July 2010 Archives

July 30, 2010

Fundraising for Charity Bores Young People?

I'm all for celebrities trying to shine their spotlight on various charitable causes, so I was happy to read reports about actor Edward Norton having started the website "Crowdrise." The site lets people post a personal page inviting friends to sponsor or support them in raising money for their favorite cause.

But check out the quote from actor/comedian Seth Rogen, who's reportedly using the site to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association: 'I'm all for anything that makes the idea of charity not lame and boring and very serious. Because I feel that that's what keeps a lot of young people away."

Huh. Do most young people find the idea of charity lame and boring? With so many of them providing voices of sanity, telling adults to stop trashing the world they'll inherit, and in many cases starting their own nonprofits, this comment stopped me short.

There's a difference, however, between starting their own nonprofits and getting on board with others. Where I'll bet Rogen is right is that young people could easily perceive the communications coming from established nonprofits as boring -- a sentiment not limited to young people, in fact.

 Here's how Ken Burnett, author of The Zen of Fundraising, pithily sums it up (in an article on SOFII):

The problem with most nonprofit communications is that they are dull. Given the abundance of colorful, dramatic, human interest material with which nonprofits are blessed, this is a shocking admission. Yet sadly it's true. Fundraisers are prolific producers of printed and electronic communications, but the bulk of it is either tedious, vacuous, fit only for the rubbish bin, or all three. Common weaknesses include too many words, limited skills in designing for readability and over emphasis on what the organization wants to say, rather than on what the reader wants to read. If you think this a little harsh, send off for the newsletters or annual reports of, say, 20 other prominent nonprofits and see if I'm wrong.

Given Mr. Burnett's bio, I believe it's appropriate to read this to yourself in a Scottish accent, in which case it sounds even better.

Accent aside, he's basically hit the nail on the head. And rather than take up more space with suggestions on how to write, I'll offer a complementary tip: Start paying attention to the work of excellent journalists writing for top newspapers and magazines. Notice what they do that draws you in, and makes even the dullest content interesting. Get those mirror neurons firing, and the task won't be as hard as it might sound.

July 28, 2010

Form 990-N and 990-EZ Lateniks: It's Not Too Late After All!

Big news: The IRS just announced that it has extended the deadline for small nonprofits to file their 990-N or 990-EZ forms this year. The filing deadline was May 17 and has been extended to October 15 for both forms. Form 990 filers are not eligible for any extensions from their filing deadlines.

 Over 350,000 nonprofits failed to file the 990-N or 990-EZ form this year and face revocation of their tax-exempt status if they don't file by the new October 15 deadline.

The smallest nonprofits eligible to file the Form 990-N (e-Postcard) must simply file the required information electronically by the new October 15 deadline.

Other small nonprofits that file Form 990-EZ can participate in a one-time voluntary compliance program. These nonprofits must file their forms with a checklist by October 15, and pay a compliance fee of $100, $200, or $500, depending on their size.

For more information, see Every Nonprofit's Tax Guide, by Stephen Fishman (Nolo) and the IRS website at www.irs.gov/charities/article/0,,id=225705,00.html and 
July 22, 2010

Why Get Your Nonprofit on Facebook? The Reasons Are Mounting

Just a few months back, when I posted a new article on Nolo's website called, "Fundraising (or Friendraising) Through Social Networks," the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that no one knew how spending your time to establish a presence for your nonprofit within the social networking world was going to make any money -- but felt that they should probably do so anyway. After all, with 350 million users then on Facebook -- which number has since gone up to 500 million -- being left out of the conversation seemed like a bad idea.

Now, more and more reasons to join up with this, as well as other social networking sites, seem to be emerging. For example, JPMorgan Chase just announced 200 charities that will each receive a portion of a $5 million grant -- chosen solely based on votes by Facebook users.

In another example, Beth Kanter, author of The Networked Nonprofit, offered in her blog today a couple of anecdotes about nonprofits that have parlayed their social networking contacts into new foundation grants and board members. 

I suspect more stories are yet to come. In the meantime, getting started is one of the easier things you'll ever have face in the realm of new technology -- with the added benefit that you'll get to see all your friends' baby pictures. 
July 19, 2010

Your Fundraising Gala: Is It a Good Place to Mingle?

I once met an artist -- not a starving artist, but not a rich one, either -- whose favorite way to have fun was to attend fundraising galas. She liked the sense of a grand occasion, the chance to learn something, and the opportunity to meet new people who shared an interest in a good cause. (She was single, which may also have had something to do with it.) She didn't serve on any boards, or do any other nonprofit-related activities; attending these events was basically it.

Now, I've never met anyone like her before, or since. But it has made me wonder, when I attend fundraising events, whether she or someone else who wasn't closely connected to the organization would, in fact, have a good time.

In many cases the answer is no -- especially if one's purpose in attending is to meet new people. Most guests at gala events arrive with their own group of friends, sit with their friends, and talk to their friends and only a select few others all evening. Board members and volunteers tend to be either reconnecting with each other or chatting up major donors. An outsider could feel pretty isolated.

Given that your planners already have plenty on their plate, I'm not suggesting restructuring the entire event for my sample-of-one single-woman friend. But it does make me wonder whether there are simple ways to get people out of their core groups and mixing a bit more at such events. Meeting like-minded people might even serve to increase their connectedness with the nonprofit they've chosen to support.

Making sure to have nametags might be a good start. But when will they make use of these in introducing themselves? It's helpful to leave some time for guests to walk around and mingle -- perhaps while looking at displays about your nonprofit's work, or getting a drink --  before sitting at their designated tables. Guests at any event get very territorial, and once they're attached to a table and chair, it's hard to move them.

You might also deputize any board members or volunteers who aren't otherwise occupied to keep an eye out for guests who've arrived alone, and make sure to greet them and introduce them to others who might share their interests.  

Of course, if your nonprofit's membership is big enough, you could go all out and have a "singles-only" event, dedicated to mingling. But you might face the situation described to me by another friend who attended such an event in support of a local animal shelter: "It was fun, but mostly women who attended -- the few men in the room looked kinda overwhelmed." 
July 12, 2010

Fundraising Oops of the Week: The Email That Wasn't Ready for Forwarding!

I recently received a forwarded email from someone I respect, encouraging me to attend an event at, he said, a "great organization."

Here are key portions of the original email. I've changed the organization's acronyms, but only from other acronyms -- collections of letters that gave me no clue as to what the organization was called, much less what it did:

"Please help us get the word out to your Bay Area friends, relations, and colleagues that ABCD will hold an informal gathering in Oakland on [date] at the [location]. . . . ABCD movement leaders will offer an overview and update on our movement's exciting new initiative:  the EFGHI Leadership Institute.

Huh? I kept reading, just to see whether I'd get more information about the organization's mission and why I should support it. Nope: Just descriptions of plans to construct various buildings, and instructions on where I could give online.

If I'd already known about the organization, the email would, I assume, have made sense. But even then, I wonder, would I have been moved to give? How about a little reminder of why their mission and projects are important to me? What's more, the email's writers clearly didn't give even half a thought to the prospect that their well-meaning supporters would forward the email to others. They should have! 
July 12, 2010

Fundraising Blind Spots: What Are Yours?

I recently saw a fascinating play, "In the Wake," by Lisa Kron, at Berkeley Repertory Theater. It centers on a group of friends living in New York, post 9/11. One of the major themes is the characters' struggle to discover what assumptions are so ingrained in them that they can't even see how these affect their personal lives and political opinions.

For example, one character, July, who does international humanitarian work, shocks another (and the audience) by explaining that she never votes in U.S. elections. Her rationale turns out to be one of the most thought-provoking moments in the play: It's because she didn't grow up with the level of economic privilege that gives her friends a blind faith in their ability to effect societal progress. From her and her family's perspective, she has truly never seen voting make a difference.

The other blind spots explored by the play didn't seem as clear-cut or satisfying, at least after a single viewing (I haven't read the script). But the play has left me "seeing blind spots" everywhere I turn. And where better to ferret these out than in one's fundraising plan?

An example turned up in a book I read recently, called Effective Church Finances: Fund-Raising and Budgeting for Church Leaders, by Kennon L. Callahan (Jossey-Bass). Callahan says that many U.S. churches conduct their primary drive for member pledges in October -- despite the fact that, statistically speaking, October has been shown to be one of the most difficult months in which to raise money, as people pay off their summer vacation expenditures and parents cope with the expenses of the new school year.

Why October? It dates back to when our economy was based on agriculture, and farmers would have just brought in the autumn harvest. By now, probably few church fundraisers remember that fact -- while the need for an October pledge drive has become their particular blind spot.

Does your organization have its own blind spots? Asking questions like, "Why do we always do things this way?" is a good way to start finding out. Another way is to think of ways you can test your assumptions about what works. For example, let's say you've always sent four-page letters in your direct mail appeals to potential new donors. You can test the effectiveness of this strategy by dividing the mailing group in half and sending a two-page letter to some and a four-page letter to others. Then compare the results. If you're surprised, congratulations -- your vision just got closer to 20/20.

July 5, 2010

Fundraising Lessons From Monty Python

And now, for something completely different -- especially, but not exclusively, for fundraisers who happen to be Monty Python fans. If your brain is stocked with phrases like "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" and "Nudge nudge, wink wink," and you occasionally experience an inexplicable craving for Wensleydale cheese, that means you.

Now, as part of your holiday weekend activities, I recommend turning on the telly -- well okay, YouTube -- for a review of the Merchant Banker/Charity sketch. In this lesser-known sketch, a somewhat hapless fundraiser (played by Terry Jones) who's collecting money for an orphans' fund, enters the office of a rich merchant banker (played by John Cleese). In fact, the merchant banker is not only rich, but describes himself as owning "the most startling quantifies of cash," and explains, " I'm very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich."

The fundraiser asks for a one-pound contribution. Cleese expresses multiple types of disbelief and confusion and . . . well, take a look, and then come back for the lessons to be learned from this sketch.

Lesson 1: Ask for an appropriate amount. The banker wasn't exactly showing signs of being a willing contributor, but even so, asking for a mere pound in this setting made the fundraiser and his cause appear insignificant. Beneath notice, even.

Lesson 2: Talk to the donor in language he or she can understand. As a businessman, this banker was all about quid pro quo. Even though the "quo" wasn't going to involve direct benefit (other than the little flag offered by the fundraiser, to which Cleese said, "It's a bit small for a share certificate isn't it? Look, I think I'd better run this over to our legal department"), the fundraiser should have been prepared to explain how the banker would benefit. He could have, for example, pointed out the the banker benefits personally from improving his own community, from the increased prestige of being known as a contributor, or whatever else.   

Lesson 3: Know a bit about the tax law. When Cleese, trying to understand the purpose of giving a pound, says, "A tax dodge," the fundraiser says, "No, no, no." I don't know about British tax law, but in this country, the answer would be, "Yes, because we're a 501(c)(3) organization, your gift will be fully deductible to the extent allowed by the law." Why the qualifiers at the end? Because you don't want to put yourself in the position of offering actual tax advice, the law in this area is complex, and whether the donor will reap tax benefits depends in part on his or her personal situation, for example on whether he or she itemizes deductions. For more information on this, see Nolo's free article, "Tax Deductions for Charitable Giving: The Nonprofit's Responsibilities."  

Lesson 4: A return gift won't seal the deal. The banker couldn't even tell what the little flag that the fundraiser offered was. And donors are becoming increasingly aware that a return gift from a charity diminishes the value of their contribution and, if it's worth more than a token amount, of their tax deduction. 

Lesson 5: Revel in the fact that you don't actually have to sell something. Toward the end of the sketch, after the fundraiser has assured Cleese that, "lots of people give me money," Cleese says, "What, just like that?" As the light dawns, Cleese exclaims, "Good lord! That's the most exciting new idea I've heard in years! It's so simple it's brilliant!" And indeed it is. Your nonprofit is in the enviable position of  offering an intangible good that will never break or be cast aside, but allow donors to themselves become part of a greater good. Use that to your advantage! Or, to use a final Monty Python quote, "Always look on the bright side of life."