Building Sustainable Fundraising Strategies During the COVID Era

Idaho Voices’ Children’s Champion Recipient Patricia Kempthorne receives award at Idaho Voices for Children’s annual fundraiser

Advocacy organizations dependent on philanthropic dollars experience an all-too-common cycle in their work. A timeframe is established with a funder to achieve deliverables, and then, after a year or maybe two, the grant ends. Working to bring a meaningful consumer voice and consumer-friendly policies to delivery reform initiatives, which are dependent upon variables like timing and political environments, can be especially tough to achieve within a typical grant period. When funding stops, this halts the momentum developed by state and local partners on the cusp of scaling up their efforts.

At the Center, we are committed to helping advocates in finding sustainable funding for their goals. We work continually with our partners to grow their fundraising capacity through our Technical Assistance (TA), and over the last number of years, we have been challenging ourselves to boost support for our partners in this critical area of sustainable fundraising. In that vein, we developed a TA opportunity designed to help our partners sustain their delivery reform work. Our goal was to create an opportunity for a select number of state organizations to pair with a sustainability consultant. Over approximately six months, these consultants have worked directly with the advocates to increase their organization’s capacity to generate revenues for their delivery reform work.

One of these grantees, Idaho Voices for Children, offers a great example of how advocates can benefit from focused and timely investments in sustainability consulting. When Idaho Voices initially put their consultancy plan into place, they focused on sustaining the behavioral health delivery reform work they had begun under an earlier Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant program that formally ended October 2019. They ultimately decided to work with their sustainability consultant to make their Children’s Champion Luncheon, scheduled for October 2020, as successful as possible. As with nearly every nonprofit organization, the emergence of the COVID pandemic changed their plans, and they had to pivot quickly to figure out how to adapt their event and still achieve their fundraising goal.

With the guidance and support of sustainability consultant Samantha Roy, Idaho Voices was able to figure out how to make their annual fundraiser work as an online event. What was most crucial was to recreate virtually the same elements that make their annual event successful in person, which includes the entire staff making personal connections with hundreds of attendees. The ultimate goal was not only to raise critical operating funds, but also to leave the audience feeling valued and a part of the process.

The annual fundraiser was an incredible and unprecedented achievement for Idaho Voices, specifically because they had never undertaken such an effort entirely online. The shift to a virtual format undeniably took more work than an in-person affair. Despite the formidable obstacles, they created an atmosphere of inclusion and intimacy, and they were even able to inject spontaneity and surprise into the live-streamed event. In addition to delighting and engaging the audience, Idaho Voices was able to leverage this opportunity into a financial victory. Not only did they surpass their fundraising goal by over 60%, they netted a substantial gain over previous fundraisers precisely because they did not have the overhead expenses of an in-person event.

For advocates trying to navigate unknown terrain and having to adapt efficiently, having an external consultant can make the difference. Emily Allen of Idaho Voices for Children talked about how Samantha Roy was able to steward them through the process. “She sourced information, gave us ideas and helped us think through the unimaginable. Her counsel was vital in messaging, since there would be no personal hellos and staff connection. Precision in language for fund development became more critical, since more correspondence happened through writing. She was there every step.”

It must be noted that this kind of relationship is a two-way street, because consultants value the work and diligence of the people and organizations with which they collaborate. Samantha Roy said of the team at Idaho Voices, “I loved working with them…the advocates really put in the work. They also pushed themselves to do more. They exceeded their original goal, which is especially shocking given that it became a virtual event.”

For Idaho Voices for Children, this project increased their capacity to engage with funders and to think about how to use this knowledge and ability in the future. They are committed to learning more about how to generate stronger attendance for online events. To be sure, learning how to recreate the energy of a live event and translate that into high day-of giving will be something many, if not most, organizations will continue to need to explore and develop. For Idaho Voices, the investment of time into focusing on sustainability, in partnership with the consultant provided by the Center, proved to be well worth it. These advocates are now much closer to being able to sustain their delivery reform work and create long-term impacts for consumers and communities.