An Interview With Perry Jowsey, Director of Development, Freedom Service Dogs
It's difficult to resist petting these hard workers. But Freedom Service Dogs have a job to do. And the Englewood, Colo.-based organization that trains the canines and pairs them with people with disabilities who can benefit from these working dogs' help ensure that they're able to do that job.
FSD Development Director Perry Jowsey says the dogs are individually trained to meet a specific person's needs.
“FSD provides lifetime support to its client-dog partners to encourage increased independence and the loving, therapeutic bond between canine and human,” he adds.
To do that, the 100 percent donor-supported nonprofit that began in 1987 as a two-person organization now has 10 full-time and three part-time employees and operates on $950,000 a year, with the bulk of the funds coming from foundation and corporate grants (45 percent) and the rest arriving from individual contributions (34 percent), workplace giving campaigns (9 percent) and special events (8 percent).
With those donations, FSD's been able to rescue and adopt out more than 1,000 dogs — with more than 150 of the canines being placed in “highly specialized client-dog teams.”
Jowsey provides more insight on FSD:
FundRaising Success: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
Perry Jowsey: Like many small nonprofits, we were able to grow our budget over the years by appealing to the foundation community for seed money and project-specific funding. With an annual operating budget that receives over 40 percent of revenue from foundations, we have faced challenges since the economic downturn of 2008 as it has dramatically impacted the ability of the foundation community to make sizeable investments in a time when most nonprofits are declining in funding.
To be the exception in these times, we have focused on being exceptional: Highly quantifiable metrics to demonstrate the impact of our work are complemented with deeply moving personal narratives. This has helped us stay competitive in the foundation marketplace, and has provided us with the tools to build an individual donor base more robustly moving forward. It is my belief that a best-practice nonprofit must have a better balanced pool of funding, and we are proactively working to accomplish that even during challenging economic times.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
PJ: Although Freedom Service Dogs has support of people and foundations from around the nation, we receive the vast majority of support from sources in our home state of Colorado. This is not unique to giving trends, but as an agency with an overarching mission that has been the feature of several national media spotlights, we know we have the message and capacity to appeal to new donor markets. Going forward, we anticipate increasing our national appeal and serving more people and dogs in need throughout all parts of the country.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
PJ: In a phrase, grassroots. We rely very much on person-to-person introductions for new donors and dedicate very few resources to traditional "donor acquisition" strategies. We create meaningful opportunities for core, medium and major donors so they can feel the impact of their gifts. We evaluate our target markets (dog lovers, veterans' affairs and those who support people with disabilities), and we provide direct funding mechanisms to make the biggest difference in the area that is most personal to them. In the end, fundraising is all about aligning donor passions with giving opportunities in a way that makes the biggest difference possible.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with social media and social networking?
PJ: It's important to regularly schedule outreach in alignment with a well-conceived moves-management philosophy. We strive to "touch" donors and prospects throughout the year without the intention of soliciting funds. Our donors receive quarterly newsletters via standard mail, and we strategically intersperse events that have a fun flavor but also showcase what we do as an organization. We have biannual "graduations" where we invite the community to come and celebrate the conclusion of training a class of service dogs and passing the leash to their new partners.
Regarding social media, we do have a presence and have used it to publicize events and direct members to other media outlets. For our organization, the fundraising element of social media has been much more indirect, and my belief is that you set yourself apart more in a negative way by not being in this game than you actually gain revenue-wise from making social media a top priority (exceptions being very well-branded national programs).
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
PJ: I believe fundraising to be much more reflective of a process than an event; many elements function in concert to create a cumulative effect. Thus far in 2010, Freedom Service Dogs has received more charitable dollars year-to-date than at any point in our history, and we're doing so with less operating expenses than in 2009. Fundraising is interconnected to ongoing donor communication and stewardship, visibility via public relations, and creating opportunities for active engagement. As for a specific effort, we created an event from the ground up this August in three weeks that was well-received, with 250 paid guests who came out for an opportunity to enjoy cocktails in a $20-million mansion in support of our mission.
FS: Have you had any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
PJ: Again, the economic downturn has been a setback for us as it has been for most nonprofit organizations, as we are now forced to seek funding in an ultra-competitive and greatly diminished philanthropic marketplace. As an organization with an outward social focus, Freedom Service Dogs made the strategic decision since the economic downturn to continue a plan of increasing service to those in need. This has resulted in using financial reserves to cover the cost, which is not a path taken lightly and subjects us to critical ratings based on some formulaic methods of evaluating nonprofit efficiency. This will be exaggerated by some as financially precarious, but as an organization that is built for and exists for human service, we would choose this route again if confronted with identical circumstances.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
PJ: My first piece of advice would be to adhere to a reasonable growth plan. I'm constantly amazed how so many nonprofits are pushed by executive directors and boards for rapid expansion, with projections upwards of 75 percent revenue growth from one year to the next. Even corporate America has come to grips with the idea that slow, steady growth is the best path for long-term prosperity.
Governed by a plan to grow revenue modestly, with [a] 10 percent or so target, begin building the narrative with your key stakeholders about the state of your union, how they've helped you get to this point and what opportunities the future holds directly due to their support. Take time during slow periods of growth to shore up operations and to tangibly measure and articulate the impact of your mission. Come up with innovative ideas, even for small audiences, as a way of touching people and perhaps getting some media coverage for the novelty of your idea. Be frugal with expenses, and try to work in a "doing more with less" component to your message, but do not cut funding to anything core to your ability to generate revenue.