Not long ago, an LA Times article about the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) attempts to raise a sum of $100 million cited fundraising consultant as saying, “People like to give to excellence. It’s excellence, not need that generates big gifts.” But this is not necessarily the case. Many poorly run nonprofits generate the big donor bucks in spite of haphazard management and lackluster results.
Take the nonprofit known as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), for instance. The organization was founded in 1983 and reached the peak of its effectiveness during the 1990’s. Eventually, D.A.R.E. worked its way into a total of 75% of United States school districts, and developed a presence in 54 countries worldwide. But D.A.R.E., despite its wide reach, is a fatally flawed program. Note the presence tense: the org is still going strong—at least monetarily.
Consider this: since D.A.R.E. has been around a lengthy amount of time, long-term studies became possible. Such studies showed that D.A.R.E. had absolutely zero impact on reducing drug use in school children, and in fact, in some cases, led children to begin using drugs. To date, D.A.R.E. has sucked up $10-$15 billion in monies raised through donations and taxes over the past decade alone. All of this is documented by author Ken Stern in his work, “With Charity for All,” which surveys the failures of nonprofits like D.A.R.E. These orgs put on a bright face with lots of lavish fundraising events, but ultimately fail to achieve their goals. Still, these nonprofits pull in the donors.
The question is: “how do they do it?” How do they reel in the donors? Because if the really effective nonprofits could figure it out, they may yet learn from the losers—those orgs who fail in their missions but have the knack of generating funds.
Consumer confidence may be one clue. Elie Hirschfeld, a mega-donor to multiple organizations and very generous philanthropist noted that he gives regardless of the economy, but when “there is overall consumer confidence in the economy there is a more positive environment for charities to go out in and build relationships [with their donors].”
Note that consumer confidence may have nothing to do with realities on the ground.
Still, some fundraisers are concerned. “We know from decades of research that giving does follow the economy,” says Melissa Brown, who played a role in preparing the study. “I don’t think everybody feels like we’re out of the woods yet.”
Nonprofits concerned about the effect of the proposed cap on charitable donation tax deductions and the recession would do well to take note of what worked and didn’t work to woo donors into parting with their funds. At the top of the list is saying thank you. Those nonprofits that made a point of thanking donors within two business days of receiving a contribution, received bigger and more numerous donations.
Kars4Kids social media director Steven Weldler says that connecting with people publicly on Twitter can have amazing long-term results. “We put a lot of effort into creating positive experiences with people on our social media platforms. There is no question that these people are highly likely to donate to Kars4Kids sometime down the road.”
Sending materials to donors about an organization’s programs or annual reports by mail or email was another gesture that donors rewarded by helping such nonprofits meet their fundraising goals for the year. The survey also found that asking donors to take active volunteer roles in organizations generated yet more donor largesse.
Of course, personal foundations whether the Gates Foundation of Bill & Melinda Gates or the Elie Hirscheld Foundation or many others don’t need any outside donors – they just need to tell the story of their giving success to encourage others to do the same.
The Personal Touch
It seemed that using a personal touch made a difference, as well. A personal phone call, a handwritten thank-you note, or an in-person informal discussion about how donors can make a difference in an organization’s future all seemed to have a positive effect on donors, as evidenced by the monetary results of this sort of outreach. Another good technique is to invite donors to assume leadership roles within the charity’s organizational hierarchy.
Notably, the survey found that sending gifts in response to donations is a turnoff, as are events requiring a donation to attend, and donor-limited tours of an organization’s facilities.
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