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The best time to plant a tree—or build a fundraising team—is yesterday

In every fundraising communication we send, we remind our donors that their gifts make possible all that we do. 

For Marilyn Turner, Director of Development, Individual Philanthropy at Food & Friends, one gift in particular helped bring the organization through the pandemic stronger than ever, growing its programs 37% over the past four years and its donor file by 30% since the pandemic.

The $2 million gift commitment by longtime supporters Fleur Bresler, her son Sid, his wife Phyllis, and the Bresler Foundation is the second largest multi-year gift in the organization’s 34-year history.

But what makes this capacity-building gift—along with the team at Food & Friends that requested it and especially the donors who said yes—all the more extraordinary is that it came about in 2017, three years before the pandemic took hold.

As the only community-based organization in the DC region providing home-delivered medically tailored meals and nutrition therapy to its neighbors living with cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other serious illnesses, Food & Friends experienced a huge increase in need as well as an outpouring of support in 2020.

“We’ve never experienced philanthropy like that,” Turner explains. “But because of the Breslers’ transformative gift and the team it allowed us to build, we were able to be proactive and strategic in our donor communications, instead of reactive. Our strategy allowed us to think about retention and second gift conversion, sending tailored communications to all the new people finding us, while stewarding those who gave, so they would become repeat donors rather than emergency donors. Thanks to the Bresler gift, we had the staff and systems in place to accomplish all those goals.”

Food & Friends saw a 33% year-over-year increase in giving in 2020, and that support was urgently needed. With complex illness symptoms and treatment side effects for clients living with a diagnosis ranging from diabetes to HIV to renal failure, the majority of Food & Friends clients struggled to get out of their homes even before the pandemic, and then they faced the highest health risk for complications from COVID-19.

A sudden one-third increase in giving, including many new donors, might have overwhelmed an organization that didn’t have a  strong fundraising staff or  the systems needed to keep all those “emergency” donors informed and engaged to convert them into active donors. 

The Bresler $2 million gift started in 2017 and provided both support for  current program operations and a capacity building investment focused on increased staffing. The gift funded six new and much-needed staff positions, five of which support growing annual operating revenue: an annual fund manager, a strategic partnerships director, a digital communications manager, a digital production manager, and a major gift officer. The Bresler gift also supported an investment in offline and online acquisition.

“We had a much smaller digital presence at that point, and we knew we had a lot of potential to integrate email, social media, and SMS with our direct mail marketing campaigns,” Turner said.

In addition to recruiting a more robust fundraising team to grow the donor file, increase individual giving, and cultivate the fee-for-service partnerships with managed health care organizations, the request also included a fifth registered dietitian. Turner notes, “Adding a registered dietitian to our program staff is a unique aspect of our mission because of all the ways this role benefits our clients, from nutrition counseling and education to menu analysis and meal planning with our chefs.”

For the gift request, Turner and then-Executive Director Craig Shniderman outlined the need and expected return on investment for each position, an ROI which has quickly accelerated since 2020. According to Turner, “Our strategic partnership director has brought in a new source of revenue that we wouldn’t otherwise have, and that funding stream now represents 15% of our $13.5M operating budget revenue, so that position has been really significant in helping provide meals and nutrition support to many more individuals living with a serious illness.”

Food & Friends is incredibly grateful to the Breslers for the vision and commitment with their support of this capacity-building request and all the support they have given to Food & Friends over the years. In recognition of this transformational gift, Food & Friends’ beloved building is named the “William P. Bresler Building” in honor of Fleur’s late son William “Bill” Bresler.  Bill, a professionally trained chef, was a Food & Friends volunteer and then became a client before his death from AIDS in 2001. Along with the family’s incredible financial support, Fleur and her daughter Carol volunteer their time in honor of Bill each month in the Food & Friends kitchen. Carol just celebrated her 20th year of volunteer service.

Stewardship and reporting back on this kind of investment is so important. “After each funding year, we sent the Breslers a report on our program growth and the impact of the new staff positions …what they focused on and the results, including any challenges and lessons learned. The last two reports in FY20 and the wrap up report in 2021 were so gratifying for us to submit and for the Breslers to receive. They were very pleased by the results,” Turner notes.

Turner’s advice for other organizations on how to approach capacity building is to invest the time and effort she and the Food & Friends team did before making the capacity-building request. “The Breslers appreciated the exercise we had done to outline why we needed these positions, how we thought this investment would lead to success in revenue raised and how that would support our overall program growth and community impact.” Turner says. She also noted that it is important to help leadership understand that this is a long-term investment. The revenue ROI really can’t be measured before the end of year three since it takes time to onboard new staff, develop relationships, implement programs, analyze results, and make adjustments. Additionally, Turner said it’s important to remember that “theory and practice” are two different things. She explained, “That’s something my colleagues and I learned when implementing the plan and seeing what worked and what needed adjustments.” 

“Because of where we are now, we’re in the position to think about even bigger, future growth, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Bresler gift,” Turner explains. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Lisa Selner
Author: Lisa Selner

Lisa Selner is Creative Director at CCAH.

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