By MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO
Communities or their local governments should provide a local volunteer fire department with all of its operational needs through taxation. However, sometimes fire department fund-raise to pay for the little extras that make member life more enjoyable such as pizza, a few beers, softball shirts, a family picnic, benefits for a department’s injured or seriously ill, and other good causes that build camaraderie. Departments should also fund-raise to purchase apparatus and safety equipment for members and to put a roof over their heads; but, unfortunately, too many departments have to fund-raise simply to stay in operation. Many departments are aware of the economy and have read reports from other major organizations seeking public donations that donations are down and how it impacts their hometown volunteer fire company. This article offers ideas on how to improve your fund-raising strategies and a fresh look at how to approach your fund-raising efforts for this year and beyond.
STAND OUT TO YOUR DONORS
To make fundraising campaigns more successful, organizations need to stand out to the donors by personalizing their solicitations. Firefighter Nicole Gerber, who assists in coordinating the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company’s fund-raising program, said, “Fire departments also need to find a way to thank their donors for contributing to the fire department, as donors actually DO appreciate receiving acknowledgment of their contributions.”
Knowing your donors and what they contribute is very important for building a successful campaign; the key to this is good yearly record keeping. If different individuals handle your campaign each year, there is often little or no “passing of the torch” or records that can help you track contributors; the days of the cigar box full of cash and checks are over. Enter everything accurately into organized computer files dedicated to fund drives. If you have accurate records, your department can determine the average gift and the largest gift. You can also pinpoint your top donors based on gift-level analysis. If you maintain your database for many years consecutively, you can identify your consistent and regular donors and then send them special appeals or acknowledgments. These data will also provide information on who is not donating to your department and will allow your committee to possibly set up a targeted effort aimed at those individuals or businesses.
Let’s face it: For most volunteer fire departments, the bread-and-butter comes from your community’s citizens. For years, many fire departments have used door-to-door collections as a way to connect with their citizens on a street-by-street basis while raising funds. The problem with this method is that it is labor-intensive and only nets the small fish. If your department has done this type of fund-raising, ask yourself how often you have solicited houses where nobody answers the door even though you can hear voices inside. You may have received some small donations, but there are often much better ways to increase your take from the houses in your community by simply making a few changes.
A well-planned direct-mail campaign is one of the best methods to raise money for your department. If you are collecting door-to-door, consider doing a direct-mail effort. If you are already doing direct mailings, consider these tips to improve your year-end total. First, do not use the same form letter year after year with a simple date change. Take the time to draft an up-to-date letter or generate a new flyer with up-to-date run and training statistics, new photos, and your goals for the year. You can also highlight the goals that you referenced in the previous year’s appeal and report a “mission accomplished” thank-you note for the previous year’s success.
You should also connect the donors to your department’s important dates in history. For instance, if you are trying to raise money for a new pumper, you might say, “In 1910, the department purchased its first pumper through donations and now, more than 100 years later, we are hoping to do the same.” Often, departments allow the donors to choose an amount they feel is appropriate. However, do not be shy. Through the power of suggestion, by adding check boxes offering levels of $25 and up in various increments, you can subconsciously suggest an amount your donors will consider as they begin to write their check. As the use of these boxes becomes more accepted, bump them up a few dollars each year; you can also subconsciously “bump up” the number of donors.
People like helping their local fire department. However, many people prefer doing it in memory of a deceased or fallen member or a family or community member. Have an honor or memory line on your appeal that will allow donors to make their donation in memory of or in honor of an individual, a group, or an event. Your department should keep in mind that if it receives donations like this, it should have a mechanism in place to acknowledge the donor and notify the honoree or his family of the donation.
Unfortunately, if you have done all of the steps referenced above and stuffed your appeal in an unappealing envelope or one that resembles junk mail, your mailing will probably get tossed out. Your envelope’s exterior should clearly look like a fire department mailing; your logo or patch and return address, preferably in full color printing, should be visible on the front. Fund-raising studies have shown that adding bold-style text on the front or back of your mailing envelope increases the chance that the envelope will be opened. Consider a line that reads, “Now is the time when your fire department depends on YOU!” to grab attention as people quickly sort their mail. You may also want to consider mailing your fund drive appeal in conjunction with local or national safety initiatives such as National Fire Prevention Week. However, be careful not to do fund-raising too heavily at your fire prevention open house because, again, like door-to-door collections, some people may drop $5 in cash into your boot at the open house when they might have written a $50 check when they were home paying bills.
Finally, always include a self-addressed return envelope to save the donor the hassle of locating and hand addressing an envelope. Make it easy to give every step of the way.
Many of the ideas that work well for homeowners can also be used for the businesses in your community. However, you can adjust your mailings and your appeals to target your corporate donors. Citizens will donate because they want to help the fire department, may have needed the fire department in the past, or feel they probably will use it in the future. Corporate donors feel the same way. They also believe that donating is a good way to ensure the corporation or business has a good community image and can serve as a much-desired public relations tool.
Many large businesses or corporations have a line in their annual budgets for community support activities such as your fund drive. For businesses, consider using for your appeal letter your official department letterhead with a perforated bottom portion that can be returned with the donation. Your department can use the same letter you develop for your citizens. This time, emphasize “corporate community support” in your messaging.
When mailing your corporate/business appeal letters, have a fund drive committee member research the correct contact people in the local business world. A letter addressed to “Auto Dealer, 123 Ransom Parkway, Any Town, USA” may end up in the trash, but a letter addressed to “Mr. Michael Dallessandro, President” may go directly to the company president’s inbox. If you also use check boxes to suggest donations on your business appeals, assess the size of your local businesses and economy and strongly consider bumping them from the $25 starter donation for homeowners to the $100 range; you can move up from there.
SPECIAL APPEALS TO MAJOR DONORS AND PROSPECTS
Over time, you should gather enough data to determine your major donors. For instance, if the average donor gave $50, a major gift might be $100 or more, depending on the number of large gifts you normally receive. Your fund drive committee should analyze your donor database to identify the major gift donors and work to target those donors with different messages, campaigns, or mailings such as unique note cards. For example, your chief could send out an appeal that includes a personal message with his actual ink signature. These appeals can include a self-addressed stamped envelope to ensure the return postage (stamp) is already in place. Significant corporate gifts such as amounts of more than $1,000 may also warrant a plaque presentation and a photo with the chief or commissioner (combined with a press release if the corporate donors would welcome that type of acknowledgment and public relations).
Do not forget to use your Web site for fund-raising! Make sure your Web address is prominent on all mailings and that the information about your fund-raising on your Web site matches the information in your direct-mail appeals. Many donors are now offering gifts online, so add online gift capabilities to your Web site; this makes it easy for donors and your fund drive committee. If your department is attempting online fund-raising, your Web master should keep news and information content fresh so people return regularly. I have heard of departments that have received donations from one individual three or four times in a row using a credit/debit card or a money transfer account during repeat Web site visits, so take note of this emerging trend.
BE SURE TO GIVE THANKS
When you begin to receive donations, acknowledge the donors. Again, various tiers can be established for implementing acknowledgment of donations. Your low-dollar donors can receive a thank-you card by small advertisements placed in the local newspaper. Your station’s sign or lighted message board can also be used to thank the community for its support while at the same time remind those who did not donate that this is fund drive time. Reserve thank-you cards or phone calls for your larger donors. The higher the donations, the more personal the acknowledgment should be.
When telephoning donors, know who they are by name and how much they donated. Also, have some basic fire department statistics on hand just in case they ask some questions. Make sure there is more depth to your call than simply saying thanks and then moving on to the next call; people can tell when they are receiving the obligatory thank-you call. Put some sincerity and appreciation into every call. Your department Web site is another terrific way to acknowledge corporate or community donations.
Do you have a great idea or successful strategy that has worked for your department? Share it with other departments in the form of a Letter to the Editor.
● MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO is a 26-year volunteer firefighter and chairman of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company board of directors. He has instructed at FDIC and is a trainer for the fire service, the public transportation industry, and certified commercial vehicle drivers. Dallessandro also operates the Web site www.respondsmart.com.
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