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Leaders share on redefining generosity and how philanthropy and fundraising efforts are shifting at their community rec centers. Above: Philanthropy events including many community members are a focus for the Boulder JCC.

It’s no secret philanthropy and fundraising efforts are critical to the mission and longevity of nonprofits. However, for Jonathan Lev, the executive director of Boulder JCC, the focus of these terms has changed over time.

Lev said people often think about philanthropy as an obligation. But now, communities are first connected with organizations and the work they do. Creating those relationships and bonds with individuals is what eventually leads to altruism.

“We have shifted a lot more into engagement philanthropy,” said Lev. “I think that’s where the opportunity really lies with community-based organizations. People are hungry for relationships and engagement. People need to feel connected. And philanthropy is one piece of that puzzle. We don’t lead with philanthropy or fundraising. We lead with engagement and connection.”

In fact, Lev said he stresses to his JCC that their goal when communicating with someone isn’t to raise money from them. The goal is to build a genuine bond with members and the community of Boulder, Colorado. As part of this goal, their work is to provide meaningful experiences of connection for these individuals and the community as a whole.

Sabrina Smeltz, the CEO of Wakeman Boys & Girls Club, holds a similar belief when it comes to philanthropy.

“Philanthropy always used to be this big term,” said Smeltz. “For me, it’s not always about the dollars. Getting access to opening doors and being a net-promoter of an organization is also what I would consider in the category of philanthropy. People ask me what I do for a living — it’s being a relationship builder. It’s finding ways to have conversations and listen. You have to make sure desires match and funding aligns with others.”

This strategy proved to be successful for the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club during a recent capital campaign to raise $24 million to construct a new building in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Smeltz said her organization was able to secure over $15 million for the project from individual donors partially because they moved their fundraising and philanthropy efforts away from being event-focused.

“Over half of our budget annually is reliant on philanthropic dollars,” said Smeltz. “We weren’t able to fully commit people to our organization year after year through just events. We found having those individual conversations actually helped us gain a larger runway. We were able to gain more support that way.”

Another avenue the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club has to further philanthropy is its Keystone Club. This program teaches teens social responsibility and is sponsored by various companies who are also involved with educating the club’s participants.

“Now, the companies feel more engaged and connected to Wakeman Boys & Girls Club versus writing a check for a golf tournament,” said Smeltz. “There’s nothing wrong with having a golf tournament, but the connection isn’t the same. So, we have been trying to make those connections more transformational versus transactional.”

Smeltz said to foster better communication with donors and the community, the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club switched its operating system over to Daxko. In fact, they were the very first Boys & Girls Club to make that change.

“That’s been very helpful for us,” said Smeltz. “We also use a local marketing firm called WORX. They have been great in trying to communicate with other organizations and businesses. It’s important to get the word out, and they help with that. We knew we had to invest in people. One person can’t do everything we need to do. It’s about being out in the community and having a face.”

At the Boulder JCC, Lev said they use Salesforce as the development department’s core database, Soapbox Engage for online donations and Campaign Monitor for mass email strategies.

“We recently started using Campaign Monitor,” said Lev. “That’s new for us. That helps us stay in contact with donors which is core for us. Donor-centric fundraising is the concept that each donor is a universe of one. What someone is interested in is really important to figure out. Each donor has a uniqueness. Once you connect to that uniqueness, you will forever be bonded with that donor.”

redefining generosity

Boulder JCC’s Jonathan Lev talks with a community member.

Some of those communication methods are also used to foster more volunteer opportunities for Boulder JCC members. When it comes to increasing volunteer numbers, Lev said they have the most success with creating affinity groups.

These groups are designed to be radically different from each other so multiple people with similar interests can work together toward their common goals.

At the YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties, Debbie Sontupe, the chief development officer, said there are many ways members can practice giving through volunteering over monetary options.

“The Y benefits from thousands of hours of volunteerism from many individuals,” said Sontupe. “Whether serving on our board or volunteering in a program, we see so many people give back each year. In addition, we are grateful for the gift of wisdom and advice. We have over 75 volunteers who provide expertise and counsel to the Y each year in a variety of ways.”

Sontupe added individuals in the community also champion the Y’s work by connecting the Y to those who would benefit from programs and services available there.

The YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties saw the greatest levels of philanthropy during the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sontupe said the outpouring of support from the community for those in need during that time was tremendous.

“Today, we’re working to expand our outreach, programs and feeding initiatives to many communities within our service area,” said Sontupe. “We’re also in the early planning stages for future facility development. Members of our community can join the Y as a cause member. That’s a $10 per month recurring donation membership which connects them to impact and philanthropy at our YMCA.”

One example of a successful philanthropy program at Sontupe’s YMCA is the Coins for Cause initiative that takes place each holiday season. Local children are asked to bring spare change from their piggy banks to support other children in need. Sontupe said this lesson in helping friends and neighbors is very well-received by the youngest participants and their families.

The Boulder JCC also held a campaign focusing on youth. If a child raised $180 or more for the JCC’s capital campaign, they would be commemorated on the kid’s donor wall.

“Everyone and their family were then talking about the piece,” said Lev. “It was less about the money, and more about the education side of philanthropy. A key to our fundraising is not rocket science. It’s about having enough people to talk to enough people. Many of our biggest gifts have come through emotional connections. Overall, that’s the heart of how communities are built — through common interests.” 

John Reecer

John Reecer is an assistant editor at Peake Media.

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