A Home of Their Own: How a Nonprofit Raises Money for People With Disabilities

In our ongoing look at how nonprofits raise money, we've occasionally profiled charities with budgets of tens of millions of dollars—including brand-name national nonprofits that pull in money from top foundations, and even billionaires.

Of course, though, most nonprofits across America are much smaller and operate at a local level. We've written on some of these groups, too, along with the very different fundraising challenges executives face at organizations that fly well below the radar.

Here, we take a look at Lifehouse, a nonprofit founded in 1954 that provides help to about 250 individuals with developmental disabilities in Marin and Sonoma Counties north of San Francisco. The group believes that "everyone should have the opportunity to live as independently as possible and to participate fully in our community for a lifetime." The individuals supported by Lifehouse live in their own homes or apartments. The assistance they need to live independently can vary from a few hours every week to around-the-clock care. 

The idea of helping people with disabilities be as engaged in society as possible—especially when it comes to living independently and finding work—is getting new attention from funders lately, as we've reported. But that doesn't mean it's easy to find the money for such efforts, which are expensive. Lifehouse employs 290 staff to support its 250 clients. 

Lifehouse is dealing with two fundamental challenges that many in the nonprofit sector confront. Its revenues come overwhelmingly from client fees, including both private payment and fees for services through a state-funded regional center for individuals with developmental disabilities. But to really achieve its goals, Lifehouse needs to raise private donations, too—an increasingly common situation for nonprofits at a time when public budgets are being squeezed. “As we continue to grow the gap between what we are funded for and what it costs to provide services grows as well, so we are in a situation where we need to find other ways to bring more money into the organization,” Nancy Dow Moody, the president and chief executive officer of Lifehouse, told Inside Philanthropy. “We’ve doubled our organization and our budget size since 2009.”

The other challenge, said Moody, is “the competition—there are so many nonprofits in Marin County and everybody has a good cause, so it is really educating the donors to make sure they understand what they’re giving money to."

It helps that Marin County consistently ranks in the top 20 most affluent counties in the United States. According to the U.S. census, the median household annual income is $91,529. Sonoma County isn’t quite as well off, at $63,799, but that’s still above the U.S. median.

Moody stressed that she relies on message and method to raise funds. “Developmental disability can happen to anyone,” she said. “Nobody is immune to it. A lot of people know somebody with a developmental disability, and I think people can relate to that.”

For newborns, it can be caused by genetic abnormalities, like mothers drinking alcohol when pregnant, viral infections, or a preterm birth. The most common disabilities are intellectual disabilities and cerebral palsy. Autism spectrum disorders now comprise about 35 percent of Lifehouse’s referrals. “So we now have a specialized autism program, we have a director of autism and we’ve received training at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in using a specific training method,” Moody said.

Lifehouse offers personalized comprehensive skills training to help each person to be as independent as possible. Moody tells donors, “In our case, 80 cents of every dollar goes directly to our programs,” adding, “Our staff is very trained and professional and I think people want to be a part of that.”

Lifehouse runs an active direct mail campaign with regular newsletters that are sent with envelopes for remittances, as well as email newsletters. Direct response heats up in fall and spring with those two semi-annual campaigns. Lifehouse raises about half its money through direct mail and the website.

Moody draws on the approximately 500 wineries in Marin and Sonoma County for Lifehouse’s signature fundraiser. “About half of our money is from our Great Chefs and Wineries event," she said. "That’s every year in April. All of the restaurant and the wineries donate their food and their wine. Then we have silent auction items and live auction items. Our community has been so supportive of that event. Every year, we seem to raise more money. People have kept coming now for 26 years to San Rafael.”

Lifehouse approaches foundations for specific projects, not ongoing support. And fortunately, this nonprofit is based in a region with many foundations, as Inside Philanthropy often reports. (See our Bay Area guide to funders.) “Every week, we send grant proposals out," Moody says. "The Bothin Foundation has been very supportive over the years. The most recent grant they gave us was used to renovate a kitchen in one of our homes for people with disabilities, so that was quite significant. One of our donors is connected with the San Francisco foundation and we’ve got funds from them, as well.”

A 2016 award-winning documentary, Being Seen, about people living with disabilities, was produced by Potential SF in collaboration with Lifehouse.  The filmmakers are now challenging viewers to break down the barriers between the disabled and the rest of us by asking people to meet disabled people and post selfies on social media with them and write about the experience. The film is an eye opener. It’s still making the festival circuit and can be seen on the Lifehouse website, next to a donate button.

Lifehouse also cultivates bequests. “It’s really wonderful when that happens," Moody said. "Most of the time, it’s a big surprise. In one case, we received quite a large bequest—well, large for us—about $400,000 from someone who had just seen our work in the community. We had had no contact nor connection with that individual.”

Lifehouse actively seeks out other, smaller events it can participate in. One is the Bay Area Human Race, a local 5K event open to runners, walkers, dog walkers and wheelchair racers. Last year, the event raised $195,607.66 for dozens of local nonprofits.

What advice would Moody offer other nonprofits? “Really try to connect with your donors. Let them see what you’re doing. Show donors results. Most people want to be part of improving the lives of others.”