As if being an ordinary citizen isn’t quite enough in today’s economy, the words “fiscal cliff” gained a new level of treachery for those of us in non-profits, especially small to mid-sized, in 2012. The Philanthropy News Digest’s “Fiscal Cliff Deal Passed, Nonprofits Weigh Impact” details some of the challenges that still remain despite the contentious Washington agreement. Deductibility of charitable donations as well as the tax status of small businesses continue to hang in the balance, thus leaving those who depend upon those benevolent funds for our work, struggling as well.
Initially, I was concerned that it was only our organization. I spent a large part of December in prayer, wondering if God had different plans, if we were going in a wrong direction, if I was doing something misguided as leader. But then I began to hear from colleagues that they were also experiencing a frightening drop in donations. During that time, God affirmed His call on my life to serve in the specific way He had initially called me to within the special needs community. This left me a bit more stressed as the end of the year was rapidly closing in with little financial support arriving. Things were looking extremely grim with fewer year-end gifts than we had ever previously had. I was moved to pray about what God was then directing me to do for our organization if indeed He wanted me to continue on with this work.
I acted on that direction by putting out a desperate call to help us reach a much smaller goal by year-end via an online donation program, “Causes”. Able to interface as a Facebook app, this program is easy to use for fundraising campaigns. It looked like the effort might pay off as we quickly reached 22% of the goal set, but then things abruptly stalled.
Non-profit advisory firms will frequently tell you that the largest donations come in on December 30th and 31st of each year. Nevertheless, when your fundraising is running so far behind, it is a definite act of faith trusting that God will provide so close to the finish line. Much to my relief, this statistical fact did prove true, and a number of donations, two of which were sizable for us, were made on those dates.
Although this proved helpful to our year-end goals, it mirrors the fiscal cliff deal. There was a short-term “fix” that wasn’t pretty, but a much larger threat still looms in the not-so-distant future. This once again has had me praying about how we will financially sustain our organization with the non-profit world poised to look so different over the next decade. What God has impressed upon me is that we need to seek His provision for our ministries with a much more self-sustaining approach. Whereas we may have been able to depend upon the habit of increasing charitable donations year-over-year in the past, we must now form creative ways to earn those dollars if we seek to continue His work. Here are some thoughts on what that might look like:
- Having a regular, proactive schedule for grant-writing is a must in this economy. No grant, no matter how small is worth ignoring. And we must get into a rhythm with writing the grants, just as we would with any other planning. Having our financials up-to-date and ready to be uploaded to a grantor is essential.
- Looking at ways to sell or offer items for a “suggested donation” on your website is important. I can’t tell you how many times we have had events where I have worn one of our volunteer shirts or hats where people have asked, “Where can I get one of those?”. I have always blown them off in the past, but I certainly am not now! We need to follow the lead of some of the larger ministries and non-profits we are familiar with by offering books, clothing and other items that might be attractive to our participants or donors. This will definitely help us with self-sustainability.
- Get in front of service clubs. We all like to be about the business of serving in our ministries, but we need to carve out time to tell the story. If there is a city or town you are active in, you need to share with the Lions, Kiwanis, Women’s Club, Rotary and the like. These clubs are looking for organizations like yours to bless! Don’t pass up the funds they can contribute to your work.
- Find ways to get media attention. While there are various programs to help get your press releases picked up by local media, there’s still nothing like personal relationship. If you know someone who writes for a paper, works at a radio station, or plays a role at a television outlet, don’t be afraid to approach them. While it is true that they get asked this frequently, if you can convince them of the worth of your work, they will develop interest in sharing your story. Free Christian radio stations are also invaluable as connections to our target audience.
While some of these ideas may make you bristle, we do need to reexamine how much of our ministry we can offer at no cost. I was shocked when my assistant lead pastor approached me confirming that my home church would continue their support of our organization in 2013 because I never knew it was on the table for possible elimination. But the fact is that everything is on the table now with church budgets. Congregations are in this squeeze as well and may find themselves able to support our missional work. If we wish to make every person, no matter ability, a full ambassador of Christ, taking ownership by purchasing merchandise, helping on funding campaigns or even helping to write grants can become a way to get invested in the work of special needs ministry. These aren’t easy times for us to be in this sector, but God is still calling us to the work. We need to get creative like never before. These are just a few ideas. What are yours?