An Interview With Meryl Sheriden, Chief Development Officer, Horizons for Homeless Children
Since 1988, the Roxbury, Mass.-based Horizons for Homeless Children has worked to "improve the lives of homeless children and their families."
With 102 employees and a $9 million annual operating budget, the organization provides opportunities for early childhood education to homeless children and, for families served long-term, "it connects their parents with the tools they need to achieve social and economic self-sufficiency."
Eight employees who are strictly devoted to fundraising help gather the 66 percent of the budget that is all philanthropic dollars. And, in a combined effort, the organization "provides leadership in advocating for homeless children and their families through leveraging and sharing expertise with others and advocating with policy makers and the public."
FundRaising Success: Please tell us a little about the organization's history.
Meryl Sheriden: Horizons for Homeless Children was established in 1988 in response to the unmet needs of the alarming number of children living in Boston-area homeless shelters. In 2002, HHC expanded programming across the state and today is the only organization in Massachusetts focused exclusively on the needs of young homeless children and their families. We accomplish our objectives through four programs: the Community Children's Centers, our full-time childcare and early education centers; the Playspace Programs, our shelter-based volunteer program; our Training and Technical Assistance Program; and our Policy and Advocacy Initiative.
Our Playspace Programs have been providing Greater Boston family homeless shelters with Playspaces and trained volunteers (called Playspace Activity Leaders or PALs) since 1990, and have expanded to provide these services to children in over 140 family shelters throughout Massachusetts. The PALs engage children in educational activities, giving each child an opportunity to learn and grow from these interactions, as well as have fun. Over 2,000 children in Massachusetts each week are served through the Playspace Programs.
Our Community Children's Centers began in Boston in 1994 and provide comprehensive early-education services for homeless children, ages 2 months through 5 years, while connecting parents with critical support services and resources which will help them break the cycle of homelessness and become self-sufficient. Our three Community Children's Centers serve 175 young children and their families each day.
In 2002, Horizons for Homeless Children launched its Training and Technical Assistance Program. HHC staff members present workshops and conferences for professionals who work with homeless families, including educators, social workers, shelter staff and government agencies with a goal of improving the delivery of services for young homeless children and their families in the broader community.
In addition, Horizons for Homeless Children provides leadership in championing issues affecting homeless children and families by advocating for these issues with policy makers and the public through its Policy and Advocacy Initiative. HHC's policy and advocacy work began in 2002 and seeks to engage and educate policymakers at state and federal levels and the public on issues affecting homeless children and families.
FS: How do you fund your mission?
MS: Horizons for Homeless Children funds our mission through public and private sources. Approximately one-third of the agency's annual revenue is raised through the public sector (local, state and federal government), and the balance stems from private donations (individual, corporate, foundation, community). Annual fundraising programs include fundraising events, personal solicitation, grant writing, direct response, online appeals and other activities.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
MS: The biggest challenges Horizons for Homeless Children faces as far as fundraising is concerned include the following:
1. Raising awareness: Most people are not aware that there are so many homeless children in their city or state. In Massachusetts alone, there are more than 100,000 homeless children.
When we think of homelessness, we typically visualize single adults wandering the streets with grocery carts or sleeping on a park bench. While this continues to be the case in many cities, most people are surprised to learn that homeless families are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population and make up over 40 percent of that population. Spreading that message across the state and country is one of our biggest challenges.
Once people learn about the problem, they may feel that their contribution is too small to make a difference in combating such an overwhelming problem. Our challenge is to educate people about the issue and the many ways they can make a difference in the lives of these children.
2. Budget: As an agency, Horizons for Homeless Children is extremely committed to maintaining a low administrative cost. It is based on an underlying philosophy that as much as possible of the funds raised should be allocated to our direct service programs for homeless children and their families, and the maintenance and refinement of program content and delivery. In directing funds to program, agency fundraising efforts often operate with reduced budgets and, therefore, aggressively seek out pro bono or steeply discounted means of executing annual plans.
3. Economy: The challenging economic climate has posed obstacles in fundraising efforts at Horizons for Homeless Children. While no organization has been exempt, we are fortunate to have a very committed board of directors and remain in healthy fiscal shape. Our individual donors have remained loyal to our purpose, and their levels of giving in the past two years have helped sustain the agency. Also, our mission itself is one that has [piqued] the interest of the community at large. Because of the current economic challenges, the issue of family homelessness is one that has gained new attention, and this in a way has helped Horizons for Homeless Children build awareness of the work that we do.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
MS: Yes. As an agency, Horizons for Homeless Children is driven to engage even further in online means of fundraising. Although we have established a presence on social-networking sites and send e-news using online tools, we are focused on investigating new and innovative ways of engaging supporters as we move forward.
We have also started to incorporate new activities into our strategic plans to reach out to and engage younger supporters. We have a new effort in place, called the Young Professionals Group, and this group continues to grow each day. It consists of new and existing supporters, 40 years and younger, who are actively raising funds and spreading awareness of the work of Horizons for Homeless Children through networking events, online communication and social activities. This program will continue to be a major focus of our fundraising strategy.
Donor retention remains a challenge at Horizons for Homeless Children, and we are aggressively seeking out new options to bridge the gap between one-time and repeat giving. We anticipate changes in current methods in that our focus will shift to more fully engaging one-time donors in our work and maintaining closer relationships with them in the cycle of involvement and investment. This will see a change in staff structure, and our hope is that over time, our levels of donor retention will grow.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
MS: Horizons for Homeless Children has a fundraising philosophy that is effective and efficient. The mission drives us forward and in doing so, fundraising efforts are heavily goal-oriented. There is a commitment to remaining fiscally responsible, and the loyalty of our donors stands testament to that. There is a level of transparency at every level in the organization as we constantly evaluate and assess our performance and this helps donors feel confident in our programs and practices.
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?
MS: Horizons for Homeless Children reaches out to supporters and potential supporters in many ways other than fundraising. There are several ways in which current and potential supporters can get involved. From volunteerism to in-kind giving, community service to external events and advocacy, there is a fit for everyone, depending on their level of commitment. We also have a presence on Facebook and each day the number of "fans" grows exponentially. We showcase video material on YouTube, and we are also about to launch a Horizons for Homeless Children Twitter page. We are more and more invested in online communications and currently send the majority of news updates through an online Web tool called Constant Contact to our donors, volunteers and potential supporters.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
MS: We recently completed a five-year campaign that was launched before the economic downturn and completed in FY10. The purpose of the campaign was to fund the statewide expansion of our programs and to open a third direct-service Community Children's Center to accommodate a growing list of children waiting for spaces in our other two sites. The financial goal for the campaign was $25 million, and we exceeded our goal by $7 million.
We are also very proud of our newest endeavor, the Young Professionals Group. In May 2010, the Horizons for Homeless Children Young Professionals Group hosted its first 5K, entitled the "Route for Kids 5K, a run/walk to benefit homeless children." Over $25,000 was raised, and almost 300 people participated — many of whom are new donors and very energized about the work of Horizons for Homeless Children. The event had a small number of corporate and in-kind sponsors, and we anticipate growing as we move forward. The event was one of the year's highlights at Horizons for Homeless Children!
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
MS: The recent recession was a major setback for us in that the foundation and corporate support we were hoping for was significantly decreased this year. This has forced us to re-evaluate our approach in our work with foundations and corporations and to take time to research and strategize differently. It also means that we will increase our stewardship efforts in this area as well as increase the number of grants we submit to offset those that are rejected.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
MS: My advice is to believe in your mission and present it with passion! Never lose sight of your donors and their interests. Stewarding donors is essential in charitable work. Our donors are loyal supporters who want to know what is going on at all times in our organization. They want to feel assured that their dollars are well-spent and that our programs are healthy. We never miss an opportunity to invite them to see our programs firsthand, volunteer with us or attend an event.
Never take your donors for granted. We constantly call donors to thank them for their generosity. There are many organizations competing for the same dollars and it is our charge to be grateful and worthy of their contributions. Recruiting, educating and retaining new donors are also an essential part of a healthy development office. Understanding your constituents and involving them in a way that works for them will create loyal supporters.
People are inclined to be generous, and they feel good about giving back. Our job as fundraisers is to help guide their dollars to places of impact and interest.