MARKET FOCUS: Local heroes

Douglas Quenqua finds that nonprofits are abandoning broad-sweep messages in favor of a more local flavor.

Douglas Quenqua finds that nonprofits are abandoning broad-sweep messages in favor of a more local flavor.

Miriam's Kitchen (MK), a bare-bones charity that serves gourmet breakfasts to homeless people in Washington, DC, five days a week, already has a clever and unambiguous motto: There's Room at Our Table. But given recent strides in its fundraising strategy, it could easily be changed it to: The Way to a Donor's Heart Is through His Stomach. For a long time, MK's approach to fundraising and volunteer recruitment was pretty much what you'd expect from a local homeless-services organization (even one with a world-class chef on staff): walkathons, grant writing, direct mail, church solicitations, even the occasional bar raffle. But everyday fundraising methods ceased to be enough for many nonprofits after September 11, 2001. The downturn in the economy and the emergence of so many terrorism-related charities instantly complicated the race for donors' dollars. Luckily for MK, John Jordan, a young man who used to volunteer in college, grew into a Washington PR executive. Finding new audiences Once the usual donor sources started drying up, Jordan took a look at the charity, with which he and his firm, Principor Communications, had been doing pro bono work since 2000. He was looking for a story that would reach new audiences. What he found got MK into People magazine, and produced a windfall of new donations. The magazine included MK's chef, Steve Badt, in a February 2003 article about professionals who decided to "chuck their day jobs" to do something more meaningful with their lives. Badt is a former New York City chef who gave up the ultra-edgy downtown scene to cook for the homeless in DC. (A typical MK breakfast consists of jambalaya, cheese grits, scrambled eggs, green beans, fruit salad, and cherry muffins.) The People article, an appearance on the Food Network, and a story in The Washington Post about what local homeless were calling "Chez Miriam," all "translated into gold," says MK's executive director Scott Schenkelberg. "We hold an annual fundraising event called 100 Bowls of Compassion," for which Badt prepares the dinner. "In 2002, we raised $90,000 gross. This year we grossed $130,000." Thanks to the quirky stories about this off-beat charity, Washington's best and brightest - in the midst of an economic downslide - collectively shelled out an extra $40,000 to eat food served for free on the streets of DC every morning. The search for new donors is heating up all over the nonprofit world. Contributions are harder to come by, but demand for services continues to grow - a situation attributable not just to the economy, but to the seemingly relentless parade of nonprofit accounting scandals that have surfaced in the past two years. MK's story is just one example of how frustrated fundraisers are increasingly using their PR counterparts to help either tap new audiences, or at least keep excitement high among their donor bases. Jimmy Fund bets on baseball Karen Cummings, associate director of development media at the Jimmy Fund, knows all about finding new donors. She's doesn't consider herself a particularly big baseball fan, but she's betting she can turn fans of the Boston Red Sox into supporters of her cause. "We're always trying to look for new audiences," she says. "We're now the official charity of the Boston Red Sox. We're celebrating our fifth year with them, and we're celebrating our big 50th anniversary this year, so they put a commemorative logo on the Green Monster," the legendary left-field wall in Fenway Park. The relationship with the Red Sox and the appeal to their fans is hardly arbitrary, however. The Jimmy Fund is the fundraising arm of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, which is based in Boston, and hence has deep local roots. It's even partnered with members of the team and WEEI, the official Red Sox radio station, to launch an old-fashioned radiothon live from Fenway. "We raised $325,000," beams Cummings. "The audience of the radio station is not our traditional audience - young men, sports fans 20-35 - yet the calls and the pledges were constant all day long." The second radiothon was scheduled for August 22, and the goal this time was $500,000. Cummings' baseball outreach doesn't stop there, though. "Every time a visiting club comes to town, I have a press kit personally sent to them to explain what the logo on the wall is about and how support from the Red Sox has helped the Jimmy Fund grow over the years," she says. Hometown appeals are increasingly in vogue among fundraisers. Charities have always depended on emotion to inspire people to open their wallets, but in a down economy, broad emotional appeals may fail to connect. Instead, many charities are betting local pride can rouse contributions from unlikely sources. Nonprofit PR heads will seek local coverage for "hometown heroes" who either volunteer for their cause or are benefiting from their work. Often the coverage sparks a connection, and inspires a donation from someone who wouldn't normally give to the cause. The Pan-Massachusetts Challenge claims to be the oldest cycling charity event in America. Every year, thousand of cyclists bike across the state to raise funds for cancer. Jackie Herskovitz of Teak Media, the race's PR firm, took the local approach to the fundraising efforts this year. "We have a cyclist participating from out in Illinois, so we got a paper in Skokie [IL] to write about him," Herskovitz remembers. "The mayor read it and gave money" - a savvy PR move of his own. "When you highlight the different people involved in an event and get local reporters all over the country to write about them, that reaches new people who may donate," she explains. Kristine Austin, director of PR at EMQ Children and Family Services, sees local coverage as a way to boost her organization's credibility with the public, an issue that all charities are struggling with in 2003. Now, when EMQ sends out direct mail asking for money from potential donors, the organization backs up its message with a local media push in the areas where the mail will be received. "We'll do community-affairs programs or work hard to place articles in that area," she explains. "We don't want our mailings to fall on deaf ears. They need to know who we are." Lower credibility equals fewer donors Credibility issues hang over the nonprofit sector these days in much the same way they do the accounting industry. For example, the Red Cross was internationally scorned for its handling of money intended for the victims of the September 11 attacks, and the United Way is still trying to dig its way out of a massive accounting scandal. So donors are more wary then ever of giving their hard-earned dollars to just anyone. It's an area where positive coverage - local or otherwise - can provide a much-needed lift. "Credibility is huge once you've been on the cover of a newspaper," says Herskovitz. "When looking for funding, these charities can use those clips to build credibility with givers." This is precisely what Schenkelberg from MK did with the clips generated from his most recent 100 Bowls of Compassion event. "Those clips help build a sense of community among our donors," he says, "It makes them feel that Miriam's Kitchen isn't just some place where they come to volunteer. All of these pieces come together to help solidify our base. The result? "We now have a waiting list for people to volunteer," boasts Schenkelberg, conceding that there are better ways than bar raffles to reach your audience. ----- A promising development One way nonprofits have adjusted to a tougher fundraising environment is by breaking down old walls between their development staff and their PR department. Naturally, most PR work performed by charities is already designed to increase public support. But in more prosperous times, the communications strategy is focused on long-term goals such as credibility and name recognition. In the current slump, many of those organizations are hoping to see faster returns by more closely integrating these two departments. "We had a staff retreat at the end of the fiscal year to see what we could do in the coming year to rev up the donor base," recalls Kristine Austin of EMQ Family Services. "One of the key things we came across was the need to leverage the fund development and PR plans in an integrated fashion. Austin and her fundraising counterparts are now going over "everything from our website to our donor newsletter to our marketing materials" to find ways that each can stimulate more donor activity in the short-term. "There's a lot more cross talk between departments to make sure that in every activity we're doing, we're supporting one another," she says. The upside for the fundraising department is obvious: more support and exposure, which leads to more money. But what about the communications staff? What do they get out of the partnership? Would you believe, more money as well? "Even though [EMQ's} budget is down overall, they've increased our budget 15%," she reports. It's no secret that nonprofits dole out budgets much the way for-profits do: The disciplines more likely to bring in money are given more to work with. Likewise, the income-development pros are always the best-paid in the nonprofit office. So when PR works more closely with fundraisers, it only makes sense that executives are more willing to foot the bill. "There is now a strong feeling from the board of directors on down that they need to invest in this," says Austin.

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