Fundraising is international: Interview with Bill Buzenberg

  • Posted by JamesA
  • On August 24, 2016
  • Fundraising Strategy, Grants

In the second part of this interview, Bill Buzenberg shares his thoughts on the increasing internationalism of fundraising.

Bill enjoyed a glittering eight years as Executive Director of the Center for Public Integrity, which is one of America’s oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organisations. During his tenure, the Center raised US$50 million and won 150 journalism awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.  Bill stepped down from his role at the beginning of 2015 to take up a Harvard fellowship at the Kennedy School of Government. Since then, he has moved to Seattle where he divides his time between working as an editor and helping to raise funds for nonprofit journalism organisations.

There’s a sense that fundraising is becoming increasingly international. What are your thoughts?

There are many similar basic fundraising tenets in the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the UK: you have to do careful research to know the thrust of each of the organisations you are approaching, you have to get to know the players, preferably with multiple face-to-face meetings, and you have to tailor the right pitch to the right foundation and be willing to work the process for six or nine or even 12 months before you have a funding agreement. I have been relatively lucky raising funds in the US where there are so many more foundations (and tax advantages for funders). What I have seen lately is that major US foundations are becoming more global, and so are certain foundations in other countries.

This globalisation of funding and fundraising means the nonprofits with the best ideas and execution for the greatest impact will be able to secure funding no matter where they are based.

It also means it is a more competitive landscape than ever before. The hard work of raising funds nationally and internationally will continue to be challenging, and potentially even more rewarding.

What advice would you have for nonprofits looking to start new relationships with funders?

Foundation funding is built on relationships with the organisation’s personnel and an affinity with the work being funded. Ideally, the organisation’s executive director and head of development will be able to set up a meeting with the most relevant foundation program officer. This is always my first step, and sometimes this step takes many emails or letters and telephone calls just to arrange a meeting.

Assuming the research has been done properly in advance, that meeting should be at least a get-acquainted session with a good contact at the foundation. The meeting might produce this reaction: “We don’t have any funds at this time but you should stay in touch with us.” That is an important opening for following up later, and in time such a response can lead to funding. Sometimes a meeting will produce a verbal request for a written proposal, which is excellent and the next step towards funding.

Once a draft proposal is being sent back and forth between the organisation and the foundation program officer, this is a very good sign and will in time almost always lead to funding. In my experience, the process can still take many more months before a final grant is approved by a foundation’s board of directors. In every case, however, the program officer is the key contact and the most important relationship on the route to final approval.

There are many challenges, of course, including more and more competition for funding.

A well-thought-out strategy and a distinctive product is clearly required.

Beyond that, foundations want to see impact – every organisation has to discuss the many forms of success its work has fostered. It is not enough to show that the organisation is doing well. It must also be making a difference in the community or region, nationally or internationally.

Tell us about other emerging trends in fundraising

One hopeful sign is that there are more and more successful entrepreneurs, often young digital natives, who are forming their own foundations or seeking to use their wealth to help create a better world. There are many philanthropists who have adopted The Giving Pledge: agreeing with other wealthy donors to give away half of their wealth to philanthropic causes in their lifetimes. And I am seeing more and more foundations give to both for-profit and nonprofit organisations.

There is another trend in which traditional philanthropy is moving more towards venture philanthropy and even venture capital.

In other words, donors are not just giving away their money from a fixed foundation sum, but instead they are seeking to do good and generate a return on their ‘investments’ so they can, in turn, have the flexibility to provide more funds to more organisations from a growing base of funds that are not tied up in a foundation.

This is the approach taken recently by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, both of whom have signed The Giving Pledge. A growing problem in the US nonprofit sector is that many foundations are now making mostly grants for specified work.

When I began working at the Center for Public Integrity in 2007, almost one half of our grants were for general support or capacity building – grants that allowed the organisation to decide what the biggest need was and how it could be addressed.

With mostly project-specific grants, the foundation is setting the agenda much more and, of course, furthering the foundation’s public policy goals.

In practice, more and more project grants can produce a situation in which a nonprofit builds up a deficit in covering its basic overhead needs while it spends the funding, as required, on specific projects. The good news is that foundations are beginning to see more clearly that they need to provide a mixture of both project and general support funding.

Please provide some examples of trend-setting fundraising

The most successful nonprofit organisations I am aware of are finding multiple ways to raise funds. They don’t rely only or even primarily on foundations. Many of these organisations, such as public radio stations and ProPublica, are tapping into donations from both large individual donors and small individual contributors. Many organisations are being successful with so-called ‘tip jars’ or digital donations that accompany their work.

Other organisations, such as The Texas Tribune, have become adept at hosting major money-making events that raise considerable funds. Other even more entrepreneurial companies, such as American Public Media / Minnesota Public Radio, have created for-profit subsidiaries like magazines, catalogues and commercial radio networks that generate profits which can then be invested in the nonprofit side of the organisation.

Other nonprofits are finding ways to include product sales in their portfolios, whether books or magazines or other items. The basic point is the field is wide open to as many imaginative ways to raise funds as possible. In the area of journalism, which I am very familiar with, no-one has figured out the next business model or ‘silver bullet’ that will generate sufficient funding. Instead, many different forms of fundraising are being developed to create multiple streams of funding that can then be aggregated for the success of the organisation.

This interview originally appeared in the August / September 2016 issue of Fundraising & Philanthropy.