Check-Up Clinic: Creative Fundraising

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Click here to read the full article on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Nonprofit Finds Success with Mask Donation Campaign

by Eden Stiffman

In-person gatherings have long been an essential part of the Human Rights Campaign’s fundraising strategy — and the traditions of many of its members.

“Overcoming the tyranny of the closet and isolation is a real struggle for many LGBTQ people,” says Chris Speron, the advocacy group’s senior vice president for development and membership. He says from the Stonewall riots to the pride marches and events that LGBTQ organizations produce, “the idea of convening and being together is part of our culture.”

In past years, the organization has had a presence at more than 300 pride events around the country. These events, which are its biggest source of new donors, were largely canceled because of the pandemic. The HRC’s street-canvassing program — the organization’s second-biggest source of new donors — also had to stop as people began sheltering in place and social distancing.

So Dane Grams, the group’s membership director, began brainstorming about how the HRC could find other ways to connect with new and existing supporters during the Covid-19 pandemic and continue to raise money in a way that also supports the urgent needs of more than 50 partner organizations.

After discussions with colleagues, the organization landed on HRC Cares, a campaign in which, for a contribution of at least $29, people can select a branded mask for themselves and have two additional masks donated to organizations in need. Just over a week old, the campaign has resonated with HRC donors at a time when wearing a face mask, beyond being a protective measure, is a political statement.

Each cloth mask for donors features the group’s iconic blue-and-yellow equal sign. Some are printed with a rainbow, the colors representing bisexual and transgender pride, or the message “‘VOTE.”

The HRC logo has become a meaningful symbol for LGBTQ people, Grams says. “Identity is very important for members of HRC and our allies. As masks become more a part of everyday society, at least for the short term, having the ability to say who you are and be proud about that was one of the elements of this campaign that also made it a success.”

The HRC bought masks produced in the United States for partner organizations as it announced the campaign publicly. The organization has now shipped nearly 20,000 navy-blue cloth masks. They didn’t want recipient organizations to have to wait for what they were promised. “At a time like this, you can’t be gimmicky,” Speron said.

Several thousand of those masks went to Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, a nonprofit that provides mental-health services and has collaborated with the HRC since 2012. The mask campaign also presented an opportunity for the HRC to highlight the work of Devereaux and other partners. The campaign overlapped with GivingTuesdayNow, the flash fundraising event held earlier this week. The HRC promoted a video of Devereaux’s CEO thanking the organizations and its supporters for giving back.

The logo masks for members required more production time and are being made now. The group expects to sell out the 10,000 branded masks it ordered in the next day or two.

As of Thursday afternoon, the campaign had brought in 9,600 contributions, generating nearly $300,000 for the HRC’s work for LGBTQ equality. About 40 percent of those contributions came from new members. The HRC, a 501(c)(4) political-advocacy group, defines a member as any donor who has given a contribution of $5 or more in the past 24 months, which is an election cycle.

So far, even with the absence of the organization’s events program, it raised just a few hundred thousand dollars less in April than it did a year ago.

Digital Care Package

Human Rights Campaign’s emphasis on encouraging recurring donations has helped it weather the crisis, Grams says.

“We’ve seen a solid number of people sticking with us in spite of the fact that we can’t be at pride this summer, and we can’t do large-scale events,” he says.

Speron believes efforts to educate supporters are also contributing to fundraising success.

“They recognize the importance of the work,” he says. “They see the vulnerability for the LGBTQ community and the importance of the November elections coming up and what’s at stake for our community.”

The mask-donation effort is one of several ways the organization is staying connected with supporters during the pandemic.

During the early weeks of the crisis, the group immediately went into “nurture mode” with its donors, Grams says. “We wanted to really let them know we were there for them during this time as we figured things out.”

The nonprofit hosted a conference call where members could ask a doctor questions.

It asked performer Billy Porter to create a playlist and San Francisco chef Melissa King to share a recipe, both of which became part of the digital care package the group sent to donors who had given in the previous 24 months.

The group has sought to make its stewardship and advocacy relevant to the current health crisis. It created a Covid-19 resource page on its website, highlighting reports about the virus’s disproportionate health and economic effects on people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender; a resource to help school counselors support LGBT youths during the pandemic; and a memo detailing the ways the federal government has removed protections for LGBTQ people in health-care settings.

In the 30 cities where the organization has large membership bases, the major-gift team has worked with board members to host Zoom happy hours.

Friday the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and GLSEN, an education organization working to end discrimination, harassment, and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, will host a virtual commencement ceremony to honor LGBTQ high-school and college seniors who won’t get to celebrate their graduation in person.

The organization continues to test new approaches to see what resonates with supporters, Speron says. “If we at HRC can create a way for people to feel seen and heard and connected through this crisis, then we’re being successful.”

More Collaboration

Adapting to life during the pandemic hasn’t been easy for the organization’s fundraising team. A few event-related employees in the development department were laid off.

But the limitations of remote work and fundraising have also unleashed creativity and collaboration, Speron says.

Regional fundraising teams are collaborating more, and staff who work at the nonprofit’s Washington, D.C., headquarters now see more of each other on Zoom than they did in person when they were spread over eight floors in an office building.

“This mask campaign is a great example of being creative, being thoughtful, helping others, while also making the case for why your organization is important,” Speron says. “I don’t think we would have ever thought of or considered a partnership like this in a pre-Covid atmosphere.”

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