Monday, March 19, 2007

Fundraising Ethical Dilemmas

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of money to operate Breakthrough. We have an operating budget of two and a half million each year. Since most of our revenue comes from individuals, we usually don't know for sure what our income will be. We try to get multi-year commitments, but we are dependant on people who believe in our mission and feel moved to give. We are daily counting on the Lord to provide what we need. So far we have never missed a payroll even though we have had to make difficult decisions to cut back on expenses several times. I feel the weight of the nearly fifty staff who depend on Breakthrough to pay their mortgages and rents and put food on their tables, not to mention the $15,000 a month it takes just to provide for their health insurance.

So here's the dilemma. People give for emotional reasons, so we are constantly looking for that emotional hook that will move people to unleash their donations. Many of us care deeply about social justice issues and recognize that there are overarching systemic and institutional forces that are locking our homeless guests in poverty. But talking about those issues is not going to generate the same response that we will get from talking about the transformed lives our our guests and participants. The stories that will get the greatest response in terms of donations are those where we can point to dramatic life change that happens as the result of our work. Of course, for most of our participants, the changes are quite gradual and often take years and involve numerous setbacks that would not "sell well" to donors.

So there is temptation, temptation to say what we know people want to hear for the sake of funding the ministry, temptation to tell the stories with a bit of exageration, temptation to portray our community as desperate for outside help, temptation to settle for emotional appeals rather than to do the hard work of bringing people along on the justice journey.

Anyone else feel this angst? Any suggestions?


Anonymous said...

This is a very difficult question and will always be a struggle. This goes back to the issue that David Hilfiker brings up that our charity can be a hindrance or barrier to justice. He talked about our responsibility to speak to the issues as well as the needs. That is a difficult thing to do when the bills have to be paid, both Breakthrough's and the staff's individually.
I don't think that there are any easy answers, but I would advocate for being true to your conscience and convictions. Don't compromise that just because it seems that it will work. Keep up the good work. God is faithful.

Arloa Sutter said...

Thanks Kevin. Keep us honest brother! Appreciate you!

Paul said...

I would echo KG's sentiments. I definitely see how it's a struggle against those temptations to tell awesome stories about how our guests achieved this victory or that victory. I can say I've definitely personally faced those temptations too. I was telling Emily, after you and Nancy came to Park last Sunday, that I really appreciated your ability to speak honestly about what's going on in the lives of our guests. I think that's great. I think that's what donors/volunteers need to hear. I also think there probably aren't any easy answers, but I think, like KG said, it's important for us to be true to our convictions and I think you are true to your convictions when you speak about Breakthrough to non-Breakthrough people.

Rebecca said...

Anyone else feel this angst?

Daily. My responsibilities are a little different because I work within the bureaucracy of a giant para-church organization and immediate need to make payroll is not as pressing. Instead, we're all working on the fund-raising effort for a central pot.

However, as someone who manages programs that work with the under-resourced, the various marketing departments (I told you it was giant) are constantly asking me for stories of the children and families who benefit to be used in various direct mail appeals.

I am so uncomfortable with this.

I feel it exploits the poverty of children of God and in doing so, further mars their self-identity, which is one of the root causes for their poverty. However, like you, I recognize the efficiency of affecting the emotions of potential donors. It is a constant internal struggle and a constant conversation (that's a nice word) with the various marketing departments.

There are two consolations that I would share with you.

1. Fund-raising can be used as a tool to transform the lives of donors. You might be the only link that some suburban folks have to be incarnational in any way. We in the city know what a blessing it is to be surrounded by the poor, just like Jesus was. Use your fundraising as an opportunity to help your donors experience what we have. This might mean being a little more honest about the actual journeys. It might mean talking a little more about your own journeys as staff. This might mean giving mini-lessons on the systems that cause poverty once you've got the donor hooked with an emotional appeal. You know best that when we are faithful to God's command to love one another, miracles happen. Maybe turning marketing research on its head will be one of those miracles.

2. People achieve healing by telling their stories. This one may be more for me and my situation right now, but I want to share it. A marketing staff member from headquarters came all the way across the country to "harvest" stories for a direct mail appeal. I was so busy protecting my people that I forgot my own personal experience of healing through telling my story. But my colleague came back from her interviews with moving stories not only of her own tranformation but also of how once these women began talking to her, she had trouble getting them to stop. She (and I) realized that she was showing Christ's love through listening. What I worried would be exploitation turned out to be just what they needed. Story is a powerful element in this world. Don't underestimate the truth's ability to transform you, the donor, and the folks you work with.

This knowledge and perspective is a work in progress. I struggle with living in the tension between the need to be good stewards of the overhead involved in fundraising campaigns and the need to be transformational. But living in the tension is where life is most vibrant, so I try to relish it. I would love for this conversation to continue. Every time I talk about it with someone, I learn something new. I loved seeing that it was an issue for someone I like as much as I like you, Arloa. Thanks.

Arloa Sutter said...

Thanks for your insightful comments Rebecca. I especially appreciate the feedback that people experience healing when they tell theri stories. I am always amazed when I take a digital recorder into our centers and ask if anyone would like to share their story. You are right. People want to be heard and known. That is great to keep in mind.

Chris Brooks said...


Great blog! I think the angst is amplified when the "fund-raiser" is not indigenous to the community being served. It is easier to exaggerate when it is the (indigenous) client's issues that are being amplified; it is much harder when the "fund-raiser" was a client in that neighborhood. This drama usually plays out along white/non-white lines, unfortunately.

I have been raising funds for years, and am raising most of my compensation at RC3 right now. I can honestly say that I always try to use a balanced approach in my fundraising - assets and challenges, in that order. There are tough times that need to be brought to life. There are also great community assets that need to be uplifted and emphasized.

Is that helpful?

Arloa Sutter said...

Very much so Chris! I wish urban ministries were better funded. It seems many of us face the challenge of trying to fund what we think God is calling us to do. God knows our needs and could just give us one of those cattle on a thousand hills, but seems to prefer to use people. It forces us to rely on one another. That's a beautiful thing. It tests my face.

Arloa Sutter said...
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Sara said...

I feel you...
I volunteer with a small para-church ministry Northwest Neighbors of Pasadena. Our budget each year is small - as is our staff. We ALL work full-time at outside jobs. I think 50% of our budget is donated by our own volunteers! Which is great!
BUT April 14th we are having a banquet to raise an endowment! Yeah! We are looking forward to raising enough so we will not have to spend our few hours fundraising - and can spend more time with the youth. But finding a way to make the funds sustainable for your staff is key - you want to DO what you do best! Not shake every tree! ~Sara