The (emotional) story of a partnership between committed donors and a willing non-profit—a partnership that has multiplied into a wide-ranging impact not only on the partners themselves, but other organizations and, literally, hundreds of thousands of people around the world, for years.
Perhaps you are—or will be—in a position to make a similar impact?
Sometime in late 2007 or early 2008, Sarita said, “India has an exceptionally low literacy rate, especially among women. Mission India [MI; one of the four non-profits Sarita and I had decided to focus on] has an exceptional literacy program. I wonder if we could put a fundraiser together with MI that focuses on women’s literacy?”
We knew that the founder of the agency (who was still associated with the agency, but no longer the director) often liked to reference the verse from the Book of Isaiah (11:6) where it says “a little child shall lead them.”
Of course, he was ripping the phrase completely out of context. But he used it to call attention to the fact that, as he put it, “Indian children aren’t just the leaders of tomorrow. They are (often) the leaders of today.” And he would point to the 13- to 17-year-old girls who lead—totally autonomously, without pay, and without direct adult supervision—after-school Bible clubs, most of them with 30 to 40 kids in attendance every day.
Knowing the organization’s general attitude, Sarita and I decided to ask them: “Would you be willing to work with us and put together an educational fundraiser in which students would learn about India, the culture, the people, the needs? . . . We would like to focus on literacy for women. . . . We have no idea how this will work, but we have ___ thousands of customers that we are happy to ask to join us, and we are willing to provide a matching/lead grant up to $100,000: whatever they give, up to $100,000, we will match. . . .”
Now. If you’re a non-profit organization, and you have a budget to direct toward fundraising, do you think you’d normally be excited to spend time and money to raise funds from an audience made up primarily of elementary school kids?
We knew that the “smart” answer would be “no.” But maybe, just maybe, MI would not only act in accordance with its stated way of looking at the capabilities of children, but, even, demonstrate a remarkable commitment to the very long-term future of fundraising. Because, obviously, these kids wouldn’t be prime donors today or anytime in the foreseeable future, but, maybe, 20 or 30 years from now, they might become donors.
Talk about a long shot!
But if anyone would possibly take us up on our offer, we thought MI might be the organization.
So we gathered our hearts in our hands and asked.
And they said yes—with virtually no hesitation. (Understand: the project we proposed would require a significant commitment on their part, and more than one person had to be consulted to make the decision.)
But with their “yes” in hand, the two of us—Mission India on the one side, and John and Sarita (primarily John) on the other— . . . we put together a program.
Mission India had to do some exceptionally heavy lifting. At the time, though they had a website, it was primarily, as people in the industry called it, a “billboard.” It had lots of information, but the agency had never used their website for direct interaction with donors (or anyone, for that matter). It was all one-way communication.
Of course, we, as owners of a company that had been selling goods online for years, and I, as director of marketing for the company—we had a lot of knowledge and experience in the area of interactive web design and use.
So MI studied and implemented, and I attempted to coach, encourage, and—as an expert on our (Sonlight’s) audience—critiqued what they were doing and suggested means to do or say things better.
Now. Sonlight has made a promise to all of its customers since we first went into business: “We will never share your information with anyone. We won’t rent it. We won’t sell it. We won’t loan it.”
So what did that mean for our project? John and Sarita—Sonlight Curriculum—had to make the initial appeal to get people involved. We could turn nothing over to Mission India.
For various reasons, we wanted to send our initial appeal letter by snail-mail, then follow up with emails.
But, again, that meant we would pay for the printing, the envelopes, the insertion, the labeling, sorting and bulk-rate bundling, the postage. . . .
When the time came to begin the program, Sarita and I drafted an appeal letter and ran it by MI for approval. (“Anything incorrect? Anything we need to emphasize more?”) Then sent it to all of our customers, encouraging them to sign up.
If a customer then went online and signed up—well, obviously, they had given MI permission to contact them. The new participant was now a rightful client of MI.
(We agreed that if someone signed up with MI, that, too, was a private matter. MI would never tell us who had signed up.)
We dropped our letter into the mail stream on August 27, 2008, then followed up with several emails beginning a week or so later. MI sent packages of materials to every person who signed up. And the program finally launched on September 23rd.
The response—to our appeal and to the program itself—was far beyond what we imagined. By mid-November, when the program ended, participants had donated well over $100,000—even before the final deadline. (Which pushed Sarita and me to offer to match “even” the last donations.) I think the final total donation to MI’s literacy program (“regular” and “matching” donations) was something over $212,000.
I don’t want to go into the details of the campaign. That isn’t my purpose here. Suffice it to say, I spent hours—I calculated well over 10 hours per week, on average, from the time we first agreed to work together until the program was finally over and all the money had been counted—making sure the program would be as effective, profitable, useful, pleasant (and a great learning experience for the participants!) as possible.
Jump forward a few weeks. A friend asked me what I had found to be most significant about my involvement in the program. I was astonished by my response.
Completely unexpected, my eyes welled with tears and I said: “I think this may have been the first time I have been involved in a charitable project where I was able to use my unique gifts.”
Why the tears? And why so astonishing?
- First, I think, because I had provided an answer to a criticism with which I had criticized myself for many year: “It’s easy to throw money at a problem. What’s tough is to give your time.”
And up to that point in time, I had tended to think that was true.
For example, I was familiar with all the appeals I had heard—and rejected out-of-hand—when (a fairly common appeal) someone was looking for volunteers to cook or serve a meal at a soup kitchen.
Whenever we heard these appeals, Sarita and I would always look at each other and more or less agree: “Serve at a soup kitchen?” That would be one of the last things we would want to do!
Why? Because we thought we were so “above it all”?
I had no answer!
But—as my friend’s question suddenly “revealed” to me: I didn’t want to get involved in serving at a soup kitchen because . . .
- I was (and still am) convinced there are other, more pressing needs. (In fact—not that I have an answer of how the soup kitchens should make this work: why shouldn’t the recipients of the soup themselves be involved in serving the food?)
- There are some things only I can do . . . and serving food isn’t one of them. (Just about anyone can serve food at a soup kitchen.)
- If I give my time away at a soup kitchen, serving food, I can’t invest that time in other things like . . .
- making lots of money to give away.
- helping organizations like Mission India “pick up their game” on the web.
- And so forth.
- The Sonlight/MI Rice Bag Project project made me realize that I am happy to give of my time—significantly give of my time—when it is well utilized (i.e., calling on my unique skills, abilities, giftings, “calling”—or, as Garrett Gunderson calls it—my “Soul Purpose).
Because of the Rice Bag project, Sarita and I helped raise the awareness of several thousand families about what it’s like in India; we helped MI to interact with those families and convert at least a small portion of them to become long-term donors; when all of the participants’ gifts were matched with ours, the project raised enough money to provide the equivalent of a fifth grade education to over 7600 illiterate Indian women. Best of all (?!?), because we made our suggestion, and because we followed through, MI found itself catapulted years forward in its website capabilities . . . which impacted its entire operation.
As I wrote on my StrategicInheritance.com blog, in wonderment and awe:
- Though they have done many “Rice Bag Projects” in Christian schools and churches over the years, as far as I am aware, [Mission India] had never had another company make an appeal in their behalf.
- Their normal response rate to direct mail appeals–even appeals to well-qualified lists–are usually very close to 0.5% (yes, one-half of one percent). At best, they might see a 1% response rate. At best. Maybe.
They were completely blown away by the Sonlight families’ approximate 5.5% response rate to Sonlight’s (Sarita’s and my) appeal in their behalf.
- They had never used their website as they did . . . to present progressive “lessons” and “content” and interactive opportunities with participants in their Rice Bag Projects before.
- They had never linked to an online forum community as we were able to create for them on the Sonlighters Club Forums website.
- They had, therefore, never received such intense and personal feedback and interaction on one of their projects or appeals before . . . as they did with the Sonlight project.
- They had never been able to establish direct relationships with any of their previous Rice Bag Project donors. But they did with the Sonlight group!
- They had never been able to send multiple (appropriate) follow-up/reminder emails to participants in one of their projects before.
- I cannot be sure, but I have gotten the strong impression,
- They [had] never had such a large flow of funds come in as a result of a Rice Bag Project
- They [had] never had a single project of any type increase their donor base as much. (Their total list of donors increased by 30% as a result of “our” project.)
And why were they able to do all of these things? Because of a wonderful mutual interaction and commingling of gifts, talents and resources, some of which gifts, talents and resources happened to be mine.
- I don’t remember who said this to me, but some fundraiser, knowing of what we had done, said, “Do you know how many people will open their Rolodex (i.e., contacts list) and share our vision with the people they know? . . . Almost none. . . . What you and Sarita have done is extraordinary.”
Honestly: I don’t think it is extraordinary. It just “makes sense.”
We’re “sold” on the work that the non-profits to which we have committed ourselves do. So we like to tell others. And we have this amazing list of families that we think might like to benefit from the education (even if not from the financial appeals). Why wouldn’t we make our list available (in the sense that we make the appeals, and the recipients of our appeals have to “sign up” with the non-profit before they will receive any further communication)?
And my bottom-line realization:
- It struck me that churches and other non-profit groups around the country offer numerous mercy and service opportunities. And these really are great opportunities for those with the motivational gifts of service and/or mercy. But what about those of us who aren’t particularly motivated or gifted in those areas? By utilizing our unique assets—not just our skills, knowledge and abilities, but our “mailing list” (relationships) and financial wherewithal—Sarita and I were able to make a far, far more significant contribution than we could have made by serving at a soup kitchen . . . even if we had done so full-time, for years.
Since that first experience in 2007, Mission India has gone on to co-sponsor two more such programs with us, and then, following the initial roll-out with our homeschool audience, they have then used the programs (with our avid encouragement!) to make similar appeals to classroom schools, churches, Vacation Bible School programs, and others. They have also used many of the videos they created for these programs (aimed at kids) to help major potential adult donors understand what MI is all about.
Even during our 2007 Rice Bag program, I made it a commitment and practice to attempt to “spur [the other agencies to which we had made a commitment] to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24) . . . and maybe even instill in them a bit of holy envy (if there is such a thing) by sharing with the leaders of those agencies what we were doing with Mission India and telling them about what we were discovering as “best practices.”
When, in subsequent years, we did similar programs with the other agencies, I continued that practice: sharing with all of “our” agencies what we were learning from the latest agency to engage in this kind of fundraising effort . . . and encouraging the teams in each of these agencies to share their insights one with the other.
(Humorously, one agency [with MI’s encouragement and approval] “borrowed” the entire website structure MI had put together for one of its programs. Just as the site was about to go live, my contact at MI called me: “John,” he said, “they have done such a good job borrowing, they even left our [Mission India’s] email and phone number on their site! . . . Do you think I should tell them?” He was joking, of course. And we made sure they did know. But I think the incident demonstrates a bit of the cooperative spirit that imbues all of these organizations.)
Since 2007, we have done six more programs—one in every year but two. (The agencies with whom we agreed to work those years failed to come through on their end of the agreement.)
All but one of the programs have been amazingly successful.
To date, we’ve been able to raise about $2 million for “our” charities: the kids have raised or given $1 million themselves, and we have matched them dollar-for-dollar, so that has equaled $2 million.
Beyond the money, we’ve had parents tell us stories that about break our hearts with joy. One mom wrote,
My son came to me the other evening and said, “Mommy, the children in India need this money more than I do.” He’d been saving for the last three years to get an Xbox. But he took his savings and he said he wanted them to go to this cause. He gave me $185 to give to the kids in India.
We have heard dozens of stories like this. Truly overwhelming stories.
And when you think about it, you realize that here’s an 8-year-old kid giving an astonishingly generous gift. And Mom and Dad see this and begin to think: “Now, wait a minute! If he’s going to do this, what are we going to do?”
This kind of behavior is transformative.
Remember “a little child shall lead them”?
We have heard stories of families whose entire way of life has been changed because of that commitment we made . . . that translated into a program sponsored by one of the non-profit agencies to which we have committed ourselves . . . that appealed so deeply to certain young children . . . that the children’s behavior tilted their parents’ and their family’s behavior in new directions.
Sarita and I have had this privilege of participating. I would like to appeal to you to think about what it may be to which you have been called. What inspires you? What special skills or connections or abilities do you have? What resources do you have—financial or otherwise—that could make a significant difference in other people’s lives . . . if only you would release them?
Narrow your focus and run with endurance the unique race before you. . . .
I think you’ll find you will rejoice in what happens as a result.
And one last memory: