Another great guest post by Rick Schwartz.
In late 2007, I was invited to talk to a community foundation that was going to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2008.
Coincidentally, 2007 was my own 25th wedding anniversary, and that was the basis of my perhaps controversial opening question to the community foundation’s board: “Who cares?”
Think about it. A couple celebrates a landmark anniversary. Of course it should be meaningful to them. It offers all kinds of opportunities for reflection and renewal. But why do we expect other people to care? However warm your family, however close your friends, anniversaries have a very weak gravitational pull as you move outside the hot inner core.
Apply that reality to your nonprofit, too. Who really cares that your organization is having an anniversary? Your staff? Your board? Your clients? Your funders? Your grantees (if you’re a grantmaker)? What is it exactly they should feel so excited about?
Yet many nonprofits assume that a fancy-numbered anniversary will somehow magically: 1) finally make them as famous as they deserve to be, and 2) bring in lots of money.
Actually, it’s worth a try
Despite my cynical approach, the community foundation decided it would forge ahead with a 25th anniversary celebration with me as their for the following 14 months. I think it was because I told them that their anniversary did, in fact, mean a great deal to certain key people in its fascinating mix of urban and rural, tiny and larger, poor and wealthier towns.
We just had to tell those people what that importance was. An anniversary year would be a good start. We could use the occasion to: distinguish the organization from every other organization, and bring inside circles of people closer. It’s also a perfect time to reinvigorate staff and board with the meaning and mission of the organization. I promise you, your organization will change in the course of the year.
Everyone’s anniversary means something different
So, I’m a donor to your organization. Why should I be excited about your anniversary?
The community foundation used its anniversary to tell key people four important messages: proof of permanence, legacy, achievement, and gratitude.
- We made it! Twenty-five years ago, our founders had a dream of people creating a permanent endowment for the region. Today, $30 million later, it could declare victory, for everyone’s good!
- Your ‘investments’ have made a difference. At the 25-year mark, we can look back and count the successes: programs launched, scholarships granted, land protected, children’s services created, etc.
- You are a part of history! Stop and take a breath. This is no longer a two- or three-year project, but the first 25 years of history of what will become an even greater institution.
- Thank you! Have we had a chance to thank all of you who actually planted the seeds? Can one ever say ‘thank you’ enough
What does your nonprofit’s anniversary mean?
Nine basic activities that made the difference
For the community foundation, here are what turned out to be the nine most important elements of the year. The first five prepared the soil:
- The board and staff agreed to be ice cold clear and realistic about our goals for the year.
- Every item we planned was judged and designed for its direct relevance to the goals. Lots of great ideas were proposed; lots were discarded if the link couldn’t be made.
- We developed a no-surprises budget that even Ed, the CFO, could comfortably live with
- Everyone agreed to and embraced the answers for “It’s your anniversary. So what?”Every public mention of the anniversary included the “so what?” answers.
The other four key elements were specific to this organization; your activities may be different.
- The foundation held two lovely gatherings. The first one was at the beginning of the year for key donors and funders, former board members, and committee members. Attendees were thanked for their essential roles in the organization. They were given the official “reasons” for the anniversary and were given the first look at the schedule of activities. Finally, as “insiders,” they were encouraged to be ambassadors during this celebratory year. The second gathering was in the fall. Invitations went to the above group of insiders, but also to people more loosely connected to the foundation, grantees, and just about everyone of influence in the state. The program and the setting were choreographed to answer the “So what?” question, but entertainingly.
- With appropriate fanfare, the foundation gave an anniversary “gift to the community” that brilliantly represented why the foundation is such a unique organization. In this case, it was a $1.5 million gift to the local public library system.
- The foundation created an award-winning annual report. The two-part publication is pretty spectacular (you can see it online) but the process of creating it was almost as important. The CEO and others interviewed people who had started the foundation as a dream and a promise 25 years earlier. In doing so, the report honored people who had drifted, perhaps, from the fold, and reminded them they were welcome. Their stories were heartfelt and respectful.
- We requested, and received, editorial meetings with the daily press. The parties and the annual report brought the foundation’s existing circles closer. The gift to the community and the media work introduced the foundation to a wider public.
Sure, we had some great outcomes, but the best are yet to come
Was all the effort worth it? Some measures are quantitative:
- A 57% increase in contributions from the previous year, despite a horrendous economy
- Major turnouts at both events
- The Gold award for the annual report from the Council on Foundations (yay!)
- Governor Jodi Redl declared a “Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut Day”
- Congratulatory editorials.
The anniversary year has passed. Now it’s up to the community foundation to keep that spirit of celebration alive by continuing its good work.