Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Year-End Giving Tips

If your mailbox looks anything like mine these days, bursting with envelopes (and emails) from dozens of charitable organizations, you know that this is the time of year many nonprofits depend upon for year-end donations. While we may bemoan the onslaught of solicitations, they are a means to an important end – without year-end giving, many nonprofits would not be able to feed the hungry, care for the aged, delight our senses through the arts, educate our children, defend our rights, or carry out other work that enriches and inspires us.

Choosing which causes or organizations to support, or even choosing whether or not to give at all, can feel overwhelming. Here are a few tips and questions that can guide your thinking about year-end giving:

1.     What brought you the most joy this year?

2.     Can you choose 2-3 priority areas for your giving this year (e.g. hunger and homelessness, visual arts, helping the elderly)? That does not mean that you cannot give to other things, as well. It just means that you can give most of your donations to these priority causes, and give smaller amounts to other causes.

3.     What charities did you donate to last year? Did you get updates from those charities this year? Are they still doing good work?

4.     How do you define your “community”? Is it geographic? Religious? Based on personal interests or passions? Based on people in your networks? All of the above? Can you align your giving to support your community/communities, however you define them?

5.     Are their clothes or household items you can donate this year?

6.     What did you spend on buying coffee this year? (Or ice cream? Or pizza? Or sandwiches?) Once you come up with a rough estimate of that amount, compare it to the amount you plan to donate to worthy causes this year.

7.     Did you need help this year? Did any nonprofits provide you (or your friends or family) with assistance?

8.     What sorts of causes do you want to give to? Basic needs (like food and shelter), social services (like job training or mental health counseling), the arts, the environment, education... Do you want to focus on one area or spread your donations among various causes?

9.     Does your family have a tradition of giving to certain causes? Do you want to start a tradition?

10. Is there someone’s memory whom you would like to honor with your charitable giving? How can you best honor them?

11. Do you want to pool your donations with friends or family to make a bigger impact?

12. Do you volunteer somewhere? Would you consider making a donation to the place where you volunteer?

13. Were there stories in the news this year that really touched you? Or concerned you? Or inspired you? Are there charitable causes that are aligned with those stories?

14. Are their services you use frequently, such as public broadcasting, that rely on donations to keep doing what they are doing?

15. Was there a play, a concert, an exhibition, or another cultural experience that lifted your spirits or made you think this year? Would you consider supporting the organization or venue that made it happen?

16. If you have children or grandchildren, can you support an organization that supported their growth, so that other children can learn and grow, too?

17. Why give?

Of course, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions – they are simply guidelines to inform your thinking, either now or year-round. No matter what choices you make, the choice to give is always a good one, no matter how much (or little) you are able to give. I hope your giving choices bring joy to you and to others.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jewish Attrition, and the Final Frontier of Jewish Communal Acceptance


 It happens every few years. There is a survey of American Jewry, the results are released, and the American Jewish community (at least, those who are interested in reading and analyzing these sorts of things) gets its knickers in a bunch over the findings. Intermarriage! Assimilation! Low Affiliation! Oh my! It’s the “lions and tigers and bears” of Jewish life. This time, it’s the Pew Research, Religion & Public Life Project’s publication, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. (released October 1, 2013)

What’s missing, but hinted at, in this most recent survey is a pattern that I have observed in my own life and in that of many of my friends here in the Washington, DC area. I am willing to bet that this pattern repeats in communities large and small all over the US.

Not assimilation, but attrition - those who were once involved, or even highly involved, in Jewish life, but no longer are involved or affiliated. The Pew report does provide some statistics on those who were raised Orthodox but no longer are Orthodox. It also provides statistics on those who have changed their Jewish affiliations, e.g. used to be Conservative but are now Reform.

But what about attrition among non-Orthodox Jews? For example, adults who once belonged to synagogues (and attended on most Shabbats), hosted Shabbat dinners, attended Jewish events, joined Jewish organizations, dated exclusively within the religion and more – in other words, followed more “traditional” Jewish affiliation paths – but now no longer do so?

Essentially, I am describing myself. In my 20s, I was the dream of those who wish to “engage the next generation.” I belonged to a synagogue with lots of other people in my age cohort. I attended Shabbat services every week, and I even helped to lead these services. I hosted or attended Friday night Shabbat dinners almost every week, and I often hosted Saturday afternoon Shabbat lunches, lingering meals filled with serious Jewish conversation, Hebrew singing, and plenty of goofy laughter that stretched well into the afternoon. Because I was what I would call “fairly Shabbat observant,” meaning that I did not watch TV, go shopping, run errands, etc. on Shabbat, these meals provided great moments of friendship and also filled the long Shabbat afternoons until sundown on Saturday, when I would turn on the electronics, check email, pick up the phone, or go out with friends on Saturday nights.  During this time I belonged to numerous Jewish organizations and I only, only, dated Jewish men.

And now? At age 42, I no longer belong to a synagogue, and I only sporadically attend Shabbat services. While I sometimes attend Shabbat dinners, I rarely host them. I would prefer to date Jewish men, however, I have accepted the reality that it’s simply too limiting at my age; I now date men who are not Jewish.

My friends who host and participate in Shabbat dinners are married with kids, while I am not. Their houses can accommodate lots of adults and children comfortably, while my small apartment just isn’t a good fit for all the adults and kids. These friends also attend Shabbat services at synagogues regularly, as I used to do. And certainly, I could still continue to do so, if I wished. To be honest, it just doesn’t feel so comfortable anymore. When I attend Shabbat services at synagogues with people my age, I am often the only single person over the age of 30 and under the age of 70. As a synagogue executive director once said to me, “Everyone wants to look around the synagogue and see people who look like them.” While there are minyanim (prayer groups) that cater to an unmarried crowd, I tend to be among the oldest people in the room when I pray with those groups. Broad generalization alert: those who care as much as I used to care about going to Shabbat services tend to have married by my age.

I put most of the responsibility for my sense of isolation from the Jewish community squarely on my own shoulders. I could go to Shabbat services and just be swept up in the service, rather than feeling like an outsider. I could find other people to invite for Shabbat dinner each week. I could attend Jewish communal events and join Jewish organizations. I know. I know.

But... the same is true for 20somethings. And our Jewish community has been falling all over itself for nearly two decades finding ways to “engage young adults.” Some of the brightest minds in Jewish life have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to young adult/young professional outreach. Incredible programs have been created, millions of dollars have been spent. Why so much effort for one particular age cohort, but no effort for those who do not neatly fit the mold of what our Jewish path is supposed to be: dating, marriage, family, and affiliation?

Those who have invested (either as professionals, volunteers, or donors) in engaging young professionals in Jewish life wouldn’t tell a 24 year old, “So, you want to be connected to the Jewish community? Just go to events on your own. Go to Shabbat services on your own. You’ll find people to connect with. You’ll find your community.” So why say this to the 40 year old, 50 year old, or 60 year old who feels unanchored in a room full of people whose lives are not like theirs? This isn’t just a single person’s dilemma. I remember a married friend once saying to me about her synagogue, “Yeah, I pretty much felt invisible here until we had kids.” Invisible.

Here’s the hard truth, as I see it: Accepting adults who are unmarried and childless, truly accepting them and their lives not as a temporary stopover on the way to marriage and children, but accepting their lives as they are, is the final frontier of Jewish acceptance.

For a while, accepting intermarried couples was the final frontier. Then, accepting the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community was the final frontier. As these groups gain greater acceptance (certainly, not full acceptance, but greater acceptance), single and childless adults are the final stand.

I believe that it is far too scary for most of the Jewish community to say “Yes, it’s OK if you never marry, if you never have kids. You can still be a part of the community, and we still will invest resources, new ideas, and renewed energy in making the Jewish community a welcoming place for you.” It’s too scary, for the same reason that the other two cohorts I’ve talked about seemed so scary for so long: what will become of the Jewish people, and the Jewish future, if we accept this lifestyle?

Well, to borrow the rallying cry of the LGBT community: We’re here. We’re queer (or, in this case, just plain different). Get used to it. This population of Jews isn’t going away.

I used to be what my friends called a “super Jew.” Now, I’m barely affiliated. At the risk of sounding full of myself... the Jewish community lost something when it lost me. I’m not entirely lost yet, but I’m on my way. And, believe it or not, there are lots of others out there like me. You don’t know about them, because you don’t see them. They are not going to Shabbat services. They are not attending Jewish communal events. Like me, they miss it, and they wish that they could recapture that sense of belonging and connection that they used to feel. I have lost a sense of connection that was deeply meaningful to me.

I’m willing to put in the effort to make this happen. In fact, I’ve given it a shot (several shots) over the years. I started a monthly Shabbat dinner group for people in my age cohort. I taught Shabbat yoga classes. I’ve organized friends to attend Jewish communal events. But these efforts just haven’t gained a sustainable momentum. It is hard to build momentum in a vacuum. I can’t do it alone.

Again, let me say that I accept most of the responsibility for my sense of isolation from Jewish life. And, certainly, there are lots of single, childless Jews out there over the age of 40 who do not share my point of view, and who continue to find their home in the Jewish community. Those are the Jews that are more visible, like the tip of the iceberg. But there is a huge, silent iceberg underneath the surface.

As a professional fundraiser, I know that study after study show that it’s more important (and more cost effective) for a nonprofit to retain the donors it already has, rather than constantly focusing on acquiring new donors while the old donors slip away and stop giving. Perhaps our community should give at least equal time and energy to finding ways of retaining the affiliated Jews it already has – Jews with a proven history of participation, innovation, and dedication – rather than focusing almost exclusively on “engaging” new generations, and new families.

So go ahead. Engage me.

I dare you.

Friday, September 20, 2013

So many causes, so little time

I am delighted to be featured in this week's edition of the Washington Jewish Week, as part of their annual Charitable Giving Guide.

The article in which I am interviewed, To which causes to give - and how much, focuses on ways to make choices about your charitable giving when lots of people are asking (for example, "Hey, I'm doing the breast cancer walk"... "Lauren, can you come to this casino night to benefit my kids' school?"... "Hey Lauren, I'm shaving my head to support children's cancer research). And yes, that last one is a real world example.

In a nutshell, I think it's all about narrowing down to a few priorities each year - I suggest three - and making sure that those priorities remain at the top of your giving list. You can still give to something that's outside of your priority areas, but you can set a lower amount to give to those causes. Then you can say to your friend who is shaving his head, "Wow, that's amazing! I'm happy to support your efforts. Your causes isn't one of my top three causes for this year, so it won't be one of my top contributions, but I want to be a part of what your doing and help those kids. So please accept my contribution, and thanks for including me in this!"

Read more HERE.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

that is happiness

"At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."
       -Willa Cather, My Antonia

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Give Time or Money? Do Both.

A new report called "The Next Generation of American Giving: The Charitable Habits of Generations Y, X, Boomers, and Matures" was recently released by Blackbaud. While this survey size for this online study was a bit small, with 1,014 respondents, it did yield some interesting results, and a pretty cool infographic!

 The report touched on an issue that is near and dear to me... and my opinion on it probably will make me unpopular:

We asked donors which forms of support they feel makes the biggest difference for the causes that they support. Choices included monetary donations, volunteering, promoting causes by word of mouth, in-kind donations, policy advocacy, and fundraising on the causes' behalf.

According to Boomers and Matures, money matters most. Strong pluralities of Matures (48 percent) and Boomers (45 percent) say that monetary donations make the biggest difference. The focus on money declines with age: only 36 percent of Generation X and 25 percent of Generation Y think they can make the most difference by donating money. 

Conversely, Generation Y donors think they can make the biggest difference by volunteering (30 percent) and by spreading the word to others about the charity and its work (18 percent). But while they value volunteering, Gen Y donors are actually less likely than Matures to say they have actually volunteered for a cause in the past year. (p. 12)

Is it more important to donate your time or donate your money? I believe that both are absolutely valuable, and both are absolutely necessary.

Many charities could not survive without people who volunteer directly with clients (e.g. volunteers at a soup kitchen, a youth recreation program, etc.), volunteer on the board, or volunteer to be "raving fans" and community advocates for the cause, spreading the word to community leaders and to other potential volunteers and donors.

I can't think of any charities that could survive without monetary donations.

Yes, it's true that many in Generation Y have less disposable income than those in older generations. They are newer in their careers and may be paying off student loans. But that argument can extend to every generation:
  • Gen X may *still* be paying off student loans, as well as new mortgages, childcare expenses, school tuitions or college costs for their kids, or the costs of launching businesses
  • Baby Boomers may be paying (or paying off loans for) college tuitions, supporting elderly parents, supporting Gen Y children, and saving aggressively for retirement
  • Matures may be living on fixed income and dealing with high healthcare costs
So, in a nutshell, I don't think the "we can't afford to give" argument cuts it, generally. Everyone has their financial burdens, and everyone makes choices about how to allocate their funds.

I think that one part of the problem may rest with charities and fundraisers themselves. People think that their gift only matters if it's large. I always talk to clients (the charitable organizations with which I consult) about encouraging their donors to make personally meaningful gifts. One person's $25 gift may be just as meaningful to them (and just as much of a stretch for them) as someone else's $2,500 or $25,000 gift. I don't think the charitable sector has, overall, done a good job of communicating this message.

This message matters because people need to get into a habit of giving in order for great charities to survive. Today's $25 donor becomes a $2,500 (or more) in 10 years. If you have never been in the habit of giving, it seems to me that you will be less likely to start giving later on.

I also am struck by the statistic on Gen Y and volunteering. Gen Y thinks they can make the biggest difference by volunteering, but they are less likely than Matures to say they have volunteered over the past year. Yes, Matures may be retired and have more free time. But the study doesn't say that they are less likely to report that they have volunteered over the past week, or the past month. It's the past YEAR. If you can't find one hour of time to donate over the course of a year, but you still say that you can make the biggest difference by volunteering... you're not walking the talk.

What is your take on some of these generational issues?

You can download the report by viewing the infographic and then filling out the form to get the whole report.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

2013 charity stats from Giving USA

Charity Navigator's blog recently posted some items from Giving USA 2013, an annual report on philanthropy. A few fast facts that I thought were noteworthy, or that some folks might find surprising:

Individuals continue to give the largest percentage (72%) of charitable gifts. Individual giving increased over last year (3.9% increase), as did most other areas of giving (e.g. corporate giving and foundation giving).

The largest areas of giving continue to be Religion (typically, people giving to their places of worship) and Education. The Giving USA report notes that Arts & Culture is the fastest growing charitable cause.

Here's something that gave me pause from the Charity Navigator blog:

Total giving in 2012 was 8.2% below giving in 2007, before the charitable sector felt the effects of the recession. If the pace of growth in charitable giving stays constant in the coming years, giving will not rebound to pre-recession levels until 2018.

2018, people! That feels like a long way off. This somewhat daunting statistic probably is related to this:

Revised Giving USA data shows that total giving as a percentage of GDP has barely strayed from 2% over the past four decades despite the huge growth in the number of charities. This figure climbed to a high of 2.3% in 2000, but otherwise tends to gravitate to 2% of GDP.

So, there are more charities, but charitable giving has not increased as a percentage of GDP. What does this tell us? That, as a nation, we are stingy? I don't think so. Perhaps it tells us that the nonprofit marketplace is "clogged," and starting a new charity doesn't necessarily inspire people who are not giving to start giving (or those who are giving to give more). 

If giving isn't forecasted to return to pre-recession levels for a few more years... what's a nonprofit to do? So many nonprofits with which I work are focused on donor acquisition - attracting new donors who haven't given before. But few are really focused on donor retention - keeping your current donors on board, so they'll keep giving (and will increase their support). If we know that new nonprofits, or causes, aren't necessarily attracting more gifts, I think that (among other persuasive statistics) tell us that it's more important than ever to retain the donors you have, to keep them a "part of the family" and make sure your nonprofit stays relevant to them. 

Read more about these and other giving statistics in Giving USA 2013

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Overhead Myth

This letter has been generating lots of buzz on the internet... thank goodness!

The CEOs of Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance have written a letter asking people not to use overhead costs as the primary determinate of a charity's effectiveness. Check it out at

They accurately point out that charities that scrimp on overhead expenditures suffer from:
  • High staff turnover
  • Inability to accurately monitor finances
  • IT breakdowns, which causes downtime and limited information sharing
  • Staff that is not as well trained as it should be
  • Inability to fully track outcomes

... and lots of other issues. In addition, many organizations that are reporting low overhead costs on their IRS forms are doing so inaccurately.

There are so many other ways to make decisions about which charities to support. Such as:
  • Is this charity doing something that matches my passions and interests?
  • Is this charity doing something that few, if any, others are doing?
  • Can this charity show results? Have they made a difference?
  • Is this charity willing to take calculated risks, to really make a change?
So many of the nonprofits I work with do AMAZING work and have what some might consider high overhead costs, mainly because they have invested in their staff. I think that investing in effective staff who will stay with the organization long term is a great investment, one that ultimately benefits the nonprofit's clients.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My hero went back to school today

My hero Malala Yousufzai, went back to school today.

Do you know who Malala is? You should, but I don't blame you if you don't. This story has gotten so much less coverage in the media than so many other less deserving stories.

CLICK HERE to link to a Reuters article about Malala.

And here's an excerpt from the story. Read on for the definition of courage:

LONDON (Reuters) - Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani girl who drew global attention after being shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating girls' education, returned to school on Tuesday in Britain where she has been treated for her injuries.
Yousufzai, 15, has become an international figure as a symbol of resistance to Taliban efforts to deny women's rights and is even among nominees for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A simple way to do a good deed

I volunteer at a hospital every Wednesday. This morning, when I walked into the waiting room, I saw the sweetest surprise: a basket full of get well cards and valentines made by school children. What a simple way to make someone's day. If you have kids in your life, you can encourage their class or club to do the same.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Creative Grant Writing Month!

As you may know, I'm fairly obsessed with the idea of grant writing as a creative pursuit. In fact, I just created an audio file, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, that celebrates this idea! This audio file includes 30 minutes of grant writing tips, creative writing exercises... and some pretty groovy music to set the mood.

A lot of people think of grant writing as a dry, stodgy pursuit. They think that the more big words you use, and the more boring the format, the more it sounds like a "real" proposal. I say... buck the trend!

In my experience, writing that is more lively, engaging, and creative is more likely to be remembered and more likely to be funded.

Now, that's not to say that you can write any old thing in a proposal and expect to get funded. Proposals should be put together in an organized structure with an impactful message that draws connections between the funder's interests and the needs being addressed. And the proposal is only half of the work - creating connections between the organization and the funder (e.g. foundation's program officer) is a HUGE part of creating lasting funding partnerships. But... I stand by my assertion that dry, boring grant writing does NOT = good grant writing.

Therefore, I have declared February CREATIVE GRANT WRITING MONTH! Every day, I will tweet one tip for creative grant writing, with the hashtag #creativegrantwriting (if I have room!). Hopefully, we will build a community of grant writers and fundraisers who share my belief that grant writing, and fundraising, does not have to be dry and boring - that creativity is actually an asset to fund development.

Please join the online conversation if you agree!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I left my magic fairy dust at home...

I saw a great article (or, rather, an opinion piece) in the Chronicle of Philanthropy today called "Development Directors are Not Miracle Workers." It was written by Rick Moyers, vice president of programs and communications at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation in Washington, DC. I think his concluding sentence really sums it all up:

The development director is only one factor in a complicated equation.

I've seen this phenomenon time and time again at nonprofits where I've worked and at nonprofits with which I've consulted. Things go well, and the Development Director gets little credit. Things don't go well, and the Development Director gets most or all of the blame. For a Development Director to be successful, lots of things need to be in place: a strong partnership between the Development Director and the Executive Director; an active and engaged board; supports for research, grantwriting, etc.; the Development Director's involvement in planning and budgeting; and much more.

Most importantly, Executive Directors and boards cannot see the Development Director as the person who will get them out of their responsibilities for fund development. Raising money for an organization is the job of EVERYONE in the organization, from the Executive Director to the Program Directors to the person who answers the organization's phones. It is especially incumbent upon the Executive Director and board to take lead roles in the fundraising process. When organizations see Development Directors (or development consultants) as the keepers of some magic fairy dust, which they can just sprinkle and the funding will appear, without the Executive Director or board having to be involved in the process... trouble is just around the corner.

I've also seen the flip side of this - Development Directors who are afraid to engage Executive Directors and boards, or who take on more administrative roles rather than actively cultivating donors (or helping Executive Directors and board members with cultivation).

Certainly, there are effective and ineffective Development Directors out there. But there are also many organizations that are quick to blame the Development Director when the picture is actually a bit more complex, and more revealing about the organization's overall health.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Keep. It. Simple.

I was pleased to see this article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy today, highlighting the importance of creating a clean, simple, concise tagline that describes your organization's work:

Can You Sum Up Your Charity's Work in One Simple Tagline?

The article highlights a few good examples:

Amnesty International: Exposing and preventing human-rights abuses
Habitat for Humanity: A world where everybody has a decent place to live
Southern Poverty Law Center: Fighting hate, teaching tolerance, seeking justice
World Wildlife Fund: Protecting the future of nature

This reminds me of an article I saw, and loved, in Nonprofit Quarterly called Mission Haiku: The Poetry of Mission Statements

Both of these articles highlight writing principles that I try to keep in mind:

Keep it simple.
Select words carefully.
Short sentences are powerful.

Do you have other examples of great nonprofit organizations' taglines?