More interesting findings from Austin’s campaign for philanthropy

I attended a lunch meeting today of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Austin chapter, at Green Pastures. The speaker was Patsy Woods Martin, executive director of the I Live Here, I Give Here campaign that aims to increase local donations and gifts to to Austin charities.

Patsy presented the findings of the campaign’s initial survey. What made today’s information so interesting was not just the survey results themselves, it was also that the results were presented to nonprofit professionals who live in that world every day. I was curious to see how professional fundraisers would react.

I don’t think many were surprised by the survey results, but I think many of them felt better armed to go out and do their jobs. These are people who meet with, honor, and plan events for donors on a regular basis – all in an effort to get them to send those checks. They have to have their missions’ stats and “elevator pitches” down. They have to be able to tell the stories of their clients and encourage donors that their gifts make a difference.

Three of the major points Patsy made at today’s luncheon were the following:

1. While 97% said they thought the quality of life in Austin was good, 64% said they’d move away for a better job.

What the campaign gathers from these numbers is, according to Patsy, “The message that giving money to make our community better doesn’t resonate with more than half of Austinites.” These are people who don’t have roots here, who don’t see themselves benefiting from an investment in the community.

2. 82% of respondents said they would donate more if they had a better idea of what nonprofits do and, according to Patsy, 2/3 of them reported that they don’t know enough about the needs in the community.

“Austinites don’t know enough about the needs,” she said, “and if they knew more, they’d give.”

Later in the presentation, one of the audience members spoke up and said that Austinites just don’t see the need. We look around and we see all these young, healthy people, these beautiful parks, and new construction…. To me, it goes back to the east-west divide of Austin and how so many of us think of the city as two separate communities and populations.

Another person said that he noted that the same cities that ranked so low in charitable giving were the same cities at the top of the Richard Florida’s list ranking the cities with the largest “creative class.” Is there a correlation between these young creatives and a city’s level of philanthropic giving? Musicians, small business owners, artists, writers… Ford labels this group as “well paid,” but maybe giving to charity isn’t part of their culture. He quotes members of the creative class as valuing things like nightlife, outdoor recreation, and cultural diversity. Good schools, low crime, more opportunities… maybe these don’t register with the creative class.

3. Patsy noted that Austin’s culture of fundraising is based on events.

I spoke with Carol Thomas, Caritas‘s development director, and Sarah Michel, Carol’s “right-hand man,” about their biggest fundraisers. I was surprised that their annual Penick Award Dinner grossed so much for the nonprofit. They credit it to keeping a keen eye on the bottom-line costs of the events, and performing detailed analyses of how much to charge attendees in order to make the even profitable. Very smart.

I remember from my experience at a nonprofit that not all events make sense, in terms of profitability and return on investment. The staff and volunteers can put in a significant amount of time organizing an event that might make some money. But two weeks later, something as simple and straightforward as asking a bunch of volunteers to come in and make phone calls to get pledges can yield so much more.

The question is, does it make sense to focus fundraising efforts around events, even if they don’t give you a great ROI?

That’s a tough decision for a nonprofit to make. Events like those are typically the baby of an important board member, who can be stubborn about letting go. “Our board is made up of these very smart, business-oriented people,” Carol told me, “and when you show them the numbers and that bottom line, they tend to make good decisions.”

Not all nonprofit boards are like that, unfortunately. Even if it’s obvious to the staff, the staff is in an awkward position selling it to the board. I’ve seen it happen before – egos can get in the way. Having a fundraising culture based on events is not necessarily a bad thing. But the events (duh) have to actually make money.

There’s so much to unravel about why Austinites don’t donate more to local charities, and all of it is important to know if we want to change that fact. The I Live Here, I Give Here campaign has already succeeded by helping us put some data to what we think we know.


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