How two volunteers plus gutsy determination equaled $11 million

If you ask any executive director or director of development for their top wish, it’s likely to be board members who fundraise. Yet, this wish often seems an elusive dream.

On the chance that you might never personally encounter such coveted treasure, I thought you’d enjoy hearing from two fabulous fundraising board members: Joan Abrams and Kate Kilguss.

Kate and Joan co-chaired the $11 million Explore the Bay Campaign for Save The Bay in Providence, Rhode Island. Thanks to the money they raised in the campaign, Save The Bay expanded its hands-on environmental education programs to thousands of school kids and adults, built a 45-foot aluminum boat to take those kids on the water, reclaimed a municipal dump and its abandoned urban shoreline, built a spectacular, award-winning, state-of the art green building, The Save The Bay Center, with its own dock.

This dazzling fundraising duo graciously agreed to share their success story with you.

Why did you agree to co-chair this campaign?

Kate: We really believed in the vision. And that wasn’t just a vision about building a bunch of stuff. We believed – believe — that the future of this amazing estuary, Narragansett Bay, depends on building new generations of Bay stewards who will love and protect it just as much as those who came before.

Joan: That means getting thousands of kids, especially the under-served urban kids who live right in our own backyard, out on the water. Kids tell us all the time how exciting it was to be out on the Bay for the first time, to experience first-hand the amazing diversity of life there. And to get to hold a live Bay creature in your hands… wow!

Kate: Adults who come to the new Bay Center and see that incredible view of Narragansett Bay… right off the urban shores of Providence … they just can’t believe it. And anyone can appreciate a vision of opening a child’s eyes to the wonders of the natural world and getting them interested in science and ecology… who wouldn’t want to contribute to that?

Had you done much fundraising before this campaign?

Joan: I raise money for the few organizations that I really love, like the ballet.

Kate: I’d done some small annual giving fundraising, but nothing like this.

Didn’t the $11 million price tag scare you? That seems like a lot of money for an organization with an annual budget of what, one and a half, two million at the time you started?

Kate: The original goal was $6.5 million. We didn’t really know what the final cost would be. When we started raising money, we didn’t have any land [to build on] in sight so we didn’t have any architectural drawings. We only had our dream.

Joan: I knew that even if we only raised $3 million, we’d be able to build the boat to expand the education program and use rented dock space. That’s why I could confidently assure our earliest supporters that their money would be well-used. As the project took shape, the price tag grew. But we just kept going.

Kate: Within just a few months, we identified the first $1 million. A few months after that we had $2.5 million in pledges.

Joan: The first big gift was from one of our longest supporters and former board president. We wouldn’t have gotten the campaign going without her leadership gift. Then we raised the funds in the classic order: first the Board, then our major supporters and then one-by-one we built a cadre of donors that gave the campaign both financial and emotional support.

How many people did you ask for money?

Kate: Between us, we must have talked to over 1,500 people over the four to five years the campaign was running.

Wow! You must have made it your full time job?

Joan: Throughout the campaign we both worked full time. Kate at her law/mediation practice and I’m a professor and was the director of a graduate communications program at Simmons College.

Was it hard to raise money? How often were you turned down?

Kate: I don’t remember anyone turning me down.

Joan: I remember one rejection … we just didn’t let anyone turn us down. Even if someone said no, we knew they’d eventually come around.

Kate: That’s not to say that it was easy. We were on the phone a lot, and with each other every day, strategizing around temporary setbacks and celebrating successes.

Why do you think your success rate was so high?

Joan: We never got whiny or upset when we had a setback. We just kept going. We knew we couldn’t, we wouldn’t fail.

Kate: We learned early on to start all of our conversations by reconnecting people to their own relationship to the Bay. Everyone had a story. Once we could get them in touch emotionally to what they loved, we knew they would give.

Can you give me an example?

Joan: At the beginning, we had to convince Johnson and Wales University (JWU) to donate the land that we had our eyes on.

Kate: Imagine … here was this land, a former dump, unusable in its present state, that JWU owned. I have to say, Joan and our then Executive Director Curt Spalding (now Region 1 Director for the Environmental Protection Agency) gave an absolutely inspired presentation to a still completely skeptical university president.  But Joan and Curt were able to shift his thinking once they directly addressed the benefits of this project to JWU.

Joan: We painted a picture to the university of what was in it for them … how they would be the pioneers with us to transform this land, a state-of-the art environmental effort, and how they could share our dock, our buildings, and our programs with their students. You could see a shift taking place then. It took them about three days to consider our request. But when they got what this meant for them, they became our enthusiastic partners. They gave us a 99-year lease for $1.

Today Johnson and Wales University has a fabulous bayside campus as well.

What did the rest of the Board do?

Kate: First, they enthusiastically supported the project. These investments were a HUGE leap for Save The Bay. Other than our Baykeeper boat, we didn’t own much else. They asked lots of hard questions in the beginning and throughout as things changed… but nothing moved forward unless we had their total commitment.

Joan: Board gifts totaled just under $1 million – everyone made a stretch gift and some even made second gifts later in the campaign.

I didn’t hear you say that the other board members solicited gifts.

Kate: The Board was great but no, we did the solicitation. Other members did other important work for fundraising though. They identified possible donors. They made gifts. Many made connections for us. Some with particular expertise helped with building or boat design issues, others helped with particularly thorny political issues. They were solidly behind this and everyone had a way to get involved.

Joan: It would have been a waste of energy fighting to turn board members who weren’t comfortable with solicitation into solicitors. But every person contributed to the campaign in the way they could. We proved that you don’t need a lot of board solicitors to be successful.

What role did you play? What role did staff play?

Joan: Kate and I made virtually all of the cultivation and solicitation calls, alone or with Curt Spalding, the Executive Director, who has so much integrity and was so important for donor confidence.

Kate: At the beginning we had a campaign manager who whipped us into shape. Her contract ended after she got us organized, then our development staff did all the support work – prospect research and screening, preparing letters, and following up, etc. That allowed us to concentrate on connecting with donors.

What were your biggest gifts?

Kate: Our biggest foundation grant was $600,000 and we received $500,000 from Kresge. Because of the uniqueness of this project — environmental mitigation of an urban, coastal brownfield and the education aspect, we received almost $2 million in federal funds for various aspects of the project – our congressional delegation was really behind us on this.

Joan: We broke a lot of rules. We never raised a million gift from any individual. We had five year pledges. We raised $50,000 gifts, I think $25,000 was the most frequent size, and even a lot of $10,000 pledges.

Joan: We had to look beyond the usual suspects. In a state like Rhode Island, there are probably 30 families that nonprofits think to ask for capital funding. We didn’t rely on them… some of the major philanthropic families in the state never made a gift to the campaign. We looked at our annual givers (and we have a lot of those) and multiplied their giving by 10 as a benchmark for our request. The design of the campaign was very methodical – not “pie in the sky” – except for that federal funding.

Was there a gift were you most proud of?

Joan: The gift we received from a bank that doesn’t give to capital projects. Again, Curt and I took a chance and reached out to the person who could make the decision. We put forward how this project wasn’t about capital but that vision, how it would help accomplish the community reinvestment goals for the bank. We were shocked when the bank president told us on the spot they would give us $250,000.

Kate: We met with this long-time supporter, a really quiet donor in their extraordinary house. They gave us $75,000 and then another $20,000 later in the campaign.

Did you approach family and friends? Some people hate to ask people they know, others prefer to. What did you do?

Kate: We asked family and friends unless we couldn’t. Joan even called her cousin and got her while to pledge while she was on the ski slopes!

Joan: There was one friend of Kate’s, very philanthropic, that she didn’t feel comfortable asking. So she handed her off to me even though I didn’t really know her.

Kate: That’s the benefit of having a team.

Joan: By the way, you don’t have to know everyone you approach. We didn’t. We just called people up that we had identified as possible donors.

What other lessons did you learn that you’d like to share?

Kate: Keep the excitement high throughout the campaign. We invited our supporters to share small victories, like the groundbreaking. We talked the campaign and its progress up all the time, at our annual meeting and our events… we wanted everyone to stay excited as the campaign went along.

Joan: Make it fun. It has to be fun.

Kate: As I said before, you have to really believe in the vision. And then you’ve got to help people figure out how they connect to that vision… how their dreams fit yours.

I’ve been telling people for years that success really depends on how much you are willing to commit to. You both are living examples of that idea. Thank you, Kate and Joan. You are the best!

This article originally appeared in Contributions Magazine, Vol 22; No 4 2008. Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE