How they do it on a dime
Illustrations: Sergio Ramirez
Less than 22,000 people call Blaine County home, yet an impressive number—at least 150—of nonprofit organizations are alive and well in the Wood River Valley.
How is that possible, especially in tough economic climates?
“There are a lot of generous people in this Valley; we’re very fortunate,” says Robyn Watson, major gifts officer with the Wood River Land Trust.
Teresa Beahen Lipman, CEO/Executive Director of the Wood River Community YMCA, emphatically agrees.
“This community never ceases to amaze me,” she says. “We have people with the willingness and capacity to give.”
And it doesn’t hurt that the Valley’s population includes many affluent people with philanthropic principles, says Sally Boettger, Director of Development for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
“There are many, proportionate to the size of our population,”
But it’s not just deep pockets that get the job done; it’s passion and the spirit of the community—and a high level of fundraising know-how.
That mix makes the Valley’s level of nonprofit activity more likened to mid-to-large cities, Beahen Lipman notes.
Interestingly, she says despite the perception of overall wealth, the Wood River Valley is a working population, with 75 earning less than $75,000 annually, and about half of those earning $30,000 or less.
So it follows that in the organization’s recent capital campaign to build a facility to house most of its programs, the number of donations at the top level was impressive, but the amount of donations at the lowest level was huge.
“The Y couldn’t open their doors without them,” she says of the smaller donors. “It takes all those gifts to make it happen.”
Making the pitch
Deep pockets, community spirit and generosity aside, the money for any cause doesn’t just come rolling in. Whether contributions come through membership, an auction, a gala event, or a campaign, there’s an art and a science to fundraising—and topping the list is passion on the part of volunteers and the development professionals they work with, the three say.
“You have to believe in your cause and feel it deeply,” Watson explains. “It has to be something you would volunteer to do and can portray that to a donor. Make them feel your passion and, pretty soon, they’ll get into it, too.”
It’s all about giving people an opportunity to participate, she adds.
“It can be infectious,” she says.
Beahen Lipman agrees, saying, “You have to be passionate about your organization, and you have to have the right people involved.”
Those right people are board members and volunteers who are winners, who are going to be successful, who will be invested with contributions, energy and time.
“Shoot to have those type of people in leadership roles,” she advises.
Boettger says while success starts with the fundraiser’s passion, it’s sealed with the donor’s passion and long-term participation. So it is important to know the prospective donor’s interests, motivation and expectations.
Unless you know what they care about, you’re not going to be successful, she adds.
“Take the time with somebody that by the time you’ve left, they say, ‘I get it. I know what you do. I want to be a part of it.’”
For example, she says, “Celebrities might be on everybody’s list, but they’re just like anyone else. You need to get to know them and understand their goals as they relate to philanthropy. Only then is it appropriate to ask for their support.”
Watson said with so many nonprofits in the Valley, donors want to know what the organization is about and its mission.
“People are supporting their top three to five in a big way, then help others in a small way,” she explains.
But you have to give them the opportunity to know more about your organization or cause and an opportunity to become involved.
“People make small donations as they get to know the organization, and as their interest grows, so does the gift,” she says.
That’s where special events, tours, private parties, one-on-one conversations, and volunteers come in.
“It takes a lot of perseverance,” Beahen Lipman says. “You have to keep cultivating your donors.”
You have to continue to educate them and get them to know you and your organization, she explains.
“Our model is peer to peer,” she says. “It’s really important that anyone working on a campaign contribute at a meaningful level and invite someone to join them . . . a coworker, a friend. People who are in touch with the community, can make a case for support, are respected.”
And they, too, have to know or find out what a prospective donor cares about.
“You want to find a match for the programs. You have to match their desires and inclinations,” she says. “You have to have volunteers on your campaign sitting down with a prospective list of donors. Someone on the team will know something about them.”
Beahen Lipman says the right atmosphere for success is people being excited about the cause and having fun raising support for it.
“Everyone has, inherently, a little fear about talking to someone about money. The people in your campaign have to feel comfortable,” she says. “It’s a mindset; you’re not asking for money—you’re asking to help people and the community.”
It’s also important to get those volunteers together to coach them, keep them informed, share stories, congratulate them and, most of all “celebrate, celebrate, celebrate,” she says.
“Getting together and celebrating is a motivator, especially when you hear testimony” from a beneficiary,” she adds. >>>
Keep them happy and coming back
The number of dollars spent by donors to see the YMCA built in Ketchum can be counted in the bricks bearing their names of course, but more importantly, in funding an eco-friendly facility with programs for the entire Valley to engage in.
So now that you have a donor, you have to keep him happy. Does that mean stroking his ego, romancing him, entertaining him? It is much deeper than that, Boettger says. Meaningful relationships require mutual interest and trust.
“A great deal is done in the community by like-minded people getting together and supporting a common cause,” she says. This suggests that a social element be developed around philanthropy that makes it a lot of fun, she adds.
But some donors become aggravated when the organization is spending money on parties and events. So, one donor might want a gala affair or his name in the newspaper, while another wants a tour of the project or programs or an update on the effort.
But whatever approach appeals to a donor, “there’s no substitution, in the long run, to forming a relationship with people and getting to know them,” Boettger adds.
Watson says, “Every donor has their own way of giving. Some will go to an event just to be going to the event. But it lets people know what the cause is; it’s a great social venue as well as a fundraiser. Some donors see it as a waste of time; they just want to see the money go straight to the cause.”
No matter the individual personality, donors don’t just write checks, they care, she adds.
“And we always give someone an opportunity to continue their passion. At the same time, we’re always looking for someone new,” she says. “Relationships are so important, you grow with them, their success, and want to continue that participation.”
Donors also want the organization to be transparent and to see that funds go where they’re supposed to, Watson adds.
Beahen Lipman concurs, saying donors absolutely want to see that their funds are being used wisely and as promised. Trust is key.
“That’s a big part of my job, that we are being fiscally responsible,” she adds.
“We do so much collaborating, partnerships . . . from a donor perspective, they like to see services are not being doubled, you’re not being wasteful or not delivering on what you say you’re going to do.”
Donors also want to have pride in the organization or the project, and to know they’re helping people and the community.
“I think it’s a big part of why donors were attracted to the Y, that everyone could belong and the programs we run,” Beahen Lipman said, adding the YMCA operates on an open-doors, income-based, sliding-fee scale.
Never forget the “thank you”
“The most important thing is to thank them (donors) as often as possible and as personally as possible,” Beahen Lipman says.
“With major donors, you knock on their door a couple of times a year, sit at their kitchen table and catch up. But it can be as simple as a phone call.”
Watson says, “You want to be thankful, and let them know that you know they are making a difference.”
Whether it’s a thank-you note, putting donors’ names in the newspaper, talking about it with them over dinner, having a private party or hosting a public event, the relationship needs to be ongoing, and noting your appreciation is part of that relationship, she explains.
Even in that all-important thank you process, it’s important to pay attention to the details, Boettger says. But spelling a name correctly, being timely and knowing whether the donor prefers e-mail or snail mail is just the start. Finding ways to help them experience the good things made possible by their support is even more crucial in keeping donors coming back. >>>
Vying for donors?
With the relatively small population compared with the number of charitable organizations, one might think there’d be fierce competition for contributions. But these three fundraising veterans say that’s not the case.
“Among colleagues, competition is a lot less than people might think,” Boettger says.
Because each organization has a different mission, a different focus, they attract different donors, although there’s bound to be some spillover, she explains. But those in the fundraising business set boundaries.
“It’s basic courtesy,” Boettger says, adding that those in the business cooperate, communicating with each other and respecting the others’ events calendar.
Watson, too, says there is no competition and, in fact, the nonprofits help each other.
“We really do share,” she says, adding that if they meet someone whose interests and passion fit another nonprofit better, they point that donor in the right direction.
“We’re just so fortunate to have the generous donors we have in this Valley, whoever they’re giving to,” she says.
Beahen Lipman notes there certainly are a lot of worthy nonprofits in the Valley.
“But there always seems to be donors who are passionate about a specific cause,” she says. The success of so many charitable organizations is due to “the wonderful people who live here.”
• The Wood River Land Trust is a conservation organization that helps landowners and communities protect and restore wildlife habitat, clean water, farmland, and scenic vistas. The organization has about 1,000 members and last year conserved almost double the land it had in the past 14 years. Its operating budget and programs run about $700,000 annually. Location: 119 East Bullion Street in Hailey. Phone: 208.788.3947. Visit their website: ww.woodriverlandtrust.org.
• The Sun Valley Center for the Arts is a nonprofit educational arts organization founded in 1971 by Glenn and Bill Janss. The Center offers cultural experiences in line with larger urban centers and promotes the arts as an integral part of human development. It has 1,200 members and an operating budget of almost $2 million. Location: 191 5th Street East in Ketchum and 314 Second Avenue South in Hailey. Phone: 208.726.9491. Visit their website: www.sunvalleycenter.org.
• Wood River Community YMCA is a multiprogram organization seeking to build strong youth, strong families and strong communities. The organization just completed a $22 million capital campaign to build a facility and operates on an annual budget of $3.2 million. It has more than 5,000 members and receives requests of $400,000 in financial assistance annually. Location: 101 Saddle Road in Ketchum. Phone: 208.727.9622. Visit their website: www.woodriverymca.org.
Carol Ryan Dumas is editor of Ag Weekly in Twin Falls and has been a journalist and freelance writer/photographer for more than 20 years. She is impressed at the level of charitable giving in the Wood River Valley and pleasantly surprised that fundraising professionals were so open and willing to talk about how they do what they do.