About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is a former attorney and the author of several Nolo immigration books. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

Is It All Bad News Regarding Individual Giving?

2012-Proof-Penny-obv_200What a rush of apparent bad news we’ve seen lately in the realm of recorded or anticipated donations to nonprofits:

Gack. What is going on? Is charitable fatigue actually an infectious virus?

The YMCA puts it down to a sense that the country hasn’t pulled out of the Recession as quickly as anticipated, and thus people are throwing up their hands and figuring it’s up to governments and larger groups to take the lead.

Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, told Pender that, “The rich were more affected by the stock market crash than other income groups, and that might be why they were slow to step up giving as a percent of income.” 

But I wonder also whether the barrage of donation requests that we get via email and social media is introducing a new type of fatigue. Admittedly, I’m basing this on a sample of one: me. But every morning, I receive such a long list of email solicitations that I have to delete them without opening if I’m going to get to work before everyone leaves for lunch. All those Bay Area folks on their smartphones are pretty quick to hit the delete button, too.

It takes something exciting and different to make someone navigating the online world — an increasingly important forum for charitable solicitation — pay attention. Something like, perhaps, that ALS ice bucket challenge, which raised about $115 million before finally winding down.

Don’t Let Tax Rules Intimidate When Writing Nonprofit Thank-You’s to Donors

hamsterReading Roger Craver (author of Retention Fundraising: The New Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life) should put a jolt into any fundraiser’s Monday morning, with his analysis of why the nonprofit sector is “hemorrhaging donors and losing millions monthly.”

He’s not just engaging in hyperbole: Apparently, studies by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) have found that for every $100 brought in from new donors, nonprofits lose another — wait for it — $100, due to donor attrition. Talk about a hamster wheel. 

Number one on Roger’s list of likely reasons is “Failure to properly thank and involve donors.” Really? After all this time? It’s not that I don’t believe him, it’s just that anyone who’s ever written about nonprofit fundraising, me included, has emphasized the crucial importance of thanking donors.

Perhaps this is just another problem that can be chalked up to organizational inexperience, lack of time, or the fact that the entire development department just quit to take a job that pays better. But I wonder also whether nonprofits worry that they might get it “wrong” when writing a thank-you letter, and fail to comply with IRS regulations about thanking donors. (In fact, some nonprofits DO get it wrong, as discussed in my earlier blog, “Fundraising Oops: Thank-You Letter With Backwards Tax Info.”)

There are a few rules worth following — as much for the donors’ sake as the organization’s — but they’re really quite simple. Stephen Fishman discusses them  in his article, “Tax Deductions for Charitable Giving – The Nonprofit’s Responsibilities.” (Also see his book, Every Nonprofit’s Tax Guide.)

But when it comes right down to it, a thank-you letter for a straightforward cash donation can take practically whatever form you like: A letter, a postcard, an email. Just say how much the gift was, and then forget the IRS and get to the heartfelt part of it: gratitude that this person made a gift to help a cause that you all care about.

The Message of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge for Other Nonprofits

earth iceCould anyone have predicted that this would be the next big fundraising  strategy to go viral and bring in big bucks? You’ve by now no doubt heard about the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Association‘s challenge, in which social media participants dare friends to either videotape themselves being doused by a bucket of ice water or donate $100 to ALS research. (Doing both is fine, too.)

Who wants ice over their head, after all? (Brrrr.) And how many people have been personally affected by ALS, a disease that — while awful — affects only about two in 100,000 people, which isn’t exactly a recipe for fundraising success?

But this one somehow caught on. The likes of Bill Gates, Jennifer Lopez, Mark Zuckerberg, Lena Dunham, George Takei, LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, and Justin Bieber have all taken the challenge. As of this morning, it had brought in nearly $23 million — enough to have Forbes magazine writing about what the organization will do with all the money.

Why did it work — and how can other organizations replicate it? My analysis = Embrace people’s narcissism. Critics of the challenge complain that it produces “slacktivism,” in which people advertise their interest in a good cause but don’t actually do anything about it. But that’s turning out to be not such a bad thing, if some people do do something about it, namely donate and spread the word.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets are essentially places where people try to make their friends think that they’re doing interesting and exciting things all the time. (No one is convinced, but never mind.)

Yet now that we’ve all Facebooked and Tweeted the contents our latest travel photos and breakfast images a million times over, everyone from ordinary mortals to celebrities, is looking for new content. Preferably content that shows the person in a good light. So back to the ALS challenge: A video that’s easy and cheap to produce and that depitcs someone as humorous, slightly daring, and ready to support a worthy cause, fits the bill on many levels.

Now we just need to replicate that formula for the next big thing. Hmmm.

For Fundraising Auction, Parties Can Be Scaled to Any Size and Age

CAKEAn auction to raise money for a school or other nonprofit may, over the years, develop its own, unique culture and tradition. That’s what has occurred in the Piedmont school district of California, where parties, put on by parents, have become a favorite item.

Whether it’s the “Monster Bash,” held in a warehouse, with tickets going for around $200, or the more modest moms’ hike and brunch party, with tickets going for around $40, there’s a party for everyone’s interest and pocketbook. For the little ones, there’s a cupcake-making party. Or, at least there was last year — who knows what next year will bring?

These parties are a great way to tap into parents’ creativity and foster further community. And (in a small town with a small commercial area), it’s helpful to be able to create money-makers without relying primarily on donations from local businesses.

Looking for more ideas? Nolo’s got lots of information on fundraising auctions and other special events, and a simple Google search for “party ideas” will bring up more than you ever imagined existed.

Plus Side of Not Receiving Huge Donations: No Need to Return Huge Donations!

cash_handsIt seems there’s been an epidemic recently of nonprofits either having to, or deciding to, return money to disgraced donors.

On the “having to” list, just this week the Wall Street Journal reported that the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota had agreed to give up one-fifth of a $3 million gift that businessman Tom Petters made way back in 2003. Petters was later convicted of operating a Ponzi scheme that brought him billions of ill-gotten dollars. 

After more than a decade, the college had probably found plenty of uses for that money, and might have been happy to ignore Petters’s later troubles. Enter, however, the bankruptcy court that’s overseeing the collapse of the Petters empire. The court decided to collect any and all stolen funds in order to turn them over to creditors, and the College of St. Benedict was apparently a recipient of such money. (Figuring out which money is tainted and which isn’t sounds like an accounting nightmare, by the way.)

On the “deciding to” give up tainted money list, several groups are reportedly saying “Ptooey” to money that came from “disgraced Clippers owner Donald Sterling.” (It seems that Sterling will never be referred to any other way — sort of like, “Military Strongman Idi Amin” or “Pop Star Madonna.”) The list includes Goodwill Southern California (bye-bye $100,000) and A Place Called Home.

Hmm, maybe A Place Called Home didn’t actually return any money. Its public letter said, “I must decline further funding from your foundation and ask you to immediately remove A Place Called Home and my photo and name from your ads.”

If true, that’s a clever public relations move – denounce the donation loudly and publicly, but keep the cash. I’m not unsympathetic: The money was probably well-spent by now.

But if the Internet and public fascination with infotainment is going to keep producing high-profile scandals like this, more and more nonprofits are going to have to do ethical deep-think around funds that came from the latest “Disgraced So-And-So.”

Meanwhile, grassroots groups whose average donations are $25 checks from local families can hopefully sit back and feel grateful that they’ll rarely have to deal with such huge amounts coming in — and then going back out.

 

 

 

 

 

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