Charitable Challenges

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Economic conditions remain less than ideal, which presents nonprofit organizations with problems that seem to compound themselves. Many people find themselves with less to give, while need among their neighbors continues to grow. At the same time that individual donors are facing unemployment and wage freezes, state and federal funding to charitable organizations is being cut.

Despite the challenges, nonprofit leaders are finding ways to stay in the public view and remind potential givers that every dollar counts. Compassion, they report, is winning out over belt-tightening.

This trend is reflected in a September report from Linking Mission to Money, a firm that analyzes organizational effectiveness. According to the report, which gathered data from the heads of 120 Ohio nonprofit organizations, new sources of private giving are more than making up for the funds being lost from government sources. Nonprofit leaders say they have had to cut staff salaries in some cases or use reserve funds to keep the doors open, but they remain largely optimistic about the future.

The positive outlook can be attributed to several factors. Certainly, those who work for nonprofits are a caring group, but they aren't led by heart alone. Many of these organizations are as well-run as any for-profit corporation. The business of giving is a serious one. The Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations (OANO) provides education and training for those who work in the nonprofit arena. Recent sessions have included instruction in cultivating peak performance within the office, identifying and reaching younger donors, and understanding national trends in giving.

"Our hope is that through these valuable training sessions, nonprofits will learn about new ideas and resources to help them in their fundraising initiatives," says OANO Executive Director Jennifer Eschbach.

While nonprofits across the board have taken a hit since the economy began its downhill tumble in 2008, anecdotally, those dealing with human services have felt less of a pinch. While people may cut back on their giving to the arts and other areas, it's much more difficult to say no to someone who is hungry or homeless.

The Salvation Army of Central Ohio is one of the organizations that deals in the basics-food, housing and clothing for those in need. Development director Erika Shemberg says in an email interview that while growth has slowed, there is still movement. "Although our giving levels continue to increase each year, over the past couple of years the growth is slower," she says. "Where we used to see a 7 to 8 percent growth rate, now we are seeing a 4 percent growth rate."

Donors, even those who are feeling financially squeezed themselves, are opening their hearts and their wallets. The United Way of Delaware County conducts widespread giving campaigns within workplaces and with individual donors. The organization provides services that encourage health, education and financial stability. President Brandon Feller says many people are surprised to learn there is homelessness and increasing heroin use in the charming, largely rural county. Donors begin to see these problems touching their neighbors, and they want to help.

United Way of Delaware County had its best year ever in 2007, when its annual campaign raised $3.5 million. Economic fears caused giving to fall to $3.1 million in 2008, but the campaign reached the $3.3 million mark for 2012. With those donations, the United Way funds 40 programs through 23 different organizations.

Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio is another safety net on which tens of thousands of Ohioans depend. LSSCO operates several homeless shelters, including Faith Mission, and provides medical and dental care to guests who stay in the shelters. Five food pantries, including one mobile pantry, feed more than 20,000 people every month. LSSCO's 21 affordable housing communities allow hundreds of people, including seniors, to have a safe and secure place to live. Every day, the organization helps thousands of people in 50 Ohio counties by addressing the four core societal issues of hunger, housing, healing and hope. The nonprofit has 31,975 active donors, from those who write large checks to children who put pennies in the offering plate at church.

"Giving for some of our donors has remained stagnant, and we are mindful that times are difficult for many," says LSSCO's director of marketing Jason Zielinski. "However the need has grown so much in our community that it makes for a very compelling reason for our donors to continue to give as much as they can. Because we have also added some new donors, our levels have remained steady."

Educating Donors

The need is there, and with coming food shortages and uncertainty in the job market, that need could continue to grow. So how do nonprofits get the word out to keep people giving and prevent them from shutting their eyes to the problems in their own communities?

Zielinski says LSSCO maximizes each dollar by reaching new donors through the media and direct mail. "I would say that our strongest method is through a very comprehensive direct mail campaign that operates 12 months a year. We have seen a rise in online giving the last year or so in part due to our social media efforts and utilizing traditional advertising methods to communicate our story," he says.

Amethyst serves women and children who have been victims of substance abuse. The agency's goals are to help clients build healthy relationships, secure permanent housing and gain economic stability, all of which contribute to lifelong recovery. Need is growing, and the donor base-about 500 people strong-has remained faithful.

"We are not seeing an increase in giving, but we are noticing the people and organizations who believe in the work we do are loyal and continue to give," says development director Nanon Morrison.

To increase its giving base, Amethyst representatives appear for speaking engagements and rely on word of mouth from current and former clients, board members and supporters. The organization also uses social media including Facebook and Twitter, sends direct mail and makes cold calls to drum up new support. "Even though social media is the new norm and very effective, we are in an age where a large demographic of people are not comfortable with the Internet or giving online," Morrison says. "We have definitely seen an increase in online giving, but one-on-one personal contact is still the best approach."

Shemberg, of the Salvation Army, says each method of communication has its advantages. "More mature donors respond to direct mail, personal phone calls and notes or face-to-face visits," she says. "Younger donors respond to digital campaigns and multichannel approaches. We are working to increase our social media presence to reach a younger audience. Although social media typically does not elicit donations, it's a wonderful way to create awareness and mobilize volunteers."

Mobilizing awareness is the first step in getting people to care about the cause. Columbus Speech & Hearing Center helps those with hearing loss prepare for school, improve communication skills and relationships, and live safely in their own homes well into their senior years. President and CEO Dawn Gleason says many donors have continued to give in spite of the economic downturn, and 40 percent of those give on a regular basis. She says a good portion of donors have been touched personally by the services the organization provides.

"People give to causes they care about," she says. "People who have firsthand experience with a speech or hearing problem realize how the services we provide improve their lives and, as a result, many of them choose to support the center."

Need has grown and has pressed some organizations to their limits. In 2011, Columbus Speech & Hearing Center provided more than $670,000 in charitable care. "This, combined with cuts we've experienced from funding sources like the government and United Way, has really stressed our already limited resources," Gleason says. The nonprofit uses email, direct mail and social media in combination with good old-fashioned personal contact. "Different people respond to different forms of communication," she says. "I think the most important thing is to build strong relationships and to communicate with donors about what's going on throughout the year-not just when you're asking for money."

Shemberg agrees. The Salvation Army sponsors events, uses direct mail and places its iconic bell ringers in the community during November and December. The organization also relies on public relations to keep its profile high. "The goal of our year-round PR efforts and other promotions is to educate the community about our services and illustrate how we are helping those in need," Shemberg says. "Our hope is that after hearing the stories of those we have helped, people are moved to volunteer, learn more, and/or support our mission through monetary or in-kind giving."

The United Way of Delaware County also relies heavily on in-kind donations and volunteerism. "Since the recession began, we have placed a renewed emphasis on participation over a specific dollar amount," Feller says. Many individual donors and companies decide collectively on something that sparks passion, then give in that way. It may take the form of donating printing services, donating thank-you gifts for volunteers, giving time to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio, reading at a local school or painting a room at a homeless shelter or a food pantry. Every action makes a difference, Feller says, and benefits both the giver and the recipient.

"Companies appreciate it because it has a team-building component," he says. "Sometimes it can heal divisions within companies when the employees and the managers pick up a hammer and rally around a common cause."

'A Community That Cares'

Ohio has a strong streak of caring, and wise nonprofit operators have learned to use that to their advantage. Rather than reinventing the wheel or competing with one another, organizations very often cooperate so that people in need are served with minimum waste and maximum effectiveness.

Westerville Area Resource Ministry (WARM) operates a client-choice food pantry, a summer lunch program and a job assistance service. "Helping people connect with employment helps break the cycle of poverty in life," Executive Director Scott Marier says. "People matter and they have worth, and when they are employed, they take greater ownership and the cycle of dependency is broken."

"We have identified ourselves as a resource center," says Marier. "We want to help people help themselves by connecting them with those who are really good at what they do." People who visit WARM can find connections to furniture banks, clothing, medical care and affordable housing. "We're not in competition," Marier says. "We're in collaboration. When the tide goes up in our community, everyone's boat goes up, and when you cultivate the habits of generosity, everyone's basket can be full."

Even in the seemingly affluent college town of Westerville, poverty is on the rise. "Poverty is migrating to the suburbs at a dizzying rate, because people living in poverty want the same things everyone wants-better housing, better schools, a better life," Marier says. Today, more than one in three Westerville school children receive some sort of free or reduced-price lunch, and the same sorts of difficulties are being experienced across all age ranges.

"We live in a community that cares," Marier says. "Locally, there's a tremendous desire for people to show compassion." When that happens, he says it is essential to show appreciation. That means thank-you letters, but also much more. Maintaining a positive attitude builds inertia, and following through on the mission builds trust. Often, that takes the form of giving donors concrete examples, such as relating the number of meals purchased through a particular donation. "As a donor, that shows me that what I did really mattered, and it shows me that you're being good stewards of what I gave you," Marier says.

Offering thanks-or, as Marier puts it, becoming "donorcentric"-is not a ploy to solicit more donations. The gratitude is genuine, and somewhere along the way, he says, the experience changes from a transaction of money or time to a transformation of purpose. People begin to give, not out of guilt or obligation, but because they know they make a difference.

"They tell their friends and bring them along, and they tell their friends and bring them along," Marier says. "All of a sudden, the community is different because the people are pulling in same direction."

Kristin Campbell is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the December 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.