Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Two principles and a rider

Is there possibly a formula for post-crunch charitable fundraising?

Around a month ago, I do not remember where, I wrote that, crunch or no crunch, the possibilities for charitable funding for Conductive Education may not yet be entirely exhausted. I also, I think, ventured a couple of general principles for successful charitable funding in even the hardest times:

  • do something really different; and
  • fundraise from the basis of a standing within your community.

I would add the rider that raising charitable money will have, more than ever, to involve the absolute minimum of costs, with no expensive fundraising staff involved, and the minimum of effort, with no extensive organisation or management required. These two points and their rider were drawn from occasional reports appearing on the Internet and things told me by people in the field. Whilst they can hardly be proposed as having lawful force, I was pleased to see two further Internet reports over the Christmas period that do seem to bear them out.

I have no idea how far these two experiences might be generalisable but I offer them here for the consideration of those in Conductive Education whose New Year may be much tied up with reviewing their organisations’ budgets and seriously revisiting their fundraising programmes.

Sorry, no short-term fixes, and I of course have no idea whether experiences of the last quarter of 2008 will in any way carry over into the first quarter of 2009, enough to make a net return substantial enough to stave off retrenchment and even permit a degree of modest expansion.

Both these recent examples hail from the United States.

Example 1. Sixten’s Foundation: the 'Conduct This!’ Auction

Robert and Anna Helm Kurtz’s Sixten’s Foundation was first reported on Conductive World in May. Their goal was an ambitious one, combining the immediate personal needs of themselves and their son, Sixten, with the wider social-policy purpose of creating 'a pivotal pilot program that will serve as the catalyst for similar programs nationwide'.

As a first step they had to elicit the active collaboration of their local school district, St. George’s County in Maryland, and to raise money to pay for for their project.

The first of these depended upon convincing their dynamic schools superintendent, John Deasy. Robert went to see him with a full and comprehensive dossier of testimony on the benefits that others had experienced from Conductive Education. John Deasy took this home to read over the weekend and by the Monday morning was issuing instructions to his officials to collaborate.

John Deasy left for pastures new in September (he is now Deputy Director of Education of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), but he left behind him an open door for the Kurtzes’ pilot project (Sixten’s Foundation, 2008a). The project commenced in September, so urgent fundraising was required. Some of the ways in which this was begun are detailed on the Foundation’s website, but it is the big one, focussed upon here, that has been something special.

Robert Kurtz is a conductor (he leads an orchestra). Before becoming a conductor, he had worked his way up through the ranks as a bassist. The International Society of Bassists now backed the ‘Conduct This! Musical Instrument Auction’ to support Sixten's Foundation, for which individual fellow musicians and musical instrument companies would donate fine musical instruments for auction on ebay.

On the day that the sale ended, it had raised some thirty thousand dollars. Items that failed to reach their reserve price have been held back for a second sale in February (though reasonable private bids can be considered in the meantime) (Sixten’s Foundation, 2008c).

The pilot conductive program is running now through the 2008-2009 school year, funded by Sixten's Foundation, under conductor Robert Demeter. Costs for this first year will exceed $75,000, so the Foundation is around half-way there.

Overhead costs for the whole fundraising and publicity operation have been kept to a minimum. The auction was held through eBay and the Sixten’s Foundations website is provided through Google Blogger, not least for the flexibility to maintain constant updates on needs and progress And of course, it is free.

Hold on, you might protest. Yes, this is really diferent, and yes, it has kept costs to an absolute minimum, but where’s the community? Surely Conduct That! raised its auction goods and sold them across a very dispersed population.

Quite right, but ‘communities’ are not just neighbourhoods, nor have they been so for a long time. Here the ‘musical community, rallied round a family that was one of its own. The world is criss-crossed by such networks, such communities of interest. Go find your own!

Example 2. Operation Round Up

Just in time to catch the end of the old year comes news of what on the face of it looks a very different kind of fundraising operation, from Gwinnett, Georgia.

The Jackson EMC Foundation is funded by Jackson EMC members' contributions to its Operation Round Up program, that rounds up electric bills of participating members to the next dollar amount and uses the spare change to do charitable work. The Foundation has awarded more than $3 million to date through 264 grants to organizations and 116 grants to individuals.

Four Gwinnett organizations have just been awarded a total of $55,000 in grants by the Foundation, including $15,000 to the local CE center A Step to Independence

The center will use the money to extend its CE program across the whole year. Till now this has been offered only in the summer, but the grant will go towards paying a year-long conductor’s salary.

A round-up program might not be possible everywhere but the goodwill of a local community utility service, linked with corresponding goodwill from local people, provides the novel prospect of a tiny, painless voluntary ‘tax’ that mounts up to substantial sums, capable of making real differences to the work of small voluntary groups.

Innovative, community-based and costing nothing for recipients to set up over and above the day-to-day work of establishing a standing within the community of which it is a part.

CE charity in 2009: inspiration, recognition and parsimony

Financing Conductive Education through charitable giving has always had its limitations. It may well be that that established ways of tackling this will yield diminishing returns in 2009. But originality and a valued place in your community, coupled with minimal fundraising costs may still bridge vital financial gaps for lean and hungry organisations.

Put it another way: reverse the two princioles and their rider presented here. Charitable fundraising involving more of the same, without something commonly shared between donors and recipients, with a substantial proportion of money raised going into raising it, may be a receipe for disaster. Nothing much new here, perhaps, but 2009 will be a year of very tight margins in which inspiration, recognition and parsimony may be a combination critical to ensuring the survival of the fittest.

We shall see…

Notes and references

Sixten’s Foundation

Sixten’s Foundation

Sixten’s Foundation (2008a) Goodbye, John Deasy and thanks,, 30 September

Sixten’s Foundation (2008b) Conduct This! Sixten’s Foundation Fundraising Auction,, 9 October
Sixten’s Foundation (2008c) WOW! And THANK YOU, 16 December

Sutton, A. (2008) ‘Pivotal program’ for United States: family’s ambitious goal, Conductive World, 27 May

A Step to Independence

A Step to Independence

Jackson Electric Membership Corporation Operation Round Up

--- (2008) Gwinnett Gab: Nonprofits receive grants, Gwinnett Daily Post, 28 December


  1. Happy New Year, Andrew.
    A useful posting. Just had to comment how much I enjoyed the concept of a "dynamic schools superintendent", and, especially, one who was convinced by rational argument!
    Do they only have such people in America?

  2. Not too many, I suspect, and even there probably as rare as hen's teeth... and there's one less now!