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Fundraising: Share with the community, and they will share with you

February 20, 2014
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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In the nonprofit behavioral healthcare world, government funding is never certain. This means that organizations, programs, staff and leaders are often forced to operate on the barest of financial margins. To create more stable and sustainable programs, many organizations have begun to emphasize fundraising and community contributions.

Typically when organizations think about raising funds or improving their funding, they think of several things:

  • targeting individuals with a high net worth, including friends or acquaintances;
  • involving them in one-time events that create pressure to give (golf tournaments, 5k races, dances, etc.); and,
  • asking for gifts when donors have only a limited idea of the cause/mission of the organization.

For another type of fundraising – sustainable fundraising – the goals are to:

  • invite people to learn about your mission;
  • identify those who are sincerely interested, based on what they’ve learned; and,
  • ask these potential donors to deepen their relationship to the organization over the long-term and to give from the heart.

The former method focuses on money and can be somewhat coercive, while the latter seeks and builds upon personal interest and engagement. It offers a sustainable approach that grows naturally as people become connected with the mission. When they become passionate about the cause, they will tell others, and so on.

One organization that is helping nonprofits on the pathway to sustainable funding is Benevon, which provides a sustainable funding model to nonprofit organizations. The key, says founder and CEO Terry Axelrod, is to reach out to the community to help them understand, then get involved in, the organization’s mission.

“It’s all about engaging individuals in the mission of the organization who ultimately will become donors,” she explains.

Getting inspired

Cindy Hart, development director at Bert Nash (Lawrence, Ks.) knows firsthand that a fundraising program led by this type of model is successful. Hart joined Bert Nash in 2009 and says that prior to her hire, the organization had done “pretty standard fundraising.” When CEO David Johnson heard about Benevon’s sustainable funding approach and suggested Bert Nash take a look into details, Hart wasn’t convinced. “I initially didn’t spend too much time with it because it was events, and I didn’t think it was really where we wanted to go. I was trying to work us away from events into more major gifts,” she explains.

As she tried to learn more, Hart spoke with the development director of a local theater who had adopted the approach. After she was invited to attend training sessions with the organization, she learned that the sustainable funding model wasn’t necessarily about major gifts and glitzy events, but more about connecting people to the mission. When she attended the theater’s ‘ask event’ (quite literally, an event the organization hosts to ask individuals and organizations if they will contribute to the organization) as an observer, to see how the event worked, she found herself so inspired that she ended up making a five-year commitment to the community theater.

She found that the biggest challenge in sustainable fundraising – for a community mental health center (CMHC) like Bert Nash, or another nonprofit organization -- is learning how to tell the organization’s story. Because of the stigma from others, and the reluctance (or so she thought) of people in recovery to tell their story, it was always a struggle to figure out how to make the community aware of the impact Bert Nash was making. However, the sustainable funding model provided a formula for developing and telling that story. Creating the story, a story that can be told to others, is the first step in the sustainable funding model.

Hosting a virtual tour

The second step involves creating an opportunity for people to learn about and interact with the organization – a ‘point-of-entry’ event.

Bert Nash’s point-of-entry event, “Discover Bert Nash,” is a one-hour virtual tour (using various displays and presentations) of the organization and the mission. Because of the scope of work and type of services that it provides – in the community, in other organizations, at schools, etc. – it would be “physically impossible” to take people on a physical tour. The event is open to anyone and people are invited to this tour knowing that it is not a fundraising event. The goal is to enlighten the community about “who we are and what we do,” says Hart.

Often people believe that CMHCs are fully funded by the government, Hart says. By following the formula in the sustainable funding model, Hart and her colleagues discovered that they had to help people understand and appreciate the Center’s challenges and needs. One challenge is that while the government provides some funding, the center faces an ever changing funding picture.

The event holds about 10 to 15 people per session and is organized by “ambassadors,” members of the community who commit to help in the Center’s outreach efforts. The “Discover Bert Nash” event is hosted by its board chairman, and features reflections from the CEO and staff members. The highlight is an individual’s story of recovery, before, during and after being treated at Bert Nash. “That really is the most moving for people—to hear from other people about their real experiences,” says Hart.