Fundraising Wisdom From a 25-Year Pro: Connie Sanderson, Kurn Hattin Homes for Children
Connie Sanderson is co-executive director of Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, a privately funded nonprofit founded in 1894 and located in Westminster, Vt. Kurn Hattin serves children, ages 5-15, who are in need or at risk as a result of family tragedy or social or economic hardship. Many of the 105 students who attend the residential school have experienced poverty, homelessness, abuse or neglect. They come to Kurn Hattin for a safe place to live and go to school, and for a chance at a brighter future.
Despite the growing and dire need for children's services, many nonprofit children's service organizations across the country have fallen victim to shrinking donor bases in times of economic uncertainty. But remarkably, over the past 25 years, while Sanderson was serving as Kurn Hattin’s director of development, the school’s endowment saw a steady increase and more than doubled, from $19 million to more than $45 million, an astounding figure for an organization of its size and a significant accomplishment given the unsteady economic climate in recent years.
Reflecting on the factors that have allowed Kurn Hattin’s operations to continue and its endowment to grow and thrive, Sanderson credits an adherence to the traditions set by her predecessors of nurturing personal relationships and face-to-face connections, and following a policy of fiscal responsibility.
“From the very beginning 120 years ago, when the early fundraisers went door to door soliciting funds for the children at Kurn Hattin, they began putting those funds away. They didn’t expand programs or facilities too quickly or too much, although the demand for expanded services was certainly there,” Sanderson says. “Instead they focused on excellence in the quality of the programming and saved the funds to insure that Kurn Hattin would always be here. Over the years, that prudence and reliability gained us a reputation among donors as a worthy and worthwhile charity. And here we are today, looking forward to the next 120 years.”
As well as her reverence for the past, those who know and work with Sanderson bear witness to her foresight and ability to plan and act strategically for long-term results.
Sanderson’s colleague, Shelley Richardson, vice president for advancement at Champlain College, says, “Connie realized early on in her career that ensuring a level of security for Kurn Hattin meant learning about estate-planning programs and expanding planned-giving options and opportunities for donors to leave a legacy. Her deep knowledge of these tools, combined with her loyalty to her donors and passion for the organization’s mission, has resulted in tremendous planned gifts for Kurn Hattin in perpetuity.”
In the spirit of handing down wisdom from those who have forged a path before us, Sanderson shares some of the advice, tips and best practices she has gathered over her own quarter-century of fundraising success. The following are her responses:
Put people first
A major part of our success is due to the fact that we believe first in our relationships with our supporters. We nurture those relationships because we care about them as people. You can learn about programs, techniques and ways to solicit funds, but what you need most in the fundraising profession is the love of people, the desire to spend time with people and to really listen to them.
Building real relationships must be done in person, so get out of the office when you can. When I go on the road to visit and thank our supporters, I’m coming as a person first. Because they know and trust me as an individual with whom they have a personal relationship, it opens up communication about the needs of the organization as a personal conversation, rather than a business one. Our donors want the same things we want: attention, respect and to be a force for good in the world. Speak to them from the heart in person, and they will almost always become steadfast supporters.
We can never thank our donors enough for believing in our mission and supporting it. Always thank major donors in person. Yes, everyone gets the letter, but an in-person thank-you, with no ask involved, is the surest way to get another major gift down the road.
Match individual donors’ needs with your organization’s needs
Donors want to feel like they are partners in furthering the mission of a charity they support. For an initiative to be successful, it must first ask and answer the questions, “Will this initiative resonate with and inspire donors?” “Will it forge a bond between their ideals and the organization’s mission?” Gimmicks and glitz don’t work, ultimately, because they are fleeting, and donors are looking for more substance, more heart. Successful initiatives hear what donors care about and respond. Create this backdrop, and you will have a successful fundraising initiative because donors will feel respected, considered and inspired to join with you.
Invest in the right staff
Developing real, lasting partnerships with donors can take years. That’s why continuity and consistency of the development staff are essential keys to success. Frequent staff turnover in the department can make it difficult to forge the kinds of foundations and relationships necessary for successful planned-giving initiatives, for example.
Take the time to hire the right people who take the organization’s mission to heart. At Kurn Hattin, people are not just doing a job; they are called to the mission to help children in need. Once a person becomes employed, there is such deep satisfaction in going to work, knowing that whatever job that person is doing, it betters the life of boys and girls in our care. Securing the funds needed to sustain this charitable organization is deeply satisfying on yet another level, creating bonds with donors who also want to help children and giving donors the knowledge and tools to do so.
Maximize your impact
Over the years, we have adjusted the development office’s structure in order to maximize our opportunities to make a lasting, positive impact on the organization. That has meant intertwining events planning, alumni affairs, fundraising, marketing and public relations into one comprehensive function as opposed to separate departments. Consolidating these duties under one roof has vastly elevated public awareness about Kurn Hattin, resulted in smoother internal operations, and helped to ensure that donors’ needs and desires are always considered — and sustainability of the organization is at the heart of any institutional decision.
Communicate well and often
Never ignore any contributor, no matter how modest. Know your annual-fund donors, and cultivate relationships with them. These are the people who will make a permanent gift to the endowment down the road.
Never let communication with a donor lag. Make sure donors know you are interested in their concerns and thoughts, and when they ask you for information, no matter how insignificant it may seem, get it to them right away.
Don't forsake print materials. Many donors are of a generation who still want to hold a booklet or appeal in their hands and read it. Reach out to them on their terms, not on yours.
Use targeted mailings and communications to their fullest advantage. The planned gift is the lifeblood of any organization. Talk about these giving options in all of your literature, on your website and in social media.
Let donors see their positive impact
In addition to showing our appreciation, the best way to retain donor support is to create opportunities that allow them to see firsthand their contributions at work. This is when they tell me they experience the real joy of giving. Regularly highlight specific, compelling success stories in all communications, and build in regular events, and invite donors to attend them in person, so they have an opportunity to see their dollars in action.
Enlist the support of board members and trustees
Everyone knows the famous line, "You have to spend money to make money." Never doubt the truth of this. Work with your board members and help them understand that an investment in the development effort will reap rewards down the road.
Trustees and board members are also instrumental in helping to enhance visibility, building public awareness, introducing new friends to the organization and bringing in potential supporters. Encourage trustees and board members to bring friends to events, and ask for their help in reaching out to significant donors and noteworthy potential donors. This helps people know they are not just names and numbers on an annual report.
Continually adapt for maximal sustainability
Enhance programs that facilitate building relationships with “core donors” (those in a position to make planned gifts or bequests). Place an emphasis on “growing donors up” to the core donor level, for example, through specific stewardship, additional visits, targeted mailings and recognition programs.
Four years ago, with enhanced sustainability as its mission, Kurn Hattin’s board of trustees instituted task forces to address matters critical to our success and future solvency. These teams are made up of staff and trustees.
We now have a development task force, of which the overall goal is to ensure a sustainable future for the organization, as well as an investment task force, whose sole charge is to work with our investment manager to analyze and review our investments and maximize our endowment performance. During the last four years, this team has made adjustments in our portfolio which have generated increased endowment income.
With 120 years under our belts, I can’t tell you how good it feels to be able to look to the future confidently and say we’ll be here to serve the children who need us for 120 more and beyond.
Jaimie Scanlon is a Vermont-based writer and editor. She works as the content specialist at Rapt Creative Marketing and Design, on behalf o Kurn Hattin Homes for Children.