The Experience of Fundraising – PBDD White Paper
By: Katherine Lato based on interviews by Barry Glicklich, Maryanna Milton and Katherine Lato
6/28/17 – Initial public release, Links checked on 1/10/18 and 3/7/19.
Experience of fundraising
Stemming in part from our experience in holding our first fundraiser event, we asked our partners what they would like to learn about fundraising and to share the lessons they have learned with others. We sent each partner the same list of questions, available in Appendix A and at pbdd.org/fundraising-white-paper-questions. Most answers were obtained by phone conversation between one member of the PBDD board and someone from the partner agency. We have consolidated the answers.
Some partners aren’t nonprofits, some are part of larger organizations and do their fund-raising through the larger organization, some are self-funding–as in they make money from the sale of refurbished computers to cover the cost of granted computers and licenses. Often though, organizations that didn’t think they had anything to contribute to a white paper on fundraising did have useful information. Our thanks to all who shared information with us.
Recommendations based on partner input:
- Take advantage of region-specific opportunities at the city or state level as several partners have done.
- Tell stories to get free advertising and more donations.
- Cultivate relationships with donors, volunteers, and potential donors. Thank you is more important than please, but say both.
- Remember, your situation is unique so experiment to determine what works best for you.
Thank you to all who contributed to this paper, namely:
- 4:10 Ministries (no longer have a website for this work)
- Community Computer Connection,
- Connected Nation,
- Learning To Be The Light,
- Net Literacy,
- Partners Bridging the Digital Divide,
- People’s Resource Center,
- Technology System Solutions.
Best practices learned
Many partners mentioned the importance of cultivating relationships and sharing the stories of the recipients about what a difference having a computer, technical support, training and internet access make.
- CompUDopt has found that thanking donors is more important for fundraising than anything else, even than making the ask. Annual appeals and direct mail do well once the relationship has been established.
- LaptopsForKidz also finds that cultivating relationships where the donor is treated like a customer helps with fundraising. LaptopsForKidz get many of their computers from banks and public institutions who are getting rid of the equipment and telling the donors the stories of who is using the equipment helps build the relationship and has worked well to keep them connected.
- In a similar vein, Human-I-T has found greater success with corporate donors by positioning themselves as a professional asset disposal organization rather than focusing on the non-profit aspects of their work.
- FreeGeek finds they have to educate donors about the labor involved once the equipment is in hand. They really work on their relationships especially with volunteers since most of their money comes from small contributions, often from people who have had positive volunteer experiences.
- Connected Nation has relied on telling community stories with data and anecdotes. As early as 2003, Connected Nation was collecting broadband and adoption data to illustrate the digital divide. Through mapping and research on adoption, those indicators of the barriers to adoption continue to be the most effective way of getting the attention of potential funders and communicating the urgency about the need to fund programs that fight the digital divide.
- 4:10 Ministries found that personally visiting businesses like the local bank to request support has been successful. (Author note: from the NDIA conference, we learned that banks like to provide donations that get their name out in public–like sponsoring free wifi.)
- Net Literacy took a negative and turned it into an opportunity by targeting an organization with funding where Net Literacy wasn’t a fit for the grantor’s mission. Their in-house grant writer looked at the organizations the grantor had funded in the last year and donated computers to those organizations so they could build labs. The following year, they made the argument that Net Literacy was relevant and supported their mission. And it worked! They used variations of that with others, establishing a relationship before asking for money.
Creating folklore, telling stories
- LaptopsForKidz likes to send donors stories about where their machines went such as, this one went to a kid with special needs. That set went to students studying biology some of whom want to become doctors. The Masonic Angel Foundation (umbrella organization for LaptopsForKidz) has created folklore for all the different things they do, like collecting winter coats. Some donors read the stories at board meetings or send the stories out in newsletters.
- To increase their contributions, Learning to be the Light strives to have a major media story once a year.
- To increase engagement of stakeholders including funders and partners, Connected Nation highlights the importance of digital inclusion by sharing monthly updates and success stories. The sites Connected and Digital Works highlight stories from individuals and communities that have worked with Connected Nation.
- FreeGeek has a pretty extensive donor contact list of 150,000 people. Paper mailing didn’t have a good response rate, but digital campaigns focused on storytelling has been more successful. They have been working on energizing this base with Facebook posts, trying to get more traffic & awareness. They have done this related to specific campaigns, and it has been successful. Their Earth Day birthday party has received a good response although it doesn’t really serve as a fundraiser.
- People’s Resource Center has a blog that features stories written by client and volunteers. This serves many purposes in addition to empowering those that write the stories and a storage place for ongoing reference and community education.
- PBDD launched a writing contest to promote the theme of digital inclusion and includes several short stories on their website.
- People’s Resource Center relies on community support to avoid being dependent on government funding. The community support has been strong and continues to grow. People’s Resource Center has expanded their efforts to get in front of people and bring people into the location. They have an ambassador program where people trained with the most current information go out to events. They also have a speakers bureau where people can attend events to talk about People’s Resource Center. They also have found that on-site tours are very effective at connecting the community to their mission.
- Word of mouth has helped Community Computer Connection find donors. Individuals and organizations/schools they support refer others to them. Most donate equipment.
- FreeGeek found that using social media on specific campaigns, such as Earth Day birthday party, has been successful.
- Community Computer Connection focuses on high quality of equipment for word of mouth referrals.
- Controlling grant writing and being creative in generating revenue has helped Human-I-T increase their funds. Having a recurring revenue stream from computer sales is helpful and allows them to meet their basic needs while working on grants to do special projects. They are working to create sustainable models and improve efficiency.
- Turning a defeat into an ongoing success has helped Net Literacy in many ways. They currently apply for grants that can be done virtually, but in the past have made presentations to corporations. While freshmen in high school, two of the board members presented to a local corporation that made local contributions to nonprofits. Evidently, they weren’t as polished as the VP of Marketing expected and he made his disapproval apparent. They worked on polishing their presentation, and others at the corporation heard about the vocal disapproval and funded them for ten years, turning a negative into a positive. When applying for a grant, Net Literacy tries for flexibility so the grant isn’t tied to a particular project if possible. They have also learned to include in the funding request overhead such as insurance and costs of the CPA who prepares the books and files their 990s. Because of their different mission from most funding recipients, the kids have to be creative and agile in figuring out how to connect with a funder to convince the funder that it makes sense to provide them with a grant.
- Grant writing is a critical source of funding for Connected Nation. Whether it is a community, private, state, or federal grant, Connected Nation approaches grants as an opportunity to implement custom projects that help communities advance digital inclusion while meeting the grantors’ goals and objectives. Connected Nation has a development team that watches for upcoming grant opportunities via various public and private platforms and works year-round to submit applications.
Acquiring fundraising knowledge
While some of the organizations don’t explicitly fundraise for their computer donation program, there were recommendations of many useful sources for information, including:
- The Foundation Center
- Grant Station
- Foundation Directory Online
- Grant Space
- Inside Philanthropy
- Philanthropic News Journal
- Techsoup articles on fundraising
Connected Nation recommends getting to know the foundations that match your goals and objectives to figure out what they’re looking for. It’s also useful to talk to state and local leaders and community foundations to get to know them.
Attend general non-profit networking events where you talk to other local fundraisers about what’s out there. Learn about philanthropic networks in your community, similar to West Suburban Philanthropic Network, Reading books about business management can be helpful.
FreeGeek noted that some slick elevator pitches can feel manipulative. It is better to invite a donor to become part of the story, though this approach can depend on the cultural tone and the mission. As they noted, people who have positive volunteer experiences can lead to a donor relationship. An example from outside digital inclusion is the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which encourages companies to volunteer a team and has times when families can volunteer together, as well as relying on a core group of returning volunteers. They balance getting the boxes filled efficiently with demonstrating to a growing group of people in the community what they do and why. While constantly training new volunteers to perform tasks may not be efficient for the task, it can be invaluable in engaging new people in your mission. Kramden Institute employs this technique for computer refurbishing, receiving cash contributions donations from the company in order to sponsor a day of volunteering.
As another example, People’s Resource Center attracts local donors who start as volunteers and directly experience the mission and work of the organization, following the current trend of people supporting local businesses by buying local.
Net Literacy highlighted the value of taking a weakness and turning it into a strength, or at least a way to stand out. Their grant writer was a middle schooler when he started, and he used that to focus the grantor’s attention on being youth-empowered.
Human-I-T started with three people with an e-commerce store. As they received project and grant funding, they grew to twenty-one in 2016 with thirty-five projected for the end of 2017. They focus on the mission with their culture being that everyone is an ambassador for Human-I-T. If you think you can do it, you can probably do it.
Learning To Be The Light is not yet a 501(c)3, and has had success with Go Fund me.
People’s Resource Center finds it useful to partner with other organizations or a third party vendor (like BrownPaperTickets or EventBrite) to do ticket sales for events to save staff time and provide better customer service. Other charities do the same. Often there is a reduced processing fee for a charity event. Even if your organization is all volunteer, by using a third party vendor to handle ticket sales, registration, creating badges, etc, you can host events that your volunteers may not have the time or energy to do.
Remember that each organization and location has differences in donor pool. What doesn’t work in one place may work somewhere else partly depending on what other charities in your area are doing. But it’s still worthwhile to be cautious in the following areas.
- Fancy social hours. FreeGeek’s attempt to have fancy meet & greet with high-end donors didn’t work. Nor did CompUDopt’s leadership society activities. Donors prefer one-on-one connections with staff or the students served and are not motivated to make larger gifts just because they are offered a free glass of wine.
- Asking for a small contribution from users. Technology System Solution learned that even $10 from the family of each camper is a hardship so do not try to solicit from low-income families. Some organizations do require a small fee to get a computer–they call it having skin in the game.
- Using public funds. It takes time and money to adjust to shifts in political agendas and adapt to what the people in charge need to know and what they think they need to know. Grants are often limited to a specific project so there’s no flexibility to explore new areas as there are no ‘uncommitted’ funds.
- Time-intensive door-to-door appeals. 4:10 Ministries tried going door-to-door to raise funds and awareness of organization. They found it too time intensive and it gave little results.
- Out-sourcing grant writing to an expert. Human-I-T had a negative experience with attempting to out-source grant writing and contacts. The external grant writer did not have the expertise needed in areas such as recycling, human services and community development which Human-I-T knew, so they are keeping grant writing in house.
- Adopting cutting-edge constituent management software. People’s Resource Center learned that adopting the latest software requires training time to be able to best utilize it, and that time isn’t always planned for and/or available. Also, personnel changes can affect the organization since different development directors have different approaches to work.
- Spending all of a grant on a specific project. Net Literacy learned not to promise to spend all of a grant on the project since they need money for overhead items necessary to support the program.
- Segmenting the donor base to make specific appeals. People’s Resource Center segmented their donor base on amount given in the past so they could tailor requests based on that history. It was a lot of effort that didn’t pay off.
While many partners don’t formalize their fundraising, many have yearly events or regular on-going fundraising. Anyone that is a 501(c)3 charity can take advantage of Google Adwords Grants like Human-I-T recommends. Here’s a summary of how often partners have events and what their sources of fundraising are.
- Net Literacy’s end-of-year grant application is done yearly. The timing is what worked for their grant writer who was working around a school schedule for many years. Net Literacy’s programs vary based on the interest of the students they’re targeting and the students that make up half of their board of directors, so the programs have different funding needs year-by-year.
- Community Computer Connection participates in the yearly Colorado Gives Day.
- FreeGeek has a grants calendar that they review yearly. They have a year-end campaign, but most money comes from sales.
- Connected Nation started as a public-private partnership, accepting cash and in-kind contributions from partners with additional funding coming from local, state and federal grants. Additionally, funding comes from providing services to communities and/or organizations related to advancing technology access, adoption and use of research, mapping, device distribution or technology training.
- People’s Resource Center’s major time is October – January with mail and social media appeals targeted during Holiday season. People’s Resource Center has regular fundraising events and activities (for more than just computer access) created by the Director of Development and Executive Director. Each event includes social networking outreach, newsletters, marketing. Some recent ones include: Race To the Flag, Wine Away Hunger in May of 2017 and they co-sponsored PBDD’s first fund-raiser.
- CompUDopt has an annual appeal in the spring and the winter and writes grants throughout the year. They do some kind of event each quarter. In addition to their annual Octoberfest, one recent event was a Clay Shoot in April.
- Since Learning to be the Light isn’t a 501(c)3 non-profit, they ask for nondeductible contributions on their web page. They try to have a major media story once per year on the TV news, local monthly newspaper, and/or magazine. They’ve managed to have five stories in five years to raise awareness. The stories usually generate some funds.
- Another non-501(c)3 organization, Technology System Solutions holds summer camps and have a fundraiser targeting that program. They partner with a local youth football team. They have one sponsoring company which provides $500 annually upon request. The rest is provided by the principal founder, with support from friends and family.
- 4:10 Ministries uses Facebook to raise money and recruit/organize volunteers.
- Human-I-T has collaborations with other organizations such as NDIA partners Mobile Citizen and PCs for People. Human-I-T trades data-destruction service for high-quality commercial computers. They sell some of those computers on their E-Commerce site. This subsidizes their charitable donation of computers. They have found that it is more effective to offer a better business service rather than approach businesses as a charitable ask. They strive to be professional with data-destruction and recycling capabilities. They give potential clients a response within one business day and no-hassle logistics. For advertising specific events, as well as increasing visibility and donations, they recommend taking advantage of Google Adwords Grants.
- LaptopsForKidz has the Masonic Angel Foundation Fund and received free advertising when starting out. Money is raised by local Masonic Lodges which aim to promote friendship, morality, and brotherly love among its members and provides modest assistance to children in need who do not fit the criteria for the usual social-service programs. When LaptopsForKidz started, there was a tourism publication next to them who wanted content so published many articles about the folklore that LaptopsForKidz was creating. That drew a lot of attention to them.
- FreeGeek receives 50% from thrift store and money from recycling, as well monetary donations from computer donors. Sometimes people will donate money to pay for any costs associated with refurbishing.
- Connected Nation hosts events to communicate messages, not to raise funds. They are usually associated with kicking off or culminating a program.
Each agency’s circumstances are different, but there may be local or state opportunities worth researching.
- Net Literacy is based in Indianapolis which has a program where the funders come together and applicants can submit one application to multiple foundations and grantors. Net Literacy has participated in this for over ten years to fund their summer programs. They scale what they can do based on the grant they get. For other programs, there isn’t an exact fit with a grantor, but they sometimes fit under community engagement. They seek out socially minded corporations or grantors. It’s a bit of hunting and gathering to get funding.
- Community Computer Connection: Colorado Gives Day is an annual event that they participate in along with other non-profits. ColoradoGives.org is a year-round, online giving website featuring more than 2,000 Colorado nonprofit organizations that provides up-to-date information about Colorado nonprofits and a way to donate online.
- Human-I-T is working with California Emerging Technology Fund.
- Partners Bridging the Digital Divide participates in regional events such as the DuPage Human Race which is open to any nonprofit in DuPage County who doesn’t have their own race/walk fundraiser.
Our partners vary from having specific, measurable yearly targets (CompUDopt, Connected Nation, FreeGeek, Human-I-T, People’s Resource Center) to having aspirational ones (Net Literacy). Others cover the cost of computers where they are provided (LaptopsForKidz, local Masonic Angel chapter has a general pot for fundraising). Many partners don’t have targets, but instead get individual sponsorship (Learning To Be The Light) or use funds from the previous year to fund the current year with individual donations as needed (Partners Bridging the Digital Divide, Technology Systems Solutions).
- Working with the board, the Executive Director of CompUDopt builds a strategic plan for the organization, identifying 1-3 year goals and tactical plans to achieve those goals, then builds an expenses budget around the organizational needs to establish revenue targets. This number is divided into how much was raised in the past and from what sources such as events versus individual donors.
- Connected Nation sets strategic annual goals around digital inclusion and secures funding from grants or partnerships with local, state, private or federal funding sources.
- FreeGeek has a goal of reducing the percentage (currently 50%) of funding from sales. They are setting targets based on data from previous years.
- Human-I-T examines the programs planned for the year, previous sponsors, partners targeted, adding headcount needed for efforts. They have been focused on large grant funding in their space and partners. Will be increasing corporate sponsorships and looking at the California Emerging Technology Fund.
- People’s Resource Center sets targets based on analysis of trend and evaluating each activity. (This includes non-computer activities.) The Development committee and Board of Directors then approve the targets.
- Net Literacy has aspirational targets, often not realistic, because the student board puts it together. Students are on the board for a couple of years, and are always hopeful that a higher budget will encourage more fundraising although the board early on decided they didn’t want to fundraise by holding bake sales or selling things. They wanted to rebuild computers, teach seniors and do other things, not fundraising, so they rely on their grant-writing which is done by their founder, Dan Kent. There appears to be a ceiling for the amount of money they can raise. They occasionally get a one-time large amount, but most of the time it’s between $1000 and $5000 from a grantor.
- LaptopsForKidz doesn’t have specific targets, but plan to cover the cost for every computer that is donated. Whichever chapter of the Masonic Angels gets the machine in their town, they have a general pot for fundraising. It’s just like anything else they offer to kids in need (and also seniors with their expanding LaptopsForSeniors project.)
- Learning To Be The Light is funded through individual sponsorship for critical needs.
- Partners Bridging the Digital Divide has a yearly budget with three sets of numbers: minimum, target, and stretch. Minimum includes necessary expenses for the year and relies on key board sponsors. Target budget includes a conservative estimate of additional contributions. The stretch budget includes extraordinary contributions and grant funding. They take advantage of opportunities such as receiving donation of a comedy performance and using that to hold a fundraiser for PBDD and People’s Resource Center. They also participate in regional events such as the DuPage Human Race which is open to any registered 501(c)3 nonprofit in DuPage County that doesn’t have their own run/walk event.
- Technology System Solutions uses funds from previous year to fund the current year, filling in from personal funds as needed.
- 4:10 Ministries is new and so hasn’t had time to have changes to fundraising strategies.
- Community Computer Connection’s Executive Director of ten years recently retired so they are streamlining, have moved to a smaller facility and have split the job. The original founder (Jerry Polis) supported the organization in the beginning. Now family foundation gives donation.
- CompUDopt has started to focus on developing sustainable revenue streams in addition to fundraising. They are also focused on raising awareness for individual donors and getting corporate donors more engaged.
- Connected Nation’s scope is comprehensive (including infrastructure, adoption, and research), so It can be hard for people to get to know them as an organization, since they fill many different roles. They often need to provide education to the funding foundations and it is sometimes helpful to partition and focus on programs in each sector. As a result, it is easier to work on big grants rather than small specific ones. They are consistently adding new sources of funding including funders who are outside of the technology sector but who benefit from a technology- enabled society. However, Connected Nation has not conducted traditional fundraisers such as golf tournaments, dinners etc.
- FreeGeek was reliant on sales up to a couple years ago but are looking for more diversified funding sources. They are experimenting on energizing the base with Facebook posts, trying to get more traffic and awareness.
- Human-I-T have grown e-commerce, changing processes drastically especially on the technology side-e.g. outsourcing shipping to contractor to avoid dealing with returns. Return rate dropped from 4% to .4 in six months. They reevaluate constantly to become more effective. They are tweaking things from a marketing perspective, including/not including shipping and relisting products not sold. Shifting to corporate sponsorships requires stressing how their products end up benefitting the community and individuals. Improving donations benefits clients as well. They hire only those who believe in the mission. They are attempting to create champions for Human-I-T without having to do the work themselves.
- LaptopsForKidz is part of the Masonic Angel Foundation which is well-funded for general programs, their computer work is incidental. Basic structure hasn’t changed. Some of their donors offer to help with the refurbishing costs and it’s still a good deal for them since they otherwise pay to get rid of their computers. A company recently gave them 482 machines, they were planning to pay $35 each to dispose of them. LaptopsForKidz persuaded them to keep them out of the landfill, solving a problem for the business, putting them in the hands of kids who can use them.
- Learning To Be The Light is not a primary business or support for anyone, so costs are held low. Their focus is on giving things away, in order to give back to the community, not on raising money. Self-funded for urgent needs. They had one repeat donor, but he passed away a couple months ago.
- Net Literacy is a volunteer, kid-based organization with half the board being made up of middle or high schoolers. They are not looking to scale things, so looking for what is sustainable as a youth-oriented, youth-organized group.Their fundraising hasn’t changed much. Indianapolis has the program where one application goes to multiple funders. Net Literacy spends 80-90% of resources in the central Indiana area. If they have a good year of fundraising, they use most of it. They don’t do events to fundraise since the youths aren’t into that.
- Partner’s Bridging the Digital Divide started with no intention to actively solicit funds for a couple of years since they had founders who were willing to fund it and main cost is time, not equipment. When the opportunity came to have a fundraiser for low cost, they co-hosted a fundraiser with an experienced partner agency in order to gain experience and raise funds. They also participate in regional events such as DuPage’s Human Race that have no cost, but increase exposure and present the opportunity to raise additional funds.
- People’s Resource Center is less reliant on major events for raising funds, using them more to build new relationships. There’s the concept of a friend-raiser–where you have an event to let your friends and acquaintances know what you’re doing and possibly contribute. People’s Resource Center’s marketing approach changes with each leader’s strategy and understanding of what works. They maintain a list of organizations which have provided sponsorship for events. They identify different ways to target asking so that organizations don’t get multiple asks.
- Technology System Solutions doesn’t have much experience, but are evolving ideas due to reading and looking for activities for future planning. Plans to participate in local town activities such as hosting a booth to increase visibility.
- There has been a gradual transition for corporations to move away from corporate foundations as a means of giving and moving to direct corporate giving. This leads to greater flexibility for the corporation and decreased grant-writing efforts for non-profits, though it can require an inside track to a responsive representative.
Statistics can be a key component in making the case to ask for funding. The NDIA has put together a page on Research you can use: Digital Literacy Training and Employment. Some of the the most useful sources our partners have found include: Pew Internet Research Center; Anne E Casey foundation, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance newsletter; Studies from Benton Foundation, Pew Foundation, NTIA, and Census Data. Some companies pay to have computers taken away so they can be persuaded by the $18 to refurbish that LaptopsForKidz requires versus as much as $35 to get rid of a computer safely. Some partners have generated statistics from surveys of people that have received computer equipment or attended internet safety training sessions, but that shows need but not outcome. A good sound bite is research showing that having a computer in a K-12 student’s home increases their chance of graduating high school by 6-8%. Tech Soup has updated the Environmental Case for Remanufactured IT. Another useful report from Connect Your Community and Mobile Beacon is BRIDGING THE GAP: What Affordable, Uncapped Internet Means for Digital Inclusion.
Hopefully this information is useful to raise awareness of possible funding sources and approaches. As always, our goal at PBDD is to share information. Thank you to all who contributed to this paper, as listed in the introduction to this paper, namely, 4:10 Ministries, Community Computer Connection, CompUDopt, Connected Nation, FreeGeek, Human-I-T, LaptopsForKidz, Learning To Be The Light, Net Literacy, Partner’s Bridging the Digital Divide, People’s Resource Center, and Technology System Solutions. You can find out more about each partner by looking at their websites, available from: https://pbdd.org/partners/.
- Do you have an annual calendar for fundraising (recurring activities for specific months of the year)? If so, can you describe it?
- Is there one particular event or source that you use to raise funds for your organization? If so, can you describe it?
- How do you set fundraising targets for your budget?
- What was your most significant learning regarding fundraising for your organization – one postive/best practice and one negative/ probably won’t try again attempt?
- How has your fundraising changed over time?
- What outreach to expand your donor base has worked well? What has fallen flat?
- Which fund raising resources (professional journals, authors or websites) do you recommend?
- How did your organization acquire experience/expertise in fundraising?
- Are there outside services that you’ve used to assist in fundraising? What has been your experience with them
- What sources for statistics have you found most useful (e.g. for grant applications statement of need)?
- What would you most like to learn about fundraising?
Is there anything special about your organization that affects how you do fundraising?
If you’re curious about how to apply for grants, there is information available at https://fdo.foundationcenter.org/ This is free, but to get to the useful information, you need a subscription. Fortunately, many libraries (such as community college libraries), public foundations and other nonprofit resource centers have onsite access.