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Ronald McDonald House Charities of Mobile, Inc.

Children’s Oncology Camping Association 

November 14, 2009


Good afternoon and thank you for asking me to be a part of your conference, specifically to share some of my experiences raising money for a non-profit organization. I guess in some ways we are all victims of our experiences or maybe beneficiaries is a better way of putting it. I hope my experiences prove beneficial to you today. Since you are all associated with helping children with cancer through camping experiences, you have most likely been involved in raising money, money to pay your organization’s bills and money to provide the camping experience.


Much of what I say today will not be new to you. It doesn’t hurt to hear someone else say it in a slightly different way. But hopefully you may hear something new, at least one or two ideas that will be an “Aha, we could do that” moment.


There are two basic rules in fundraising. One, it must be fun. Second, see rule number one. This was brought home in spades my first year as Executive Director when a lady named MaryLou Hyland, who was not on our Board, was asked to chair our premiere fundraising event, the McGala. She walked in, sat down, and said, “I was at the McGala last year, and I gotta tell you, it just wasn’t much fun.” That became the battle cry of the event and we went from a gross of about $30,000 at the event to $100,000. If your fundraising events are not fun for those attending and those planning and organizing the event, go back to the drawing board and make it fun.


Answer this question to yourselves and then see if your answer was correct later in this session.


Are you just trying to do good or are you trying to do a good job? If you are just trying to do good, you rarely will. A lot of ingredients go into doing a good job – caring, organization, time, kindness, effort, creativity and above all fun. Without fun, it is work and people won’t stick with it for long.


The most basic ingredient of all is to know your product. What are you selling? Why would people want to give you their money to support your cause?


Some will because you went to their fundraiser and they’re paying you back. Some will because they are your best friend or your relative or your neighbor. But no matter the reason, they must understand what you are doing, whom you are doing it for, why you’re doing it, and does it matter? Will it make a difference or is it just a bunch of friends getting together for a big cocktail party?


Now since all of you are involved in helping children with cancer through camping experiences, it should be easy to articulate what it is you’re trying to do. Or is it? To see just how easy it is, let’s do this….divide into two groups, and each group elect a team secretary to record the following: what is your product, what are you selling?


(Divide the audience into 2 roughly equal groups. When done, tell them they will have five minutes to define the product they are selling. Write it down on a piece of paper – one or two sentences at most.)


So let’s see how well we know what we’re selling. Before I do that, I’ll tell how I do it for Ronald McDonald House. If you have ever heard me talk about the House, you have heard me say the following things: (1) it is a warm, caring home for families with hospitalized children, not just a place to stay but a home-away-from-home, (2) we keep families together in times of crises so that children can recover more quickly, and (3) we provide the opportunity for families to provide emotional support for and receive it from each other. Very clear, very direct and something that anyone who has ever had a child, particularly a sick child can relate to.


So let’s see how you did.

Group 1 says your product is:

Group 2 says what you are selling is:

While there is a constant theme of helping kids with cancer, I’m not sure you have exactly hit the nail on the head. Does a donor or supporter know what he or she was helping to do, i.e. what he or she was buying. To me as an outsider, I think you’re selling joy and happiness for child cancer victims and their families. That is what you are selling.


The lesson is: clearly define your product. One way to do that is to write down your Mission Statement which is just another way of saying what it is that you exist to do. And then your Vision Statement which is just a formal way of saying what you will have done when you have achieved your objective.


To put this in perspective with a concrete example, the Mission and Vision for Ronald McDonald House in Mobile are as follows: first the Mission Statement – Ronald McDonald House is a welcoming home that serves families of seriously ill and injured children who are receiving medical treatment at area hospitals. Our home satisfies families’ needs and provides quality of life without compromising personal dignity. Our home allows staff, volunteers and Board members personal satisfaction in an atmosphere of trust, respect and the highest ethical standards.


Our Vision is to always provide, with a single-minded commitment, a comforting environment for every family whose child is being treated in a local hospital. The key word is “every”. We will not have fulfilled our reason for being until we are able to help every family who needs our services. We may never achieve our vision, but that is what we are working hard to try to accomplish.


There is nothing mysterious about developing these statements, but going through the exercise of developing them is important to keep the organization focused, to make sure everyone knows what you are selling and is reminded of it frequently.


Another critical component in fundraising is that donors want to support and be associated with winners. They want to know the organization and the cause they are giving money to will be around next year and the year after, not scraping by and under threat of going out of business at any minute. If you are worried about the power being turned off, how can you focus on providing the service you are asking money for? How can you sell your product? The death plea – “We’ll be forced to shut the doors or close the camp, if we don’t raise $25,000 or $50,000 by next month” – may work once, but after that donors don’t want to hear it. And it will work against you.


Closely associated with being a winner is projecting a winning image. You must be an advocate for the cause. If not the Board, then who will do this? If you rely on the staff and other volunteers to do this, you are destined to fail in the long-run. It is always perceived as self-serving for the staff to solicit money whether it is ticket sales, donations to Annual Giving, in-kind gifts, or whatever. When a person receives a part of his or her salary from the gift he or she is soliciting, it is self-serving. That is why volunteers – especially the Board – must be involved.


Remember there are only two primary responsibilities of every volunteer Board I don’t care what the non-profit organization is or what it does. And that is (1) to hire and fire the Executive Director and (2) ensure the financial viability of the organization. If the Board is not involved in every aspect of fundraising – with an emphasis on making ‘the ask’ – then get a new Board. This can only happen slowly over time, but the process should start right away.


But this – fundraising – is only part of being an advocate. The Board members must attend your fundraising events. They have to be physically there. And they have to go to camp. To be an effective advocate they need to be involved so that they speak from firsthand experience when they describe the organization, what it does, what its needs are, and why what it does matters. How can the Board sell your product if it doesn’t know what it is? And it must be willing to tell friends and family members about (in the case of Mobile) Camp Rap-A-Hope and give talks about it. There is no more effective way to market your product than to relate a personal experience with your clientele - your campers - to someone not familiar with what you do.


Years ago I was on the local Board of United Cerebral Palsy. I knew we raised money and sent it somewhere for research. And I knew we tried to get local hotels to donate rooms so families with a child suffering from cerebral palsy could have an occasional brief holiday from the round-the-clock care they had to provide for their child. And I was told we should be advocates. But since I didn’t know what caused the malady or if it could be prevented or much about it, I wasn’t much at advocating. Until one day…..


I was president of the Board and I had to stop by the UCP office to sign some checks. While there, the staff told me I just had to see little Carla and what she had learned to do. They escorted me into a small room that was empty except for Carla, her caregiver, and some type of skateboard-looking thing. With little encouragement but great effort, the little girl – who was lying on the floor because she couldn’t stand – was able to roll her body onto the skateboard and using her arms and legs was able to push herself across the room to where I was standing. This young girl with three, five, ten strikes against her then looked up at me with a million dollar smile, happy that she was able to move somewhere, anywhere, by herself for the first time in her young life. At that moment she had no strikes in her mind. And for the first time I knew what United Cerebral Palsy was all about. Besides developing each child to the maximum of his or her abilities, it was about putting smiles on children’s faces. That happened twenty-five years ago, and I can still see Carla’s face like it was yesterday.


If you didn’t know anything about Cerebral Palsy before I told that story, you have now been touched by the organization and you know what the organization does as told from a firsthand experience. Get your Board and your Camp Committee and your volunteers to your camps.


Pretty basic, huh? I remember a time on another Board - a shelter for abused and battered women – when as Board president I asked how many members had actually been to the shelter. I had noticed that Board meetings were held at local restaurants. And there were all sorts of excuses given about how the location had to remain confidential and we had to protect the privacy of the women, blah, blah, blah. A majority of the Board had never seen the shelter, didn’t even know what part of town it was in, had never seen how these ladies lived, had never met or talked to a single person who was staying there. Incredible. We were doing good but we were not doing a good job. For the rest of my term, we held Board meetings at the shelter.


Market, market, market your organization. Never pass up the opportunity to talk about it. This doesn’t mean constantly asking for money. It means keeping your camp in the public’s eye. Newspapers like stories about people helping children. Take pictures at your events – remember to get permission to use them – write an article and send it to the newspaper. Don’t expect them to write the article for you. Make it easy for them to help you. Introduce yourself to the Upcoming Events manager and the Neighbors manager and the Editor and the Food Section manager and send copies of the article to all of them. Sometimes they’ll publish just the picture with a caption, sometimes the entire article, and sometimes nothing. But it’s free. You don’t have to buy ad space.


Never ever turn down an opportunity to sell your product and to tell your story. Speak to anyone who will listen – Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis Clubs are always looking for speakers at their weekly meetings. Call them and ask to be their speaker at an upcoming meeting – I think you’ll find they’ll welcome you. Speak to schools and to church groups and the Medical Association and the Medical Alliance. People sometimes ask how many volunteers Ronald McDonald House has, and I say I don’t know but I think it’s around 30,000 or 40,000.


Their response is always an incredulous, “How can you utilize and keep up with 30,000 volunteers? You’re joking, right?” The answer is found right here – HOLD UP TAB TOP – people save about 11,000,000 of these for us every year. It means about $6,000 to $7,000 depending on the price of aluminum. But more importantly it means tens of thousands of people – and a huge number of them are school children – saving for the House, i.e. helping the families who stay there and talking positively about the House AND its work. 30,000 marketers, 30,000 advertisers of Ronald McDonald House. It is an absolute army of people volunteering to help Ronald McDonald House. It is impossible to measure both the short-term the long-term benefit of so many people helping the House and how many young people will grow up to help the House and many other organizations because they learned at an early age that almost anyone can help others and you don’t have to be rich to do it – you just have to care. If you can help, you must. And just about everybody can.


What can you do to utilize the power of numbers? Have Camp Sunday at local churches when a special collection is taken up for your camp.? Have a writing contest in local schools about what it means to help others with the winners receiving gift certificates or the right to be counselors at Camp. Have school art classes create get well cards for your campers – the students will love doing it, the schools love for them to do it, and your campers will love receiving them. What a great way to get future Board members and future supporters. I don’t know what all you can do. But I’ll bet a well-motivated team from your organization can come up with some great ideas.


This leads to the final two points, and then I’ll recap.


First, your success cannot rely on a team of one or just a few. Every person on your Board and your Camp Committee, every person associated with your organization, has to bring something to the table. People get busy, their lives change, their interests change, and so their level of involvement changes. But the majority of your group has to be active, committed and involved. This is not a once a year thing at the annual dinner/auction or the walkathon or the golf tournament or the annual ball,  but rather a year round involvement in planning, marketing, camp operations, the business of the organization, leadership, fundraising. You are the organization. Additionally, everyone involved must make a personal donation. The amount is not so important. But how can you ever ask anyone to give money to something you’re not willing to support financially?


Finally, when raising money, the ask must always be face-to-face. You know this. You’ve heard it before. But it is true. I’m not talking about something like an Annual Fund drive when thousands of letters go out and you count on the usual 3% response. 3% is considered doing well, a pure numbers game. I’m talking about your fundraising events and monies needed for camp construction or improvements. Some will help because they are re-paying you or they are a good friend, but long-term success can’t be sustained this way. You have to ask and do it face to face. It’s the only way. You say, “But I can’t do that. I just can’t ask people for money.” Then don’t. Ask them to have lunch and tell them a story about your camp or about a camper – one that you know from firsthand experience because you are active and involved and committed. Your passion will show through and they will want to help you help your children.


So what have we said?


  • First have fun.
  • Do a good job, don’t just do good.
  • Know your product and remind yourself of it constantly
  • Reduce to writing your mission and your long-term vision.
  • Stay focused, stay committed, and stay passionate about the cause.

If you’re not, find another cause or sit in the rocker.

  • Act like winners, be winners
  • Be an advocate
  • Market, market, market your cause
  • Not a team of one or once a year team
  • Face to face solicitation



I would guess that a few of the organizations represented here today are doing all of these things, but probably not many. But on the other hand, none of you are doing none of these things.


I know that so far it sounds like I’ve talked about what you should have already done and not what you can do, i.e. “Fundraising in Tough Economic Times”.


The tie-in is this: if you don’t have these basics in place, you will have a difficult time raising funds in good times and an impossible time when the economy is in tough shape. You must have the foundation. Ultimately what I’m saying is that the basics are the same in good times and in bad. You don’t suddenly start running the organization correctly because times got bad. And you don’t abandon good practices because times got good again.


More intensity, more urgency, and more focus are needed in bad economic times. In other words, you have to do the basics better, but good fundraising practices are not abandoned because of an economic upturn or downturn.


So what do you do? Take stock immediately. The best way to determine if your Board or group is committed is to have a retreat. Ask them to give up a Saturday or just a Saturday morning and see how many show up. If you’re sitting there thinking, “Boy, is this guy a dreamer. My Board will never go for this” then you are an organization in trouble. In the retreat, devote half of the time to assessing your efforts, your financial shape (do you have an endowment or rainy day fund?), participation by your Board, the “funness” of your organization and your events, your marketing and public relations efforts, the condition of your physical facilities, etc.


And then spend the other half of your time developing a game plan for what you need to do to shore up the weak spots. Assign responsibilities and time lines. Don’t leave with a nice feeling that we all gave up a Saturday for the cause and now we know where we stand. And everything is going to be alright. No!! Leave knowing who’s gonna do what when! The current financial condition of your organization will dictate the urgency with which corrective measures need to be taken.


Yes, but, Al, everything you’re saying brings help down the road. Our cart is in the ditch and we need help now.


Then when you get home, do the following before the end of the year:


1. Write a press release or newspaper article with a picture of your Board president and one or two of your clientele at your camp. In your article mention that donations can be made to support a camper to the following address________.


2. Develop a special Christmas appeal. Who goes camping in the winter? Our campers do in their dreams. Help a dream come true this Christmas. X dollars can support one camper for one day. Give the gift of joy at this joyous time of year. You are marketing dreams and joy for sick children and their families.


3. Write a well-crafted letter to your most generous donors asking for a special one-time donation and cite the specific things you are going to do with that money. Remember to avoid the “Death Plea”.


4. Call a Rotary or Kiwanis Club and ask to be a speaker. Bring a camper with you when you speak.


5. Call a local TV station and ask to be on one of their community service programs – bring a camper with you. Your product is your camper.


6. Write a second article about a camper who was cured – a success story – and tell about how he or she is doing, what grade they are in in school, what school they are going to, what they want for Christmas – i.e. humanize and personalize the story and be a winner.


7. If you publish a newsletter, great. Follow your schedule. But if you don’t, start one and send the 1st edition before Christmas. Now there is something I do that may be smart or may be stupid. Most if not all RMH’s do newsletters and we send them to each other. And in every one is a small envelope for you to make a donation. I think that is the highest form of insult. It says the reason for this newsletter is to get you to give us more money. But to me, the reason for a newsletter is to say Hi to your friends. How did you get their name and address in the first place? Because they have given you money in the past. Or because they are a personal friend of yours. And what you are doing is saying “Hello, Old Friend. There is a lot going on at RMH that I thought you might like to know about it.”


To then turn around and in the same letter say “Give me more  money” defeats the whole purpose of saying Hi.


These actions should give you enough funds and enough time to get back to the ‘basics analysis’. You are in the business of helping sick children’s dreams come true if only for a week or two and in the business of bringing joy to sick children. What a great and noble cause.   Put another way, you are in the business of touching people’s hearts and making them feel good about helping you, about buying your product.


And remember, you are in this for the long haul. There is no magic bullet that you fire it once and all problems go away forever. But if you put the basics in place and keep them in place, your job as fundraisers will be a lot more fun and a lot more successful.


When you have done your job right, you will know the secret of helping others: no matter how hard you might try, you cannot avoid getting more than you give when done for the right reasons.


Thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of your conference. The work you are doing is nothing short of phenomenal. It is a real privilege to be a small part of it, and it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to tell you a little about Ronald McDonald House.


If there are any questions, I’ll be happy to try to answer them.