Community Key to Fundraising

Published in the Philanthropy Journal (May 23, 2011)   
By Todd Cohen

Giving is all about community. Americans give money, volunteer and serve on boards mainly because they want to help make their communities better places to live and work.

But fundraising, the flip side of giving, is not always about community: When they ask prospective donors for money, far too many nonprofit staff and volunteer leaders focus on fundraising techniques and the needs of the nonprofit and, sometimes, of the donor, rather than on the needs of the community.

That needs to change if nonprofits expect to do a better job raising money so their organizations can better serve people and places in need.

That is the message of Karla Williams, a national fundraising consultant based in Charlotte, N.C., where she is a key adviser to United Way of Central Carolinas in its effort to transform its organizational culture in the wake of a scandal over its ousted CEO’s compensation.

She also is director of the Leadership Gift School at the Institute for Philanthropic Leadership, a local effort in Charlotte to strengthen the work of local nonprofit leaders and fundraisers.

Williams says nonprofits that want to be more effective fundraisers first must build a culture of philanthropy at their organizations.

That is hard work: It requires, first, that a nonprofit’s staff and board understand the history and role of philanthropy, as well as fundraising tools and strategies, and how and when to use them.

It also requires truly getting to know donors and helping them understand the community and the role their gift can play in helping the nonprofit address urgent community problems.

It is “imperative,” Williams says, that nonprofits “understand how much work it takes to be deliberate in our creating a sense of philanthropy” that will help build a sense of community.

She cites a 2000 study of 40 U.S. communities that found Americans do a great job volunteering and giving to charity, mainly through religious congregations, but take few chances, stick to their own kind and are divided by race and class.

In short, our communities are low on “social capital,” or the social connections or civic glue critical to hold communities together and help them thrive.

Led by Robert Putnam of Harvard University in partnership with local community foundations and private foundations, the study prompted many funders to launch efforts to strengthen social capital in their communities.

Some of those efforts have created safer, more vibrant neighborhoods; helped residents and businesses get more engaged in civic life and affairs; and built closer connections among people from different backgrounds and walks of life who previously did not come into contact with or even know one another.

Others have taken on some of the most urgent and complicated needs in their communities, such as improving dismal high-school graduation rates or better serving vulnerable people like the homeless.

By creating a culture of philanthropy that connects their organizations and the people who support them with the larger community, nonprofits can help strengthen the community’s social capital.

Greater social capital, in turn, can make fundraising more effective and generate more philanthropy.

So fundraising and giving both become more strategic and meaningful and have a greater impact because people who are connected to one another and to their community have a more intimate understanding of common problems and want to be involved in helping to fix them.

Instead of treating fundraising as a “mechanical” process, and treating donors as if they were automated teller machines, Williams says, nonprofits can raise a lot more money and use it more strategically and effectively by spending the time to get to know donors, and helping them see the connection between their values, the causes they care about, the impact they want to have, and the difference they can make in healing and repairing their communities.

Giving is indeed about community.

By making sure their organizations and their donors understand the meaning, value, role and methods of philanthropy, and the needs of their communities, Williams says, giving and its impact will grow.

“The notion of connectivity,” Williams says, “is a critical measure of whether we’re doing a good job.”