Old Salem ramps up fundraising

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It has been a banner year for philanthropy at Old Salem Museums and Gardens.

Through January, with one month to go in the nonprofit’s fiscal year, philanthropic development revenue totaled over $6.58 million, up from over $1.59 million the previous year.

Annual giving totaled nearly $700,000, up from $446,000, while grant funding totaled $491,000, exceeding the goal of $250,000.

Old Salem also secured $1.9 million from state lawmakers, acquired 1,000 new donors, reacquired 800 lapsed donors, generated bigger unrestricted gifts from board
members, and netted $68,000 from its first gala in five years.

Recognizing that growth, FundRaising Success magazine in its February issue named Michelle Speas, Old Salem’s vice president for development and external relations, as 2008 national fundraiser of the year.

Old Salem now wants to continue to quickly grow unrestricted giving to keep pace with rising operational needs, says Speas.

She says Old Salem also aims by 2012 to generate $10 million in commitments for deferred gifts for its endowment, which now totals $53 million.

Speas, who joined Old Salem in November 2006, says her strategy has been to get the organization’s fundraising operation back to basics.

So she has focused on boosting annual giving by strengthening efforts to win back lapsed donors, acquire new donors, generate bigger gifts from loyal donors, and retain existing donors.

“I’m a big believer in bringing your development program back to basics, and doing that really well,” says Speas, who previously served as a fundraiser for United Way
of Greater High Point and for Oak Ridge Military Academy, and as the first CEO of the Mebane Charitable Foundation in Mocksville.

Her first step was to focus on donors who had stopped giving over the previous five years, sending 2,000 of them a free copy of Old Salem’s new magazine with a card saying, “We miss you.”

Then, at six-week intervals, she sent three letters to those lapsed donors and then, after a year, a final letter that offered a tote bag in return for a contribution.

The payoff was the return of nearly 800 donors who had stopped giving.

She then aimed to acquire new donors, initially targeting prospective donors by sending direct-mail pieces to 160,000 people in 26 key zip codes through the state, inviting them to visit the museum on two fall weekends that typically see a lot of traffic.

In the wake of that effort, museum attendance last November and December was up 19 percent from the same period the previous year, with two weekends in November setting record-high attendance levels.

And the number of donors for the year grew to 2,288 from 1,005 a year earlier.

Old Salem also worked to secure bigger gifts from existing donors, particularly those who already were giving $1,000 or more, asking them to make unrestricted gifts.

Giving by the 29 members of Old Salem’s board, for example, grew to $133,700 in the fiscal year that is just ending from $96,700 the previous year and $62,000 two years ago.

Speas says recruiting new donors to make unrestricted gifts of $1,000 or more, and asking existing donors to give at that level, will be a big focus in the coming year.

Finally, to retain existing donors, Old Salem has redesigned its “stewardship” polices for engaging donors year-round, and has transformed a four-page black-and-white newsletter into a 32-page full-color magazine.

One measure to help track the impact of those changes, Speas says, was the printing in January of nearly 3,000 tax-receipt letters to individual donors, up from 1,400 a year earlier.

Old Salem also is giving greater focus to planned giving, which includes deferred gifts or those involving assets other than cash.

The number of individuals who have let Old Salem know they have created a planned gift has grown to 77, up 12 from last summer, with the value of their expected giving to the endowment estimated to total $2.6 million,

Speas says the fundraising profession has become “more scientific, much more corporate,” and there has been a big increase in the day-to-day administrative demands on chief development officers.

“It’s big business now,” she says. “It’s all analytics and relationships.”

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