Birmingham nonprofits are busily discussing fundraising strategies as October 1 — the date marking the beginning of the new fiscal year — approaches.
Local nonprofits say a mix of solid fundraising approaches is important in order for any nonprofit to overcome the challenges standing in the way of meeting its goal. One of the largest challenges nonprofits face is the task of effectively fostering relationships with donors while also expanding the donor base. This process is only made more difficult in these poor economic times.
“Finding these new donors and establishing a connection with them is one of the continual challenges for nonprofits,” said Brynding Adams, director of philanthropy at Freshwater Land Trust. “The general rule for fundraising is that people give to people, so direct personal contact is the best, but also the most time consuming. If a nonprofit can overcome this challenge, however, it can be incredibly rewarding.”
The Women’s Fund has worked throughout the year to expand its donor base while also catering heavily to its main donor demographics: baby boomers and women. As the Women’s Fund is one of Birmingham’s nonprofits that heavily rely on social media to communicate with donors, it’s no surprise that the nonprofit is using its incredibly successful social media “Smart Party” event to fulfill both goals.
“Baby boomers continue to be the biggest cohort of donors for all nonprofits, including the Women’s Fund,” said Wright Wiggins, development associate at the Women’s Fund. “We want to continue our great relationship with this group while also cultivating relationships with younger donors. Our new fundraiser, the Smart Party, addresses that challenge. Once again, on October 10, through social media-driven crowd funding before the party and a fun cocktail party with appealing prizes for our largest donors, we will appeal to both groups and raise money for programs to improve life for women and girls.”
Birmingham is home to many strong nonprofits, but donors cannot usually fund every cause they would like, especially in tough economic times. Local nonprofit workers like Missy Burchart, communications and development manager at the Literacy Council, say that working together with other nonprofits while simultaneously differentiating one’s specific organization is a large key to success.
“There are so many amazing, very worthy charities in the Birmingham area doing good work. People want to support all of them, but their funding pool just isn’t that deep,” said Burchart. “You have to be very smart and strategic in order to attract these donors to your cause. You have to tap all of your resources. We at the Literacy Council are very fortunate to have some wonderful individual and corporate donors as well as the support of the generous foundations in the area. We also have the support of a great board and junior board that have really worked to promote our cause.”
The Literacy Council has four fundraisers a year: Signature Series, Girlfriend Gala, Brews for Books and Rally for Reading. Girlfriend Gala, a two-year-old ladies’ night out event that the nonprofit has already begun planning for 2014, has had unprecedented fundraising success. For the past three years the Literacy Council’s Junior Board has been the driving force behind the Brews for Books and Rally for Reading fundraisers. The nonprofit also says that crowd-sourcing and online fundraising have been very lucrative. Burchart stresses the importance of having a variety of sources and tactics.
In response to the abundance of nonprofits and limited donor dollars, the Women’s Fund recently created the Collaboration Institute to encourage nonprofits and other institutions to band together around similar causes and cut costs. The institute offers brainstorming and technical sessions to various members of the community wishing to make a difference in the lives of women, and gives funding to successful plans that emerge from such sessions.
“We started the Collaboration Institute to encourage partnerships between nonprofits, government and private interests to strengthen women’s economic security in Greater Birmingham,” said Wiggins. “When agencies partner with each other and can provide more services to women, the cost is reduced and women are more likely to succeed. We believe that by facilitating agency partnerships via our Collaboration Institute, we support each other rather than competing for limited dollars.”
United Way says the biggest challenge nonprofits face is the task of connecting donors to the largest needs of the community. The nonprofit has grouped its efforts into four areas: education, income, health and access to services. In trying to meet the goals of promoting access to services and connecting donors with needs, United Way created a 211 call center to give information about what help is available from agencies and nonprofits in the area, and how to go about contacting these organizations. The nonprofit launches a new campaign on September 12, and says its biggest impact is in allocating funds to over 80 companies to be used for employee benefits.
“We want to educate donors on how to best contribute to the community, and how positive community changes can be made on a big scale,” said Samuetta Nesbitt, the United Way’s senior vice president of communications. “United Way tries to show donors why it is important for the needy in the community to have access to certain services, even if they don’t seem to be needed now.”
Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, says that her institution is dealing with fundraising the same way it always has, and that while poor economic conditions have hampered some of the donations, BMA continues to make progress.
“The economic climate is still difficult — slow and different — and we have lost some donors,” said Andrews. “But there are definitely a lot of new industries in town that have definitely come on strong that are enthusiastic about arts and culture. A lot of our fundraising is based on what we can give to the community with great exhibits and collections.”
Andrews discussed a surge in Birmingham spirit and asserted that nonprofits like the BMA should capitalize on a revitalizing downtown and the energy that has emerged from such growth and positive national press.
“There is a lot of excitement in this city right now because of recent downtown growth and the emphasis on 2013 marketing and tourism events,” said Andrews. “We’ve been taking advantage of this energy to promote ourselves. The Birmingham Museum of Art could do big things in a revitalized downtown.”
Andrews also says the poor economic conditions, while causing apparent harm, have also taught nonprofits to be resourceful and adaptable.
“There is still a learning curve in the new economic landscape, and we are having to regroup with new businesses,” said Andrews. “But we are learning to do more with less and that’s not all bad. We are learning to call on our creative in new ways and stretching resources.
“This can be hard on staff because we are making it happen — folks are oftentimes doing a job-and-a-half, and that can exhaust people,” Andrews continued. “But there is really a deep soul for what nonprofit employees do. They are proud of what they do. They are givers.”
What if a nonprofit doesn’t even have a staff? That just compounds the challenges faced by groups like the Birmingham Chamber Music Society, which considers itself the “oldest continuously presenting fine arts organization in Birmingham,” according to Vice President Robbie James.
The chamber music group every year puts on a concert series of classical music, bringing in professional touring musicians from around the country to perform for audiences ranging from 75 to 300. They manage to pull that off without a staff, where every function is carried out by some member of the board. There are between 16 and 18 members of the board, and they make up the entire membership of the chamber music society.
James said BCMS supports its mission with very little social media – no one really maintains the group’s Facebook page and they don’t do Twitter – very little advertising, and a fundraiser that they don’t even do annually. The group, which is doing a fundraiser this year in conjunction with its October 22 concert by the Borealis Wind Quintet with Leon Bates, does maintain a website, and has recently been added to an email blast being sent out by Samford University, whose Brock Hall hosts BCMS concerts.
Although the group has been around since the 1930s, it’s not surprising that James allows that BCMS is challenged by the same issues of funding and “spreading the word,” particularly when coverage in a traditional daily newspaper is not an option. Instead, James said, BCMS reaches out to smaller newspapers and relies on donations from individuals, corporate groups which fund the arts, grants from state agencies and ticket sales. And the organization really appreciates Samford’s email blast, which brings its concerts to the attention of the college’s sizable database of potential donors.
Clearly, though, the BCMS faces an uphill battle, competing for limited nonprofit dollars in a limited economy, with no staff and, unlike many arts organizations, no support group of patrons other than its board of directors. Although they would like to have some of what other nonprofits have, for BCMS, it would seem that the mission is really the most important point. “Our mission,” James said, “is to present chamber music done by a variety of chamber organizations from other parts of the country and the world.”
The BCMS concert series, in conjunction with Samford’s School of the Arts, Davis Architects Guest Artist Series, opens September 24 with the piano and cello duo, Wu Han and David Finckel.