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Barn raising and fundraising

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” –Matthew 6:26 NIV

Kevin King references this passage when describing the historical fundraising philosophy of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), where he has served as director for the last nine years. MDS is an extensive volunteer network of more than 3,000 Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ churches and districts, which respond to those affected by natural disasters throughout the United States and Canada.

The vision for MDS was birthed at a Sunday school picnic in Hesston, KS in 1950 and was based on a Christian understanding of mutual aid. As the organization’s website explains, “For generations prior to 1950, mutual aid was an informal practice performed by Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups who felt that their faith was best expressed in the day to day actions of caring for one another. Through spontaneous gestures of assistance such as the well-known barn raising and the lesser-known harvest bee, the Anabaptists put their faith into action when fellow church members or neighbors faced calamity.”

Historically, MDS’s approach to fundraising has rhymed with this philosophy of mutual aid. “We have never had full-time development staff,” points out King. “We have a trust with the Church that when our ‘barns are empty,’ we are to let the Church know so its members can provide accordingly.”

However, a unique set of fundraising opportunities and challenges is leading Mennonite Disaster Service to take initial steps toward development approaches that reflect best practices.

One challenge is overcoming what King calls “the CNN effect,” a phenomenon where many new donors give when disasters receive immediate and sustained media attention, especially television coverage.

A particularly remarkable example happened in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina (and one month later, Hurricane Rita) struck the Gulf Coast. National media reported on the catastrophe for months following the event and contributions to MDS totaled $6 million. By contrast, when Hurricane Ike—the third largest disaster in United States history—struck three years later, the media was preoccupied with a national election. As a result, MDS’s contributions capped at just $70,000.

Income fluctuations like these dramatically affect how MDS is able to respond to a given disaster. In the case of Katrina, the large volume of designated donations enabled the organization’s longest recovery effort to date—seven years. MDS hired additional staff to enable the increased need for volunteers and leadership in the Gulf Coast. Nearly 7,000 volunteers served in 2007.

However, by 2010 the number of volunteers in the Gulf Coast dropped closer to the median (2,500 annually) and, like many nonprofits, MDS had seen general contributions drop off in the midst of the economic downturn. Project leaders were consulted about possible cost-saving measures they might take and organizational downsizing—“rightsizing,” says King—was required.

Operating a project site involves feeding, equipping and sheltering volunteers, and costs approximately $38 per volunteer per day. Even while designated funds allowed Mennonite Disaster Service to continue Katrina recovery efforts for another five years beyond the start of the recession in 2008, other project sites (i.e. those responding to relatively under-reported disasters) struggled.

A second challenge organizations like MDS face is the profile of disaster donors. As King describes them, “Disaster donors allow their hearts to be touched by human need and they respond.” But according to a study conducted by The Indiana University School of Philanthropy one quarter to one half of first time disaster donors never give again to the same charity. The hurdle for MDS, then, is to turn more of these first-time donors into regular, faithful givers.

Yet a third challenge is that MDS can’t simply wait for contributions to start rolling in once disaster strikes; constituents also expect the organization to maintain a level of disaster preparedness.

King is grateful for a core of loyal and faithful donors who understand this reality. Following Hurricane Sandy, for example, MDS observed that almost 90% of its faithful donors—those individuals who have contributed each of the last three years—gave to the general fund rather than specifically for Sandy. “These donors understand the full picture of disaster recovery,” says King.

Though they still have no official development officer on staff, Mennonite Disaster Service has already begun implementing a number of fundraising best practices, including:

• Being more attentive to first-time donors, with the goal to reduce attrition rates among this group to 25%.

• Analyzing giving trends of various stakeholder groups and segmenting the annual appeal to fit each.

• Identifying key messages for external communications and strengthening the case for support.

• Preparing accountability reports for donors to let them know how their donations are making a difference within the first six months following a disaster.

• Building a stronger online presence.

• Working strategically to receive grant funding from community foundations.

• Stabilizing funding streams by fully implementing a diversified fundraising program that includes annual appeals, special events, relationships with donors, grants and planned gifts.

• Personally thanking donors, for which King and several board members share responsibility.

King shares a story to illustrate the power of saying thank you. “Just before Christmas, we were swamped from Hurricane Sandy, and I was paging through receipts. I noticed one new donor who had given pretty serious dollars, and decided to call her and thank her.” King was floored by the woman’s response. “I’m glad you called,” she said. “I was just sitting here thinking that I need to give more money. How much do you need?” Not only did she increase her initial donation by five times; King feels confident she will be a long-term donor to MDS.

Or how about this story, of a chance encounter King had while going through airport security. “I struck up a conversation with the man next to me and he ended up inviting me to lunch. As we talked, he was moved almost to tears as I described how volunteers from Lancaster County, PA would get up early, drive to Far Rockaway, NY for Sandy clean-up, work all day, and then drive home again. It turns out he is a venture capitalist for a major corporation.” The conversation ended with the man directing King to his company’s website for information on corporate contributions; he expects to visit it soon!

And how about this one, which shows what can come from taking time from one’s own agenda to respond to another’s need, much like MDS volunteers do each year. “After Hurricane Katrina, I got a call from a reporter. I was incredibly busy, and was tempted to not take the call. But something in me said, ‘Go ahead and give the guy a story.’ Just before we hung up, I asked him again which paper he was from. It was the Chicago Tribune! That article alone generated $600,000.”

Stories like these abound within the work and culture of Mennonite Disaster Service, as they do for all nonprofit human service organizations. “Right now on any given weekday, we have 350 volunteers working at 12 project sites around the United States,” explains King. “The genius of MDS is that we have access to all of these practical, hands-on stories.”

Undoubtedly, the strategies listed above reflect a development effort that is more sophisticated than a simple call to a barn raising. But in both cases, compelling stories of human need and compassion are what King believes will persuade constituents to respond.