A Case Study of Sustainability & Capacity

The Community Foundation of Abilene (CFA) is a nonprofit grantmaker and community builder serving donors who want to give back to their community and nonprofits that need funding and skill building to support and sustain the region. CFA takes a forward-looking approach to direct investment, so its giving creates lasting, sustainable change.

The Challenge. Like all strategic funders, CFA staff and board members fund what’s going to make the greatest difference for the Abilene community. But, because the Foundation makes gifts from a single discretionary pool—via a funding committee that turns over annually—priorities change from year to year.

“As the committee composition has varied, so has funding for capacity building to sustain foundation-funded programs for the long run,” notes Michelle Parrish, CFA’s grant director. Even when CFA funds capacity building, the impact is tracked for only one year, not long enough to assess the actual ROI of investment.

However, Michelle and her colleagues saw so many grantee organizations unable to grow (or even sustain) their high-impact work due to a lack of fundraising skills and systems. Despite the fact that so many Abilene organizations were working hard to grow their fundraising, they were failing to increase donor retention, recruitment, or donations.

The Solution.  Michelle and her colleagues knew this fundraising skills and systems gap was a considerable barrier to the growth and impact of grantee organizations (and ultimately, to CFA’s funding impact).  She recognized a real opportunity—CFA could bring it all together for its grantees by funding fundraising systems and capacity building to enable the organizations to springboard forward on their own.

CFA realized Jumpstart’s value was great for the Foundation as well, as its turnkey program provides everything grantees need to build their fundraising skills and donations, in a relatively short period but for the long term—thus sustaining CFA’s investment for the duration. Also, Jumpstart’s metrics are a quick and easy way to see if and how grantees are utilizing the program, and its fundraising impact.

Even so, Michelle realized that getting Jumpstart funded might be a hard sell to some of the funding committee members. So she teamed with Jumpstart staff to make the best case, designing the grants as seed money that grantees would leverage to create additional donation streams for the duration.

Michelle and colleagues presented the approach to the board in a clear and comprehensive plan, requesting a relatively small pilot investment—$10,000 to fund an initial cohort of five nonprofits for one year—that was a minimal risk. And she positioned the request as a proven way CFA could sustain community organizations and their impact even after the Foundation’s funding runs out.  

The board approved funding to provide one year of the Jumpstart Program to five regional organizations most ready to fully utilize the program. CFA soon rolled out a competitive application process for community nonprofits with three main readiness criteria—a written fundraising plan, active board engagement, and solid fundraising strategy.

The Foundation received several strong applications and funded five organizations, most with a development team or person, working on causes ranging from education to health and human services.  Participants have access to one-on-one coaching and monthly trainings introducing new fundraising strategies. The cohort met for a kickoff meeting in fall 2017 and comes together periodically to share knowledge and build their relationships. In fact, the natural networking motivated by the structure of the Jumpstart program was perceived by CFA as having significant additional value.

Based on CFA’s experience, Michelle sees Jumpstart’s turnkey approach—integrating a fundraising system, tools, and templates; plus coaching and training organizations on putting the entire system to work) including guiding them through campaign launch and other hands-on processes)—as a game changer for CFA-funded organizations.

The Results.  The Jumpstart program is an unqualified success for the five organizations in the initial Jumpstart cohort,” says Michelle. The cohort’s front-runner to date is the Wylie Bulldogs Education Foundation, the smallest agency funded for Jumpstart and a first-time CFA grant recipient. Michelle credits that success to President Becky Rentz’ jumping in. She observes that Wylie’s success stems mainly from infrastructure and process improvements, and emphasizes the potential for grantee organizations.

Wylie Bulldogs Education Foundation

2010 delivered a dramatic growth spike in Wylie, Texas’ school district enrollment, as Abilene families flooded the nearby suburb. At the same time, state funding to the district and others designated as “wealthy” was cut, resulting in a major funding gap. As a result, the district couldn’t provide education necessities from classroom materials to choir uniforms. That’s when community leader Becky Rentz and school superintendent Joey Light stepped up to launch the Wylie Bulldogs Education Foundation (WBEF) in hopes of closing the gap.

The Challenge.  Becky, as WBEF president, has led the fundraising charge. Initially, she and the board found it easy to generate contributions. Community members were eager to close the top-of-mind funding gap and to donate to make it happen.

But, as time moved on, so did attention and donations. As a result, the Foundation saw donations fall 40% over the following years. In fact, giving has never again reached the year-one level!

Becky knew that fundraising needed to be an organizational priority rather than an administrative task. But WBEF, like many organizations formed in response to an immediate crisis, didn’t have the necessary fundraising system and skills in place to make that shift. In fact, Becky had spearheaded much of the fundraising solo. All the records (of donors, gifts, events) were on her personal spreadsheets, on papers piled in baskets around her home, or only in her head. This set up was a sizable barrier to sustaining the organization’s programs, especially with Becky on the cusp of retiring. That made Becky and the board—so passionate about the cause, and about sustaining the Foundation’s impact for the long run—very uneasy.

She and her colleagues were not computer savvy and needed guidance on structuring a fundraising system and assigning roles and responsibilities. WBEF needed to know how to:

·      Make donor data more organized & useful - demonstrate its vital utility

·      Use email engagement to retain and upgrade donors

·      Cross-functionally delegate and monitor fundraising activities

·      Assess campaign impact and revise accordingly to increase donations and keep donors close.

The Jumpstart Solution.  When Becky first heard about the Community Foundation of Abilene’s call for Jumpstart Program applications, she couldn’t believe the timing. Jumpstart was precisely what she was seeking to build the fundraising system WBEF needed to grow donors, and giving now and for the duration.

Becky applied for, and was thrilled to receive, a spot in the Jumpstart Program. Since the fall, she’s been an all-out user of Jumpstart’s four components—from the donor management system to coaching on shaping WBEF’s fundraising systems and the team’s organizational skills.

She reports that the greatest benefit is the as-needed help she receives from Travis, her reliable, expert Jumpstart coach. He’s there to help even when she has a time-sensitive decision to make. In fact Becky considers Travis as the springboard to building WBEF’s fundraising skills and systems, and treasures his eagerness and ability to guide her through the unknown to get to goal. But the value doesn’t stop there: Becky copies the step-by-step directions as they come, including screen-shots, thereby building an operational guide for WBEF going forward.

The Results.  The before-and-after of Wylie Bulldogs Education Foundation’s fundraising is a startling contrast. Today, WBEF’s fundraising is far more efficient than ever before. The ability to rely on accurate donor data saves time and money. Even more importantly, that accuracy prevents the Foundation from alienating donors or prospects with irrelevant (or mismatched) messages.

For example, WBEF will participate for the first time this year in Abilene Gives, Abilene's largest community-wide giving day. Thanks to WBEF’s Jumpstart coach, John Gilchrist, Becky and team will send a pre-giving day postcard to engage prospects and donors before the big day. WBEF could never have participated before. The Foundation didn’t have the bandwidth to compete (no donor-facing team or donation processing) or to engage first-time donors (as many giving day donors are) after they’ve made that initial gift. That’s progress.

By following the direction provided by their Coach, leveraging an accurate donor list, and easy to use communication tools the WBEF raised $22,820 through Abilene Gives; almost five times what they raised in 2017 and finished third overall in total fundraising results on the day. 

According to Becky, the Jumpstart Program has helped the Wylie Bulldogs Education Foundation to replace a single person’s yeoman efforts with an organization-centered solution. The Jumpstart solution is firmly in place as the foundation of WBEF’s ever-strong fundraising, but flexible enough to be adapted to meet evolving needs as the organization and its fundraising grow in size and complexity over time.

The Jumpstart Program provides everything WBEF needs for fundraising success: the ability to target the right donors and prospects, with the right message and the right call to action. This is what organizational sustainability looks like.

For more information, contact Nate Nasralla, Managing Director of the Jumpstart Program.  You can schedule an informational call with him, on his schedule, here.