Real Dough-Getters

In a tough economy, not all philanthropies are created equal.

Illustration by Christian Montenegro

Illustration by Christian Montenegro

ON THE LIST OF JOBS no one wanted after the economic meltdown, the nonprofit fundraiser ranked somewhere south of, say, AIG brand manager. Extracting money from donors is tough in good times; after October 2008, it seemed impossible. And yet that was the month the New England Historic Genealogical Society decided to launch the first phase of a $50 million fundraising campaign, the largest in its 165-year history. “There was some hand-wringing about whether we should postpone it,” admits NEHGS president and CEO D. Brenton Simons. “But we believed hunkering down was not the way to garner support.”

The decision to canvass donors ran counter to nonprofit-world conventional wisdom, which holds that people’s wallets snap shut in down economies. Some organizations were so convinced they weren’t going to get money that they just stopped asking. That phenomenon, it turned out, left NEHGS with what one board member calls a significant tactical advantage: a lot less competition. As the country’s 400 biggest charities saw donations fall an average of 11 percent last year, the worst drop in more than two decades, NEHGS’s went up 258 percent. When the nonprofit entered the second, public phase of its campaign a few weeks ago, it was already 60 percent of the way toward its $50 million goal.

NEHGS isn’t the only local group bringing in cash in this era of reduced expectations. Since the crash, Old Sturbridge Village has managed to goose donations by 25 percent. And as other hospitals announce cutbacks, Mass General has nearly doubled its fundraising staff. They’ve already secured more than $1 billion, much of it through one-on-one meetings with donors. “Successful fundraising is about relationship-building,” says NEHGS’s Simons. “If you can really capture what it is people are interested in, they’re much more likely to support you.”

There are other ways to stand out, too. Simons recently decided to have the façade of his Newbury Street headquarters cleaned for the first time in nearly a century. “It’s a way of showing donors we’re healthy and active,” Simons says. “The scaffolding just came down, and the building is literally bright and shiny.” He’s banking on the future looking that way, too.