Fundraising for Our Most Complex Social Issues 

by Richard Tollefson

Inspiring donors and raising philanthropic support for society’s most complex issues — those where tangible outcomes and positive impact may not be realized for years — is a challenge facing nonprofits worldwide. Homelessness is one case in point. 

We spoke with four experts who shared stories of how they turned challenges into effective fundraising opportunities. 

Human Services Campus Shifts the Conversation

During COVID, Arizona’s “stay-at-home” order put a spotlight on the issues of homelessness and shifted the conversation toward concerns around its relationship to healthcare.

“How do you stay at home when you don’t have a home?” asks Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of Phoenix’s Human Services Campus. “Our campuses provided shelter for those who had no home. That helped shape the conversation regarding the public health crisis for the unhoused.”

The pandemic allowed organizations to make a stronger case for intensified support, giving hope for change.

Save the Family Foundation of Arizona Captures Hearts with Impact Stories

Traditionally, donors want to see results. For complex societal issues such as homelessness, long-term results may be challenging to measure. 

The solution is donor impact stories, according to Jacki Taylor, president and CEO of Save the Family Foundation of Arizona. “Impact stories allow you to show the difference donors are making, one person at a time,” says Taylor. Her formula for success is:

  1. Outline the problem
  2. Share the hope the donation gives
  3. Show the impact the donation is making — person-by-person

Native American Connections Achieves More with Trust

Native American Connections, which supports the affordable housing needs of Native Americans, is seeing an increase in trust-based philanthropy, according to CEO Dede Devine. “We’ve seen grants coming our way to be used for what we believe our immediate needs are. It’s more ‘You tell us what you need, and let’s get it implemented quickly.’” This style of giving allows donors to empower those with the knowledge and expertise to determine where funding will make the greatest impact.

Valley of the Sun United Way Transforms the Board Room

The evolution of the board of directors is critical when addressing complex issues such as homelessness. Filling talent gaps, addressing burnout and expanding roles is a natural process for any nonprofit board, but even more essential for organizations that seek to solve society’s seemingly unsolvable issues.

CEO Carla Vargas Jasa shares her strategy for transformational change at the Valley of the Sun United Way. “We created new committees, including community development, fundraising, diversity and board development. We also elected 21 new board members to bring on additional talents we felt we needed on the board.”

Lessons Learned: Key Strategies for Fundraising Success

From these impactful stories come five successful strategies nonprofits should consider when seeking philanthropic support to address complex issues: 

Define success and proactively report it. Nonprofit leaders must take the lead and proactively determine the evaluation criteria tied to the strategic plans they know will move the needle on performance, outcomes and impact. 

If you can’t change the world, change one life. Remember Eiseley’s story of the starfish? The boy is saving starfish by throwing them one by one into the ocean. A man says to the boy, “There are thousands of starfish; you cannot make a difference.” The boy picks up one starfish, throws it in the water, and says, “I made a difference for that one.” Share stories of how the organization touched one life, one family. As more and more are served, a cumulative effect builds, and the community is changed. 

Create a compelling case for support that speaks to the head and the heart. Speak to donors’ emotional triggers that inspire their generosity. The case can be used to define a complex problem in a broader context, encouraging donors who may not support one specific issue to better understand the interrelatedness of issues, such as homelessness, mental health and healthcare inequity. This helps donors associate with and provide support for those aspects of the problem most aligned with their passions and priorities. 

Engage donors who embrace trust-based philanthropy. One positive development during the time of COVID was the significant increase in “trust-based philanthropy,” in which donors put greater trust in executives, boards and constituents of nonprofits to make informed decisions on how to use donations to maximize impact. 

Enlist board members to be evangelists and champions. Real change agents need to be supported by “cheerleaders” to bolster their confidence, partner in and inspire change, and tell the world of their successes. Keep the board and staff up to date on the organization’s achievements so they can be champions of the transformation leadership is seeking to achieve.

From climate change to homelessness to racial inequity to food insecurity, philanthropy is critical to tackling society’s most complex issues. These challenges require creative solutions. Nonprofits that innovate and inspire philanthropic investment are best prepared to achieve substantive, positive change.  

Richard Tollefson is founder and president of The Phoenix Philanthropy Group, an Arizona-based international consulting firm serving nonprofit organizations as well as institutional and individual philanthropists.

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