Case Study: Idaho Rivers United's (IRU) Major Donor Program
Breakfasts and Pledge Cards: Idaho Rivers United's (IRU) Major Donor Program
After IRU's foundation support dropped with stock market declines in 2001, Bill Sedivy, Executive Director of IRU decided to intensify his efforts to diversify the organization's funding base. He solicited a grant from a small family foundation that would keep on giving - course fees for three staff and three board members to attend a two-day, $6,000 "Raising More Money" workshop led by fundraiser and trainer Terry Axelrod (now Benevon). At the workshop, the group learned about Benevon's very specific approach to engaging, cultivating and soliciting supporters for major gifts— fundraising breakfasts and pledge cards—and were provided with materials they could use in implementing the approach.
IRU holds four major donor fundraising breakfast at a restaurant each year. At these events cold cereal, fruit, and pastries and lots of hot coffee are served, and last an hour, starting promptly at 7:30 a.m. and ending no later than 8:30 a.m. The audience is seated at tables of 10; each table recruited by a "Table Captain" who is a board member, volunteer, or supporter who has offered to invite his/her friends to the event. The tables usually reflect the interests and identity of the "Table Captains," so one table might be all fishermen, another businessmen, and a third whitewater boaters. The events bring people together from all walks of life and from all economic levels and engage them in an enjoyable way in Idaho Rivers United's work to protect and restore rivers throughout the state.
There is time for chit chat from 7:00 to 7:30 a.m., and again after the program, but once the hour-long event starts, it is very tightly orchestrated. After a short introduction by a hosting board member or volunteer, Bill, gives his "visionary leader - IRU 101 speech." During this 10-minute talk, the executive director shows slides of Idaho rivers, tells the audience who IRU is, what it does, why it does it, and how members of the audience can help with their time, energy and financial support. This is followed by brief testimonials from two or three prominent, local figures who have participated in or benefited from the work of the organization, i.e., businessmen, fishermen, ranchers, kayakers or outfitters. The testimonials are designed to be personal and emotional, making members of the audience realize why, and how much they love Idaho's rivers and the organization dedicated to protecting them.
Finally, a board member, prominent business person, or long-time supporter makes the "ask," assuring his peers that this is a good "investment," and passing out pledge cards asking guests to consider joining the Middle Fork Salmon Society with a five-year financial commitment of $250 or more annually. The pledge cards give other options as well, such as joining as a member at various levels, making a one-time gift, or simply receiving more information about the organization.
Much of the work involved in orchestrating these breakfast events lies in working with the "Table Captains." First, they must be recruited - and finding just the right people among board members, volunteers, donors and members who can reach out to their friends and colleagues in a particular community is no easy feat. Once 8-10 captains have been enlisted, IRU sends them a packet of materials and works closely with them as they invite 10-15 friends to attend the breakfast. Table captains are coached to assure their guests that the breakfast is free and that they will be under no obligation to donate, but are aware that support for an "outstanding organization" will be solicited.
There is also a good deal of work involved in following up with breakfast attendees. About 70% of the people attending the IRU breakfasts pledge some kind of gift, and they receive a personal thank you, as well as detailed information on how to make good on any pledges made. IRU has learned to make giving easy for their donors, providing a number of options ranging from electronic deductions from bank accounts, to credit cards, to invoices mailed quarterly or annually to a specified address. This attention to detail has paid off handsomely, and IRU has a better than 90% fulfillment rate on the pledges it receives at these events. In addition, IRU follows up with all breakfast attendees, whether they donate or not, with personalized letters, invitations to other events and opportunities to help out with program work.
IRU's donor breakfasts are usually held in restaurants, hotels, or theaters and are occasionally catered by volunteers. The cost of food, beverages and meeting space has ranged from $10-$15/person, so total direct costs for the four annual events (for an average of 100 people each) are in the neighborhood of $4,000-$6,000. To this must be added the annual staff time involved, and this amounts to about a quarter of the development director's time plus at least a week of the executive director's time. Still, the total resources invested amount to less than $20,000 and for a reliable, annual return of more than $75,000, this seems like a reasonable investment.
Income is predictable, and Bill Sedivy says he sleeps better as a result. "This program has changed our lives at IRU," Bill says. "I can look down the financial road and see a future for IRU five years from now." The funds are also "unrestricted," i.e., they can be used where they are needed most, whether for an emergency advocacy campaign to stop a damaging project on a river or to help pay the rent and keep the lights on when other revenue streams slow down.
Through the "team captain" structure, the program engages board members and volunteers in an important way and makes them better ambassadors and spokespersons for the organization. Finally, IRU has noticed significant growth in its member base in the last years which it attributes at least partially to the breakfasts: i.e., increased visibility gained through the breakfasts, increased contacts with prominent figures in the communities where the breakfasts are held, and a general community "buzz" which the breakfasts help to create.
IRU has shifted its revenue base, and where formerly 60% of IRU's income came from foundations, now foundations account for only about 40% of revenue and 60% comes from a combination of individual donors and members and other money that donors and businesses contribute through events, river trips or sponsorship of specific program work. Over five years, the breakfast events have brought in more than $400,000 in unrestricted revenues and pledges, have contributed to the tripling of annual major donor revenue and have helped increase membership from 2,100 in 2002 to over 3,200 today. At the same time, in large part due to this program, IRU's total budget has grown from $300,000 in 2002 to $600,000 in 2007.
IRU's Program is in its fifth year now, and its first class of 5-year donors, founding members of the "Middle Fork of the Salmon Society," are up for renewal. With these donors, IRU staff will take an even more personal route, meeting in person or by telephone to discuss the donor's affiliation with the organization, and asking each in person (or in a personal letter, where a meeting is not possible) to renew, or if possible, increase their financial commitment for another five years.
Citation: See Resources, Works Cited #12