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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Nonprofit Fundraising and Advocacy

A few years ago, a nonprofit executive was bragging to me about a fundraising breakthrough he had when he had gotten a new $5,000 donation from a local foundation and how much effort he, his board, his development director, and others spent wooing and making their case for the contribution.

He thought he would get at least three or four years of funding in about the same range. In the same conversation he lamented to me how much government funding he was losing because of state budget cuts for his core mission and programs. He didn’t seem to see the irony — or the connections between his comments.

Government funding for many nonprofits, particularly health and human services nonprofits in Arizona, can be anywhere from 50% to 90% of the agency funding. Yet, nonprofits don’t see the connection to advocacy for the people they serve as their major fundraising activity. Nonprofits are the backbone of the health and human services community, and, when the government stops funding them, the whole community suffers in lost community capacity, lost jobs, lost economic activity, and lost community benefit. 

In the last three years in Arizona, many health and human services have lost over 25% or more of their state funding at least, depending upon area of concern. Childcare alone has lost all its general funding for low-income families. Funding for domestic violence, homelessness, aging, child welfare, and mental health services have all been cut substantially. For the most part, all these types of services are provided by nonprofits. General funding for the arts has been entirely eliminated. Funding for environmental causes is always under attack even in a ballot measure recently rejected by the voters.

Yet many nonprofit groups sit on the sidelines pretending that advocacy is not within their mission. Or they may be hampered by a board vision which supports their charitable work, but not that “political stuff.”

Yes, democracy is messy. Advocacy is always controversial. Taking a position different from some mainstream businesses interests (sometimes a funder) may be challenging. But nonprofits exist for the community’s benefit, not their own, but for the people they serve, the greater community, and the common good. Nonprofits can legally do advocacy by following the state and IRS rules.

So, what’s stopping nonprofits from being a voice for the greater community, for people and groups marginalized for all kinds of historical and current biases, for causes that make a community like art, music, health and human services, and schools?

Like the executive in my opening story, sometimes it’s just not making the connections that their biggest fundraiser of the year is the state budget and the state public policy process. Sometimes, it’s a board reluctant to see their agency’s larger mission. Sometimes, it’s a fear of challenging established power. Sometimes, it’s a fear of losing a small-time donor while their largest donor is downsizing the agency. All these can and must be confronted and challenged by embracing a pragmatic process of agency advocacy.

Not making the case for funding and not wooing those controlling those massive funds not only hurts an agency’s budget, but diminishes the whole community and our democracy.

So, how are you going to change your fundraising strategy to make the case for the people you serve for funding with the biggest funder of all — our democracy?

Timothy J. Schmaltz is the coordinator of the Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition, a diverse alliance of social and health agencies, faith-based groups, and community organizations dedicated to protecting and increasing health and human services funding and setting an agenda of tax reform. 


ASU Lodestar Center Blog