Over the next month – in the form of others giving thanks through charitable giving – non-profits in the homelessness and housing industry will take in a very large portion of their annual donations. Maybe it is informed gifting. But I bet a lot of it is guilt money, and the feeling that a person or organization cannot really have a great holiday season unless they make a contribution to a non-profit. Giving Tuesday seems designed (contrived?) in part to serve as a catalyst for this purpose. No matter what the reason, I am thankful that non-profits get the opportunity to fundraise, though I appreciate that movements towards ad-blocking online may make a huge chunk of this work more difficult in coming years.
On very short notice, I want you to consider three questions if you are a non-profit (or the questions in parenthesis if you are the donor to a non-profit):
- What are we fundraising for? (What are they fundraising for?)
- How are we promoting our work? (How do they tell me what they do?)
- Why are we fundraising? (Why are they doing this?)
What are we fundraising for?
If you are fundraising for operational costs, then one would hope the you have already examined all of your operations, found all possible efficiencies, and ensured your programs are aligned to the evidence of main currents of thought and practice in the type of work you do. For example, fundraising for a transitional housing program that has very poor long-term permanent housing outcomes is probably a bad investment all around.
If you are fundraising to address a deficit position in your operating budget, then be clear of the reasons why you are in this position and why you need to get out of it with support. Yes, be candid and honest. It is one thing to help an organization resolve their deficit when they are operating incredible programs and have experienced the deficit because of the transition the organization has gone through in order to get to a new place aligned to proven practice. It is something completely different when the organization is in a chronic negative operating position, which probably means they are operating WAY beyond their means and in too risky of a position to warrant the investment.
If you are fundraising for a capital campaign, then one would hope you can – in a very pithy, non-technical way – explain what you are hoping to build and for which purpose. Capital facilities without operating dollars attached to it are a problem in most instances. New shining buildings can be a great call to action (or lightening bolt) in a community. They can also be a albatross if they are the wrong type of facility for the wrong program or without designated program dollars.
If you are fundraising to address deficits in your capital reserves then be clear about that as well. Many non-profits are in buildings that were gifted to them or beyond their natural lifecycle of building components. But a donor should know the different between a capital contribution that helps build a new building and one that is being used to make a roof repair, for example.
There is also the difference between fundraising for general operations versus a specific project or population group. This often results in one population group being pitted against another, like the needs of youth experiencing homelessness being seen in a different way (in a funding perspective) from the needs of older adults experiencing homelessness. However, donors should be able to know what their investment is going to be used for in either a general sense (help out our organization because we do great work) or a specific sense (help out our project the helps single parent families get the employment supports they need).
If you are fundraising for turkeys, give your head a shake. I appreciate there are comforts of “normalcy” that come with marking the holidays in different ways. If I had to choose between turkeys and, say, a shallow subsidy for Rapid ReHousing participants, it is a no brainer. And if someone wants to serve turkey, maybe it would be better if they spent the same energy and money creating welcome home kits for the men, women, youth and families that move into an apartment and do not have the essentials to turn it into a home quickly.
How are we promoting our work?
Too many non-profit organizations (unwillingly) lie when promoting their work – especially this time of year. When media or corporations come looking for a story to drum up support, many non-profits want to trot out the individual or family that is the greatest success story. Think of the person that is now employed, going to church, sober, reconnected with their kids, volunteering, and going to night school – or some variation thereof. While exciting and rewarding to know these types of clients exist, they are not the norm. They are outside the norm. Instead of telling the story of all people served by your organization, you like to use the sample size of one.
There will be pressure from the development office or fundraising group or media to help them provide a “human face” to the story. They know it will result in more money. And this will especially be true if they can make everyone believe you do incredible work. (It may even be framed as the Lord’s work or some variation of that given the season). But the truth is, homelessness is an excellent example of human suffering and you cannot spin human suffering. You can spin the output (getting housed) though, so many will want you to do that. Be genuine in promoting your work and avoid treating the people you have the privilege of serving as the guinea pigs to be spokespeople for your program. The graduates of your program are just that – graduates. Do not bring them back for your self interest. And if people are active participants in your program, then let them remain protected confidentially and let them recover from their homelessness without the glare of the spotlight.
If an organization cannot produce complete, thorough data on what they have performed over the course of the year, with whom, to which impact, I would avoid asking for money or giving money. How an organization outlines what they are achieving matters. If they only have a story or two, I would be concerned that those are not indicative of the whole.
Why are we fundraising?
Are you looking to build an empire? Or are you fundraising because without the funding your operations will fail?
Are you fundraising because everyone on your executive leadership team deserves six figures? Or are you fundraising because you want to increase the number of people moving into and maintaining housing?
Do you think everyone needs a turkey dinner on Christmas? Or are you fundraising because when people move into housing they are often without cleaning supplies or furniture?
Let me put this another way – which may be a more blunt way of asking the question: Are you fundraising to end homelessness?
Lots of organizations fundraise to manage homelessness. Lots of organizations fundraise for turkeys, toys and the like – all of which can feel good, but is not the sort of charity that ends homelessness. Too many organizations fundraise to make themselves look and feel better thinking the more money they have and the larger their organization becomes the more successful they are. Why I want anyone to fundraise is to work to put themselves out of business by housing everyone.
Turkey is for turkeys. Money should be used to end homelessness. Period.