Grappling With Growth
You would think that after a hundred years, a nonprofit could kick back a bit and maybe even rest on its laurels. After all, it’s been there, done that — right?
Not necessarily so, says Kurt Aschermann, senior vice president and chief marketing and development officer of Atlanta-based Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which was founded in Boston in 1906.
“I like to think we’re still rolling the dice — we’re still gambling, trying new approaches to fundraising and communications as often as we can,” he says, adding, of course, that the organization’s longevity boosts its fundraising efforts.
“I think there’s an advantage to being an old-timer,” he says, “because some donors are going to say, ‘I’m not going to donate to some fly-by-night organization; I’m going with the nonprofit that’s been here a while.’”
So what keeps BGCA on its toes? The Internet, for one thing. But more about that later. The venerable nonprofit’s biggest challenge to date lies in the very thing that’s made it so big: its growth. With close to 4,000 independent local clubs around the country, the national organization faces the challenge of maintaining brand consistency and even wrangling with its own affiliates over donors.
“We’ve been opening a new club almost every day for the last four years. This ‘club explosion’ was a very conscious thing,” Aschermann says. “Our system worked. We just asked ourselves, ‘How many kids can we serve?’ The only way to do that is continuing to open new clubs.”
It took 92 years for BGCA to hit 2,000 clubs, and now, in just seven years, that number’s nearly doubled to 3,700. For the past four years, BGCA indeed has launched at least one new club every single day — 389 in 2005 alone.
‘World’s best-kept secret’
BGCA primarily reaches donors through its network of local clubs, but those 3,700 (and growing) independent clubs are run like a franchise system.
“There are no company-owned stores here,” Aschermann says. “Anything we do has to be done by force of persuasion or by providing such added value to their work, which is part of our strategy, so the clubs come on board.”
Prompted by a 1993 awareness survey that revealed only 14 percent of the U.S. public discovered BGCA on its own, Aschermann went into overdrive implementing an organization-wide communications and re-branding strategy to reach new and existing donors, with the support of the organization’s national board of governors.
Around this time, BGCA also recruited actor Denzel Washington — a former BGCA kid himself — to be its national spokesperson; 11 years later, Washington’s still active in promoting BGCA.
“I got so tired of our board saying we’re the world’s best-kept secret,” he says. “We came to the conclusion that following a for-profit communications and branding model was the right thing for us to do — figuring out what we wanted to say, who we wanted to say it to and how we wanted to say it. We got pretty ruthless with it, even creating our own unique selling proposition and tailoring all our communications against that USP.”
One problem BGCA faced — and had in common with many national nonprofits — is that its affiliate clubs weren’t uniform in their messaging to potential donors, resulting in what Aschermann calls “brand creep.” National headquarters was seeing different slogans, more creative uses of its logo and varying descriptions of what BGCA does coming from local clubs. Some were merely inconsistent, while others were inaccurate.
Part of the revamped communications strategy was to ensure all of BGCA’s clubs were communicating in the same way, from using uniform graphics and logos, to speaking the same language with donors. Aschermann, for example, is very serious about the so-called elevator speech.
“What you say in 20 seconds can impact the whole public perception of the national organization,” he says. “We’ve spent a lot of time hitting home to our clubs the elements of BGCA’s elevator speech: This is a building-centered program where paid, professional staff serve kids through affordable and available programs that work.”
The elevator-speech push ensures that someone walking into a BGCA club in Duluth, Minn., would receive the same message as someone walking into a Jacksonville, Fla., club. And, Aschermann says, it’s working. In 2003, a new public-awareness survey showed about 80 percent of the U.S. public was familiar with BGCA — up more than 65 percent from 1993.
When Aschermann joined BGCA nearly 17 years ago, the development and marketing staff numbered around 20. Now, his staff is at 106, with around 60 in development and 40 in marketing.
“We’ve succeeded in getting our clubs to sound alike, smell alike, taste alike and to carry the message crafted by the national organization, so we’re all saying the same thing,” he says. “What’s also key for BGCA is that we’re very clear about how we allocate donation dollars. We let the donor know what we’re doing with her money.”
But who owns the donor?
In the mid 1990s, BGCA commissioned a series of customer-satisfaction studies.
“The result was that 92 percent of our local clubs rated the national office as good or great,” Aschermann says. “It was so high we did the survey again. But, the numbers were right.”
However, he admits, it wasn’t always that way.
“I would say one of the most important things we’ve done is fix the relationship between the national office and local clubs,” Aschermann says. “Often franchise systems for nonprofits don’t work. But we’ve tried to figure out some things to make it work for us.”
For example, donors have always created an interesting problem for BGCA: Who owns them — the national organization or the individual clubs in the communities where donors live? Part of BGCA’s national strategy is to help its clubs raise awareness and funds in their communities, but Aschermann’s team had to figure out where to go from there.
Case in point: BGCA currently has a very small direct-mail program out of its national office, with quarterly mailings that go out to a housefile of only 8,000 names. Aschermann would like to grow the program but says the problem a national organization like BGCA faces is every potential donor is in a local club or affiliate’s backyard.
“Every dime we raise, a local club can say we’re taking money away from it. That’s not necessarily true since local clubs may not have a sophisticated enough fundraising effort to reach out to donors,” he says. “But, perception’s reality. So we’ve struggled to figure out how to run a direct-mail campaign that would benefit both the national office and local clubs.”
To that end, in 2005 Aschermann’s team asked 26 clubs in California’s Los Angeles County to help the national office test a BGCA-funded direct-mail program.
“They’re a skeptical and tough group,” he says. “They were asking us, ‘What are we getting from our national office?’”
From the beginning, the national office and participating clubs set ground rules about who owns the donor. The clubs committed to placing donations generated from this program into a revolving fund for five years. The national office would receive 15 percent of the donations, with the rest staying local. If a donor mentions a specific local club in response to the direct-mail appeal, that donor’s name is forever owned by that local club, even though his gift goes into the revolving fund.
“So far this system is working with our local clubs. We’re going to continue testing in Los Angeles County for the balance of 2006 and make some conscious decisions about it in 2007,” Aschermann says, adding that BGCA plans to continue launching appeals in concert with local clubs.
“That’s really where the rubber meets the road, at the clubs, where the child’s served,” he says. “It’s much easier to communicate with donors through local clubs. And we know the donor wants her money to stay locally.”
Beyond annual campaigns
BGCA has tested individual- and planned-giving programs in conjunction with small pilot groups of clubs. In 2004, the organization, in partnership with 19 clubs, tested a national individual-giving drive called “It Just Takes One,” Aschermann says, reporting that the participating clubs doubled their fundraising dollars from individuals — a success that then prompted 250 clubs last year to roll out the program. Notably in 2005, gifts from 2,562 individual donors amounted to $36 million.
Aschermann describes the individual-giving program as “the basic fundamentals of individual fundraising created in a very usable, small box.” Two rules of thumb that his team learned in rolling out this drive: Board members must give first, and then must conduct as many face-to-face meetings as possible with donors.
“As you increase face-to-face solicitation, you exponentially increase success and dollars,” he says. “Face-to-face meetings with donors are a primary ask strategy on the national and local level for BGCA.
“We’re hoping all of our clubs will implement this program in 2007,” he adds. “A primary focus in the centennial year is institutionalizing individual fundraising drives at the club level.”
In the mid 1990s, Aschermann says, BGCA’s planned-giving strategy left something to be desired.
“We pretended, like many nonprofits do, that we had a planned-giving program,” he explains. “You know, ‘If you leave us something in your will, we can take care of it.’ But nothing aggressive.”
When local clubs started to call the national office to ask what a charitable remainder trust was or how to handle planned-giving requests, BGCA put together an official planned-giving program and discovered the national office had to teach clubs how to set up these programs, and also help them close the deals.
In 2003, the program was tested at clubs in Los Angeles County and helped the local clubs close $1 million in planned-giving gifts the first year.
In 2004, in response to strong positive feedback from local clubs, BGCA hired a national planned-giving director, along with five regional planned-giving officers.
“The long-range plan for this program called for a planned-giving director in BGCA’s five regions, to provide hands-on consulting for clubs,” Aschermann says.
In 2005, BGCA received seven planned gifts at the national level with an estimated expectancy of $7.8 million, compared to 163 local gifts with an estimated expectancy of $16.8 million.
BGCA’s planned-giving strategy also includes the establishment of a nationwide deferred-giving society, called The Heritage Club, at every local organization. Local donors will be recognized nationally for their contributions to local clubs.BGCA employees also can enroll in the nonprofit’s employee-giving program, which raises approximately $170,000 annually, Aschermann says.
On the Web
BGCA will continue bolstering its online-giving program, which includes a Web site revamp, an annual e-mail appeal, and distribution of a quarterly newsletter to 20,000 people.
“For a totally passive Web site, it’s been very successful, especially the last holiday season. However, our goal is to get more aggressive and proactive on the Internet and with e-mail fundraising to reach donors going forward,” Aschermann says. “We’re going to freshen it up and try to make it more interactive.”
Currently, donors can find out basic information about individual and planned giving, and can either make a donation online or request more information. In 2005, 623 gifts totaling $116,500 were made via the BGCA Web site, up from 430 gifts totaling $78,600 in 2004. The average donation in 2005 was $187, up from $183 in 2004.
So far, Aschermann says, BGCA’s use of opt-out e-mail hasn’t been very robust, but he recognizes its power to reach donors.
“We know that direct mail works, and that there’s a science behind it,” he says. “But we also know that a clear, specific, three-and-a-half line e-mail to a potential donor that says, ‘We need your help. We’ve lost every club in the Gulf. Nineteen Boys and Girls Clubs were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. Can you help us?’ works. And is far more effective in my opinion. Simplicity and clarity.”
E-mail fundraising, he says, will be upgraded once BGCA gets through its centennial year.
BGCA also receives a good bit of funding from corporations. There currently are 735 of them supporting BGCA, with corporate giving in 2005 amounting to $19 million. Corporate partners benefit by receiving the opportunity to make a positive impact on kids; encouraging volunteer involvement; and creating greater public awareness through publications, BGCA’s intranet, conferences, advertising and consumer promotions.
“At the national level, we’re a little bit better on our corporate fundraising than our local clubs because we have the capacity to provide national reach to a corporation,” Aschermann says.
“We created an in-house corporate fundraising operation, the Corporate Opportunities Group, and adopted some very for-profit principles of account management,” he adds.
For its centennial year, BGCA embarked on something it had never done before — a full-scale fundraising campaign. Its three-year “Hope and Opportunity Campaign,” begun in 2005, aims to raise $200 million, of which it already has garnered $125 million.
“We had a couple of pretty depressing meetings early on with the campaign leadership because they were used to doing campaigns for their colleges and universities where they had donor bases of 150,000,” Aschermann says. “We had to say, ‘We don’t have that kind of list. We have to do this campaign differently.’ We got the board ready, willing and able to do it.”
Aschermann breaks down the centennial campaign’s goals very simply: “This campaign’s about creating awareness, hosting events and raising revenue,” he says.
Included in a series of centennial events is Kids Report to America, a survey of 46,000 young people around the country that was sent on Feb. 1 (the day after President Bush’s State of the Union speech) to various senators and congress people. Teens also will host town halls throughout the year to discuss the survey results.
Other events include the Red Carpet Reunion in Boston and the re-tooled America’s Day for Kids, which formerly was called KidsDay. Aschermann says 32 states already have endorsed America’s Day for Kids, and BGCA’s hoping the other 18 will come on board; it also hopes the president will declare America’s Day for Kids on a national level this year.
Aschermann says that the message for the centennial campaign, which will enter the public phase of fundraising during the second quarter, isn’t a lot different from the message BGCA regularly pushes: “But here’s the key difference: We’ve found in our survey of 46,000 young people that kids still come to the clubs to have fun, to be recognized, to feel safe, to know there are adults who care for them. We’re telling donors we specifically need their donations to continue to build new clubs and improve impact on the kids in those clubs.”
To date, BGCA has served more than 4.4 million young people ages 6 to 18, and Aschermann’s goal is to kick it up to 5 million by year’s end.
An aggressive advertising campaign also is in place for the entire year, including 52 space ads, each appearing weekly in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, telling the stories of individual boys and girls served by the clubs. A public service announcment campaign will drop in the fourth quarter, including TV, radio and newspaper ads. Last year, BGCA sponsored 2,000 events across the country, which generated $5 million in revenue.
Not going anywhere
One of the clear advantages to being a 100-year-old organization, Aschermann says, is standing out in the glut of information available on the Internet, which can work both for and against the organization.
“The difference between fundraising in 2006 and 10 years ago is the incredible explosion of information. Each donor now is his own research department,” he says. “In the old days, people contributed to an organization because their parents did or because they were affected by it somehow. Back then, to learn more about BGCA, you had to call. Now, donors have information at their fingertips.”
Pre-Internet, BGCA competed primarily with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
“Now, we’re competing with the local garden club,” Aschermann says. “The Internet makes your competition broader, especially as donors use the discretionary dollar much more judiciously.”
Aschermann estimates there are about 36,000 new nonprofits receiving charters a year.
“We exponentially add competitors every month, which is why a communications strategy is so important to your development strategy,” he says. “From a national perspective, our biggest challenge is helping our local clubs get better at business and development. That’s the biggest challenge for nonprofits with affiliates.”