Keeping the Lines Clear
The mission of the American Lung Association is as simple and straightforward as they come: to prevent lung disease and promote lung health. But as a health organization with a national office and 38 constituent and affiliate associations across the country, ALA’s fundraising is anything but simple. Here, Karen Wertheimer, vice president and chief development officer for ALA, talks about the organization’s fundraising
structure and the challenges it poses.
FundRaising Success: What is the role of the development department at the national office in relation to your affiliate associations?
Karen Wertheimer: Our job is to work with staff and volunteers across the country to hone their skills in fundraising and to bring up the nationwide fundraising level of achievement. … Our main focus is to create a culture of philanthropy.
One of the things that has occurred over the last two years was organizational effectiveness that culminated in many mergers. Just two years ago we had nearly 60 associations. Now we’re merging into larger, more efficient and more effective groups, and that change, as you can imagine, has really affected how the whole organization works.
We’ve centralized our direct-response program so it’s no longer something that our associations have to do. Associations do the special-events fundraising; they do all the planned giving and major special giving; they do all the workplace giving and all the memorials, etc. We have an emphasis on special events, and we support those special events with a regional team. We have an emphasis on planned giving, and we support those activities with a regional team as well. And we’re initiating a major special-giving program.
And all of these really emphasize two things: They emphasize relationship building and integrated fundraising. We want to differentiate ourselves to our donors … so we’re trying to initiate a very consistent, friendly, informative, donor-centric relationship-building program.
FS: How do you overcome the challenges of this split between the national office and associations?
KW: The field/national split is a very real problem for national associations like the American Lung Association, and we have to continuously minimize that split with lots of communications, with lots of informational sessions, with lots of networking both ways. You need to have two-way conversations, and that’s what we do to try to overcome that schism. We work very hard to make sure that there are lines of communication between both national and the field.
FS: What do you see as the most important role as a fundraiser?
KW: I really think that being donor-centric is the most important thing that we can do as a nonprofit organization. That means that we have to look at everything we do in terms of what does this mean to a donor. Does the donor understand — prospective and actual donors? Do our donors support us? Do they feel a part of us? Is the American Lung Association something they feel proud to be associated with, whether it’s through one gift or through 30 years of giving?
We have to recognize that … some donors want to get a lot of information; some want to get a little bit of information. We have to figure out how to provide them with what they’re interested in. Otherwise they’re not going to continue to support us or they’re not going to feel good about their donations, and they really should feel good about their generosity.