Web Exclusive: Small Scope, but Not Small Time
Community-based organizations come in many flavors: small, large, health-centered, arts-centered, etc. They’re as varied in scope and size as the communities they represent. But they do have one thing in common: They are distinctly qualified to directly impact their surrounding cultures.
“Community-based programs are unique to fundraising efforts because of the potential impact they have on emerging and existing issues within their specific community — and also because of the organizations’ vast knowledge and connection to their community,” says Monique Hanson, chief development officer of the YMCA of the United States.
As in other sectors of fundraising, development directors must be aware of trends in social giving and tap into those trends that apply to their cause. CBOs are competing with national nonprofits for dollars in their community, and they need to find creative ways to stay on the donor radar, even when tsunamis and hurricanes are gaining national attention.
“When we compare our group to larger ones like the Red Cross and United Way, we see they are getting the bulk of the contributions,” says Lucia Ortega Villasana, director of development and marketing for STAND! Against Domestic Violence in Concord, Calif. “We have to remind our donors that we’re here because of a need that came out of the community.
“You have to look at social trends and correlate those trends to your work, but don’t change your mission,” she adds. “In our case, domestic violence has not changed for 30 years, but we remind donors this problem still exists and we tie this into social trends. We advise our public about changes in domestic violence issues over the past five years, such as MySpace and cell phones that keep abused partners on an electronic leash. You have to be savvy and tap into every resource that substantiates your need.”
Liz Callahan, executive director of The CBO Center, a management-support organization that provides training and consulting services to increase the effectiveness of nonprofits, agrees that CBOs are challenged to align themselves with trendy fundraising causes, such as homeland security. She recommends being creative about your cause’s link to these trends, but to be careful about “mission creep.”
“You don’t want the funders driving the mission,” she says. “There are plenty of places that see a pot of money out there and want access to it, so they may start serving that population. They get funding for things that are not entirely a fit, and once the trend changes, they may have hired staff and invested in other resources they can no longer use.”
Another challenge for community-based organizations is finding fresh ways to market their message to the same pool of givers. Identifying trends is just one way to do that; the other is maintaining a personal connection.
“For CBOs with a limited number of private funders, the same people get approached over and over,” Callahan says. “After a few years, they want a break. This group tends to want to fund innovative causes. If you are approaching this kind of funder, you need to be constantly thinking of cutting-edge messages to maintain funding.”
Villasana looks continually for new methods to reach out to STAND!’s usual donors. Her group uses a software program that customizes deliverables to specific audiences. The software takes information related to the donor’s specific support (such as supporting transition programs for battered women), and flows that into their database. This information allows STAND! to send a personalized ask to each individual donor.
“We can send them custom e-mails and short postcards with specific information related to their interests,” she says. “This helps us be more effective. We have to use technology; we can’t do it alone.”
Jo Haines, director of private fund development for The After-School Corp. of New York City and a regular speaker on the topic of funding for CBOs, believes all fundraising is local in terms of building relationships.
“I’ve always said funders fund people,” she says. “What many CBOs experience is they don’t have the resources in fundraising, and the executive director is wearing too many hats. We’re seeing more intermediary groups like TASC help them build community-based programs like after-school efforts.
“When promoting programs nationally, the tools are more sophisticated in terms of staff and spending,” she says. “CBOs are not always able to allocate this same time and money. The Internet can be a bit of an equalizer, but you still have to take the time to research your donors.”
Limited staff and time
Many CBOs also are faced with the challenge of limited time and staff. Callahan believes boards are the most under-utilized resource to help with this issue.
“Boards are key,” she says. “Stop just recruiting people and telling them they are not asked to do anything. Be up front about their responsibilities. Tell them this is a partnership. This partnership can be extraordinarily powerful. Sit down with the board and ask them, ‘How are we furthering your goals?’ Tell them, ‘Here are our needs; how do these coincide with your needs?’”
Haines agrees: “Board development is essential. Tell the board straight out: Every member must be willing to do something. Create an advisory/development board that has the capacity to guide your group. Ask them to open their address books and help you reach more people. Volunteers are another way to get people through the door.”
Many community-based organizations are founded by passionate people with limited fundraising experience. Both Haines and Callahan report that this sector in particular has an incredible discomfort around the subject of money.
“If they can change their relationship with money, it would open doors,” Callahan says. “I would put every fundraiser into a training program where they face their relationship with money and learn to shamelessly go out there.”
When community-based organizations ask for donations, they should keep in mind that they are giving something in return. With the right approach, CBOs can gain real financial benefits that reflect their direct, substantial impact on their communities.
Christine Weiser is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and publisher of Philadelphia Stories, a nonprofit literary-arts publication.