An Interview With Jennifer Marrapese, Executive Director, Northeast Sustainable Energy Association
Everywhere from Maine down to the nation’s capitol, Greenfield, Mass.-based Northeast Sustainable Energy Association is working to change that and “advance the adoption of sustainable energy practices within the built environment.”
With a more than $1.3 million annual operating budget — of which NESEA Executive Director Jennifer Marrapese and the education director worked to procure nearly $600,000 in grants, sponsorships, memberships and donations — the association’s eight employees are devoted to making the Northeast a greener world.
FundRaising Success: Please tell us a little about the organization’s history.
Jennifer Marrapese: The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) is the nation’s leading regional membership organization focused on promoting the understanding, development and adoption of energy conservation and nonpolluting, renewable energy technologies. For more than 30 years, NESEA has facilitated and enhanced a network of professionals, practitioners and other citizens in pursuit of responsible energy use. NESEA is a member of the American Solar Energy Society, and our programs and activities focus on the Northeastern United States, from Washington, D.C., to Maine.
FS: How do you fund your mission?
JM: Through a combination of grants, corporate sponsors, service contracts, memberships, private donation and earned income (mainly workshop and conference registrations).
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned?
JM: One of our greatest strengths also presents a challenge in terms of fundraising. NESEA’s membership is truly multidisciplinary — we draw members [including] architects, engineers, educators, builders, renewable energy professionals, policymakers, energy consultants, planners and others. This diversity is a key strength of the association and mirrors our belief that the most efficient use of energy requires the collaborative effort of practitioners in diverse professions. NESEA is the only place where this diverse group comes together to network, build partnerships and collaborate on projects. This tremendous strength becomes our challenge when seeking funding. We are so many things to such a multidisciplinary group. These professionals have other primary professional organizations that they belong to and support. It’s challenging to convey the value proposition in supporting NESEA as their professional organization of second choice!
FS: How do you overcome these challenges?
JM: We are working hard to become a “must join” and “must support” organization, and to make sure our donors understand the benefits that come from their contributions. We need to make clearer that supporting NESEA is an investment — an investment in our donors’ professional networks and careers. We’re trying to help them view this relationship as a collaboration, an exchange of energy. We’re capturing the stories of our members and donors who, while attending our workshops and conferences, exchange ideas and have career-changing “Aha! moments,” and trying to find ways to replicate those “Aha! moments” so that NESEA is the organization they think of when they think of sustainable energy solutions.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
JM: NESEA is working to integrate and use social media in our fundraising efforts. We see that being more proactive in getting the NESEA message out will strengthen our visibility and demonstrate to donors our commitment to sustainable energy solutions and our presence at the cutting edge of these solutions.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
JM: It is all about relationships! It is about striking a chord and finding a match in core values and objectives. The key is to develop and maintain rapports in mutually respectful and beneficial ways. Ask donors and sponsors what exchanges they value in investing in an organization [and] in what ways would they like to support, be appreciated and kept abreast of the organization.
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?
JM: Yes. NESEA distributes a general e-newsletter twice per month to members and donors and other topical e-mail blasts intermittently based on our program schedule. We post news updates, articles and interesting links several times per week on Facebook and Twitter. We have a blog where staff and members can post their thoughts, articles and resources. NESEA also maintains accounts and profiles with other social-media networks such as LinkedIn, YourOliveBranch.org, Idealist.org, Changemakers.org and GreatNonprofits.org.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
JM: In our most recent annual appeal, NESEA doubled the dollar value of board contributions by securing a match from an anonymous donor. This donor challenged the board to commit to 100 percent participation in the appeal and to increase the dollar amount given by each board member. The donor matched dollar for dollar up to twice the previous year’s contribution. The result: 100 percent of the board participated, and we more than doubled the dollar amount contributed by the board by leveraging this donor’s generous match!
FS: Have you had any major difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? Is there anything you would do differently with your fundraising?
JM: [We’ve had] no major setbacks. But [there are] definitely things we would do differently, including making or donors feel more appreciated. We inquire about their interests and how we can create a deeper value to our relationship. Additionally, we recognize the importance of diversifying our revenue streams. It is imperative to the health of the organization not to rely too heavily on any one donor or sponsor for a particular program.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
JM: Social media has certainly become a primary way to communicate with donors and members. So anything you can do to make yourself more visible through a variety of social-media venues is helpful — as long as you have good content to share — program updates, links to other resources, kudos to members or sponsors, etc.