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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Nonprofit Email Subject Line Fails

IMG_3340Ping, ping, ping. New messages keep popping up in my email box, many of them from various nonprofits. (Silly me, I can’t resist signing all those petitions; an apparently effective way for nonprofits to capture names and email addresses.)

No way am I going to read all of these.  I’m usually looking for a reason to delete them unopened. No problem! Few of their subject lines offer any real temptation, typically because they’re either too boring or too strident.

At the boredom end, I received one today titled, “Watch this video!” To which I can only answer, “Why should I?” My Facebook friends already offer heaps of videos to watch. (Did you see the one with the cat that . . . never mind.) Anyway, a video is not the novelty it may have once been. (More specifics might have helped. At least tell me whether there’s a cat in it.)

At the stridency end, one organization whose list I remain on only out of a morbid curiosity to see when its desperate, demanding messages will sink it, uses subject lines like, “The Good Donors Have Signed Up. Who Are You?” and “I Am Really Tired of All This Fundraising Every Month” and “Our Worst Day of Fundraising Ever.” (Need I say more?)

Being on a nonprofit’s list means that I see its email messages not in isolation, but as an ongoing indication of its personality. Having a personality can be a good thing for a nonprofit. But I wonder whether they always intend the personality that’s coming across in the incessant drumbeat of email pings?

On a more positive note, here’s my earlier blog on “Best Email Subject Lines From Nonprofits.” And an article on “Nonprofit Fundraising Emails: How to Make Them Profitable.”

Why Billionaires Sign on to Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge

rain of dollarsA total of 127 people have now added their names to the “Giving Pledge” list  started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. It’s no token commitment: The billionaires on this list have agreed to give over half of their wealth to charitable causes. 

Why do they do it? We don’t have to wonder too hard, because each accompanies their pledge with a written statement.

Not surprisingly, many of these statements read like they were written by a marketing person. There’s all the usual language about helping others, giving back, values learned from parents, and so forth.

Still, it’s worth perusing them, to look for clues beyond the obvious. There’s an interesting one right at the top of the list, from Bill and Karen Ackman.

William Ackman’s letter says that he not only gains happiness and optimism from helping others, but that “I am quite sure that I have earned financial returns from giving money away. Not directly by any means, but rather as a result of the people I have met, the ideas I have been exposed to, and the experiences I have had as a result of giving money away. A number of my closest friends, partners, and advisors I met through charitable giving. Their advice, judgment, and partnership have been invaluable in my business and in my life.”

Wow. For anyone who was still thinking about major donors as just regular donors who give a little (okay, a lot) extra, it’s a powerful reminder that truly major giving occupies a whole different universe.

Ackman is talking about up-close, personal contacts with individuals, not just getting a nice thank-you letter and phone call from a development director. I’m willing to bet that many of the people he’s referring to are not the nonprofit staffers themselves and, pardon my cynicism, not the homeless clients, either.

My guess is that he’s talking primarily about fellow people of means with whom he has served on boards, or whom he has met at gala events, conferred with about high-level approaches to problem solving, and so on. And although his letter was one of many on Buffett’s list, Ackman no doubt expresses the (perhaps unspoken) sentiments of others like him.

All of which means that any nonprofit trying to attract the attention of truly major donors needs to give some serious thought to whether it can offer a similar type of return on their investment.

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