Nope, "Hedge Funds Care" is Not an Oxymoron. It's a Nonprofit Win-Win Case Study

It’s an axiom of service that those who give also gain, along with those who receive. I was reminded of that basic win-win in a recent conversation with Kathryn Conroy, former executive director of Hedge Funds Care, now Help For Children (HFC).

I knew Conroy in my teaching days in Brooklyn, when she was a child welfare advocate and we collaborated in helping my students with special needs. In time, she moved to the Columbia University School of Social Work as assistant dean the position she held the day Rob Davis, founder of Hedge Funds Care, assured her in a meeting: “I’m going to raise a lot of money and you’re going to give it away.”

Davis was true to his word, as was Conroy to his expectations. Started in 1998, HFC has since expanded to become a global foundation active in 12 major cities in the U.S. and abroad. How it evolved can offer valuable lessons for development offices.  

Demonstrating That Hedge Funds Care

“It had an organic beginning,” says Conroy, describing Hedge Funds Care. “It was one guy, Davis, who had this idea when hedge funds were being clobbered in the ’90s with the image of greed. He’d worked in the industry most of his life and wanted to do something about that perception. He knew there were plenty of people in hedge funds who were generous,” Conroy explains.

“The idea was a charity that supports child abuse treatment and prevention. It was a marriage of the need to help hedge funds look better and help an underserved population,” she notes. “Rob had been a teacher on Long Island. He knew there were kids in his classroom who were abused, and he tried to help [teachers are mandatory reporters]. But it’s complicated. Sometimes you make it better for kids, and sometimes you make it worse. He left teaching and went into finance, but he always remembered those children.”

A Gala That Grew

Davis’s initial idea was one event in New York for the hedge fund industry. All the money raised would be given away as grants. Conroy’s role was to be “academic consultant,” to identify the programs that receive grants and then “follow the money,” as she puts it, providing technical assistance and evaluating program success. The first event in New York raised a half-million dollars.

The power of the approach was building on an essential need of the hedge fund world: connectivity.

“Hedge funds depend on the accounting industry, legal industry, banking," Conroy explains. "We had the big four accounting firms and the largest hedge fund law firms at the event.” Six months later, Davis and his colleagues wanted to do it again.

“The setup was simple,” Conroy recalls. “Great food, open bars, a little entertainment, a few speeches, and a lot of talking and networking on the floor. By the third year, people working in Chicago and San Francisco wanted to do the same in their cities.

“The beauty of the model is an industry embracing a social issue where both benefit  and in more than good feeling,” adds Conroy. “[Industry members] could say, ‘I’ve [contributed to fight] child abuse for six years and I made six business deals and got 14 connections and moved up a job.’ I had guys say to me, ‘I feel guilty I get so much out of this.’ I’d respond, ‘Great. Give more.’”

Grants and Board Members for Child Abuse Charities

As the hedge fund-sponsored charity events increased and spread to other cities, they expanded in variety to include golf tournaments or, recently in Chicago, a high-end wine tasting. In each city, a “Committee of Hearts”  members from the industry  planned the events and raised the money. An academic consultant in each city helped decide on the local child abuse and prevention programs to receive grant funds and then worked to support those programs. In addition to grants of $25,000 to $70,000, there were more benefits for the recipient organizations.

“Hedge Funds Care connected a lot of people from the industry to where the work was being done,” Conroy explains. “For the most part, the industry folks didn’t know anything about child abuse and neglect. A requirement of being on the Committee of Hearts was making site visits to each funded program. Often, executive directors would end up recruiting committee members as new board members.”

Connecting for a Good Cause

“Hedge Funds Care grew organically,” Conroy says. “It got incorporated, got tax exempt and developed a central office in New York that oversees everything to maintain the integrity of the process. HFC is still largely driven by volunteers.”

Yet Conroy points to the brilliance of the model as giving people who thrive on networking the chance “to connect for a good cause.”

So what are the development takeaways from the story of Hedge Funds Care? Consider how organizations can enable ways for donors to benefit in addition to personal satisfaction to expand connections through a nonprofit’s events and social network. Is your organization maximizing social media, for example, to connect donors through your Facebook page and Twitter account, LinkedIn or other platforms? Is it planning galas and guest lists that offer donors an entertaining event and plenty of “connectivity?”

Of course, there’s no way to guarantee a personal or professional windfall for every donor. And let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we stop encouraging altruism. We want to promote caring and decency the best in human nature that motivates a person to step up to make other lives better.

At the same time, Hedge Funds Care/Help For Children is a powerful reminder that when donors gain in real time, they’re more motivated to keep giving. So it’s a balance to work toward. Think about the challenge of turning first-time gifts into recurring donations and look again at how you might help donors give and receive in multiple ways.

Susan J. Ragusa is a nonprofit strategist in the Hudson Valley region and metro New York. Email or connect with Susan on LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Google+.