News and analysis
March 17, 2014

Staffing, Not Stigma, Is Biggest Fundraising Challenge for Mental-Health Charities

Stigma is not the main factor holding mental-health charities back in their efforts to attract donors, says a study of more than 100 fundraisers for such groups. Instead, inadequate staffing is the biggest obstacle fundraisers mentioned when asked to rank their top five challenges. Stigma scored the lowest.

Charities that help people with mental-health problems, intellectual disabilities, and substance abuse “feel pressure to keep overhead down and be perceived as a responsible steward of donations, but those in the field are telling us that limited staff means limits on an organization’s ability to execute on its plans and deliver services,” says Benjamin Waxman, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Network, an organization that helps such nonprofits raise money and the survey’s sponsor.

“Fundraisers see the potential out there to get money into their organization. They just don’t have the ability to get everything done,” he says.

Mr. Waxman thinks boards and other leaders at such groups need to put more of their organization’s money toward hiring more fundraisers and others.

“This is a place that’s worthy of investment and with a good potential for return,” Mr. Waxman says.

The survey, the first of its kind from the network, collected responses from 118 fundraisers and other executives at nonprofits that bring in less than $1-million a year from private and government grants.

Social Media and Boards

Inadequate staffing was not the only challenge fundraisers identified. Forty-five percent said social media are an untapped opportunity to attract new donors and compete for gifts. But they also noted they have trouble telling their stories through those tools.

Mr. Waxman says it is harder to capture people’s attention with stories of mental-health problems than, say, photos and stories of natural disasters.

He says his organization has plans to develop an online course so nonprofits can brainstorm and learn better ways to use social media and get people engaged in their cause.

Fundraisers said a lack of support from board members is another challenge. Many said that while their boards are involved in fundraising strategy, they shrink from asking potential donors for money.

Of those polled, 68 percent said they are not getting enough help from board members in soliciting gifts, and roughly 60 percent said their board members didn’t do enough to help identify and woo potential donors.

Mr. Waxman suggests that charities need to work harder to educate their trustees about fundraising, possibly by sending them to conferences that spotlight the subject or by hiring consultants to teach them how to attract donors.

“Board members should remember donors aren’t suckers,” says Mr. Waxman. “They want to feel like they’re doing something good in the world and it’s your job to make sure they know their money actually does have an impact and will do some great things.”

You can download the study, “Stigma, Staffing and Boards—Surprises and Common Struggles,” for free.

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.