Fund-raisers optimistic on meeting goals

Tsunami had mixed impact on nonprofits, survey finds

April 04, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

Mary Ellen Vanni's nonprofit relies on pictures of people shivering in the snow to raise money to help Baltimore's poor pay their heating bills.

But last year, the winter was comparatively mild, and the most desperate images came from the other side of the globe - where huge waves swept away entire coastal towns, leaving rubble and death behind.

Vanni's group, the Fuel Fund of Maryland, raised about $970,000 last year - $50,000 less than the year before - while the tsunami that hit South Asia in December spurred greatly increased contributions to Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

On the whole, fund-raisers are more confident in their abilities to woo donors now than at any time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to an annual survey of members to be released today by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which is meeting this week at the Baltimore Convention Center.

But about one-quarter of the survey respondents said their nonprofit raised less money last year than in 2003, amid a slowly recovering economy, government funding cuts and increasing competition for charitable donations.

The survey of fund raising in 2004, based on responses from 345 association members in the United States, paints a picture of optimism. The tsunami did not affect fund raising for 84 percent of respondents, 61 percent reached their goals, and 72 percent said they believe that they will raise more money this year than last year.

Paulette Maehara, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based association, called the outlook for the fund-raising industry "bright," but she added caveats: Fund raising for environmental and arts groups historically suffers after a disaster, and grass-roots groups sometimes struggle to showcase their needs.

`Tsunamis' every day

"We have to get across that small `tsunamis' happen all over America every day," said Anita Nowery Durel, a Baltimore consultant and president of the association's Maryland chapter. "We rarely see much about the kinds of needs that exist next door."

As evidence of the power of large charities, Maehara said that about 90 percent of donations nationwide go to the top 10 percent of nonprofits. She also said that a burst of new groups operating on shoestring budgets isn't helping ease that disparity.

But overall, Maehara said nonprofits, which doubled in number over the past 15 years, are becoming more sophisticated and have corrected strategic and ethical lapses made after Sept. 11, 2001.

"The biggest mistake groups made was to interrupt or stop campaigns," she said. "You have to be judicious and tailor your message during a disaster, but by all means press forward."

Experts on nonprofit groups are somewhat split on how emergencies motivate donors.

Some believe it's a zero-sum game - a larger donation than usual to tsunami victims means another charity is going to get less. But others believe that disasters can cultivate new philanthropists.

"Any time people are moved to give, it's a good thing," said Terry Mercer, a Canadian senator and chairman of the board of the association, whose convention has drawn about 4,000 people to Baltimore. "It's our job to convert people who've never given money before into regular donors and show them that the need doesn't go away because the disaster is behind us."

Surge in giving

Pictures of the tsunami have encouraged more donations to Catholic Relief Services, said Kevin Whorton, the Baltimore nonprofit's former director of direct-response fund raising.

In the week after the tsunami, the agency raised $10 million online, compared with $800,000 during the previous year. Gifts from people whom the group never contacted totaled $30 million, he said.

Existing donors increased their gifts to the relief group by 275 percent, meaning if a person gave $100 in 2003, he or she gave $375 on average after the tsunami, said Whorton, who runs a consulting business in Columbia.

The struggle, though, is to ensure that unrestricted funds - money that donors don't assign to a specific cause - don't dwindle.

"By the end of the year, CRS may be low on unrestricted funds," Whorton said. "Disasters suck up other resources."

Vanni, of the fuel fund, doesn't believe that the tsunami has affected her ability to raise money to help people pay their utility bills. But she has struggled to convey that fuel prices have skyrocketed, meaning that it doesn't have to feel like a blizzard for poor families to be pinched by a high utility bill.

"Our fund raising is very related to weather, even if oil prices double," she said. "Our cause is so local that the people who help us are often the neighbors of people we help."

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