November 03, 2013

Under Time Crunch, Fundraisers Play It Safe at Year’s End

The American Red Cross is revamping its online gift catalog to show donors what their contributions provide to the people the charity serves.

On Thanksgiving, the Salvation Army will promote its annual holiday kettle fundraising drive during a nationally televised football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders.

But by then, many of the group’s volunteers will have already spent several days outside of stores ringing their bells as the charity tries to get a head start on a shorter holiday season.

“We’re really concerned about the calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Maj. Ron Busroe, the Salvation Army’s community-relations and development secretary.

Charities like the Salvation Army are pedaling harder because they have one less week between the two holidays compared with the 2012 period. The shortened calendar has pushed nonprofits to seek contributions even more aggressively than usual, relying largely on well-tested rather than fresh appeals to reach donors.

They are also hoping that Giving Tuesday, a movement that has relied on social media to spread the word about philanthropic giving, will provide a huge lift in donations on the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

Stock Market Could Lift Results

The crunched fundraising season isn’t the only problem facing fundraisers. The still-sputtering economic recovery also worries many charities.

But many experts expect the strong stock market to produce boom times for organizations that rely on affluent people to give. That is one reason the Atlas for Giving, a forecasting service for nonprofits, projects fourth-quarter donations will increase 11.5 percent over 2012.

This year-end fundraising season is especially crucial for charities that depend on government money. Many nonprofits say they have been hit by wide-ranging federal budget cuts, and 2014 looks uncertain, so many are counting on their private support to make up for what government doesn’t provide.

This year, for instance, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which depends on the federal government for about half of its revenue, saw its government support drop by $360,000 through cuts in food and nutrition and HIV/AIDS programs. To make up for that loss, the group says it will need more in donations from individuals, which this year totaled nearly $6-million.

'Impact Thursday’

While some charities are counting on Giving Tuesday to help jump-start the season, David Lawson, co-founder of the nonprofit consulting group, says it’s more important for organizations to think about how to keep donors giving again and again.

“What’s the strategy to retain these people?” he asks. “There’s Giving Tuesday. I’d like to see 'Impact Thursday.’”

Already, many nonprofits are doubling down to show donors the impact of their gifts, especially because a growing number of studies are showing that’s what donors say they want most.

Goodwill has started an ad campaign that makes explicit what a donor gets by giving to its thrift stores: “Donate Stuff, Create Jobs,” say the new appeals.

The group is also encouraging people to visit its online donation portal, where they can see details about how their cash gifts make a difference and earmark contributions for specific purposes.

“We know that individuals want to know if their giving is making a difference,” says Wendi Copeland, vice president for mission advancement at Goodwill.

Working Wardrobes, a Costa Mesa, Calif., group, that provides professional attire for needy people entering the job market, also seeks to turn donors’ attention to the way their gifts transform clients’ lives: “I was_____ (an alcoholic, homeless, a domestic-violence victim)” and then “I am ____ (an accountant, a homeowner, a social worker). The nonprofit is using direct mail, video, e-mail and social media to spread the word.

And a growing number of groups are showing exactly what they can do with a specific sum.

On the American Red Cross’s Web site the charity displays blankets that can be distributed to the homeless (three for an $18 donation), a day of food and shelter for a family hit by a major disaster ($50), and a bicycle for an overseas volunteer ($75). This year, to drive donors to its site, the Red Cross took steps so that as soon as Labor Day was over, anytime people searched for phrases like “gifts under $20,” its Web site would turn up prominently.

And it has added a new feature to make it easy for donors to share information with their friends through Facebook and Twitter about the gifts they’ve made to the charity, in hopes of encouraging more people to give.

'Surround-Sound’ Appeals

Still, the uncertainty about the economy and the shorter giving season are key reasons most nonprofits are relying on reruns of 2012 to reach donors.

For instance, Ronald McDonald House Charities will use the same year-end pitch it used last year, which incorporated a red ribbon with the tagline “Give the gift of togetherness.”

But to get ready for its year-end appeal, when it raises about 60 percent of its contributions, the charity spruced up its online presence in August. It revamped its Web site and provided “mobile friendly” options for people to donate, says J.C. Gonzalez-Mendez, the charity’s president.

To raise money, the organization will use a full range of techniques: direct mail, newsletters, e-mail, YouTube videos, and social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s a surround-sound approach,” Mr. Gonzalez-Mendez says. 

 Other charities aim simply to fine-tune existing campaigns.

For more than 10 years, Samaritan’s Purse has directed donors to a “Gift Catalogue” on its Web site, where people can steer their donations to specific causes.

For example, a week’s supply of milk for a child costs $4. Building a hospital in an impoverished community costs $35,000.

Next year the nonprofit may try out a new approach, says Jim Loscheider, vice president for donor ministries. But during the crucial months of November and December, when the group receives more than 40 percent of its cash gifts, he says, it’s important not to veer from an established course.

“We try to perfect what does work and not put too many options on the table,” he says.

The Environmental Working Group will again offer donors gift bags full of consumer products, as it has for the past five years.

But it is offering a twist designed to appeal to today’s donors, who tend to want more choices than those of the past. Donors will be able to pick from a variety of products that promote healthy eating and the elimination of unsafe plastics that correspond to the group’s research on healthy and safe consumer products.

The charity hopes that offering more options and raising the minimum donation from $135 a bag to $160 will bring in more money. Last year, the group sent out 2,200 bags; this year it hopes to reach 2,500.

The organization would not say what its end-of-the-year goals are, but typically about 10 percent of its annual $7-million in contributions comes during the last six weeks of the year.

New Campaigns

Not all nonprofits are playing it safe with repeats of last year.

The Histiocytosis Association will use a brand-new “snowflakes” theme for its year-end campaign. Histiocytosis is a rare blood disease that takes many forms, making each case as unique as a snowflake, according to Amie Simpson, a spokeswoman for the group.

Ms. Simpson says the association will use the theme on personalized donation forms, which, in an attempt to connect more directly with supporters, will note the donor’s past contributions.

The group plans to use direct mail, e-mail, and social media to reach donors starting in mid-November through the end of the year, with a goal of tripling last year’s haul to $150,000.

But while many organizations place a high priority on connecting with donors at year’s end, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, says Seth Rosen, the group’s development director, aims to keep in touch with contributors all year.

To that end, the group sends videos to donors each month featuring stories from clients who have been helped by the charity. And staff members and clients update the nonprofit’s “Voices of GMHC” blog each week.

“At the end of the year, there’s not a big hit,” Mr. Rosen says. “It’s an ongoing conversation.”

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels and Raymund Flandez.