As often comes with a new year, I was recently reminiscing and thinking back to my start in fundraising. My first job in the nonprofit arena was helping the Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation launch its fundraising operation. I now realize how lucky I was to start my career working in a one man development operation in support of what I still believe to be one of our most under-served populations: the aged. Not only was I raising funds for a cause that tends to get bypassed in favor of sexier causes or those that are "trending," I was doing it as part of a start-up fundraising operation.
While Cabrini and its Eldercare services have since consolidated to one facility in Westchester New York, I'm still proud of what we accomplished and the positive impact we were able to make. The funds we raised helped many of the 240 residents experience a personalized approach to care with access to their favorite activities. While it's been 14 years since starting my work at the institution, the valuable lessons I learned from that job still hold true today:
Everyone can be involved in fundraising: One of my fondest memories was launching a Community Block Party in support of Cabrini. While the dollars we raised were important, what was even more memorable was the opportunity it created for so many individuals to gain awareness of the nursing home. This homegrown event also enabled staff and volunteers that never thought they could be a part of fundraising play a valuable role in our success. For example, one of our residents, a former artist, revived his art career by designing a Block Party T-shirt that included images of residents, community members and the home itself. Everyone can afford a $6.00 t-shirt (I still have mine!) Beyond that, different staff members took turns selling them. Even neighbors on the block that didn't know the nursing home were intrigued by the interesting design and bought these colorful shirts. Getting 100% plus participation in fundraising is always a goal worth going for.
Start from wherever you are: The year before I joined the organization, the nursing home had done a mailer to family members and some friends with the help of some volunteers. We're talking old school. These wonderful volunteers folded and stuffed 1300 mail merged letters. Anyone remember those good old days? This was back in 2002 when online fundraising was still in its infancy. It was even before (gasp) Facebook! No one knew what to expect. A general knowledge of the residents and their financial backgrounds helped keep expectations in check. This mini-campaign ended up netting about $5,000 if I remember correctly. Not a bad ROI considering the costs: paper, envelopes, stamps and volunteer time. The important thing was that it was enough of a start to show that there was potential to raise funds from the nursing home's community. And that led to the next little lesson learned....
Leadership Structures Matter and Give Purpose: While 100 donors (maybe less - it's been awhile) and a few thousand dollars may not sound like much, it was a start. We took things a step further and asked some of those generous donors, active board members and other friends to form leadership committees focused on connecting us with foundations, corporations, individuals, other health care professionals and a few other categories of potential donors. These teams also were catalysts for launching the institution's annual gala which raised approximately $250,000 its first year. In fact, we leveraged the engagement we were able to create into a fundraising campaign that achieved a combination of important cultural and structural improvements.
If all of the above sounds either easy or obvious, it's purely the gift of hindsight speaking. At the time, I was loving the learning but questioned whether any or all of this would work. You should too - that's what makes it challenging but fun and interesting! At the same time, know there's a lot that can be accomplished with belief in others, a willingness to start and a healthy respect for the value of bringing people together around an important cause.
And I hope your year is off to a great start
Robert Grabel is the President of Nonprofit Now! You can find his posts here and at www.robertgrabel.com
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