LeadingAge Magazine · March-April 2018 • Volume 08 • Number 02

Demonstrating Value to Donors

March 16, 2018 | by Katherine O'Brien

Putting your best foot forward to donors means helping them understand the nonprofit difference, while demonstrating how their gifts help your organization make lives better, both inside and outside its walls.

Nonprofit aging services providers serve millions of older adults in all demographics every year, and with 10,000 baby boomers hitting retirement age every day, that number is only going to surge. It becomes clear that our field must make philanthropy a high priority if we want to provide the best services for our residents. Convincing prospects that your organization’s work is vital, and continually demonstrating the value of what you do, is the topmost way to gain and keep those donors.

Cedric Richner, president of Richner + Richner, a fundraising consulting firm, is encouraged by statistics showing that about $12 billion was donated to the sector, a “similar slice of the pie” as the animal welfare and environmental sectors. “There’s emerging interest in creating and establishing fundraising programming in the aging services sector” as people realize that the vagaries of government funding and residents’ fees can only do so much, he says.

For Tom Hoffmann, chief foundation officer for Ohio Living (formerly Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services), philanthropy is critical part of revenue generation because “the other major funding sources in the United States—Medicare, Medicaid, the insurance companies—they‘re all diminishing as resources and revenues to our organizations.”

Create a Well-Rounded Program

Ohio Living is seen as having one of the most successful fundraising programs in the aging services field, something that Hofmann attributes to its consistency. “It’s not like one year you’re raising $100,000 and the next year, you raise $10 million. We’ve pretty much averaged about $7.5 million for the past 33 years.” Hofmann also points out that the organization is strong operationally, has good data and communications programs, and has set up endowments.

The latter element alone makes Ohio Living stand out. This 2017 Giving USA report finds that only 10 percent of aging services providers have an endowment fund, a percentage that Les Helmuth, executive director of the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC) Foundation in Harrisonburg, VA, calls “pathetically low.” (For the record, VMRC has also set up endowments.)

Invest in the Long Term

“Uncertainty and unwillingness to invest” in fundraising are stumbling blocks for some organizations, says Hofmann, who stresses that successful development programs take an investment in staff and time. Still, as Giving USA report co-author Laura MacDonald notes, “with patience and diligence, a sound fundraising program should eventually return $3 to $5 for every $1 invested.”

If hiring a dedicated fundraiser is out of the question, your organization can at least make legacy requests or set up a basic mailing program, says Hofmann; however, he believes vying for grants would be unrealistic. “For an organization who has nobody to do quality grant writing you are going to spin your wheels,” he says. “We have two people who have 50 years between them and it’s still a struggle.”

Hoffman thinks that most providers have not embraced philanthropy, which “has the potential to at least be a good revenue partner.” Richner says many organizations don’t understand how fundraising could work for them, “so they relegate it to an ancillary or nonexistent role, and the results end up being diminutive too.” He believes they can raise significant dollars—but only if they prioritize fundraising. “It starts with choosing, yes, we’re going to make fundraising an important part of the revenue stream,” says Richner. “Without that commitment it’s virtually impossible to be successful at fundraising in this space and any other.”

Get Everyone on Board

Another characteristic of successful fundraisers is that they embrace the “inside out top down” philosophy of fundraising, says Richner. They give “everyone who cares or could care” about their organization (staff, residents, families, local philanthropists, corporations, and private and public foundations) the chance to donate money. It’s especially crucial that CEOs and boards of directors contribute—if they don’t believe enough in the organization’s mission to support it financially, why should anyone else, he asks.

Helmuth, who spent 27 years of his 40-year fundraising career in education, says relationship building is crucial in the aging services field. “The primary approach for me has always been to find out who the people are who really want to support us and then get to know them—and that’s relational,” he says. Helmuth says part of his job is “making friends with all our wealthy friends” and encouraging them to help care for neighbors who have fewer resources. (VMRC has the “exceptional challenge” of having to make provision for 160 low-income residents [out of a total of 750], who are “pre-qualified for running out of money at the end of their life.”)

How Can We Show Value to Grant Providers?

While a donor wants to know that her contribution to a nonprofit will bring good value, so too does a foundation that awards a grant for a specific program.

To learn more about how grant-seekers can be more successful and offer greater value, LeadingAge interviewed 2 grant-writing veterans for this podcast about their new book, Grant Writing for Aging Services and Programs, published by Troy Book Makers and available from Amazon.com and other retailers.

Carol Hegeman was director of research at the Foundation for Long Term Care in Albany, NY, which is affiliated with LeadingAge New York. She is now a consultant who operates Hegeman Consulting, training and coaching grant writers.

William Lane was a professor of sociology and anthropology at the State University of New York at Cortland for 25 years, and was the director of the university’s Center for Aging and Human Services. His consulting practice, William Lane Associates, works to support aging programs in New York state and nationally.

1:30: Why does the book focus specifically on the aging services field?
5:10: Why are fundraising and grant writing different?
12:00: What is a "grant-ready" organization, and why should a provider strive to be one?
18:08: Why is careful reading of an RFP so important?
24:30: How do providers need to improve at needs assessment?
29:30: Is there reason to believe we will see an increase in the number of grants given to aging services?

Nurture Projects of Passion

Helmuth also helps prospective donors figure out how they can match their passions with VMRC projects, which, among other things, has resulted in an endowment that funds on-campus entertainment and educational sessions. Likewise, Hofmann says Ohio Living donors prefer giving to specific projects instead of a general fund, a trend he thinks “will be even more true with the next generation, who I view as more skeptical.”

(See the LeadingAge Virginia 2017 Philanthropy Benchmarking Survey, which advises aging services organizations to survey donors periodically to determine which areas are the biggest draws.)

In addition, Helmuth encourages fundraisers, particularly those at low- or modest-income communities, to reach out to the local community, something VMRC accomplishes through annual golf tournaments. Another best fundraising practice is thanking donors. At VMRC, leaders hold thank-you events where they let attendees know about the impact of their gifts.

Z. Allen Abbott, philanthropy specialist for Cypress Cove at HealthPark Florida, says in addition to using special event thank-yous, staff leaders also send spontaneous notes and handwritten cards of appreciation. Abbott also says it’s vital to invite donors to get involved in the organization’s mission. For instance, at Cypress Cove, leaders introduce staff scholarship fund donors to the scholars themselves and give them regular updates so that they can feel a personal investment.

Cypress Cove photo
Cypress Cove works to get donors involved in the organization’s
mission. Leaders introduce staff scholarship fund donors to the
scholarsthemselves and give regular progress updates. Photo
courtesy of Cypress Cove.

Prove Your Value to External Donors

According to Richner, more than 85% of funds raised in aging services comes from individual donors. On top of this, organizations tend to rely mainly on residents or others who have a connection to them. “On the individual side, if you don’t have a relationship with them it’s a pretty tough sell,” notes Hofmann, who adds that most of Ohio Living’s donors are “highly independent” residents or those who plan to move there. Abbott acknowledges that thus far donors to Cypress Cove have largely been internal, a direction he wants to change. “If we’re only looking to board members and staff, and residents, we’re leaving money on the table,” he says.

To capture external donors, providers need to develop a fundraising case that shows how their contribution will impact a cause that is meaningful to them. At Cypress Cove, we need to put forth a clear vision that is attached to “alleviating some of the issues that plague seniors and concern them,” says Abbott. Here’s his case for external donations: “We bring safety, security, peace of mind, health and healing, purpose and meaning to your parents and your grandparents, and we improve quality of life for the community as well.” Abbott points out that volunteerism has sharply increased at Cypress Cove, with many staff and residents giving back to hospitals, schools and other community organizations.

Aging services organizations can also show value by creating programs that benefit people beyond the campus walls, says Richner. A case in point is the Heritage Community of Kalamazoo in Michigan, which is working to create an on-campus center where local researchers can conduct behavioral studies with older adults. Not only that, the center could allow Heritage staff to share their caregiving expertise with the greater community, says Kim Loftus, vice president of fund development/executive director of the Heritage Community of Kalamazoo Foundation. “We could train more caregivers [to provide dementia care] at home if we had a place to do it and the funds to do it,” she says.

Convince Prospects That Your Services are Vital

When it comes to convincing prospective donors that your organization is a vital part of the region, Loftus has this piece of advice: Find out what resonates most in your community. “Kalamazoo is a very modest community and people are very humble about their philanthropy,” she says. What resonates in our community is “jobs and stability and providing quality care.” Given this, Loftus makes it a point to emphasize that Heritage’s 440 staff and 390 residents are connected to “huge numbers of family, who live and breathe and shop in the greater community.”

Loftus says telling great stories about your organization is an effective way to demonstrate value to the greater community, but one that is neglected by many. That’s not true for Heritage, which creates stories around its 4 funds (memory, staff scholarship, legacy and building grounds).

“It’s harder and harder to tell our story and to get it heard, so part of our challenge is finding new ways to do that,” Loftus says. “I think when the community hears it and learns what it is we do, they are amazed.”

Katherine O’Brien is a writer who lives in Toronto, Ontario.