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.”

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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?”

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


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.


The First Steps to Getting Your Fundraising Strategy Right

Here is how too many organizations develop their fundraising strategy. Someone declares we need some strategy around here so off you go with your team to a retreat from which you emerge with slick charts, creative revenue streams, optimistic projections and long to-do lists. Everyone smiles and cheers.

By the following Thursday, the fundraising strategy is forgotten. What went wrong?

Sometimes staff and board members need to be re-energized to implement a fundraising strategy. As a first step getting your fundraising strategy right, put the spreadsheets, donor lists, beautiful charts, and blogposts on hold. (They will be there when you return.) Meet with the kids your nonprofit educates. Serve dinner to the families who come to the shelter night after night. Hang out in the cancer wards your major donors have built. Feel the small everyday victories your fundraising makes possible.

Then, for a fundraising strategy to truly becoming a road map to fundraising success, first you must answer this critical question. What are your organization’s strongest fundraising assets?  A beloved, charismatic founder? A large dedicated base of small donors? A wealthy private foundation that has pledged its support for the next twenty-five years? A unique special event that has delivered results for a decade?

While best practices tout the need to have a balanced portfolio of development – foundations, direct mail, major gifts, special events, planned giving, government funding, corporate donations, online, etc. – most organizations actually have only two or three really strong assets.  A pragmatic fundraising strategy ought to concentrate on what your organization does best and perhaps adds one or two additional revenue streams.

For example, if your nonprofit attracts more than its fair share of foundation funding and has hundreds of donors giving annual $25 gifts, make sure your strategy includes maximizing foundation giving and annual giving. Your strategy may want to include building a major gifts component and introducing planned giving to your donors.

Reminding your team of their mission and creating a development strategy that maximizes your organization’s assets is a winning combination for successful fundraising.