengths/weaknesses?
JL: CFR has a strong data-driven message that resonates with donors of all stripes. For example, in 2011, CFR kept 73 percent of our clients’ children out of foster care entirely. For those who did have to enter care, their median length of stay was just 2.2 months. This is significantly shorter than the New York State average of 29 months and the New York City median of 6.4 months.
The minimum cost of keeping one child in foster care in New York State is $29,000 per year. CFR’s services, however, cost just $6,000 per family, regardless of the number of children. As a result, we saved taxpayers more than $6.9 million in 2011 alone.
CFR is also the first organization of its kind in the country to provide an innovative, team-based model of services to low-income families facing separation. Every CFR client works with a team of professionals comprised of a lawyer, a social worker and a parent advocate — a trained professional who has experienced the child welfare system firsthand and has successfully reunited with her family.
These, and many more messages, help CFR raise funds from donors. The data we collect was also instrumental in CFR winning our city contracts. Not surprisingly, CFR has gained traction with institutional funders and continues to see more dollars come from these donors each year. On the other hand, CFR has a nascent individual fundraising program and relatively small, but growing, gala.
While we have some very loyal individual donors at all levels, we are investing heavily in growing individual support for our mission. We find that our message of efficiency, justice and supporting families engages donors, once we finally connect with them. We focus a lot of our time on expanding the circle of friends and donors that know CFR’s work.
FS: How does CFR engage donors and other supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising efforts?
JL: CFR has several ways that it engages donors and supporters in non-fundraising activities. CFR utilizes volunteers in a number of ways — from helping to organize our donation closets to volunteering to stuff backpacks for our annual backpack drive, or from our pro bono legal opportunities to serving on our junior board. CFR regularly organizes tours of family court that donors, policymakers and new friends alike can [attend to] see our team-based model in action.
We are also beginning to develop a more robust advocacy program, which will allow CFR to further engage donors and supporters in non-fundraising activities that will help to drive policy decisions that support families.
FS: Can you share a recent fundraising success? Why was it successful?
JL: I started at CFR just over two months before our 2011 gala, and at that point we had a venue, a save the date and a handful of tables sold. By the time of the gala, we had produced our most successful gala both by attendance as well as by funds raised. The pieces were all there — I just had to marshal the troops and give the marching orders.
The gala was not just successful because it exceeded budget, but that it was a highly successful cultivation event that has allowed CFR to build stronger relationships with individual donors that are sparking new activities and fundraisers in 2012.
From a personal/professional perspective, the success of the gala gave me an early win that allowed me to win over the board and dramatically reshape CFR’s fundraising plan.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way as far as fundraising is concerned?
JL: The largest difficulty CFR faces is the limited size of our fundraising team. There are more opportunities than staff can follow up on, and simultaneously, the development plan that our board approved is very ambitious and needs more hands on deck to achieve its goals. While we are in the process of adding some additional horsepower to our team, finding the time to hire a quality team is tough given all of the competing priorities and deadlines. Additionally, finding the “right person” that will fit into the organization is always the hardest part of hiring, and it is this part of the process that I try and spend the most time on, which inevitably slows the hiring process down.
FS: Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
JL: CFR does not always follow “best practices” in fundraising. For example, our online giving requires three steps before a donor can make a gift. Donors can go a week or more before being acknowledged. Additionally, we do not do a lot of face-to-face fundraising with major donors. All of these, and more, are being changed. We are launching a new website in April, reworking our gift acknowledgment processes and have begun making in-person asks with donors.
FS: What is CFR's fundraising philosophy?
JL: CFR is very data-driven, and our messaging to donors reflects this philosophy. We have begun to further tailor our messages to issue-specific donors — for example, donors who care about families facing domestic violence or those focused on mental-health issues. This tailoring has begun to open more doors for our fundraising in addition to keeping our current stalwart funders.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours in size and annual operating budget?
JL: CFR is an organization with two personalities. While our core program and funding come from two very large contracts, our private dollars, though relatively small, are critical to the mission and the success of the organization. CFR is driven by the city contracts, yet our private dollars really allow CFR to do some of the truly innovative activities we are known for nationally.
My advice would be to keep good data, track your successes, gather and tell your stories, and most importantly be as nimble as possible. Organizations in the $7 million range are relatively large for a nonprofit (though there are much, much bigger organizations), and I think organizations at this level can start to get set in their ways a little too easily.
I think it is incredibly important to remember the flexibility that your organization had when it was smaller. Don’t lose that perspective. We try to approach problems from various perspectives and try new solutions. For example, we aren’t afraid to engage volunteers in traditional staff roles to expand our impact. I guess what I am trying to say is don’t be afraid to experiment!