Collaborative Fundraising

My grandmother, when she wanted to describe a scary but potentially important undertaking (such as going on a trip to another country, or opening a business, or adopting a child), would say, “This is fraught with possibilities.” Collaborative fundraising seems exactly that. Joining forces with other groups to engage in fundraising is a task most people resent. The goal of course is to earn money, a substance that everyone admits they need but almost no one relates to in a healthy way. Can it be done? The answer is yes, under certain circumstances and with a little luck.

First, what is collaborative fundraising? For the purposes of this article, it will mean a joint effort of two or more groups to raise more money than either group could alone. Community foundations, federated fundraising programs such as the Black United Fund, Community Shares, the United Way, or large annual events such as the Gilroy Garlic Festival are examples of collaborative fundraising efforts that have become institutions. Keep in mind, however, that these large scale programs all started off very small.

The following three smaller-scale efforts offer useful guidance to Shelterforce readers.

Three groups with six full-time staff combined to write a joint proposal to a family foundation that has funded all of them for various programs. They are all on the same floor of an office building and all need new computers. Instead of each trying to raise the money for equipment, they compile a dream list of equipment and look at what all three groups can share and what each group must own itself. They decide to share a very fancy copy machine, a fax machine, a laptop, and a laser printer. Each staff person will have or her his own computer. The foundation is so pleased by this effort to have high quality equipment and yet to keep the price down that they give enough money for all they have requested, plus a refrigerator and a new couch for their joint kitchen.

Five groups doing a variety of social justice work all want to update their web pages more often, and use them to help raise money. They each put up $7,000 and hire a full time webmaster who spends the equivalent of one day a week working on each group’s website. Each organization provides him with information so he can make the sites more interesting and he develops different fundraising appeals for each site. By having the webmaster’s work focused only on five groups, he is almost always available for all the groups every day.

Three organizations in a large city notice that their special events tend to attract a lot of the same people. One group organizes tenants, a second group provides high-quality low-cost childcare, and the third group provides free legal services to poor people. The tenants rights group has a lot of volunteers but little money. The childcare group has a large space, little money, and volunteers who have already reached their limit at the childcare center. The legal services group has some extra money, but few volunteers. The three groups decide to do a phone-a-thon. Each group has a large number of people on its mailing list who either have never given money, or haven’t given in more than one year. The legal services group pays for a bank of 10 phones to be hooked up at the childcare facility two weekday nights and the weekend. The tenant organization volunteers coordinate and do most of the calling. The callers are trained in a rap from each group and call each group’s lapsed donors. The callers enjoy learning about these other two groups. The childcare center is open during the day for people to drop their checks off, which many donors elect to do, and some of the parent volunteers help address envelopes and write thank you notes. The legal service group nets the least money because it incurred the highest cost, but is the most pleased of the three because they got a number of new and renewing donors with almost no volunteer effort. They also got to test how well their group would “sell” by phone. The tenant group is very happy. Their gross and net are almost the same, and they now have a trained cadre of people comfortable with making these phone calls. The childcare center is the least happy, feeling that they contributed both the space and some volunteer effort and had the least return from their prospect list.

Each of these collaborative fundraising efforts are very different. In each case, however, certain elements are the same and must be in place for any joint fundraising effort to work.

The groups have similar values and they trust each other. Ideally, groups will have even worked together on other efforts. This is particularly important when the outcome may vary group to group, as in the third scenario.

Although the childcare center wasn’t as happy with the effort as the other two groups, they did not feel cheated or that the callers had not done well with their prospects.

The division of money and labor is decided beforehand. In the first two cases, the division is straightforward. In the third case, the money being spent is clear ahead of time. Although the donations raised cannot be predicted, each group is getting donations from their own list.

The reward must be greater than if each group had attempted the strategy on its own. The first set of groups got better equipment and more equipment than they could have afforded alone, the second set of groups got better staffing than if they had simply hired a freelance person one day a week, and the third set of groups was able to engage in a strategy than none of them could have done alone.

Finally, each set of groups thought creatively about their joint effort. Instead of doing a bigger version of a fundraising strategy they were already doing, they went with an entirely new strategy.

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