Monday, October 28, 2013

Toledo group generates goodwill – and funds – with ‘buy a shingle, save a home’ campaign

How do you raise money quickly for a pressing community need, while at the same time building public awareness and buy-in? (Isn’t that all nonprofits’ “holy grail”?) William Farnsel, executive director of NeighborWorks Toledo Region in Ohio, has developed a winning formula to do just that.

Farnsel’s organization, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, serves a majority African-American community with higher-than-average unemployment (8.9 percent). Many of the houses are in need of the organization’s weatherization-assistance program for low-income families, which it administers with funds from the federal government, Columbia Gas and Toledo Edison. (To date, NTR has installed more than $23.7 million in insulation and other materials for 15,000-plus customers in Toledo and the broader Lucas County.)

However, if a house has a leaky roof, weatherization isn’t going to do much good. One of the city’s anchor businesses, Owens Corning, donated the necessary shingles (along with a lifetime warranty for the resulting roofs), but a lot more money for time and materials needed to be raised, and quickly, in order for the weatherization program to continue before cold weather arrived.

“It’s a chronic problem we face,” Farnsel says. “Government funding comes with processes and forms that take time to sort out. Plus, it requires bringing the entire house up to code – an even more expensive, time-consuming endeavor. So, we decided to seek private funds.”

Farnsel didn’t want the typical meal or golf outing, however. He wanted his donors to feel a more visceral connection to the impact of their giving. That’s when he hit upon his theme: “Buy a shingle; save a home.” The goal: to raise enough money to finance the replacement of four roofs – one in each of four targeted neighborhoods. The CEO of the local hospital was recruited as chair of the planning committee, which helped attract representatives of local businesses, organizations and affluent families in the community to the fundraising dinner. Attendees were invited to “purchase” a shingle (or a bundle of them, or a box of nails, depending on the amount given) – with an onsite exhibit showing exactly what is needed to tear off an existing roof, complete structural repairs and install a new one.

The next challenge was how to choose which roofs to replace first, when there were so many low-income families who could benefit. Farnsel also wanted residents in the targeted communities to feel like they were active participants and partners in the campaign. His solution: a lottery. Tickets were sold to residents for $3 each at local churches, banks and other community locations. If your roof didn’t need replacement, or you knew someone else more in need, you could buy the ticket to “gift it” to someone else.

“One woman was so desperate for a new roof that she borrowed $100 from friends and family to buy as many lottery tickets as she could,” says Farnsel. “Her roof was so bad she literally had skylights, and she was forced to use kiddy pools to catch the water when it rained.”

Joanne Born (middle) weeps with joy when she learns
she has won the "lottery."
On the day of the drawing in that neighborhood – during NeighborWorks Week of 2013 -- a young couple was seen hanging out by the street corner where the winner would be announced. Farnsel later learned that the couple was the daughter and son-in-law of Joanne Born, who had bought all those lottery tickets. She was too nervous to watch the drawing in person, and sat instead in a car at the curb. And yes, she did win that drawing. Today, she is the relieved owner of a new roof – at the cost $12,000, which she could never have afforded on her own.

NTR raised $37,000 through this event, including $900 from resident-purchased raffle tickets. The second annual event already is scheduled, for May 3, 2014.

If you’re thinking of holding a similar fundraising/public-awareness campaign, Farnsel has a few tips to offer:

Recruit supporters from the business community. In 2013, the CEO of the local hospital was enlisted as the fundraising chair, which generated both a good-sized contribution from that institution and those of his friends. In 2014, Farnsel plans to reach out to the local utility industry.

Joanne Born in front of her house, with
a new roof. (Habitat for Humanity is
set now to help refurbish her porch.)
Don’t be discouraged when the unexpected occurs. Farnsel’s campaign was very creative, and would normally have been a great local media hook. But on the same day as the drawing, an 18-month-old girl was reported missing in the neighborhood. It was a tragedy, and understandably, the event got almost zero media coverage as a result. (Note from the writer: As a veteran PR professional, I can attest to that reality; if a bigger, competing news story occurs in the same timeframe as your event, you can pretty much forget any hope of attracting media coverage. That’s why it is so important to build in other ways to measure success. And Farnsel and his team did – both in terms of money raised and partners/residents engaged. In 2014, he is planning to incorporate “impact stories” from this year’s winners as well as a “tell-a-friend” campaign.)

When developing goals and budgets, make sure you know the real costs. Don’t low-ball! The roofs that NHS ended up replacing were significantly more expensive than anticipated. Farnsel’s team had estimated $8,000 to $9,000, and Born’s, for instance, cost $12,000.

Don’t under-estimate the effort and expertise needed. NTR hired a consultant to assist with messaging, outreach and event logistics, and Farnsel says it was one of his best decisions. “There are lots of day-to-day activities required to pull a campaign and event like this off, but at the same time, we still had our ‘real’ work to do. Consider hiring outside help,” he says.

Don’t lose sight of your end goal. “You have to give something to get something,” Farnsel cautions. “Make community impact and goodwill the principal goal – not general fundraising for your organization.” About 82 cents of every dollar raised by NTR for the “Buy a Shingle, Save a Home” campaign went to the roof-replacement program. Over time, he says, events like these will help “nourish” the organization’s coffers, but that’s not the focus of the events. “The goodwill pays off over time,” Farnsel promises.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!