"You Have to Ask." The Leader of a Niche Nonprofit Talks Fundraising

Nonprofits with missions that affect millions have an easier time fundraising than those whose impact is on a smaller scale. As one example, cardiovascular disease is a top killer of Americans—which is why the American Heart Association has become a behemoth with more than 3,000 employees, 22.5 million volunteers and 156 local offices across the U.S.

In contrast, Lambda Legal’s constituency of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) people and those wrestling with HIV/AIDS is far smaller. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 3.76 percent of the U.S. population is infected with HIV. An estimated 57 percent of these people are men who have sex with men. According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, the U.S. LGBT population is just 3.5 percent.

Yet under the leadership of Executive Director Kevin Cathcart, over the past 24 years, Lambda Legal’s staff has expanded fivefold. It now has offices not just in Los Angeles and New York, but Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas. Lambda Legal’s effectiveness is noteworthy, including decriminalizing homosexual behavior between consenting adults in Lawrence v. Texas, and the June 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision that gave homosexuals the right to marry. Shortly after announcing he would retire when his contract expires in 2016, Kevin Cathcart took the time to share the secrets of Lambda Legal’s fundraising success with Inside Philanthropy.

“The biggest struggle in organizations is you have to ask. A lot of times, people arefor a variety of reasonsuncomfortable talking about money, asking for money," Cathcart said. "People think that good work should just be rewarded. It doesn’t quite happen that way." He went on:

There are a lot of generous people out there—you don’t find them all at once; you find them slowly. You have to cultivate relationships with people, but I’m not saying you have to cultivate them a long time before you ask. Cultivating relationships has more to do with keeping people involved as donors and moving them up as donors. 

Cathcart emphasized that asking for money should not just be limited to the executive director and development staff. The board of directors and other volunteers should also solicit funds, a point that tracks with a post that Cynthia Gibson wrote earlier this year for IP about creating a "culture of fundraising" at an organization.

Related - Culture is Changing: Fundraising Needs to Change With It

“You need to engage a lot of people and they have to be willing to do that. It’s not easy. It requires training and pep talks and takes trial and error,” Cathcart said. “I have to remind people all the time that the reason this work happens is because a large collective group of people, many of whom are LGBT, and their allies who understand the importance of this work, have decided to help make it happen.”

Cathcart pointed out that it’s folly to expect donors to come forward and simply open their checkbooks. “If you don’t ask, people come away with the impression ‘they don’t need it.’ Other people are asking. You have to be able to point to your work and distinguish your role and be determined about it, and then it can happen.”

And herein lies a trait that separates the great fundraisers from the strictly OK ones. Those who are great don't just really want it; they have a nearly messianic faith in what they're doing and why is that work is so indispensable.

Oh, and they're also not afraid to talk about death. 

“Planned giving has been a very important part of our growth,” Cathcart said. About 20 to 25 percent of Lambda Legal’s funding comes from bequests, a trend that started when AIDS cut its swath through the gay community in the 1980s. “Lambda Legal stated inheriting money from people. That was key to our realizing that there are lots of people who can make far larger, more generous gifts at the end of their lives than they are often able to do on an annual basis.” The organization also does a lot of direct mail solicitations.

A key goal of any successful fundraising operation is moving donors up the giving ladder over time, and Lamba seeks to do this in various ways. It has a program for leadership giving, its major donor effort, which starts at $1,500 a year to become a "Liberty Circle Member." Different levels go up from there.

An avalanche of new foundation money started coming into LGBT work after 2004, and Lambda Legal has benefited from that growth, along with other LGBT groups. But that upsurge has now leveled off. Cathcart said, “The actual dollars haven’t shrunk, but it’s not growing at the same rate, so percentage-wise it has shrunk.”

Events are also key to Lambda Legal's fundraising strategy, and Cathcart said it holds events in multiple cities across the United States every year. He stressed that although they are important as fundraisers, events also bring like-minded people together, building a sense of community. “People get to meet or get to know or see people they already know who are supporting the work, so it’s like a reinforcement loop for donors realizing they are part of something big.”

From dinners to cocktail parties, events give the organization the opportunity to speak to people both one-on-one as well as to the group as a whole, “I or one of the attorneys gets to speak about our recent victories or current docket,” Cathcart said. “With dinners, we get a lot of law firm and corporate support where they’ll buy tables. Dinners cost more, so we have to charge more, so it’s harder to bring in new people. In smaller markets we just might hold cocktail parties because the costs are lower.”

In markets where there is incipient support, Lambda Legal holds non-ticketed events. “These don’t have a price tag. We do an ask.” Cathcart talked about how national organizations had to be flexible in tailoring the nature of the event to the specific market. Organizations should pay attention to how “other organizations are raising money in that market and what people are used to. What kind of event can you hold so that your profit margins are high enough to justify the time and energy you’re putting into it?”  

As somebody who has fought for LGBT rights for the past 32 years, with more battles looming, Cathcart said that he would find it hard to stop his activism after he’s taken an initial break following his retirement from Lambda Legal. “I don’t really see myself just sitting in a rocking chair,” Cathcart said. “I’m a civil rights and a social justice person. I don’t think there’s an off switch.”