Fundraisers Weather Extreme Highs and Lows
The University of South Carolina recently wrapped up a record-setting annual fund drive, surpassing aggressive goals that brought in more than $100 million in donations and pledges.
In Salt Lake City, The Arc of Utah - a nonprofit that served the state's disabled for 50 years - shut its door this year, largely because of a drop in donations. Donations had fallen by up to 50 percent at the same time the agency was reeling from poor financial decisions, says Katherine Scott, former development director.
The two represent the extremes that nonprofit groups across the country are experiencing as they search for funding in a down economy.
Fundraisers are more pessimistic about their current situation than at anytime in the 11 years that they have been polled by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, Executive Director Patrick Rooney says.
In the center's most recent Expectations Index, in which fundraisers look at current and future giving climates, June expectations were down 9 percent from December 2008 and 29 percent from a year ago at the same time.
"Clearly," Rooney says, "the economy is the driving factor."
In the survey of 181 fundraising executives and consultants conducted in June and July, 86 percent said the economy was having a negative impact, including 14 percent who termed it "very negative."
For some nonprofits, the decline proved insurmountable.
Like The ARC of Utah, the Destiny Foundation of Central Florida and Family Services of the Mid-South in Memphis are among nonprofits that have recently ceased operations. The downturn has even led to the development of programs such as Los Angeles-based Edward Charles Foundation's division devoted to helping charities merge or dissolve.
The picture is not all doom and gloom. Rooney says some parts of the nonprofit community have fared better than others, including the religious and educational sector that accounted for nearly half of the $307.7 billion in philanthropic giving in 2008. Though that total represented a 5.7 percent drop from 2007, adjusted for inflation, he says it still was the second-best year on record.
Rooney says fundraisers are optimistic about the rest of 2009.
"At a time when unemployment is around 10 percent, when we are fighting two wars, and the economy is the worst since the Great Depression," he says, "the fact that giving only fell a small amount really suggests to me a strong commitment to philanthropy."
At the University of South Carolina, Michelle Dodenhoff, interim vice president for University Advancement, says the university was faced with a difficult challenge. State funding was cut by more than 20 percent and the school was coming off a record year in which it had raised more than $100 million in private giving for the first time.
Instead of backing off and setting the bar lower for 2009 because of the economy, Dodenhoff says officials were determined to raise more. "The question was: 'How are we going to hit this goal, trying to top a record year, in this uncertain economy?' " she says.
Dodenhoff says a key to the year's successful campaign, which ended June 30, was staying close to donors. The school used e-mails, including messages from the president, and Facebook on top of traditional communications and publications.
The message was simple yet strong. "We had very candid conversations with our donors," she says. "We said, 'We know we're all hurting, but your help is more important now than ever.' "
The struggling economy also hasn't had much impact on what parishioners drop into collection plates. "What we have seen historically is that giving to religious organizations tends not to grow rapidly in up cycles but also tends not to fall as dramatically in downturns," Rooney says.