FYI Blog

COVID-19 Response and Resources

  In this unprecedented time, Avalon is here.   Here for our staff.   Our first priority is the safety of Avalon staff and clients. On March 2nd Avalon ceased company travel, and on March 12th we shifted fully to remote work. We have been telecommuter-friendly for 20+ years, which helped make this a seamless […]

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April 14, 2020

Do you know the golden rule of ethical fundraising – and why it matters?

Avalon was recently surprised to learn that one of the digital partners for a client based their fees on a percentage of revenue raised for a client. I’ll start by saying I believe that leading a culture of principled decision-makers is more ethically robust than micromanaging a team of rule-followers. However, the “golden rule” for […]

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September 25, 2019

It’s Time to Celebrate! 20 years of Changing the World

We’re celebrating Avalon’s 20th anniversary in July, so I can’t help but think about how far we’ve come in 20 years.

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June 30, 2017

Change Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Avalon Blue Star

As we look to make sense of the current political climate and chart our own course for the future, Margaret Mead’s wisdom comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

We were reminded of this quote when reading Christopher Wilson’s recent piece in Smithsonian magazine, Finding Lessons for Today’s Protests in the History of Political Activism. Wilson, Director of the African American History Program and Experience and Program Design at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, reminds us that change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, as he outlines the organized and organic events that led to civil rights being finally implemented across the states — in some cases years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

Wilson’s article is required reading for all who are contemplating how to be personally involved in our country’s future in the New Year.

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December 12, 2016

The Hidden Benefits of Volunteering

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
~Native American Proverb

Ann S. Bio Photo170Last month, Avalon encouraged our readers to get out of the office and get some perspective on your fundraising program by attending a fundraising conference. Another great way to gain perspective is to immerse yourself in your organization’s mission through volunteer work.

This past weekend, I did just that by volunteering for the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a group dedicated to building the next generation of conservation leaders by engaging them in hands-on service to the land. SCA held a Find Your Park Day of Service to help preserve Greenbelt Park in Greenbelt, Maryland, for residents and visitors. Hundreds of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds came out to clean trash and debris, remove invasive plants, paint National Park Service buildings, and construct picnic tables.

edited - Tire rescueI was on trash duty along an extensive stretch of the park that borders a major highway. My group of about 50 or so volunteers filled and recycled several dozen trash bags with beer and soda bottles, plastic bags, and fast-food containers.

As I walked along a creek, I heard a young volunteer cry out, “[Expletive], there’s a tire!” I looked around frantically but didn’t immediately see a tire until she pointed to the water, where one was buried deep in the muck. (It was then that I understood the expletive.) Since my shoes were already soaked from walking through the creek, I offered to wade into the water and pull out the tire. It was small but heavy with mud and stones. Once I had liberated it, the young lady rolled the tire up the steep embankment so the National Park Service could pick it up, along with the more than 80 other tires we recovered that day.

Edited -Team Leader TomOne of the highlights of the day for me was meeting Tom Mason, an SCA team leader (pictured right). Tom deployed his infectious smile and enthusiasm to motivate the troops, along with energizing words and high-fives. In addition to his work with SCA, Tom interns at Rock Creek Park and hopes to land a full-time job in conservation. He truly embodies the conservation ethic and leadership skills that SCA is cultivating in our young people. Had I not volunteered that day, I would not have had a chance to meet and be inspired by Tom and his fellow leaders.

So take some time out of your busy schedule to volunteer. Even an hour or two will help you better understand and appreciate the impact your organization is making and why the funds you are helping to raise are so critically important.

See below for a full slideshow of photos from Anne’s SCA Find Your Park Day of Service:

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May 3, 2016

The Financial Responsibility of Nonprofit Boards

Allison Porter - 2015 New HeadshotAlthough I’m not a legal expert, I’ve navigated enough board finance committee meetings to be keenly aware of how hard it is to know exactly where the lines are drawn. What is a nonprofit board’s scope of management? Its technical responsibilities? And how do we ensure financial transparency, so that donors and constituents have confidence in how the organization is run? 

This post is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather a basic primer on the overarching financial areas boards must focus on (with links to more information). Keep in mind that each nonprofit and board is unique and will have unique requirements.

First, we need to understand that, as board members, our fiduciary responsibility is to oversee the nonprofit’s assets to ensure they are used in accordance with the donors’ intent and in keeping with the charitable mission of the organization. As board members, we are responsible for:

ü  Approving and overseeing budgets

ü  Integrating financial management into long-range strategic planning

ü  Managing investments

ü  Managing crises

ü  Managing and overseeing cash and cash flow

ü  Managing reserves

ü  Reviewing and approving audits

ü  Overseeing capital budget and ensuring long-range budgeting for capital repair, maintenance, and replacement (as appropriate)

ü  Conducting risk assessment, including insurance and liability

ü  Ensuring compliance with federal, state, and local legal, reporting, and IRS requirements

A critical step: understanding the breakdown of responsibility between board and staff. Not all board members need to be familiar with financial terms and concepts, but each organization must develop a clear and explicit agreement to ensure financial accountability. See more at: http://www.blueavocado.org/content/board-staff-agreement-financial-accountability#sthash.QQyjZZ7I.dpuf

Managing a nonprofit from a reporting standpoint is not much different than running any other business. Boards need up-to-date financial information to make decisions. I recommend customizing reports to the needs of your board and working closely with staff to create accurate and actionable reports. Financial reporting breaks down as follows:

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April 1, 2016

Fundraising Ethics, Made Simple

jenny-phillipsRemember Highlights magazine? It’s a children’s publication that features a comic called “Goofus and Gallant”—two boys facing pint-sized ethical challenges in every issue. Naughty Goofus would push to get ahead in the line, while nice Gallant waited patiently for his turn. Or, generous Gallant would share his dessert while greedy Goofus got sick from eating too much candy.

The fundraising profession is challenged today by much more pernicious behavior. The death of Olive Cooke in the U.K. and the egregious fraud of four American cancer charities are alarming. It is critical that honest fundraisers respond with energy and dedication to protect our philanthropic mission.

With that in mind, the simple clarity of Goofus and Gallant is as relevant as ever. And here’s how it breaks down:

GOOFUS would:

– Put his head in the sand and hope no one asks.
– Refuse to communicate around the issue.
– Respond defensively to concerned donors or community members.
– Assume he has nothing to learn.
– Continue business as usual with no pause to assess his organization and tactics.
– Refuse to work transparently.
– Take cues from the bad guys.

GALLANT would:

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May 22, 2015

Diversity in Fundraising: Embrace It! Here’s How.

jenny-phillipsIn case you missed it, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s new president, Rhea Suh, offered a terrific call to action last month. In an interview with Brentin Mock at Grist, she spoke bluntly about the need for big environmental groups to intensify their commitment to diversity. “The [environmental] movement is really vulnerable for being too insular,” she said. “Diversity is not simply just reflecting demographics. Diversity is really about content, it’s about substance, it’s about what we do, why we do it, and how we pursue it.” As Mock points out, this gels nicely with Robert Bullard’s call to name 2015 the “year of diversity” for U.S. environmental nonprofits.

I agree, and not only with regard to the environmental sector. Organizations and movements will never be as effective or noble as their missions suggest if they don’t pursue a diverse body of constituents—from employees, to donors, to the communities in which and for which they advocate.

But here’s the catch: This introduces a challenge for fundraisers.

diversity board - JP PostIt is difficult to deliver the same or increased revenue year after year, while also pursuing donors from outside your core market. Whether we are talking about racial, socioeconomic, or generational diversity, it can be very scary to rock the boat. We know that changing the makeup of a donor file is expensive—a message that has not always been well received by higher-ups. Add to this a general discomfort around discussing race and diversity, and you can see why too many fundraisers avoid the issue entirely.

While this tension is real, it can’t be the end of the story. Here is a roadmap for fundraisers who are rising to the occasion:

1. Align fundraising strategies with your organization’s priorities.

If diversity and inclusion are at the top of the list, your job is to figure out how your department will support that strategy. Get on the same page with your nonprofit’s leadership—listen to their concerns, internalize their vision, and devise collaborative strategies.

2. Overcommunicate on investment and expected outcomes.

Educate your board and executives on the investment required to make their vision a reality. Project and re-project ROI; provide long-range forecasts; and communicate, communicate, communicate. It will be essential for you to bring everyone on board with whatever short- to mid-range impact you anticipate. Otherwise, the initiative may be killed before it has time to blossom, and you will be held accountable. Make sure you and your senior leadership are on the same page regarding how to define success, as well as the metrics and timeframes for assessment.

3. Make the most of historically high performers.

Be relentless about ROI, net per donor, and retention from this group. You will need your high performers to anchor your program, so that your diversity and inclusion initiatives have the room they need to grow.

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February 25, 2015

Allison Porter Named Industry All Star

staff placeholderAvalon is thrilled to announce that our co-founder and president, Allison Porter, was honored with the DMAW-DMAW EF Industry All Star Award by the Direct Marketing Association of Washington at its Best of Direct Gala on December 2.

Allison has helped to build and lead an agency that consistently raises the bar for direct marketing fundraising – pioneering integrated direct marketing 20 years ago, leveraging digital opportunities today, and building a powerhouse analytics department to inform those strategies at every turn.

She is that rare marketer who is both tactical dynamo and focused strategist, able to uniquely marry an organization’s near- and long-term objectives. For this reason, she is a perennial favorite of not only the Avalon staff, but also nonprofit executives, boards and development teams alike.

“Nonprofit fundraising and direct marketing are my vocation,” Allison noted. “A career path that I chose 20 years ago, as a result of mentoring by successful women in the field. I am proud of the company my colleagues and I have built, and continue to build together – a progressive agency that connects great causes with great people.”

We at Avalon are so proud of Allison’s achievements, and the work that we do together every day with our clients to make the world a better place.

See below for photos of the event.

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December 10, 2014

Why Fundraisers Should Stop Apologizing

Allison-PorterI hope you were able to attend the recent Bridge Conference, which I had the honor of co-chairing. I was especially proud that we could present the important keynote address by Steve Nardizzi, CEO of the Wounded Warrior Project.

Steve larger screenshot

Steve delivered a bold and provocative speech on perception and reality in nonprofit work – the perception by some donors, charity ratings agencies, and the press that nonprofits are spending too much money on overhead, and that investing in fundraising is a sign of mismanagement, inefficiency and even fraud; versus the reality that, like all businesses, charities need to be well-funded to fulfill their missions. And to be well-funded, they need to invest in fundraising.

When I interviewed Steve before his keynote, he talked about the frustration we all share that charity evaluators and the press have often distorted and mistaken some charities’ business plans and strategies for malfeasance.

It’s easy to feel defensive when these charges are leveled at our industry. But instead of apologizing, we need to address misperceptions proactively, by leading the discussion and getting ahead of the third-party chatter. Right now, because we’re focused on responding to scandals, the honest fundraisers and good/strategic nonprofits are often unable to get the airtime necessary to make their case. Furthermore, in many cases, fundraisers are content to sit back and ignore these accusations without standing up to set the record straight.

The entire sector must find ways to get in front of the media and tell the truth about how we raise and spend money. Associations must corral and lead this activity, but even beyond what the associations can do, we need a focused PR push on behalf of the entire nonprofit sector to build the public trust in a proactive way. OpEds, letters to the editor, and blogs can help to get the ball rolling.

As an example, Avalon’s Chief Strategy Officer Jennifer Phillips wrote a blog earlier this year, laying out the problem we all face about misperceptions of our industry, and discussing concrete steps to move forward together to dispel the myths about nonprofit business practices.

And let’s not forget our donors. Steve is correct that nonprofit leaders must have the tough and nuanced conversations with their donors – a vital part of fully engaging and bonding donors with your organization is building trust. And nonprofit stakeholders must communicate that their fundraising business model is one that can be trusted.

I urge you to take a look at Steve’s speech and share it with decision makers at all levels of your organization. Then come up with a plan to do your part in spreading the word that fundraising is a vital component of an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Nonprofits shouldn’t have to apologize for raising the funds necessary to be effective. Or for employing the solid business best practices that make for-profit companies successful, like investing for the future and hiring the staff they need to get the job done. As Steve so clearly put it, “We fundraise and take action that makes an impact. That’s what charity is about. It is about having an impact, not just good intentions.”

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July 30, 2014