An Interview With Kerry Whitlock, director of major gifts, Friends of the World Food Program
Friends of the World Food Program (Friends of WFP) is a U.S.-based, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on building support in the United States for the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and other hunger-relief operations. Friends of WFP unites organizations and individuals committed to solving world hunger. Its education, advocacy and fundraising efforts in the United States support WFP’s life-saving global food assistance and development programs.
Friends of WFP was incorporated in 1995 to provide a tax-deductible means for donors to contribute to the United Nations World Food Program (donations to a U.N. agency are not tax-deductible under IRS regulations). For the first few years, Friends had no office or staff — donations were processed by a WFP official in New York.
In its early years, the advocacy work of Friends of WFP provided the greatest opportunity to generate resources to end hunger, as it worked with the U.S. government to provide funding to feed hungry children in schools in the world’s poorest countries. In 2005, Friends of WFP hired its first president and CEO, Karen Sendelback, and the work of the organization began evolving into what it is today, adding to the public-policy work a communications team raising awareness about the mission, an outreach team involving volunteers across the country and, of course, a development team raising critical funds to support WFP.
Here, we talk with Director of Major Gifts Kerry Whitlock about the organization and its fundraising strategies and challenges.
FundRaising Success: How do you fund your mission?
Kerry Whitlock: Donations from corporations, private and family foundations, and individuals. We also mobilize resources, in the form of cash and commodities, from the U.S. government to help provide food for those who need it most in the world’s poorest countries.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
KW: One of the most common misperceptions about the issue of hunger is that it mostly affects people in areas hit by natural or man-made disasters. The fact is that only a small percentage of the world’s hungry are in need as a result of a disaster. There are nearly 1 billion hungry people in the world today, or nearly 15 percent of the world’s population. Every day, an estimated 25,000 people will die of hunger. Yet people often only think of the hungry when a disaster strikes, such as an earthquake or hurricane.
We are working to change this by educating the public about the issue of hunger. We are striving to raise awareness through the media, by talking with members of Congress and by developing a grassroots network of volunteers who help in spreading our message.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
KW: We are enhancing our current fundraising strategy by expanding our philanthropic efforts online. One excellent example is our Facebook Causes page. Last year, high food prices sparked rioting in several countries, including Haiti. Working closely with Facebook, we launched a Causes Web page designed to raise funds for and awareness about the food crisis in Haiti, which was exacerbated by a series of tropical storms. To date, thanks to a matching grant from The Prem Rawat Foundation, we have raised nearly $50,000 total, and the Cause has over 40,000 followers. Friends of WFP is ahead of the curve, and we strive to continue this successful trend in other online efforts.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
KW: It is critical in fundraising to listen to your donors. You can’t just replicate someone else’s model or do what worked at a previous organization. You can’t just assume that a person or a company will give to you because they have money. You need to be sure you are providing something of value to your donors. You need to listen to how your donors respond to your outreach and solicitations. If you are not getting the results you need (stronger relationships and more money for the cause), then you need to adapt.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising?
KW: We reach out to supporters through raising awareness of the issue of hunger via our e-newsletter, media outreach, speaking engagements, and other outreach initiatives and tools, including social media. We also have a growing network of volunteers who are assisting with getting the word out about WFP, Friends of WFP and the critical issue of hunger.
FS: Are you engaged with the new social media sites — MySpace, Facebook, etc. — and online social networking?
KW: Absolutely. We have a presence on MySpace (882 friends), Facebook (2,164 fans) and Twitter (1,503 followers). We also have an official blog, and we encourage donors, volunteers and other supporters to share their thoughts. All of our online social networks are interconnected to ensure that our followers are kept informed of latest developments, which often include calls to action. Our goal is to create a viral grassroots presence that will attract people to our online campaigns and encourage them to take action, whether that be in the form of a donation or volunteer effort or both.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
KW: Last December, our WFP Committee of Los Angeles (a group of local volunteers dedicated to alleviating world hunger) hosted a small fundraiser at a private residence. The event was attended by donors as well as Margot Hoerrner, vice president of outreach; Karen Sendelback, president and CEO; and Dan Glickman, board of directors vice chairman and head of the Motion Picture Association of America. In just one evening, nearly $35,000 was raised. This event wasn’t just successful because of the money raised, but also because it demonstrates the dedication of our volunteers and showcases what they’re truly capable of. We’re very proud of that.
Another example I’d like to point out is when Drew Barrymore made a major donation during her appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." In March 2008, Barrymore, WFP ambassador against hunger, announced that she would donate $1 million to WFP. She talked about her trips to Kenya, where she visited WFP school meals programs. By talking about the people she met and her personal feelings about global hunger, she really motivated people to get involved. Soon after her appearance, we experienced a significant peak in online donations and received numerous inquiries about volunteering. All of this happened within 24 hours of Barrymore’s appearance on the show.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
KW: Last year presented a unique set of challenges and opportunities. The world was faced with a global food crisis caused by a sharp spike in food and fuel prices that sparked panic in several countries. While the demand for food assistance grew, WFP was facing severe funding shortfalls. Soon after, the financial crisis hit, creating yet another challenge. We took this opportunity to educate and raise awareness of global hunger and its impact, while encouraging Americans to take action. Many people were motivated to do something to help the nearly 1 billion who suffer from hunger worldwide.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
KW: Never underestimate the power of a good fundraising database to make your work more efficient and effective. Also, raising awareness is key. There are so many good causes that are competing for dollars; it requires constant work to make yours stand out.
FS: Any additional thoughts?
KW: We acknowledge that many Americans are facing some critical challenges right now. However, there are so many things people can do to help whether it’s making a donation, organizing a local fundraiser, writing a letter to the editor or urging Congress to support international food assistance programs. Despite the financial situation, there are still enough resources for companies and individuals to get involved. It’s understandable that in the midst of a financial crisis, we want to make helping Americans a priority over foreign assistance, but we can do both. America has a proud history of helping developing countries. We must strive to continue this trend of American generosity even if there are obstacles. To donate, volunteer or learn more visit www.friendsofwfp.org.