Chronicle Series/Fundraising in Tough Times

Philanthropy.com
From the issue dated January 9, 2003

A CHIEF EXECUTIVE’S VIEW

Waiting for the Ruinous Drought on Wall Street to End
By Yosef I. Abramowitz

A major foundation has been flirting with the charity I lead, Jewish Family & Life, for some time now. We got to the stage where foundation officials had requested a proposal, and we turned it around quickly.

And then silence. No acknowledgment. No return phone calls or e-mails.

Finally, a key staff member returned my message and said he would be glad to see me on my next trip to the city where his foundation is based.

A week later, he greeted me warmly in his office. “We would like to move forward,” he said to me, and I smiled. He delayed his next words, which meant that I should then force my smile even though I knew he was going to deliver the bad news. “But we don’t have any discretionary funds anymore and are struggling just to keep our current commitments,” he said matter-of-factly.

“That’s great that you would like to move forward,” I responded, trying to keep a positive atmosphere. “When do you think you might have the discretionary funds again?”

He spun around on his chair, his back now to me, and faced his computer. The screen saver gave way to the msn.com money page. He turned his head to me, leaving a finger on the screen at the stock-market chart.

“It all depends on the market.”

Indeed.

The stock market for nonprofit groups is like the weather for farmers: We can’t control it, we try to predict it, and we are heavily dependent on it to define our environment, productivity, and yield. A bad year undermines our viability and we become lean; several bad years is tantamount to a famine, especially for those of us that do not have endowments or deep-pocket angels to protect us.

Even if the market inches up in the coming months, I have the sense from dozens of conversations I’ve had that most foundations will still be managing for the worst for many, many months to come and that 2003 will be a very difficult year for nonprofit groups seeking support. Many grant makers are reluctant to commit to new, large multiyear grants for fear that another downturn in the market could undercut their ability to meet all of their obligations.

Jewish Family & Life is not old enough institutionally to have had seven good years to put money away, as the biblical Joseph did to help the Egyptians weather the seven famine years. So we are changing our fund-raising strategy in this period of drought to try to get us through until the next quenching rainfall.

Instead of asking for money from lots of new donors in this tough environment — for many, the well is nearly dry — I am relying on the generosity of our most loyal supporters, while planting the seeds to increase our long-term financial, social, and intellectual capital base.

The last half-dozen grants we recently received have been from foundations that supported us in the past, people who know us well, helped develop our organization and programs, and understand best the value of continuing or even expanding their commitments. If you have only a handful of wells, digging deeper into each one is the best way to reach life-giving water.

During this time, we have also decided to buck the norm for nonprofit groups and are not producing a quarterly newsletter that is sent out to the usual list of between 5,000 and 10,000 Jewish organizations and potential donors. Instead, we are doing regular mailings to a list of about 350 key contacts, which saves us money and staff time and gives us a more manageable group with which we can follow up.

Successful fund raising, I’m learning, is nearly all about following up with key donors. Just as we were devising our fund-raising strategy for the coming year, a reader of this column sent me an e-mail recommending an excellent book, Relationshift: Revolutionary Fundraising, by Michael Bassoff and Steve Chandler (Robert Reed Publishers), which speaks about the importance of building relationships that are deep, rather than spreading one’s efforts too thinly across too many people. In fact, one chapter advises to focus on no more than 27 key relationships. And that’s what I’m doing.

In my office, my white board is divided up into the next financial quarters with four or five names under each quarter. This keeps me focused on our major potential donors. And when I meet with our development director — which is not often enough because of my travels — she usually asks about these key contacts and helps me think through our next steps.

Planting is actually more than putting a seed in the ground; fund raising is more than asking people for money. First, you have to prepare the soil. For us, this has meant computerizing our fund-raising records, so that we can keep track of and nurture our most important relationships. When we had only three staff members, I was able to effortlessly keep track in my brain of our handful of donors. But by the time we had about 30 staff members, we needed a better way to store and share donor information, so we could make sure we follow up with people who express interest in our organization.

You also have to spread a lot of seeds. I am actively meeting influential and inspiring people at a pace that has, frankly, worn me out a bit. I have traveled nearly continuously for the past nine weeks, making sure I am home to spend at least the Sabbath with my family. On the Boston-New York shuttle, I often take the first flight in the darkness of morning and return on the last flight that night, bearing small gifts to slip under the pillows of my sleeping children. Every West Coast trip entails a red-eye flight back for an early morning appearance at home to see the children off to school before I head to a full day of work in the office.

I am accepting speaking engagements more readily, since the visibility in front of influential audiences often reinforces our fund-raising operations. I am not only going to more conferences, but I am also spending more time at each one since there is almost always a critical mass of our donors and potential donors attending. Our board is keenly aware that I have to spend time (and therefore money) meeting people. To try to keep my travel expenses down, we signed up with a travel agent, who has been creative in saving us money.

Until the stock market rebounds in a significant and sustained way, we are sticking to our key programs and undertaking only a few new endeavors. When we do consider new projects, we look for partnerships with others who have complementary assets and expertise, so that we can spread the risk and responsibility.

Yet we continue to dream big and quietly create the infrastructure needed so that when the economy turns around and foundation officers and others are ready to make new gifts, we will be the first ones on their lists. I sense that 2004 will be a year of great opportunity, and I am spending about 20 percent of my time getting our organization in a position to be ready to act when certain doors open.

As our charity heads into the new year with the board having just approved a budget with a 10 percent increase, $3.4-million, my spirits are good. Our management team and board have done the groundwork and planted many seeds that will, I hope, bear fruit. Our basic coping strategies seem to be helping us weather the dry spell. But I am weary and I miss my family.

Yosef I. Abramowitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family & Life, a charity in Newton, Mass., that seeks to stimulate interest in Jewish culture among Jews. He can be reached at CEO@jflmedia.com.

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