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More nonprofits adopt subscription model for giving

Nonprofit organizations are operating in an ultracompetitive space, vying for a limited amount of funding via donations. In recent years many nonprofits have ramped up efforts to secure recurring donations from supporters and develop modern, convenient ways to encourage donors to continue their support.

Whether it’s Netflix, mortgage, credit card, auto loan or internet service, most people seem to prefer to sign up for autopay options for nearly everything and make payments, typically on a monthly basis. Many nonprofits have recognized that preference and in recent years have developed monthly, quarterly or annual recurring payments for their benefactors, often through a special or membership-based program.

Local nonprofits have adopted varying strategies and differing versions of such membership-based programs, but nearly all have recognized the need to modernize fundraising efforts to reach a broader base of donors.

Lollypop Farm, the Humane Society of Greater Rochester, launched a monthly recurring donation program several years ago that officials within the organization said has been a success. The Fur-Ever Yours program allows donors to select a monthly gift amount on the Lollypop Farm website, where prospective donors can see just how far that monthly donation might go, i.e. $25 covers the cost to spay or neuter one animal.

Sami Sheehan

Sami Sheehan

“Donors want to know that their gift is making an impact,” said Sami Sheehan, CFRE, individual giving manager at Lollypop Farms. “Breaking it down not only helps them understand the cost of the care for a pet in need but helps with visualizing what their gift can go toward and shows what may seem insignificant in that moment can make a huge difference over time. That $15 donation could be a set of vaccines for a cat or a kitten, and if you multiply that even by 12 that’s 12 more cats or kittens over the course of the year that are getting the care that they need.”

Monthly giving has grown in part due to convenience, Sheehan said, noting many donors already have recurring charges on their credit card each month such as Netflix and a cell phone bill.

“Having one more thing, such as a donation, happen automatically on their credit card each month is definitely convenient,” Sheehan said. “And it’s not just for young people. Monthly charges are just part of everyday life.”

Sheehan said the number of donors has roughly doubled in recent years, and the push toward monthly giving has resulted in more funding per individual donor.

“Donors may end up giving more if they’re giving monthly because they can spread that support out over the course of the year,” Sheehan said, noting monthly gifts also provide the organization with consistent, reliable support to aid in the organization’s mission.

Lollypop Farms holds an annual telethon to raise funds, and Sheehan said this year’s event, which will take place March 7 on 13WHAM, will promote the Fur-Ever Yours program and monthly donations.

Foodlink Director of Development Julie Burke said recurring giving has been a hot topic for nonprofits and noted there are a variety of benefits both to the donor and the organization, including convenience for donors and sustainable support for the nonprofit.

Julie Burke of Foodlink

Julie Burke of Foodlink

“It’s definitely been a focus to try to build up our monthly giving program,” Burke said of Foodlink’s efforts in recent years.

Much like Lollypop Farms, Foodlink breaks down what a donation could provide, i.e. $25 provides 75 meals within the organization’s 10-county service area. Burke said that breakdown is important to demonstrate to donors the impact their support can have on the organization.

Foodlink doesn’t have a branded recurring program, but Burke said the organization is encouraging donors to sign up for automatic recurring payments and would likely be rolling out a more formal program in the future.

Recurring monthly payments fit into the subscription culture of today, Burke said, and nonprofits are learning that more people, especially younger individuals, are more comfortable creating accounts, putting personal information online and giving monthly.

The Rochester-based Mary Cariola Center, which provides education and life skill solutions to individuals with disabilities, doesn’t have a formal monthly donation program, but Director of Agency Advancement Scott Collins said the organization has developed what’s called the Sunrise Circle program for annual recurring gifts. Individuals can also make monthly, quarterly or yearly donations on the organization’s website.

Collins said the subscription philanthropy model “creates a greater connection between the donor and the organization than would often be true with single-gift donors.”

Scott Collins of Mary Cariola

Scott Collins of Mary Cariola

“It also creates a predictable, recurring revenue stream that allows for better future planning,” he said. “In our case, we want to get our consistent donors committed to us even more so, while at the same time, enhancing their engagement with us.”

The Sunrise Circle program has resulted in larger recurring gifts than would likely be garnered through a monthly program, Collins said. Due in part to the success of the Sunrise Circle program, the organization does not currently have plans to develop a monthly giving program, but Collins said the organization certainly wouldn’t rule it out in the future.

Seanelle Hawkins, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester, said her organization relies on a membership-based giving model and stressed the importance of donor dollars to nonprofits.

“Donations are critical to not just the Urban League but to nonprofits,” Hawkins said. “In this climate funds are more competitive and they’re very sparse because there are more programs competing.”

Hawkins said the Urban League is unique because it’s a membership-based organization that not only is seeking donors, but partners to support its mission. Urban League donors can be a member for as little as $10, Hawkins said, and a declaration to partner with the organization and help fill unmet needs.

Dr. Seanelle Hawkins of Rochester is the new President and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester, NY, Inc.

Dr. Seanelle Hawkins of Rochester is the new President and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester, NY, Inc.

The Urban League—which has dozens of programs to assist marginalized people and individuals impacted by poverty—conducts a membership campaign each year from November to March. Hawkins said the organization has not yet developed a program for recurring donations. She said, however, that the Urban League is making an effort to help young people and millennials to understand the importance of a local civil rights organization.

Appealing to a younger generation of donors can be a challenge, Hawkins said, especially with little money available for marketing, and attracting younger donors is an ongoing conversation within the organization.

“We’re constantly looking for innovative ways to demonstrate and provide evidence of the successes of these support services the Urban League provides,” Hawkins said.

Matthew Reitz is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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