It’s no secret in the nonprofit fundraising world that the days of donors writing checks and then forgetting about their charities of choice until the same time the following year are coming to an end.
Donors increasingly are reaching out to the organizations they support more as partners than as mere checkbooks. Organizations that respond in kind foster the best relationships and, hence, the most loyal donors.
It could be somewhat of a difficult transition for some of the more old-school nonprofits out there. But it suits City Year just fine. The 20-year-old organization, which enlists young adults in a year of service in public school systems around the country, is built on relationships — with its volunteers, with the communities it serves, with individual students and with its donors. It won’t be turning down any one-off gifts, of course, but unless you instruct it otherwise, City Year is going to be looking for something much more meaningful from you — an investment of heart rather than just of money.
And to keep up its end of the bargain, the organization is all about one-on-one fundraising and relationship-building, where donors and other potential supporters get to meet City Year corps members (and the children they help) to learn about the invaluable difference the programs have made in their lives.
“We have a firm belief that young people can change the world through their year of service,” says Chuck Gordon, who took over as senior vice president and chief development officer at City Year in April, after more than 20 years at the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “As a result, if every donor can be connected to City Year through one young person, then we believe that each donor can really change the world, as well.
“And it’s kind of a fundamental belief that it’s not just about a check — it’s about that experience with [City Year] corps members, with students, with a shared belief and a shared commitment to service and the importance of service,” he adds. “It’s really a philosophy of not just giving to City Year, but of experiencing City Year. And so, really, we hope that we’re providing people with an experience that’s consistent with our belief in the power of service.”
That could mean anything from personal thank-you phone calls from corps members to even low-value donors, to attendance at local galas, to membership on local-site boards, to personalized City Year service programs that put supporters on the ground and in the heart of the organization’s mission.
City Year is a single 501(c)(3) organization with 18 sites in 20 communities across the country (plus one in South Africa). Each site has its own executive director (or co-executive directors) and development team, and relies on a combination of self-generated funding and trickle-down from national headquarters. The sites recruit young people ages 17 to 24 (corps members) and set them up as tutors and mentors in local public schools, working alongside teachers in classrooms and after-school programs, as well as in other out-of-the-classroom, community-service projects.
The organization overall gets 32 percent of its support through government funding — 24 percent from AmeriCorps and 8 percent from other government sources. Another 21 percent comes from foundations. Those monies flow fairly freely so long as the paperwork is in place. But two other large chunks of funding — corporate partnerships and individual giving (24 percent and 16 percent, respectively) rely heavily on City Year’s ability to forge relationships. (The remaining 7 percent comes from in-kind gifts.)
On the corporate side, national and local partnership models offer companies the ability to pretty much design their own City Year experiences. The organization’s National Leadership Sponsors are ARAMARK, Bank of America, Cisco, Comcast, CSX, Pepperidge Farm, Pepsi, Timberland and T-Mobile. Outdoor-wear giant Timberland, for example, started out by donating 50 pairs of boots to corps members in Boston in 1989. From that initial donation, Timberland helped found City Year New York; President and CEO Jeffrey Swartz served as chair of City Year’s National Board of Trustees from 1994 to 2002; and the company became the organization’s official outfitter, providing 1,500 corps members and staff with full uniforms.
Pepperidge Farm signed on in 2006 and has since created a special starfish version of its Goldfish crackers (based on imagery in a story that reflects some of the values on which City Year was founded; to read the stories, go to www.cityyear.org/foundingstories.aspx); provides resources and in-kind donations; and sponsors City Year’s “Starfish Corps,” which introduces elementary-school students to service.
And T-Mobile partnered with City Year to support T-Mobile Huddle Up, a community outreach program that connects mentors and resources with kids from single-parent families in high-need, urban communities. It also is City Year’s official telecommunications partner, and provides equipment and service plans to corps members and staff.
At the local level, the Team Sponsor Program allows corporate partners to sponsor the service of a group of diverse City Year corps members, and establish connections between the team, employees and families. Team members wear T-shirts identifying the sponsors and can engage in service opportunities and visits during the year.
There’s also a corporate option called Care Force, through which businesses can hire City Year to lead a day of service that unites employees, builds morale and leaves a lasting legacy for the community. Care Force projects generate good will among employees and in the communities in which they plant gardens, paint murals, renovate community centers and undertake other meaningful initiatives.
“[Corporate relationships] really vary all across the board,” Gordon explains. “In some ways, the highest profile partnerships really are our team sponsorships … where a company is branded in sponsoring a team. We will brand that team as Company X team, and we’ll put the name right on their City Year uniforms. As for our National Leadership Sponsors, I can’t say enough about the commitment that they have extended to City Year. In some cases, the partnership has huge visibility components to it (in addition to all NLS logos on team T-shirts), and, in other cases, it’s companies that are sponsoring large numbers of teams all across the U.S. In some cases, it’s the underwriting of our middle-school program. It may mean enhanced communication opportunities. It varies.
“But with every company with which we try to create a partnership, it all starts with understanding what their corporate social-responsibility interests are, what their corporate values are, understanding what it is we do, what it is we want to do, trying to find that right match — which isn’t always simple,” he adds.
City Year reaches out to people it has deemed as “philanthropically inclined” within the communities it serves, according to Gordon. Galas are a large part of its outreach and provide myriad opportunities for both City Year corps members and the students they work with to tell their stories.
City Year has a dual constituency, of sorts. It provides life-changing leadership and service experiences for corps members, but it also works miracles in the lives of the students it serves. In a time when nonprofits have to zero in on very specific mission goals in order to stand out, the seemingly two-pronged mission might be seen as a handicap. Not so, according to Gordon and Alison Franklin, the organization’s communications co-director.
“In terms of the compelling remarks that people have heard over the years, some will be the transformative experiences that corps members have,” Franklin says. “But we also have young people talking about coming to school every day because they know if they don’t, that corps member is going to be at their house or talking to their mom.
“Whether you were the overachieving kid looking for the extracurricular activities or you were the troublemaker kid and there was a corps member in your class who’d been like you in fourth grade and who could save you from a lot of what he’d gone through … we could fill the day with stories about the transformative effects,” she adds. “Some of them are going to be about corps members, some of them are going to be from students, and some of them are from principals, superintendents. Any corps member, any school, any student can provide us with that story that connects donors and other people to City Year.”
As it marks its 20th anniversary, City Year finds itself in a happy state of flux when it comes to cultivating individual gifts. The organization is looking at professionalizing its development program, centralizing its fundraising efforts, cracking down on brand inconsistency and capitalizing on a built-in, though until recently overlooked, demographic — corps alums, their parents, grandparents, friends and other family members.
Those folks with the longest relationships to the organization — corps members from its first few years in existence — are in their mid-30s to mid-40s and most likely entrenched in their careers. Naturally, they skew younger than the national average for philanthropic givers, but many of the 10,000 alums consider their City Year experiences to have been life-altering and, perhaps, a precursor to the lives they’re leading now. And if that’s not a good reason to donate to City Year … what is?
While the alums aren’t traditionally aged givers, their parents and grandparents are — which just sweetens the pot. Plus, this demographic, because it’s younger, is more likely to respond to social networking, and Web and e-mail communications — which are much less expensive than direct mail.
“City Year has realized the richness — not necessarily just in terms of dollars, but richness in terms of commitment to the organization — from alumni and from parents,” Gordon says. “Some of the corps members who graduated during those early years today are very successful but might have not been asked to participate in the past. So some recent e-correspondence and e-outreach has really worked nicely to engage a whole group of alums who just haven’t been asked in recent years.
“A couple of years ago, if an alumnus gave, it was out of their own good will, or it was a real personalized effort,” he continues. “Having much more of an alumni affairs office and alumni outreach [and] a parents outreach is something that really has just sprouted up in the last couple years that we will continue to work more aggressively toward.”
Currently, alumni, their friends, parents, grandparents and other family members receive a different stream of communications than do potential supporters outside that group, and there’s a concentrated effort to support alumni clubs that crop up around the country.
The alumni group gets a newsletter that’s different from the general one, as well, but that could change, since there’s a push to centralize the organization’s fundraising efforts.
“I think it’s advantageous for the full donor community to really learn more about the alumni and the parent network that exists, and learn more about some of the incredible alumni success stories that are out there,” Gordon says. “We talk about the power of service and the ability to change the world — what that really means is when all of a sudden you can start seeing what the alumni are doing today, after having that experience 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, and the work that they’re doing in transforming their own communities.
“Many are in nonprofits, some in the school system, some in business,” he says. “It’s really very inspirational.”
City Year tries to keep connected with alums from the very beginning so it doesn’t have to reconnect with them later in their lives and careers. To that end, it encourages alumni and parents groups, and has an alumni advisory board. It also offers the Leadership After City Year program, known as LACY, that helps volunteers network and integrate their City Year experiences into the next phases of their lives, whether that be college, grad school, career or additional volunteer work.
Staying connected, Gordon says, makes it easier to transition alums into donors when they’re in the financial position to give.
With 18 sites under the auspices of its national headquarters, City Year is learning that with growth come new challenges — branding, for example. According to Gordon, the organization already is fairly aggressive in policing the imagery and messaging used by the individual sites, but is about to get even stricter. The goal, he says, is to ensure that the City Year experience in one city is consistent with that in any city — and that they’re all good, of course.
The same goes for fundraising. Right now, sites are usually pretty free to work on their own corporate relationships, grow their own direct-mail and e-mail lists, and attract donors in ways that are best received by their individual communities. There are no plans to stifle that individuality, Gordon says, but the organization is looking toward consistency across the sites, hoping to develop a fundraising strategy that is “75 percent consistent across the country, but 25 percent unique.”
“I think we always have to have an element of uniqueness because each community is a little different, and I’d also love to be able to incubate different ideas in certain communities so that the ones that do take off and become incredibly successful can be replicated across the footprint of all the City Year sites,” he explains.
Adds Franklin: “We’re now seeing from a communications perspective that the benefits of standardization are enormous, and they have been required due to [City Year’s] significant growth.
“It’s interesting that with nearly 20 sites, there’s a far higher caliber of communication — our brand manual is more thorough, is more exact, and our templates are more explicit — than we had with seven sites,” she adds. “So as we’ve grown, it’s been necessary for us to be more clear and more centralized with some of these things. I think every site benefits from that … especially in regard to fundraising, but also in terms of logos and things like that. Now there’s a central source for all of our sites.”
From the outside, it looks like City Year faces quite a few challenges in its quest to raise money and move forward with its mission — ministering to two distinct groups of people (corps members and students in the schools they serve) and corralling 18 individual domestic sites, each with its own interests, personality and community issues, to name just a few.
But Gordon is undaunted and maintains that it’s all working for City Year, thank you very much. And, indeed, the organization’s $50 million 20th Anniversary Campaign would seem to attest to that. It began its quiet phase at the start of 2008 and already has raised $28.5 million to support the organization’s national Whole School Whole Child program and build its national recruitment effort. The bulk of those gifts came in as three-year commitments that, Gordon hopes, will get City Year “out of … the annual-itis of any nonprofit organization.”
“We’d be better planners in terms of our service delivery if we knew we had a continuity of funds,” he says. “We can be better stewards of donor support when we know we have a continuity of funds.”
The effort, which Gordon describes as a “very quick, very tight campaign,” is set to conclude by opening day 2009, when the 2009-2010 corps members begin their year of service.
The real challenge for City Year, Gordon says, lays in simply increasing brand awareness and standing out from the crowds of nonprofits operating in City Year site cities.
“I’m spoiled. I’m here in Boston. We were founded in Boston. So, I kind of thought that the whole world knew about City Year,” Gordon says, intimating that recent research on brand awareness suggests differently. “But City Year is entering Miami this year, entering a space that’s very competitive with lots of nonprofit organizations, with lots of nonprofits working with youth, working in the education space.
“Building awareness of City Year in Miami, or Los Angeles where it’s 2 years old, or even in a city where it’s been around 15 years … that’s the challenge,” Gordon says.
“But I think that once people hear the story more, they understand it. City Year, like so many other organizations … if your name doesn’t shout exactly what you do, you have the challenge of, one, getting people to even know you exist and, two, getting them to understand what it is you do,” he adds. “I think that’s the position we’re in right now.”
287 Columbus Ave.
Boston, MA 02116
Annual operating budget: Nearly $50 million
History (from www.cityyear.org): Twenty years ago, City Year was founded by Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, then-roommates at Harvard Law School, who felt strongly that young people in service could be a powerful resource for addressing our nation’s most pressing issues. Since 1988, City Year has been built on the belief that one person can make a difference, and with the vision that one day service will be a common expectation — and a real opportunity — for citizens all around the world. Since its founding in 1988, City Year has graduated more than 11,400 alumni, served more than a million children, completed more than 18 million hours of service and engaged more than a million citizens in service.
Purpose (from www.cityyear.org): City Year was founded in 1988 on the belief that young people can change the world. By giving corps members the skills and opportunities to serve in schools and neighborhoods across the country, City Year seeks to help children succeed, build stronger communities, break down social barriers, develop young leaders and foster active citizenship. City Year’s vision is that one day the most commonly asked question of a young person will be, “Where are you going to do your service year?”
Site headquarters (in order of founding):
Boston (1988); Rhode Island (1993); Chicago (1994); Columbia, S.C. (1994); Columbus, Ohio (1994); San Jose, Calif./Silicon Valley (1994); San Antonio (1995); Cleveland (1996); Greater Philadelphia (1997); Seattle/King County (1998); Detroit (1999); New Hampshire (2000); Washington, D.C. (2000); New York (2003); Little Rock, Ark./North Little Rock (2004); South Africa (2005); Louisiana (2006); Los Angeles (2007); Miami (2008)