Friday, March 30, 2018

Fundraising in Fractured Times

Chaos on the national level along with uncertainty about the impact of the tax bill and the future of our democracy have made these anxious times for nonprofits. Sometimes it feels like you can’t get a break from crazy tweets and jaw-dropping headlines and national tragedies.

And yet, you still need to raise money for your work. So here are five fundamental principles to keep in mind.

1) Fundraising is a year-round project. It’s not just about one big fundraising campaign, or one gala event; you need to be asking folks many times, in many ways, to contribute to your organization. This includes making several appeals throughout the year via email, website, snail mail, Facebook, and personal contacts. It includes having a website that is easily navigable, well designed, and drives visitors to your donor page.

2) Every staff member is a piece of the fundraising puzzle. Although there may be one key staff member who has the main responsibility for fundraising, everyone should be knowledgeable about your strategies, able to make a quick elevator speech about your mission and the value of your work, focused on making positive connections with clients and donors, and ready to hand out remit envelopes. Most important: every Executive Director needs to fundraise, in particular through individual contacts with significant donors. This should be written into their job descriptions, and a focus in every performance review.

3) Everyone on your Board bears responsibility for fundraising. Yes, I know that most Board members resist direct asks, and would rather spend hours planning a fundraiser than one hour meeting with a donor. So you have to make it clear in your Board job description and orientation that fundraising is a key responsibility and what your expectations are. You have to provide training (not once, but regularly).

4) Fundraising is driven by organizational data. You can’t fundraise effectively and strategically without a well-constructed and comprehensive database. If you have one that’s not working for you, find a better one. You should have comprehensive information at your fingertips about each donor – when they have given, why, how much, how they like to be contacted. And you should be able to segment lists for focused appeals.

5) Fundraising is about personal connection. But the bottom line is that all the data in the world does not replace the value of authentic human connection. This starts with what happens when folks walk into your facility or office, with how they are treated on the phone, with how quickly and well you respond to their emails. And it continues into personal notes on letters, prompt thank yous, donor appreciation events, personal phone calls, house meetings, and one-on-one meetings in which you listen, engage, ask for feedback, and solicit donations.


I know there’s been a lot of chatter out there about increased competition for funds, because there are so many embattled good causes. But I’ve heard that chatter over and over throughout the years, through recessions and political crises and hurricanes and earthquakes. And yet, the nonprofit sector has survived and persisted and raised money. You will too - you just need keep on fundraising.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Some Things You Should Know About the NRA

The NRA is a nonprofit – but it’s complicated. It’s classified as a 501(c)(4) under U.S. tax law. It has several 501(c)(3) charitable subsidiaries (NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund, NRA Foundation Inc., NRA Special Contribution Fund, Friends of NRA Foundation, and NRA Freedom Action Foundation) plus a 527 Political Action Committee (NRA Political Victory Fund). Each subsidiary is controlled in varying degrees by the parent organization—from shared board members to control of leadership positions.

IRS basics: A 501(c)(4) organization is allowed to engage in political lobbying and advocacy including supporting or opposing candidates, but this must be related to the group’s primary mission and cannot be its main activity. Note that 501(c)(3)s are specifically prohibited from participating in partisan campaigns. Both are exempt from paying income and property taxes; only donations to 50(c)(3)s are tax-deductible. Political action organizations (including PACs as well as mainstream political parties) are classified as 527s; these groups actively influence elections and policy debates at all levels of government.

The NRA’s nonprofit mission: To protect and defend the Constitution; to promote public safety; to train people in the safe handling of small arms; to foster and promote the shooting sports; and to promote hunter safety.

By-laws: NRA by-laws state the organization is not affiliated with any arms or ammunition manufacturer nor with any business that deals in guns or ammunition.

The NRA’s long-lost past: The NRA has been around since 1871. For a century it was a marksmanship, hunting, and conservation group. In 1934, NRA President Karl Frederick stated: "I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” Its original application for 501(c(3) status in 1938 was denied; ten years later, it was granted 501(c(4) status.

Some famous NRA members: William Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Hunter Thompson, Dwight Eisenhower, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Timothy McVeigh, Charlton Heston, Ulysses S. Grant, Tom Selleck, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sarah Palin.

The big change: In 1975,a change in leadership moved the NRA from social club to an ideological political movement. They became the masters of messaging, pushing a definition of the Second Amendment that left out the link between a "well-regulated militia" and the right to bear arms. The NRA endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in 1980, backing Ronald Reagan. Since 2005, millions of gun industry dollars have been donated through NRA sponsor programs, along with revenue from industry ads in its many publications. Various gun companies and publications also donate portions of sales directly to the NRA.

And now: Today, the lobbying arm is one of the most powerful in the country, with a virtual stranglehold on politicians. For the 2016 elections, the NRA spent $51,854,687 - more than any other political nonprofit in the country. Thirty million of this went to support Donald Trump.

IRS enforcement: Critics claim the NRA's tax exemption should be taken away because it spends more time and money on politics than it does on charitable purposes. Perhaps you're wondering where the IRS is on all of this. And the answer is - nowhere. There is no actual formula that defines the legal balance between political and charitable activity. Plus the controversy over supposed IRS bias against nonprofits espousing right-learning causes resulted in significant cutbacks in both funding and oversight.

And right now: Student activist Emma Gonzales has more Twitter followers than Donald TrumpIt feels like we are at a critical moment in which we might actually be able to challenge the NRA's tactics, and push sensible gun control legislation. I'll be making my calls, and showing up, and marching - hoping you'll be there with me.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Why You Should Care About the 2020 Census

The Census may seem unimportant compared to current big headline issues. Yet it's fundamental to our democracy. For me, it's personal, political, and based in my deep roots in community nonprofit work.

The basics: The census counts each resident of the country every ten years ending in zero, as per the U.S. Constitution. This has included citizens, non-citizen legal residents, non-citizen long-term visitors, homeless folks, and undocumented immigrants.

Some history: The first census was in 1790. 1860 was the first year women, children, and slaves were included. Individual data is legally protected for 72 years – but from 1941 to 1947, the War Power Acts repealed this protection, thus facilitating the internment of Japanese, Italian, and German Americans.

Census data is used to:
  • Determine the distribution of Congressional seats to states
  • Draw electoral maps as well as maps for school and local government districts
  • Make planning decisions about community services including where to provide services for the disadvantaged, build new roads, and establish new schools
  • Decide how to allocate more than $675 billion in federal funds to local government programs and services
What’s up now: John Thompson abruptly resigned as Census Bureau Director in June 2016 and has not been replaced. The acting deputy director is a meteorologist. Funds for the bureau have been cut by 10%. To save money, staff has been cut, the internet will be the primary response option, and followup will focus on technological systems and third-party data rather than census workers knocking on doors. The Justice Department has requested that a question about citizenship be added to census forms. Requests to add questions about diverse populations and gender orientation/identity have been denied.

Here’s my personal story: 
     For decades I ran a small nonprofit community center in a small town in rural western Marin County. One of my very first ventures in fundraising was at a foundation serving disadvantaged populations. That program officer simply laughed at me, because, according to her, nobody was poor in West Marin, and everyone was white – it was simply a weekend destination for tourists and wealthy second-homers. I knew this wasn’t true. The folks I worked with were low to middle class; our programs included a free weekly senior luncheon, kids programs (with lots of scholarships needed), a holiday gift and food program. The workers on local dairy ranches were all Latino, and my son’s kindergarten class was 35% non-English speaking (today it’s 50%). And I myself was a full-time single mother struggling to make ends meet on a part-time nonprofit salary. But I had no data to prove this.
     So I embarked on a mission – to collect that data, and put together comprehensive information about the demographics of my community, for my nonprofit and the local nonprofits I worked with. And the primary source of this data was the U.S. Census. In 1990 and 2000, we became an official census center, providing census forms to everyone we could find plus recruiting and hosting trainings for census workers, with a focus on making sure the Latino community was counted. This wasn’t easy – folks were worried because many were undocumented. But we were able to assure them the information would help bring more services into town, and their responses would remain completely private. Given today’s climate, the proposed citizenship question would absolutely decrease participation among non-citizens and those from mixed-status families concerned about putting their relatives at risk of deportation. And the emphasis on internet response will disadvantage those who cannot afford or have limited access to broadband service.


Here’s what I urge you to do: Urge your state government to designate funding for census outreach and planning. Make plans to provide census information and forms to folks in your community. Encourage your coalition of local nonprofits to support the census in whatever way possible. Call your Congressional representatives and tell them to support and fund a full and fair Census process. Do it now.