Raising Money for a Basic Need With a Powerful Brand Behind You

Recently, I've written about the challenges of raising money for highly specialized niche causes. But what's it like fundraising for a cause that's easy to relate to, with one of the most powerful brands in the nonprofit sector behind you? Read on. 

Founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity is dedicated to the precept that everybody should have a decent place to live. Habitat got national attention in 1984, when former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn worked as construction volunteers, a habit they’ve maintained for the past 31 years. Since its founding, Habitat has spread internationally, building or repairing over 1 million homes, aiding more than 5 million people worldwide.

One affiliate, Coastal Habitat for Humanity, based in New Jersey, developed new urgency after the assault of Super Storm Sandy in 2012. Nearly 350,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by Sandy. Since then, under the leadership of Executive Director Maureen Mulligan, Coastal Habitat has been a key player in the rebuilding. Inside Philanthropy spoke with her about how she brings in the money for the group's work. 

For starters, Coastal Habitat is able to play in the big leagues of government grants in a way that many nonprofits cannot. 

“Because Habitat does have a good reputation, a lot of the funding that goes to many Habitat affiliates is federal funding from HUD, Housing and Urban Development, to support affordable housing and mixed-income communities,” Mulligan said. She told us that a lot of Habitat development staff and executives spend much of their time poring over federal grants on the HUD website.

But Habitat's well-known brand and Christian roots also means that it's uniquely well positioned to raise money from a range of other sources. 

Mulligan said Coastal Habitat has a lot support from the churches, as do most Habitats. "Because it is a faith-based organization, we are closely aligned with many churches which have raised enough money to fund an entire house or a segment of a house. The other big source of funds is local corporations who want to come out and do a team-build day. Some have put up substantial funds to have a project named after them."

Mulligan said that following Super Storm Sandy, Coastal Habitat worked closely with the New Jersey Banker’s Association. "Twenty-two banks came out to build with us. Each one had to make a financial donation and then they sent 10 to 12 of their employees out to build.”

Mulligan said there are few better ways to develop team spirit than through Habitat work, which is another unusual and compelling experience that this nonprofit offers. “Bank presidents are sweating and filthy-dirty right along with the tellers at their branches. It’s a great opportunity for the corporations because we publicize it.” The hands-on work experience can also yield new prospects. Mulligan said that often people who start as volunteers become donors. 

So how does Coastal Habitat's fundraising operation work day to day? Mulligan broke it down for us:

We spend about 40 percent of the development team’s efforts on chasing down grants, increasingly the bigger grants. It’s a big leap from writing a three-page grant for $5,000 to a federal grant. We spend another 40 percent of their time on events. Events are at least as much of a PR project as a fundraising project. So if we only raise $25,000 but we got 10 articles with 40 new people showing up, then we’ve done a good job.

Habitat hosts a range of events from wine and cheese parties for as little as $50 to golf classics and fancy, high-end dinner dances. “Last year, we did our 20th anniversary dinner, and we’ll do another this year called ‘Hearts and Hammers.’”

The golf outing was set up by the former board president who was an avid golfer. (At the time, Mulligan had no idea that her name meant a “re-do” in golf.) Other charities use golf to raise funds, so Habitat is competing for the same players, “But one of the things I have found out is that high-end players will play every day if they have that option, so if they can tell their bosses, ‘today I’m doing a fund raiser for Habitat and tomorrow another one,’ they’ll spend the better part of the summer running around playing golf. They love it and help out all the organizations, so it’s been great for us. They bring friends, and their friends enroll and become our donors. So it’s a growing process.” Clever, right? 

Where else does Coastal Habitat garner its support? “There are also a lot of smaller grants that you keep writing every year for $5,000, $10,000, and if you’re lucky enough to get enough of them, you can move forward. The problem is to find funds for operations, so the cost of operations has been difficult, because many people don’t want to write a check and find that it has gone to a salary,” Mulligan said.

Of course, that's a familiar a complaint of nonprofits. But Habitat has found a way to underwrite the administrative costs of the agency with a thrift shop called a Restore, which not only has a brick-and-mortar presence, but is also available to shoppers online. ”Because of where we are located, we have some very wealthy people who will decide to change the living room after six months, so they’ll donate the barely used furniture to us. Others reap the benefit, because we sell at 25 percent of value.”

Sometimes younger staff members have presented fun ideas that really pay off. “We went to a video arcade in Asbury Park, where people could play video games. We’ve also done casino nights a couple of times.” Habitat has begun to use social media. “We’ve also started a young professionals group to tie right into that. They’ll be planning a fundraising event.”

Habitat’s territory also has a substantial LGBT population in Asbury Park. “They tend to have money, they have helped us out as well.”

Mulligan also described a strong culture of fundraising at Coastal Habitat, where everybody routinely asks for help, from the development staff to the construction manager. “He’s one of our biggest advocates. He gets so much stuff for free. He’ll go into Home Depot to buy sheet rock and he’ll see a washer and dryer on sale and ask the store to donate them, and the next thing I know, I’ve got a washer and dryer,” Mulligan said.

In a competitive fundraising environment, how does Mulligan distinguish her organization? She says, “Habitat is a hand up, not a handout. People who are chosen to be homeowners have to put sweat equity into the actual build itself, and that they have to pay a mortgage. That money we receive in mortgage payments we then put to the next house,” Mulligan explained. (Coastal Habitat holds the mortgages itself, a practice that some affiliates are moving away from.)

Mulligan stressed that the people who get help have to be working families whose modest income still qualifies them for the basic housing Habitat provides, and the group never accedes to requests to build or repair homes for people who are better off than the organization’s target demographic. “We serve those who have 30 to 50 percent of median income, so for a family of four, that would be under $54,000.”

Habitat’s focus is on building solid functional homes that are typically erected in lower income neighborhoods. She pointed out that Habitat often spurs neighborhood revitalization, describing one effort with other charities in which Habitat built 22 new homes on three contiguous streets. After three years, the area was occupied by solid citizens who turned the neighborhood around.

Coastal Habitat has a lot of advantages in the fundraising game. But Mulligan emphasizes that its clear and compelling mission is top among them. "Housing is such a universal need, which makes it easier to relate to compared to a cause like cystic fibrosis. Everybody needs a home that’s safe, sound and secure."

Mulligan offered this advice to other nonprofits: “Find your niche; don’t try to be something you’re not. Stay on course for who you are and what you do, and not try to be everything to everybody. You need to keep really focused.”