Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Creating a Foundation to a Sustainable Future in the Volunteer Fire and EMS Service
Welcome to Part II of our on-going series on stopping the bleed within our volunteer organizations. What we know is that we are losing membership and having funding challenges. But what is really behind these negative trends? That’s not an easy question to answer because there are many reasons behind it. In this series, we are taking a stab at some of the more prevalent issues resulting in our member and financial downturns.
We need to take bold action and make a significant change if we want the volunteer fire service to be around for decades to come.
Part II - Fundraising
Fundraising continues to be a struggle in most departments and a constant source of balancing. First off, candy sales and flower sales do not buy fire engines. We are actually to the point where spaghetti dinners do not buy fire engines either. Apparatus pricing has become unimaginable. So where should we be focusing our fund-raising energies? Each community is different. What works in one area may not work in another.
Direct mail campaigns - You need to be careful. Most professional direct-mail companies are more interested in their bottom line than yours. It is easy to spend more in sending these out then the return you receive but some companies generate over $100,000 annually. The key to success is to manage the campaign yourself. Do several mailings a year to only those with a history of donating. This cuts down on the campaign expense and generates a higher return ratio. Select your mailing area carefully. Areas with transient residents such as apartment complexes yield low returns. When managed properly, you can increase your returns while lowering your expenses. It may be wise to conduct a targeted recruitment in your area for a marketing professional or fundraising professional who will join the department as an associate or administrative member and share their expertise while managing the direct mail campaign for you.
Raffles - Investigate holding a significant raffle. Many organizations raffle off cars, SUVs, motorcycles, etc. you get the idea. For a large return, there needs to be a large prize - and one that is appealing to the masses. Do your homework on these as there can be a significant risk involved. A raffle of this magnitude would require a partnership with a local business. Again, it is so much easier to make an ask when they already have a relationship with you, otherwise it is a cold ask and will probably not be successful.
Concerts - Does your facility have a couple of acres and adequate parking? There are companies that do extremely well, doing concerts. Most are in the country-music arena. The size of the venue you have available will dictate the level of talent you can attract which will impact ticket sales. Don’t start blindly, do your homework. These need a great deal of work to pull off but the proceeds can be very rewarding.
Food Trucks - This is relatively new on the scene and some companies are doing extremely well with net profits of $1,000 a week or better. Check out a couple first and check your local codes and permit requirements. It also serves as a means to get the community to hang out at the station. This helps improve relations and education.
Planned Giving/Estate Giving- These are generally long term investments and do not provide immediate cash. Planned giving includes gifts in the form of cash, stocks, land, and other investment style accounts. It is always beneficial to review various agreements with an attorney. You may find a local attorney who will work pro bono for your department.
Capital Campaigns- Capital campaigns are a major undertaking and are used for capital purchases such as apparatus or a new station. Check out our blog on capital campaigns and the need for a feasibility study.
Investment Funds- Although not a traditional fundraiser perse, however many companies have been successful with investing some of their savings. This can be extremely risky but can also provide a significant financial benefit. It is recommended that if a department decides to do this, it has oversight from the Board of Directors, is consistent with their financial policies and or bylaws, and they utilize a broker/financial advisor.
Other events: Golf Tournaments, Galas, Bull Roasts, Car Shows,
Be careful not to fall into a trap where you partner with another company to host a fundraising night. Oftentimes that company will earn more money through the partnership than you will. Spirit nights seem great, but they do little in terms of generating funds for your department. Make sure you are marketing properly. Do not rely on one source of marketing. Check out our blog about digital marketing for tips. Lastly, fundraising is only as effective as your relationship with your community. You have to have a positive relationship with your community in order to have successful fundraisers. If you were just on the news because of an embezzlement issue or a sexual harassment claim, you will find it hard pressed for people to donate to you. It is important for every member to own the reputation of the organization. How you deal with reputation management is vital as well. We will be discussing that outside of this blog series.
Undoubtedly we can add to the list but we tried to concentrate on the high-earning, high-return programs. Certainly, there are tried and true fundraisers that still work for some organizations like carnivals, Christmas tree sales, and BINGO. We tried to highlight other opportunities that are working for departments. We would like to hear from you if you host other events that can be added. However, when we talk about fundraising it is not just limited to event hosting. There is a significant amount of money available from the government, grants, and foundations. A word of caution, these funds can be extremely difficult to obtain and generally are restricted funds for a specific purpose.
Local Government - Funding from your local community, town, county, or parish is as varied from nothing at all to full financial support. What is important to recognize here is how you position your organization. How you are supported can often be a reflection of how you promote your organization to those holding the purse strings. Get the word out and be ever-present. Host a visit or small open house for your local elected officials, especially if they are new in their term. Create a brief one page summary of your organization that they can easily read later after the visit.
State Government- A relationship with the state government is similar to the local government. However, the State generally has deeper pockets than the local government. Funding may be through various sources like department-specific grants, bond bills, legislative funding, and more. It can’t be reiterated enough that early and ongoing relationships with your elected officials are extremely important. Don’t cross the line of political support as a nonprofit, we will talk about political advocacy later in the series.
Federal Government - The federal government can serve as a significant funding source, but you need an excellent grant writer and well-documented statistics. Through FEMA they offer a variety of grant opportunities: AFG, SAFER, and FP&S. Departments are eligible to earn between hundreds of thousands of dollars to over a million dollars. Keep in mind that federal grants are typically matching. Depending on your location other federal funds may be available such as park service funds, USDA funds, community development funds, DHS/port security, and more.
Foundations - Most communities have philanthropic foundations. Each area is different so do a search in your area to determine what is available. Establishing a good relationship with one of these organizations can yield returns year after year. Keep in mind that many foundations have specific funding criteria which may not meet your specific mission.
Effective fundraisers can offset department expenses and planning is the key. Annually, leaders find themselves trying to balance their budgets. Sustainable fundraising programs repeated yearly are more effective at gaining a following and ensuring appropriate cash flow. They allow department leaders the ability to budget with some degree of accuracy and success.
Budgeting 101 for Nonprofits
To develop a balanced budget your expenses can not exceed your income so the income becomes the driving force. Begin to develop a budget by recording your projected income first. Build your expenses out second. This leads to the importance of long-range planning. If you haven’t planned for a large expense then likely it will bring heartache trying to budget for it. Instead, plan for the expense and develop a method to increase your income in response.
Long-range financial planning is critical. We will devote a future blog, discussing nonprofit budgeting and long range financial planning.