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The Children’s Aid Society: The Future of Giving

The tsunami. Katrina. Darfur. 9/11. Doctors Without Borders. All brought to the forefront disasters on a local and global scale and opened up the conversation about charitable giving. In an environment of so much need, how will non-profits adapt?

At The Children’s Aid Society (CAS), the biggest challenge they face is keeping donors engaged. According to Alison Kaplan, Manager of Annual Giving, “We are always struggling with how to differentiate ourselves.” How well CAS communicates their message among themselves and to donors (and potential donors) becomes nearly as important as the work they do.

Every time they create a letter for a potential or current donor, there is a lot at play. The old Protestant concept of “work hard and you shall be rewarded” may not be enough anymore. There are many potential causes that donors may be interested in, so marketing has become more complex. Simply telling donors what CAS has accomplished does not always work. Like most non-profits, their donor retention rate could be better.

CAS, like many non-profits, focuses on marketing, brand identity, and raising awareness to attract—and keep—donors. CAS is increasingly moving toward a more donor-centered approach, focusing on a donor’s involvement, support, and interests. CAS feels it’s a smart way to engage people—and keep them engaged. But as it turns out, this is not as straightforward as it seems and raises more questions than it answers.

Putting your finger on the pulse of all donors is an important but complicated process. “What makes one person tick is different than another,” says Kaplan. The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund is such an example.

The Times partners with CAS as well as other non-profits to highlight stories of poor children and their families in desperate need of financial assistance. One Times reader was particularly moved by the story of a young, troubled boy who had faced numerous obstacles in his life. The boy reminded her of her own son, who eventually got the help he needed and grew up to be a well adjusted adult—mostly because he had advantages that the other boy lacked. So affected by the story, the woman presented a check for $5,000 to CAS.

Though this is a wonderful story, those working on the giving side tend to ask: which side are potential donors most relating to? The humanistic side, empathizing with a child solely on an emotional level? Or, are readers more interested in learning about the non-profit and its role in helping all children?

Donors’ motivations can be a puzzle—or a grey area at best. In addition to how donors will react and use information, Kaplan also raises the question: “How does an organization attract the person who has even an inkling to give—and keep that person engaged” so that he or she does not become another one-time giver? Such questions are important to the future of giving.

People give based on a variety of motivators: their own life experiences; direct mail; a Web site; newspaper, radio or television coverage; or because a friend told them about an organization. In some cases people invite their relatives and friends to charity events.

When asked why CAS succeeds, Kaplan says it’s in large part due to reputation. The Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853 in New York City, at a time when there were practically no services for the city’s poor and homeless, funds health, education, and social services for poor children. Their nationally recognized programs continue to influence child welfare policy.

Because of their longstanding reputation, CAS is able to hold annual events like Miracle on Madison. They also have a solid core of volunteers that can be a great resource of viral marketing to help spread the word about CAS’s work. Kaplan adds that volunteers must be given meaningful opportunities, too. If you’re out engaging with the public—and not stuffing envelopes—you’re bound to stay committed.

Brand identity is another component of the puzzle. Typically, employees are overstretched, taking on multiple roles, so it’s hard to find time to think about brand identity. Though CAS has tried hiring a few firms, the process can be expensive. More important, to get all the players involved to agree on who CAS is and what should be communicated to the world is not easy. Fundraising, the Board, volunteers, program people, the recipients, and finally, the donors, may all have different perceptions about CAS. Leadership counts, too. The process of fundraising gets re-examined with each new CEO, so continuity is not always possible.

Additionally, donors have become savvier about the giving process than in the past. Fiscal responsibility is important to them. Potential donors can use web sites such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar to access a non-profit’s financial background with a few simple clicks. But is putting 20 percent of the budget toward fundraising okay to do? It depends on which donor you ask.

These are just a few of the many challenges The Children’s Aid Society faces when considering the future of giving. The questions Kaplan raises in particular are interesting ones for all non-profits to consider.

Recently, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited the U.S., choosing the Harlem Children’s Zone as one of their causes. According to The New York Times, the prince chose the Harlem educational organization because of his “interest in urban renewal.” But that only partially answers the question. If I were running a competing non-profit focused on urban renewal, I would want to know: why did the prince choose this organization in particular?

Understanding such questions in the future will ultimately help everyone’s mission.