An Interview With Dani Brzozowski, director of development, Open Books
FundRaising Success: How do you fund your mission?
Dani Brzozowski: Open Books’ vision is a renewable, organic and unending cycle of funding and programming. When the bookstore opens next spring, sales of donated used books will fund the literacy programming that will take place, literally, in-house. The first floor of our new space will be devoted to retail: more than 50,000 used books in a fun, funky, colorful and comfortable Chicago environment complete with a fake fireplace, ancestral oil paintings, a suit of armor, a multitude of bird cages, a constellation of twinkling lights, a children’s area furnished with giant foam books, and lots of secret seats just big enough for a reader and a book. The rest of the space will be classrooms, computer labs, and offices for other literacy organizations in the city. The hope is that this model will bring Chicago’s fight for literacy physically together in one inspiring, creative and powerful illiteracy center.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
DB: One of the big challenges we face is transitioning our corps of young volunteers to a corps of young donors. Because the average age of our volunteers is very young (early to mid-20s), we don’t have a constituency that’s necessarily prepared to bring a lot of accumulated wealth to the fundraising table. But they are hugely committed to the fight against illiteracy; they’re dedicated to Open Books and the programs we offer. I don’t see the challenge as convincing our volunteers to be financially supportive so much as showing them the value of their gifts. It’s part of the struggle many organizations have when trying to engage young donors: So many young people are reluctant to give because they perceive their dollar contributions as petty. The challenge is to show them that their dollars are incredibly worthwhile.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
DB: We haven’t done any direct mail at Open Books, and I don’t see that changing at all. Our organization is such a model for grassroots success, and direct mail is the antithesis to the organic approach we take to everything else. I would really like to have a volunteer-staffed phonathon in the near future — to give our volunteers another opportunity to make a big impact on Open Books and to really do a guerilla-style fundraising appeal. So many of them feel so strongly about Open Books and our mission. That passion is something they’ll absolutely be capable of (and, I think, excited about) conveying to potential donors.
FS: Describe your fundraising philosophy?
DB: At Open Books, we have so many strengths. I was extraordinarily lucky to come on board with a staff that was already doing everything right. Our leadership is brilliant and focused; our marketing and public relations are a whirlwind of positive attention; our volunteer corps is enormous and dedicated; our approach is spot-on: collaborative, ambitious, and capable; and our programs themselves are extraordinary. My fundraising philosophy is centered on finding the funders and the individual donors who care as deeply about eradicating illiteracy as Open Books does. That mutual conviction is the driving force for all successful fundraising, and it’s the most important thing to me as I try to garner gifts.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with the new social-media sites — MySpace, Facebook etc. — and online social networking?
DB: “We do utilize Facebook, though our biggest online success has been the community we’ve built through our own Web site. We communicate frequently with our volunteers and supporters through e-mail, and our Web site and blog draw around 7,400 hits per month. We’ve used a lot of traditional media outlets to drum up interest and [Director of Marketing and Public relations Becca Keaty] is a powerhouse, securing features in TimeOut Chicago, The Chicago Reader, Crain’s Chicago Business, and on CBS2 FOX News, among others.”
FS: Tell us about a recent successful fundraising effort.
DB: At a recent partnership event (a happy hour/networking event with an organization devoted to bringing volunteers together in a social and fun atmosphere), I got into a passionate discussion with a young man who sits on this organization’s board. He and I talked for some time about Open Books’ mission, and I was able to be quite frank with him about my goals and how I plan to accomplish them for Open Books. As it turns out, connecting with him was invaluable. Not only did our open talk about Open Books’ mission strike a chord that led him to be personally interested in making a gift, but my articulation of my intended path to fundraising success led him to mention his close connection to the grant-making committee of a foundation for which I’m currently preparing a proposal.
FS: How about major difficulties or setbacks, things you would do differently with your fundraising?
DB: I’ve only been doing the fundraising for Open Books for about a month. I haven’t yet had any major difficulties, but I can see that one of the biggest obstacles I’ll face in seeking support from funders is a lack of history. Open Books is moving along at the speed of light, with new and greater successes every day; but in some cases, funders are simply looking for organizations that have a longer-term track record of success.
FS: What advice do you have for organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
DB: Really know the problem, and be genuinely prepared to tackle it. Know what makes you uniquely capable. Have a solid plan and collaborate. Without working with other organizations in Chicago, Open Books would not be prepared to eradicate illiteracy in the city. But the pooling of resources is an indispensable tool and something young organizations often neglect for fear of competition. Make a name for yourself, but make that name synonymous with collaboration. And staffing is critical! With a small organization, it’s crucial that staff not only be capable of doing the jobs for which they’re hired, but that they bring a background that strengthens the organization, that fills some gap in knowledge or experience.
213 W Institute Place, Suite 305
Chicago, IL 60610
Web site: www.open-books.org
Annual operating budget: $350,000
Mission: “Open Books’ mission is to be the premier nonprofit bookstore, literacy community center, and volunteer corps dedicated to raising awareness about illiteracy, improving reading skills, and spreading the love of books in Chicago and beyond.”
Organization’s history: “Open Books was founded two years ago by Stacy Ratner and Becca Keaty. In the first year of Open Books’ operation, Stacy and Becca collected nearly 150,000 donated used books, which they stored first in Stacy’s basement and then in storage units. In the summer of 2007, Open Books set up shop in a River North loft and brought on Erin Walter, who heads the organization’s literacy programs. In less than a year, Open Books has served hundreds of children and adults through in-house programs alone. In conjunction with other local and national literacy organizations, Open Books has helped to serve thousands of other learners.”