Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Helpings with your own two hands

In January when Haiti was hit with the massive earthquake that killed thousands and destroyed many more people's worlds, my daughter Lindsey was personally impacted by the media coverage of the tragedy. Any time she watched a snippet of the news she would comment on how sad she was for the people of Haiti and how she wished she could help.

Eventually she saw the messages to text a donation to Haiti, which we did, and she felt good about helping them -- for a while. Two days after we texted the donation she asked when our money was going to make a difference, because she was still seeing video of families suffering and of children dying. If you think 20-year-olds today want instant gratification, you haven't talked to any 6-year-olds lately.

So I told her that while we couldn't go to Haiti ourselves to help them, we COULD do something for all the people here in Minnesota who don't have enough to eat, by volunteering to help serve a meal at a local Loaves & Fishes site. A friend of mine organized the volunteer efforts to serve dinner to people who are what Feeding America calls "food insecure," meaning people who are struggling to put food on their table. At Loaves & Fishes you don't have to be on welfare, you don't have to be unemployed, you can just show up and eat, no questions asked. We signed up and last night we served the dinner.

We arrived about 15 minutes after they had begun serving the dinner meal. We put on plastic aprons, hairnets and gloves and got to work. First Lindsey got to dish out pudding -- after a while she handed out bananas while I served up salad. She had a smile on her face and loved every minute of the experience. She got to see people from all walks of life -- families with young children, elderly people and homeless people. She smiled at every one and took their comments in stride, when they told her how nice it was to see such a young person there helping out. She even spoke to a few, an amazing feat if you knew how shy my little child is.

Afterwards we took off our temporary gear and she skipped out with me, wanting to know when we could do it again. So now we're on the rotation -- we'll be there every month, helping to serve food to those who might not have eaten had it not been for us.

I am continually amazed at how big Lindsey's heart is. She has taught me so much about what it means to be caring and charitable. I typically am one to be philanthropic from a distance -- I'll help raise the money, someone else can go do the mission. Except for my trip to Honduras, I have had rare opportunities to speak directly to those who are helped by charities, and to be honest have had little desire to do so. Perhaps it's because I feel so deeply for them, I have a heard time hearing about their plights without putting myself in their shoes. Lindsey seems to embrace this, though, and instead of getting wrapped up in how hopeless a situation may seem, she involves herself in how to make it less hopeless.

As a child I was never charitable in the same way she is. I am so proud of her and cannot wait to see what she's going to do as she grows up.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Text Donations for Haiti Relief: A New Channel Has Arrived

The whole phenomenon of the fundraising that occurred via texting in response to the Haiti earthquake was amazing. And what a telethon -- $57MM raised from the telethon alone at last count, with $25 million raised in text donations (outside of the telethon).

People may not remember this but the 9/11 event was the first time that there was an outpouring of donations via online giving. The American Red Cross website actually shut down for a day after 9/11 because they couldn't handle the amount of traffic of people trying to make online donations to them. It cost them many millions in lost donations when that happened, and opened up the whole new way to give: online.

Prior to 9/11, online donations were possible but not likely. Nonprofits often didn't have a way to accept online donations and the security of the credit card transactions was inconsistent based on the technology. After 9/11, nonprofits tried everything they could to get people to migrate to the web -- it's much less costly to get people to donate online than to create a direct mail piece, print it, stamp it, send it out, then process the paper donations upon their return. What a way to open up to a whole new generation of donors, people for whom the internet is an integral part of their lives, including shopping, purchasing, entertaining, ultimately living.

After 9/11, nonprofits finally made in-roads in their attempts to drive people to the web. Trust in online giving increased and a breakthrough was made.

The millions that were texted to the American Red Cross in response to Haiti is yet another break through in giving.

A way of transacting that was previously known to a small subset of the population has gone mainstream. People like myself, who have never texted any kind of financial transaction, and have hardly texted at all, gave via texting for the first time. The intrastructure which allows for this kind of donating was already in place -- no systems went down, no donations were rejected, all went smoothly.

A new channel for giving has been opened up.

Now the question is, what will nonprofits be able to do with the new channel? Will they once again go through the process of trying to drive people to give via texting, only to find that generating content and reasons to migrate to the nonprofit will be immensely more powerful than pushing people there? Only time will tell. I'm excited to be a part of this new world in philanthropy, to be able to test things out and see what works.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 THAT'S a smart idea...

I work with a woman who is passionate about animals. Passionate. She makes Sarah McLachlan, singer/songwriter and spokeswoman for the ASPCA, look like a hater.

As such, she generously supports multiple animal and environmental organizations including the ASPCA, National Wildlife Federation, Humane Society and others.

This has the potential to also make her an anti-environmentalist, in that all of these organizations use direct mail aggressively to renew donors and raise revenue. And for a while there her mailbox was inundated with mail -- labels, calendars, chatchkas of all kinds, and she had a hard time determining which ones she was going to donate to and which she was going to throw away. Which need was most pressing? Most urgent? Most important? She would wait for the next mailpiece, weigh all the options and then decide where to make her donation.

Finally, one year she assessed how much she gave to each organization and arranged to become a monthly sustaining donor for those who could accommodate it. Each month, the organizations ding her credit card for a pre-specified amount. She doesn't even notice it's gone.

This had two added benefits:

1. She started receiving less solicitation mail from the organizations she chooses to support, and instead only gets the kind of communication she's really interested in, namely, what their latest project is and progress they've made on prior programs.

2. Because she is a highly valued sustaining donor, these organizations are protecting her closely and her name is not being sold to every other animal/environmental organization out there, so she stopped getting mail from organizations that she had never supported previously.

She's happy because she's getting less mail; her chosen charities are happy because they are spending less to get the same amount of revenue. They also have the added benefit of knowing exactly how much she plans on giving and when to expect it.

A win-win for all.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Recession forcing nonprofits to merge and close

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article regarding the impact of the recession on nonprofits which I found fascinating.

WSJ Article: Recession forces nonprofit mergers, closings

It's a triple whammy:

1. Foundations have had to cut back on grants because the investments which are their revenue sources have performed so badly that they need to preserve principle.

2. Government funding has been slashed due to budget cuts and attempts to reduce spending.

3. Individuals have had to cut back on giving due to..yep, same reasons enumerated above.

While charitable giving in response to the earthquake in Haiti has been incredible, natural disasters have typically resulted in a short-term spurt in giving which sometimes has long-term negative implications for non-humanitarian organizations which do not benefit from those donations.

The article speculates that the economic prosperity of the last few decades has generated an excess of nonprofits. there's something worth considering.

To prove this point, here's a test. Which of the following organization(s) is a made up name?

1. The National Breast Cancer Coalition
2. The National Breast Cancer Research Center
3. National Breast Cancer Foundation
4. Breast Cancer Fund
5. Breast Cancer Action Network

How about if I told you none of these? Yes, these are ALL nonprofits whose mission relates in some way to breast cancer, either research, patient advocacy or patient services. All of them various levels of management, be it a president, vice president, often multiple VPs of development, marketing, events, communication, and so on and so forth.

How much further would we be in the fight against breast cancer if some of these joined forces, pooled their dollars and focused their research?

Now, I am not advocating that the government should stop issuing 501(c)3 status to anyone who wants one. I am not advocating that any organization be mandated to join forces with others. But I do have a thing for Darwin:

Survival of the fittest, baby.

That's why it's so important that to survive a charity make compelling reasons why donors should support them. That they show donors in tangible ways how those dollars are fulfilling the mission, are being put to good use and not being squandered. That's why trust in an organization is key.

Just like in the rest of the business world.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Beginning (at least for me)

So which one was it? you may ask. Which nonprofit finally made a difference for you, made you realize that there was a deep desire within you to help others?

It is not who you think it is.

My first experience which truly turned me on to fundraising was a field visit I made with a then-client of mine, Children International.

At this point in my career I had already been working exclusively with nonprofits for some time. But up until then, they were just marketing plans, profit/loss projections, forecasted performance, numbers on a page.

In 2002, I had the privilege of going to Honduras to see first-hand some of the work that Children International did, where the dollars that we were working so hard to raise were being spent. It was my first travel out of the country since a one-week trip to Europe in college, and I was excited and nervous at the same time. We were warned about malaria, about kidnappers, about the importance of safety and long slacks to keep the bugs (and the men) off your skin. My Spanish was (and unfortunately still is) nothing more than thank you's, please's, and an understanding of words here and there without the ability to respond.

I remember while traveling on various planes to our destination that someone from Children International who accompanied us said that poor people in the US did not know what it was to be poor.

"What a heartless statement," I thought to myself, "How can you say that?"

And then I met poor people.

People for whom there was no societal safety net, no welfare or public housing to be had, no food stamps to ration out. They made shelters of cardboard and garbage bags in the ditches of the roads. When it rained too hard their houses washed away. They simply watched them go, gathering up the important belongings like the pots and pans and the next day would find new rubbish to make a home from and start over.

These same homes had roofs made of the same cardboard or garbage bags, or, if they were lucky, they found a sheet of tin to put across the top of it. And while the tin was better at keeping the moisture out, the heat within these shelters during the day was unbearable.

I saw square miles of open land that had been claimed by squatters, people who built makeshift homes nearly on top of each other. The land was owned by someone else, someone who tolerated their presence but who had the right to clear away the houses and plant whatever crop he wanted, with no warning and no requirement to find new homes for those he displaced.

Our group broke into two smaller groups and were escorted by those who worked at the local CI affiliate, where we were ushered into the homes of various families and told of their plight. I remember during one of these visits a little girl who couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 cried the entire time, but was too prideful to be caught crying. She kept rubbing her eyes as if she had sand in them, and would look around the room at us white-faced visitors with a defiant face. A few within our group did speak Spanish, and the girl singled out a Spanish-speaking woman in our group and begged to come back with us, and told her that she would make her a wonderful daughter.

And despite their desperate poverty, the kinds of traumatic events that happen to us who have better tools to deal with such occurrences happen there too. We heard one woman speak of her husband who had died of cancer and the terrible pain he had been in in his last days, but there was no money for painkillers. In the meantime, their children were getting sick from the cesspool that was literally out their front step. When it rained all the garbage and raw sewage from the other families ran down to a low spot in front of their home, creating this cesspool.

Just imagine taking away everything you currently have, EVERYTHING, and you have no means of earning them back. I think I've painted the picture. I could go on for about 5 more posts.

Then we saw the communities that Children International was creating for these people. They would negotiate purchasing the land from the landowner so that the people living there did not have any fear of being forced out. They would put in sewer lines that connected all the homes, and a water tank on a nearby hill for fresh, drinkable water. And while a cement block home that's 12 feet by 12 feet doesn't sound like much to us who are accustomed to so much more, it was paradise to these people, because there was a BATHROOM  inside the house, and there was RUNNING WATER!

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch came through Honduras and devastated much of the country in the same way that other natural disasters have been more destructive to the poor than to the rich. Within 3 months, Children International had mostly finished construction on a community called "El Milagro" -- The Miracle. While Unicef, CARE and others were still figuring out what to do with the millions they had raised to bring relief to the area, CI had already mobilized their local affiliates, made the necessary negotiations and began construction.

Cost to sponsor a child through Children International at the time of my tour was $18 a month.

It truly was a miracle to see what those $18 could do. They were and still are the least expensive of all the child sponsorship organizations, and I believe that because of the dedication of the people they have on the ground in all the countries they operate, they make those 18 dollars do the work of 50.

I returned from the trip a changed woman.

I walked into my home after the trip, physically exhausted and emotionally drained, but my spirit had been filled anew. I thanked my higher power every time I turned on the water. I marveled at being able to turn on a light switch. I was grateful for my vehicle which allowed me transportation to get to a job.

And the marketings plans that I continued to work on for Children International were no longer filled with numbers. They were filled with faces, with images of children and families whose lives I could affect, I could change, just by convincing one more person that s/he could afford $18 a month.

That was the beginning for me.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

It IS personal, isn't it?

It's a personal decision that each one of us makes to be charitable. For some, it comes from a religious or spiritual place. For others, it comes from a feeling of being a member of the family of man, that we are all one race, one people, and we have an obligation to support each other. And others of us do not get "the bug" until we are personally touched by events that compel our bodies to act on behalf of our hearts.

For me, it's a little of all of these reasons.

I began my career working 14 years at a direct marketing firm -- 12 of those years my clients were primarily nonprofit clients who looked to us to help them raise money, so they could fulfill their various missions.

Prior to focusing on nonprofits, I can honestly say I felt a little...slimy. A little disingenuine. I was putting my brains to work figuring out how to sell consumers the next gadget from the upcoming catalog, to convince people to subscribe to a magazine they could live without. But when I began putting those marketing brains to work for nonprofits, I felt better about what I was doing. At least I was working to convince people to give to a cause, to help others, to fund research, to save animals, to do whatever it was our clients' missions were.

Yet through this experience, I was also supporting nonprofits whose missions meant little to me on a personal level.

I found some of my clients were not good stewards of the money that was given to them, that much of it was wasted or spent for the sake of spending money, because money had been budgeted to them and they weren't going to NOT spend it or they wouldn't get it budgeted to them the following year. And others were such incredible stewards of their donors money that every dollar that they received did two dollars worth of good.

After more than a decade of sitting on the sidelines, of observing and evaluating what I would and wouldn't do, I've decided to join the nonprofit forces. I can't say how many times I've sat in strategy meetings with my clients and thought, "If I were in their shoes, here's what I would do." Now, I have that opportunity.

And I am only beginning to understand first-hand the challenges facing nonprofits.

That it isn't as easy to turn the internal tide of thought -- that while as a consultant I could say, "Just walk 'The Board' through these numbers, how can they not see the reasons why they need to invest in acquisition?" it isn't as easy when you're the person sitting in that seat.

That I can't make people not give to Haitian earthquake relief so they give to my organization instead. And I understand that people don't have the funds to do both.

In my past life I withheld writing about my professional work because I did not want to accidentally disclose company secrets. I didn't want to air dirty laundry, the same kind of dirty laundry that every company (and nonprofit) has within its walls. I wanted a clear separation between my professional life and my personal life.

But now, my professional life and my personal life are closely aligned. People who know me best know I have "a soft heart." I feel, truly feel, for people going through troubling times. It takes me not two seconds to put myself in their shoes and empathize with their plights. At times this empathy is a blessing and a curse.

This blog is about the reasons why charity as a whole is so important.

It's about what compells my six-year-old to want to give money to help Haiti, and then two days later wonders why her money didn't make an impact, because she still sees news coverage of suffering there.

It's about the personal connection, the face-to-face discussions with the people who benefit from our charitable acts, that mean so much to us that we take those experiences home with us...for days or weeks. Or years.

It's about the tactics used  that help further a nonprofit's goals, that make them savvy marketers and ultimately successful organizations, who now have success stories to tell. Or those unwise tactics which resulted in the loss of revenue, some bad press, a lost opportunity, a decision we can learn from.

So look for stories both little and small, personal and professional, to litter these pages. I hope you find them helpful, or if not, truthful. Perhaps you will find your heart is in fundraising as well, and you didn't even know it.