Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during June-96, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
The Center for Anti-Violence Education is a 22-year-old institution in Brooklyn, New York, that works to end violence against women and children on both individual and institutional levels, primarily through community education programs, self-defense courses, and martial arts training. The hard work of our 3.5 paid staff people is greatly enhanced by the dedicated efforts of close to 50 volunteers.
Historically the organization has raised 35% to 45% of its income from fees, which gives it a distinct advantage over grassroots organizations without services to sell. But due to its unusual combination of martial arts training and a social justice approach to anti-violence work, other sources of support — particularly from foundations — have been hard to come by.
In 1993, we had 266 individual donors (separate from students, who pay monthly class fees), who contributed a total of $13,270. Events brought in $11,500 more. As 1994 approached, we realized there was an ideal opportunity to use the milestone of our 20th anniversary as a way to increase the visibility of the organization, expand our fundraising capacity, and bring in new donors. We also saw the need to take risks in our fundraising activities in order to make a leap in our individual donor fundraising.
As we wanted to maximize the fundraising potential of the anniversary, we planned to celebrate the occasion over the course of the entire year with a variety of activities, described below. For this 20th anniversary year, we decided to set the rather ambitious goal of raising $100,000 from individual contributions.
With the small paid staff already overextended in programmatic, administrative, and fundraising work, we decided to take what felt like a great financial risk: We hired a 20th anniversary year coordinator to work one half to one full day a week for the year. She helped us develop a plan for the anniversary year, implement some components of the plan, and solve various problems along
the way. We also hired an event coordinator half-time for six months to help organize the gala event that took place at the end of the anniversary year.
At the end of a very full year of activities and celebrations, the center had raised close to $80,000. Though this was short of our original goal, we felt good about what we had achieved. For one thing, this amount was more than three times the amount we had raised the previous year from individual donors. We also increased our donor base from 266 to 483 donors, the largest growth in any previous single year. We now have a stronger base from which to expand and raise more money in the years to come.
As you’ll read below, we did not have great success with every strategy, but we pushed ourselves to think big, take risks, and move forward with the momentum that a significant anniversary can provide.
- The 20th Anniversary Committee. Recognizing that our board of directors was small and not very well connected in the larger community, we decided to establish a 20th Anniversary Committee. Our idea was to identify and solicit the participation of women who could help broaden our reach to new constituencies. We brainstormed a list of about 75 women, and ultimately recruited 35 to join the committee.
We first approached committee prospects with a letter, which presented a short history of the center and its work, gave preliminary plans for the anniversary year, and described the responsibilities of committee members. We asked that each member of the committee attend three or four meetings during the year to generate ideas and build energy, join either the Major Donor Campaign or Gala Event Committee, and share skills and knowledge in areas such as graphic design, public relations, or connections with other community organizations. We also stated our expectation that committee members would take the lead by making their own financial contribution to the organization.
Follow-up calls were made to each committee prospect by the executive director, the event coordinator, or in a few cases by a board member. Because of time constraints, we did not interview prospects in person, but spent time on the phone answering questions and determining their interest and ability to make a commitment.
The actual participation of committee members was mixed. Some were extraordinarily generous in giving of their time, energy, and money; some hardly participated at all. But most did make a financial contribution, attend at least one meeting, and help to get the word out about the end-of-the-year gala. Moreover, the impressive roster of committee members on our letterhead was definitely noticed by foundation and corporate funders whom we solicited for support that year.
The Anniversary Committee brought new women from the community into the work of the center. We have made important new friends, several of whom have continued to help us since the committee disbanded. We learned that having a formal relationship with people inspired support and, as a result, we plan to start an Advisory Council. Committee members also introduced us to new prospects for our board of directors.
- The 20th Anniversary Report. Like many small nonprofits, the center does not produce an annual report, and we had no single piece of promotional material that encompassed our mission, programs, and history. We felt that a well-designed, nicely produced booklet with lots of pictures and limited text would be useful for both fundraising and promotional activities. We hired an outside writer for the first time, assuming it would speed up and streamline the process. We learned, however, that because of our desire to “get it right” and solicit feedback from several key people in the organization, we needed much more time than we had originally anticipated. We hoped we could write, design, and print the booklet in a couple of months, but it ended up taking more than four months to complete. If we had known to plan for several drafts going back and forth, it would have saved us much frustration. In the end, however, we were pleased with the final product. It gave us a concise vehicle with which to introduce our work, and we benefited from the experience of putting together a more upscale and ambitious fundraising document than we had previously published.
- The Kickoff Event. We launched the 20th anniversary with a reception, which took place on a weeknight from 5 to 7 P.M. We used it as an opportunity to reach out to current donors, potential supporters, and friends of the center, and to begin to solidify the participation of the 20th Anniversary Committee. The program included a short demonstration of kids doing safety/self-defense skits, a reading from a new novel about young women and violence by a local author and friend of the center, and food and drink. No admission was charged, and a fundraising pitch was made by none other than Kim Klein, an old friend of the organization. More than 100 people attended, and we raised approximately $3,500.
We did not plan the kickoff as a major fundraising event, but used it to bring people together who would be involved in activities throughout the year and to build excitement and interest. A lot of goodwill from that event translated into contributions, both monetary and otherwise, during the rest of the year.
- The Major Donor Campaign. The center had run annual major donor campaigns with limited success for the previous three years. This was mostly due to our difficulty finding people willing to participate (including board members), and the fact that we have a small donor base to draw from. For the anniversary year, the critical difference was having a larger number of people involved in asking, and therefore, a larger pool of prospects. A Major Donor Committee was formed, made up of 20th Anniversary Committee members, students from the center, and staff and board members. We ran an extended campaign
through the spring, fall, and winter. We solicited our current donor list as well as new prospects for contributions of $100 or more.
The campaign was far more successful than in past years, raising $31,735. Although we did not reach our goal of $50,000, we were pleased with the growth. We are beginning to understand that building a donor base takes time, patience, and persistence. Even with a larger committee, the center’s executive director and the anniversary coordinator made the bulk of the asks. Our largest individual gift, $5,000, was raised by the executive director, but contact with the prospect was made with the assistance of a 20th Anniversary Committee member.
- The Children’s Poster Campaign. Young people make up almost half the membership of the center through the Children’s Empowerment Project. For the anniversary, we invited the children to participate in an art project: Children’s Visions of Peace and Safety. An artist
donated her time to supervise two sessions (divided by age) and furnished vividly colored paper for them to make collages, which she told us generally reproduced better than drawings. Working with the center staff, the artist first led a discussion with the young participants about the kinds of images that represented safety and nonviolence to each of them: a favorite relative’s house, the beach, being in bed at home, playing with friends, a tree house, walking a dog, and abstract images as well.
The children created artwork that was evocative and powerful. In keeping with our non-competitive educational philosophy, we exhibited all the collages at a local university and at the gala celebration later in the year. Three that would reproduce well were chosen to be part of a striking four-color poster (see illustration), designed by another volunteer. We were able to get a local politician to underwrite the cost of printing, which totaled $2,500.
The Children’s Visions of Peace and Safety Poster is a beautiful and tangible souvenir of the 20th anniversary and embodies the spirit of the center’s antiviolence work. We gave copies of the poster as a thank you to committee members and major donors. We also sold a few at the gala celebration and through our newsletter.
- The Neighborhood Collection
Can Campaign. To increase our visibility in the center’s immediate Brooklyn neighborhood and, of course, to raise money, we launched a canister solicitation campaign. Volunteers approached neighborhood stores and many agreed to let us place a can on their counter. Some merchants also made cash donations. Some turned us down because they said the canisters would be stolen and, alas, several canisters were taken. Since then, we’ve noticed that other organizations chain their receptacles down! We also made up “palm cards” that were left next to each canister for folks to take, with safety tips, information about the center’s programs, and resource numbers for rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, incest hotlines, and other support services. A disappointing $305 came from this campaign; although we didn’t really know what to expect, we had hoped to bring in $2,000–$3,000.
- The 20th Anniversary Gala Celebration. The culmination of more than a year’s activities, the gala celebration was the most ambitious event the center had ever produced. We honored five individuals and organizations who had made important contributions to antiviolence work. Each awardee gave a short presentation about something that had inspired their work. It made for a very moving and powerful evening. A reception after the event gave the more than 300 people who attended a chance to mingle and partake of food and drink. To increase the income from the event beyond ticket sales, we solicited sponsorships from individuals and businesses several months in advance of the event. More than 1,100 invitations were sent by the center and committee members asking people to sponsor the event at different levels of giving. Basic admission was $35, and sponsorship levels ranged from $75 to $5,000. This was the first time the center used this standard fundraising device, and it was quite successful. We know that many people contributed at the $125 and $250 levels who would not have responded to non-event solicitations with that size of contribution. Corporate contributions totaled $7,000, and contributions overall totaled $25,829. A commemorative journal grossed nearly $5,000.
The 20th anniversary was certainly the most ambitious fundraising the center has ever attempted. It required an enormous amount of time and organizational energy, and would not have been possible without the assistance of our part-time consultants and our core of volunteers. Knowing this ahead of time is important. We would not have had the success in terms of money raised, donors acquired, and community members involved if we had tried to do it with our limited staff time. Ultimately, it was successful in pushing us past our comfort level in asking for large gifts, making the necessary long-term commitment to building our individual donor base, and sowing the seeds for a stronger, healthier organization. We’re looking forward to celebrating another 20 years!