Crafting Intimate, Mission-Driven Events

Some organizations are consciously moving away from the classic big gala fundraising event, embracing smaller events to expand supporters’ understanding of their core mission. While organizations still raise funds, these events have a more important goal: building a deeper connection with current donors through experiences that are interactive, intimate, enlightening, and fun. The events also can introduce new donors to the organizations, expanding the circle of support.

Capacity Partners’ client Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy (MCAEL) in Rockville, MD, provides learning opportunities for multi-lingual adults for whom English is not their first language. MCAEL’s annual Adult Spelling Bee is a perfect vehicle to generate better understanding of the organization’s mission.

A Farm Less Ordinary (AFLO) provides employment, training, and a welcoming community to people ages 15-62 with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD). AFLO’s Feast in the Field is a multi-course dinner at one of AFLO’s locations. It provides a chance for supporters to meet the Growers (those employed by AFLO) and see the experience they are getting up close.

Capacity Partners Consultant Laura Cohen Apelbaum says, “There is a feeling of community and family. It is personal and hands-on.”

A Window into Challenges

MCAEL’s Adult Spelling Bee format “showcases the difficulties of the English language,” says Executive Director Kathy Stevens. Supporters get a clear window into the challenges faced by the thousands of people who benefit from MCAEL’s programming every day. MCAEL programs help adults learn a new language to support any and all of their life goals, including employment, education, speaking with a doctor, and helping children with schoolwork.

The Bee will be in its 7th year in 2023 (there was a COVID hiatus). Various bells and whistles have been added and subtracted over the years. In its current form, there are celebrity judges as well as contestant teams from the ranks of the Montgomery County, MD, business, nonprofit, and political communities.

The teams compete in a traditional, sometimes raucous, spelling bee in front of an audience of people who have purchased tickets. Businesses and individuals also can get involved via a range of sponsorship opportunities, including by sponsoring specific letters (in honor of someone if desired).

Spot On for Mission

Stevens says a key to success is keeping the event “very accessible and participatory,” including a new audience participation activity involving Twitter, which was introduced in the past few years. Audience members can try their hand at spelling a word that is given orally – the first person to spell it correctly with the right hashtag on the Twitter feed wins a prize.

She notes MCAEL plans to continue with the Bee while making adjustments. At some point down the road, the organization will assess if the event has run its natural course. For now, the Bee “continues to be spot on in terms of our mission.”

* * *

The name says it all: A Farm Less Ordinary (AFLO), in Loudoun County, VA, is not your average farm. Founders Greg Masucci and his wife Maya Wechsler, self-described former city dwellers, have always been committed to finding meaningful work for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD), Masucci says.

Several years ago, they realized there was an absence of programs to help people like their son, who has autism gain job experience in a meaningful way as they grew into adulthood, as well as very few opportunities for social interaction. They created AFLO to address these gaps.

The organization’s mission is to provide employment, training, and a welcoming community. The organization employs about 25 people ages 15 to 62 with ID/DD, who are known as “Growers.” The program cultivates a sense of self-worth and independence for the Growers through a basic job skills training program, and through employment itself.

“We kill a lot of birds with one stone,” says Masucci: providing Growers with income, pride, and the opportunity to work; providing caregivers with some respite; and growing great produce that is donated to local food pantries and distributed through a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

In June, AFLO wrapped up its third annual Feast in the Field fundraiser, an evening farm-to-table gourmet meal served at AFLO’s farm in Leesburg, VA (a second farm site is in Lovettsville, VA). Every bit of the event is aimed at sharing an intimate AFLO experience with supporters. This includes keeping attendance to 100 – 125 people. Attendees can bring guests to introduce them to AFLO, which has expanded the organization’s support.

Much of the produce served at the meal was grown at the farm. Before the meal begins, Growers give small groups of attendees tours of the fields and other parts of the facility. These give guests a chance to interact with the people AFLO serves while getting a sense of the pride AFLO’s Growers take in their meaningful work on the farm.

Capacity Partners Consultant Laura Cohen Apelbaum notes, “It’s not a ballroom.” Having the event on-site “is the best way to showcase the mission.”

‘A Gala Doesn’t Connect’

Masucci echoes that. “A gala doesn’t connect to what we are doing.” The on-site feast gives supporters a much greater understanding of the many goals of the organization. There is something therapeutic and rejuvenating about getting your hands in the dirt, he observes. Being on-site helps supporters understand that the work done at the farm by the Growers is a viable therapy model.

He also notes that people like to feel they are supporting something essential, adding, “Where would we be without farming?”

***

Here are six lessons from nonprofits who have created successful small events.


Keeping up with the dreaded economic news? Nonprofit executive directors are evaluating organizational stamina:  Are we in a recession? Will my donor base remain strong? Will it be like COVID? Anything close to the Great Recession? How do I keep the contributions coming in? How do I take care of my team? Or will it blow over before we even know it’s happened?

Questions can keep us up all hours of the night, but “keeping up” means being ready. In my long gray-headed life, I have weathered 10 recessions. Though none of them were fun (well, the first one, I was an infant, so it may have been fun), recessions are an inevitable fact of economic life. They don’t get easier. But they do become more manageable to those who are experienced in navigating their organization through the turbulence.

What are we hearing now —

  • At last report, inflation hit 9.1% — definitely a tough situation.
  • Fed Chair Jerome Powell on prospects of a soft landing: “There’s a path for us to get there. It’s just not getting easier. It’s getting tougher” as reported by AP June 16.
  • White House economic advisor Brian Deese, asked about recession: “There are always risks” as reported by Fortune May 22.
  • Bruce Kasman, chief economist for JP Morgan Chase & Co.: “I’ve been more pessimistic about the opportunity of stabilizing inflation at an acceptable level without a recession” as reported by Bloomberg June 12.

Essentially, a majority of economic leaders (and those who are not political appointees) think we are either IN a recession now or WILL BE in a few months/quarters. Nonprofit leaders know from experience that whether it is a formal recession or simply an economic downturn, their costs are going up, their contributions will likely take a hit, their razor-thin margins will get thinner, and their staff will be worried.

When you’re ready —

I include this out clause for any of you who may NOT be ready. It means that our industry, the nonprofit sector, has a habit of reactionary leadership in turbulent economic times. We’re great at serving those in need, making a difference in our sphere, and inspiring our teams and boards. But our front headwinds tend not to be economic but rather programmatic and institutional. We tend to notice later that revenues are down.

Recessions affect organizations in many and varied ways. Those relying on government grants may not see a negative impact for a year or two. Those with major individual gifts may see immediate declines since gifts are often tied to a donor’s stock portfolio. Those of you in community services may wonder if you will ever see a decline in demand, while those in the arts have learned to watch the economy closely. (Our team at Capacity Partners represents all these sectors, and we see the varied impacts. Plus, we do leadership coaching!)

The point here: Be Ready. There really is no out clause for a drop in contributions.

Four Strategies You Should Work Right Now

1.) Communicate more. All of your stakeholders should know that you are paying attention to the economic uncertainty affecting your service sector and your contributions. Your beneficiaries need to know that you are there for them. Your community should be aware of your forefront position in serving them. Your donors need to know that you appreciate them. And need them. Your board needs to know that you are proactively looking – and counting on their help – toward new and pledged resources.

According to Network for Good, “Ten Strategies for Recession Fundraising,” strategy #6 is “Identify Plans B, C and D: Consider subletting a section of your current office to another nonprofit. Do you have equipment that could be sold? Develop a cause-marketing partnership with a company.”

2.) Revise your cost structure. Yes, you can! Everyone thinks their budgets are made of concrete, that their expenses are set, that there is no wiggle. You can be creative. So says Praveen Kishorepuria, Managing Director, Zero-Based Transformation, Accenture North America:  “Zero-based cost transformation offers multiple options for increased flexibility….many tactical, repeatable activities can be virtualized or outsourced.”  The strategy is to find partners, outsource when possible, use board member companies to provide bridge services, delay hiring….anything to reduce the expense line can dramatically (even if temporarily) improve the bottom line. And if you are worried that you are susceptible to a downturn, you should consider a dramatic 20/20 strategy, explained below.

3.) Get closer to your donors. This is the most important strategy for protecting contributions. Donor retention during a downturn is the surest measure of whether you will survive a recession intact. If you are already close to your Top 10%, then get close to your Top 25%. Imagine being on the bubble of a donor’s portfolio. If you are not among their top philanthropic priorities, you will likely be dropped from their giving program if their income is negatively impacted. Clarifying: when the donor’s ability to contribute is constricted, you will be cut. Unless you are among their top beneficiaries.

Staying close to your top donors, listening to their interests, providing worthwhile recognition, and affirming impact all will result in secure donor retention. Many nonprofits are funded at 80% by their top 20% of donors. Try to ensure that you are among their top beneficiary organizations.

4.) Work with your senior team to develop a dramatic 20/20 program. It’s simple; it brings your leadership together; it works. And it is nearly impossible to do. All you have to do is reduce your expenses by 20% and increase your revenues by 20%. Done! Except that it is excruciatingly difficult.

In a normal economy, it is not unusual to experience a decline in revenue. We manage through those experiences by cutting our costs in the 3rd and 4th quarters and squeezing our board for end-of-year giving. In a recession, you could lose a large percentage of your revenue, 10% or more, maybe 20%. You should always have a plan for cutting 20% of your expenses. Unfortunately for most, it means cutting our most important resource, our people. If you start now, and for most of you entering a new fiscal year, now is the RIGHT time to start, you can figure out how to disperse duties, what operational shortcuts you can enact, what professional services you can delay…all before the contents of your anxiety hit the fan.

But that is only the start. What if you lose revenues by 20% but you ALSO have a plan for raising an additional 20% by the end of FY23. This is difficult but not impossible.

The questions that will lead to increased revenue are:

  • What grants have I not applied for that will allow for administrative infrastructure?
  • What companies are my major individual donors aligned with and with whom I could get a meeting?
  • Which of those companies offer a matching gift program?
  • What companies could provide a corporate sponsorship that I haven’t contacted, and what benefits would attract them that we could produce?
  • Who among my board is well-connected and could broker three prospect meetings in the next three months?
  • What additional service sectors could I explore that might attract a significant new source of revenue?
  • What members of my senior team could I enlist to help raise additional money?
  • Can my finance and marketing teams come together to devise a trackable and concise plan that we can all rally around?
  • How should I plan for a recognition event at the end of the 3rd quarter to thank those who are helping out and to inspire those to give by the end of the year?

These and other questions will lead you to an ambitious and challenging plan to get you to 120% of your budgeted revenue. Whether you lose significant current donors becomes hedged by the new revenue development you have just created.

A 20/20 plan is very difficult. But it is achievable, and if you start now, at the beginning of a fiscal year, it is not out of the question that you can emerge through a recession in a new position of strength.

Recessions Aren’t All Bad

Imagine post-recession that your organization has emerged stronger. You may have fewer staff members, but they are effective and productive. Your leadership team has experienced the come-from-behind success story that they embody to your stakeholders. You have weathered the turbulent conditions and come through them more focused and more capable than before.

You may have attracted new long-term investors in the organization. “Recessions aren’t disastrous for nonprofits. During typical recessions since the 1950s, giving has actually gone up on average, albeit by a modest 0.3 percent a year,” says Patrick Rooney, an economist at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.” (from Ben Gose, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, January 7, 2020)

A Few Final Thoughts

A diverse, cross-funded organization is the safest during periods of economic uncertainty. Nonprofits that are heavily reliant on government funding, or those with a mostly corporate donor base, are the most vulnerable. Create a comprehensive development plan that is represented by stable and varied sources.

Speed is king. The sooner you implement solid, consensus-developed and well-communicated strategies, the more likely you are to weather the recession when (okay… if) it comes.

Finally, remember that people – your people – are the most important asset you have. Recessions come and go (and come back), but how you handle those around you will reflect your values and integrity for years into the future. Treating your team with respect will last a lifetime.

Resources from The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Eight Steps for Managing Through Tough Times,” Bridgespan

Tips to Navigate Financial Crisis,” Nonprofit Finance Fund

Hard Times, Hard Decisions: 7 Things Small and Midsize Charities Should Do When a Recession Looms,” Chronicle of Philanthropy

philanthropy.com/learn

Next Steps for NextStop Theatre Company

As Covid-19 crashed into our area a year ago, the arts faced unique challenges as stages went dark and classes moved to virtual platforms. Professional theaters, such as the NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon, Va,, were thrust into unfamiliar, unprecedented circumstances. Not every arts organization survived, let alone thrived, but NextStop Theatre Company, working with Capacity Partners consultants Amy Selco and Stephanie Hanson, reached for … and attained … a new level of strength and stability over the past year. A capacity-building grant from ARTSFAIRFAX brought Capacity Partners and NextStop together.

When the pandemic rocked our economy to its very foundations, NextStop Theatre hesitated to fundraise because they believed their community’s need for food, shelter, and other basic necessities ought to be Northern Virginia’s top charitable priority. Evan Hoffmann, NextStop’s Producing Artistic Director, said, “Our roots grow deep in our community, so before we asked for funds – even though we believe the arts are essential for our souls -- we made sure that our neighbors were getting their basic sustenance needs met first.”

Capacity Partners Consultant Amy Selco adds, “In June, the board recommended the launch of the NextStop Now Fund with an audacious goal of raising $100,000 in just six months to ensure their theater and its invaluable programs would make it through to the other side of the pandemic.”

Working with Capacity Partners, NextStop didn’t simply raise funds; it changed its culture. “NextStop did the difficult work, especially since all the work happened in a virtual space, to move from a transactional fundraising culture to one that embraced philanthropy as a core value,” said Capacity Partners consultant Stephanie Hanson.

With the change of culture and the smart implementation of development strategy and tactics, NextStop Theatre has come within inches of making its long-shot goal of raising $100,000, added four new board members, and made fundraising an expectation of all board members.

“NextStop Theatre is a vital part of our community, and because of the generosity of our board members and hundreds of donors, we are here today and will be here tomorrow, producing theatrical performances and educational programs that are uniquely ambitious, intimate, and accessible both in and for the Northern Virginia community,” said Evan Hoffman with a determined smile. “The insight and wise advice from Capacity Partners, the fierce determination of our excellent board and staff, and the much-appreciated support from the community merged through our incredibly successful NextStop Now campaign to ensure the arts will continue to be a treasured pillar in Northern Virginia.”


The future of fundraising

“Giving Plunges 6% in First Quarter” “Number of donors dropped by 5.3 percent”. “25 billion in lost revenue for nonprofits”

The headlines about the latest Giving USA study are scary, but do they portend an apocalyptic future?

Capacity Partners is encouraged that donations under $250 rose by six percent during the first quarter of 2020. We also know of some nonprofits that saw their coffers swell during the pandemic; organizations providing disaster relief and pandemic-related services have seen a surge in generosity. Organizations focused on racial equity are also seeing an upswing in contributions. Of course, other organizations are realizing mergers might be their only salvation as they watch income plummet.

Foundations are still making grants, but many are shifting funding to emergency relief for basic human needs, making it harder for arts groups to get funding.  Organizations who were hoping for a grant for projects such as strategic planning may also find it more difficult to get support.

So far, virtual events are more successful than anyone thought they would be.  Hopefully that stays true as virtual events remain the norm for the foreseeable future.  It is difficult to imagine any in-person events being held for the rest of 2020, and maybe even the first part of 2021.

Right now, the rising stock market should result in major donors feeling comfortable keeping their commitments, but as we know from past experience, the market is capricious and as the economic recovery chugs along with a high unemployment rate, that could change. As furloughs become layoffs and as special unemployment benefits run out, budgets could tighten with less money available for charitable giving.

Fortunately, local and federal government grants and loans have kept many nonprofits whole in FY21; the question is what happens in FY22 as disaster relief programs end and government budgets are slashed due to revenue shortfalls.

In general, most corporations will be decreasing contributions, either cutting out all or a portion of many of their sponsorships. Capacity Partners predicts the effect on revenue will likely be in the second half of the fiscal year.

So much about future fundraising is uncertain; actually, so much about the nation’s future is uncertain. Covid-19 will be forefront in everyone’s minds for many months. The economy will remain fragile until coronavirus is controlled. Politics and the November election will generate stress-inducing headlines. All this is true, but equally true is the remarkable power of resiliency, caring, and determination.

Our advice? Stay close to your best donors. Stewardship is more important than ever. Don’t forget to give some of your attention to new donors, too.

In 2019, even though it feels like a lifetime ago, charitable giving showed solid growth, climbing to $449.64 billion, making that year one of the highest for giving. Capacity Partners believes that in good times and in bad, people will donate to the causes they believe are critical. Mary Robinson, Founder and President of Capacity Partners says, “Yes, even in a pandemic and in a period where unpredictability is the only thing one can accurately predict, people will give to the causes they care about.”

In a couple of weeks, we will be conducting a survey of nonprofit leaders to enable us to do a deep dive into the current state of the nonprofit sector in the DC metro area. We hope you'll participate in this brief survey so we can better understand the current situation and make recommendations to nonprofits as they navigate these unprecedented times.


Fundraising in these unsettled times

The world feels unsettled as our news feeds and lives fill with protests against pervasive racial inequity, a powerful and capricious virus that affects nearly everything, and an economy officially in recession. As nonprofits know better than anyone, this is a situation ripe for an increased demand for services while boards of directors and development staff fret over fundraising. Here are some tips to help you and your nonprofit organization raise the money you need.

1) Tell your story well and tell it often. Your donors -- both individual and institutional -- need to hear how you are making a difference under these unique circumstances. Use a variety of methods -- emails, social media, videos, Zoom calls, phone calls, etc. While it's always important to be a good donor steward, it's especially critical in uncertain times like these.

2) A matching gift can boost fundraising efforts. Perhaps your board will chip in to create a matching gift fund. Perhaps a long-term contributor will agree to a matching fund. The prospect of doubling a donation may help motivate on-the-fence supporters.

3) Avoid emergency, desperate requests for funds. You may not be sleeping as you obsessively pore over spreadsheets, but this is not the moment to share your anxiety with an anguished plea for money. Convey realistic optimism rather than panic.

4) Don't pre-judge your supporters. Don't assume they no longer have funds to give or won't appreciate hearing from you. Give your contributors the chance to show you how much they treasure your organization's mission.

5) Focus your time and efforts on current or past donors.because some organizations, especially those not providing direct coronavirus or racial inequity services, may find it more difficult to attract new donors right now.

The last three months have shown how many organizations are continuing to raise money effectively. Some are even surpassing their goals ... and not just disaster relief organizations. Some of our clients' events are hitting record highs, and some are getting generous grants. Unfortunately, some nonprofits are still having a tough time. Recovery will be an ever-evolving process so stay nimble — and ask.


Crafting your spring appeal during Covid-19

By Capacity Partners Consultant Kristen Engebretsen and Capacity Partners Associate Stephanie Hanson

 

In January, you had just come back from the holidays, and planning for your spring appeal was well underway. Now, after a month of fundraising during a pandemic, you’re likely asking the question, “Should we still do a spring appeal, and if so, how?”

Capacity Partners recommends you should still raise funds through your annual spring appeal, especially if you have not yet reached your goal. However, your messaging may need to change, and how it changes depends on your organization’s mission, sector, and whom you serve.

Here are a few strategies and tactics to help you build a successful campaign:

Keep your message positive and place impact front and center. It is important to acknowledge the strange and difficult times caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but you should be sure your overall message is positive. Even if your organization is in a crisis, link your appeal to your organization’s long-term strategy, using language like “with your support and partnership, together we can [fill in the immediate impact made].”  This is not the time to be fundraising for a special “nice to have” project. Instead, positively demonstrate both the need and impact while making a clear and compelling ask.

Join #GivingTuesday, the global campaign for charitable giving, for a special spring edition.  #GivingTuesdayNow is designating Tuesday, May 5, 2020 as a day of unity in support of the unprecedented need created by covid-19. Download a campaign toolkit, including ideas, graphics, and social media hashtags on the Giving Tuesday website.
.
Play off the idea of spring rejuvenation with your appeal—spring is a time for growth, and flowers are still blooming, even in a global health crisis.

Think about whom you are trying to reach. Is a mail appeal and/or a digital campaign going to best reach your audience? While some of your donors are struggling, others are grateful to be employed and are looking for ways to give back right now. Look at your donor list and segment it according to which groups would be most receptive to an appeal at this moment. Consider using one of the many online giving platform options to get your message out digitally, and combine that with regular social media postings. Engage your organization’s board and closest friends to help push the message out.  Who knows – you might gain some new donors in the process.

Some funders are offering matching funds right now as a way to support their grantees. Contact your top ten funders and ask if they’d be willing to conduct a match with you right now. Or, look for local matching opportunities, like this impressive list from the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Be sure to include CARES Act language and the new charitable tax deduction in your spring appeal, noting that all donors who give during this time will receive a tax break, whether or not they take the standard deduction. Specific language can be found here.

Capacity Partners is prepared to help you in any way we can. Our job, quite simply, is to help you do yours in this extraordinary environment.


Things you’ll need to apply for a Paycheck Protection Loan

You'll need to gather the following documents before you apply for your coronavirus stimulus Paycheck Protection Loan which is an SBA loan that helps businesses and nonprofits keep their workforce employed during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

  • Payroll reports from April '19 through March '20 – both the total payroll numbers for those months and each month separately, as you have to load them individually
  • A picture of the principle owner's government ID
  • Date organization founded
  • Proof of EIN
  • NAICS number
  • CEO’s date of birth, Social Security Number, home address, and cell phone number
  • Documentation of health insurance paid and life insurance policies paid into
  • The last 4 quarters of 941 tax documentation


Emergency Grants for Operations Available

March 26, 2020

To our Friends and Partners,

I know that we all have received a huge amount of information in the last days about government support of the small business and non-profit community.

For Maryland non-profits with budgets of less than $5 million and less than 50 employees, we suggest that you take a look at the Maryland Small Business Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund.  The State has allocated $75 million for direct payments of up to $10,000 to help organizations respond to Covid-19's impact.

https://onestop.md.gov/licenses?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=emergency+small+business+grant

You will need to set up a registration before starting the application.  If we at Capacity Partners can be helpful to you in the process, please let me know.

Best wishes,

Barbara Wille, Partner Consultant