Posted 10/16/2011, The Chronicle of Philanthropy by Raymund Flandez and Holly Hall
Connecting donors with a charity’s mission has taken on new importance in the downturn, as nonprofits worry that donors will limit their giving solely to the groups they are passionate about.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure (No. 39) has been trying to counteract such concerns by helping its most generous donors see the global impact of their gifts to the charity, which finances research on breast cancer and other efforts to help women with the disease.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure takes donors on trips to see the charity at work. Often they see a Race for the Cure, such as this event in Israel. -Courtesy of Susan g. KOMEN for the Cure
The Dallas charity is focused more heavily on big donors, because it has realized it cannot continue to grow if it relies on small donations raised from its Race for the Cure events or revenue from marketing deals.
So far, Komen has conducted five overseas trips to let donors meet people doing the “work on the ground,” says Katrina McGhee, executive vice president.
For example, one trip took 35 people to Cairo for seven days. Included in the group were people who had donated at least $10,000, officials of foundations that had made grants to the charity, and other wealthy people whom the charity thought could be persuaded to make substantial gifts.
Supporters visited hospitals and met with cancer patients, traveled to rural areas outside Cairo, learned more about the disease at a symposium, observed the lighting of the Giza pyramids in pink, talked to the U.S. ambassador and other government leaders, and went on a cruise on the Nile River.
A Trip to Enrich
The trip was timed to allow donors to see the first-ever Egypt Race for the Cure, with thousands of women from around the world racing together through the pyramids to help call attention to the number of women who suffer from the disease. The charity has organized other donor trips to the Bahamas, Ghana, Israel, and Italy.
“Entrenching donors with an enriching experience” lets them know about how Komen spends its money, Ms. McGhee says.
“It is personally moving to meet someone who is extraordinarily grateful for the gift of life, to know that somehow your contribution made it possible.”
Donors typically gave $2,500 to Komen to participate in the trip but continue to give more after they return, she says. One donor who traveled to Cairo contributed more than she had in the past to Komen’s annual gala and invited the president of Jersey Mike’s Subs, which became a $1-million corporate donor soon after. In addition, a foundation that sent officials on a trip has contributed more than $100,000.
Lessons on the Art Form
The San Francisco Opera Association (No. 356) has also been working to draw donors closer to the organization. It had been planning to start a capital campaign in 2008 but shelved the drive because of the faltering economy.
“We went back to the drawing board and focused on what has the most resonance with our donors,” says Jennifer Lynch, director of development.
What donors care about, she adds, is the art form, so the opera decided to deepen their understanding of how its productions come together.
To that end, the opera created a new group for donors who give $75,000 to $300,000 over three years.
The opera calls these donors the Camerata, after the musicians, poets, and intellectuals who gathered in 16th-century Florence during the Renaissance and helped develop opera.
“We wanted to create an experience with an extraordinary level of access, with opportunities to interact with artists socially in small gatherings and access to season planning,” Ms. Lynch says.
Years in the Making
The technique not only draws donors closer but also helps the opera explain why it needs commitments from donors such a long time before a production opens. “Part of our overall objective is to get people involved earlier,” Ms. Lynch says. “Watching how a piece comes together can be a matter of years.”
Within months, the Camerata brought in $1-million. She hopes the wealthy donors it attracts will give $50-million over the next five years.
Ms. Lynch says that the Camerata has changed her thinking about offering benefits to donors. Instead of focusing on perks such as parking or a private lounge for the most generous donors, she says, she now concentrates on furthering their knowledge and enjoyment of the opera.
“We are trying to get people to think of themselves as production sponsors.” she says. “It is not about withholding benefits until they come up to a certain giving level; it is about how much they care and how much understanding they have. We have gotten more without worrying about giving somebody access to something for free.”