Rick Schwartz Straight Talk

It’s your anniversary. Who cares!

(Hardly anyone, but here are 9 ways to make it matter.)

In 2007, the great David Rahr, former president of the Vermont Community Foundation, invited me to talk to the board of the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut (CFSECT). They were going to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2008, and he was consulting about development issues.

“Sure,” I said. I’d never been to Eugene O’Neill’s hometown and I love to explore new cities. But mostly I was excited to spend some time with David, who is one of my heroes. (He’s President Emeritus at the VCF. You can drop him an email.)

David may have remembered I had been with The Rhode Island Foundation when we festively celebrated its 80th year. (Our predecessors apparently hadn’t made much of a fuss over the 75th and none of us wanted to wait 15 years for the 100th.)

Coincidentally 2007 had been my wife’s and my 25th wedding anniversary, and that was the basis of my perhaps controversial question to CFSECT: “Who cares?”

Think about it. A couple celebrates a landmark anniversary. Of course it should be meaningful to them and offer all kinds of opportunities for reflection and renewal.

Their children think, “Wow, they’re ancient!” or “How did they last that long?” or “When’s the party?” or, hopefully, “That’s wonderful, and a model for us.”

The couple’s parents and siblings remember the wedding fondly (or not, depending). Perhaps they arrange a party. It’s worth a few days thought.

Your friends? About the same. Some have been together longer, some less. Some are jealous, some are sympathetic. They’ll bring gifts to the party but, really, after 25 years, don’t you already have everything you need?

Cousins, aunts, uncles, the WalMart manager, the stranger driving past your house? Now you’re begging for attention.

Why do we expect 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.

The staff will probably care the most, especially the long-timers. After all, we live here all day long, week after week, year after year.

Board members may care, the founders more so; a board with short terms, less so.

After them, who? Your clients? Your funders? Your grantees (if you’re a grantmaker)? They will congratulate you and many will come to the party, but what is it exactly they should feel so excited about?

Despite my cynical outlook, CFSECT decided it would forge ahead with a 25th anniversary celebration. Even more curiously, those wonderful folks (hi everyone!) engaged me to be their anniversary coach for the next 14 months.

I think it was because I told them that CFSECT’s anniversary did mean a great deal to certain people in its fascinating mix of urban and rural, tiny and larger, poor and wealthier towns. We just had to tell them what that importance was. A year would be a good start.

What nonprofits really want from anniversaries:
fame and money

In private, most nonprofits admit they hope their anniversary celebrations will accomplish two objectives:

  • Finally make them as famous as they deserve to be
  • Bring in lots of money.

    (Actually, we assume the first will also lead to the second.)

    A smartly-done anniversary – by a deserving nonprofit – will generate those results eventually if you use it to:

    • Distinguish your organization from every other organization.
    • Bring your inside circles of people closer.
    • Maintain the spirit long after the anniversary is over.

    The first will tell me why I should pay attention (and give) to your organization above all the other nattering nabobs who are pestering me. The second acknowledges what Alan Sharpe, author of Breakthrough Fundraising Letters, writes: "Getting a donation from a current donor is five to eight times more cost effective than getting a donation of the same size from a stranger."

    But this talk is even a bit too mercenary for me. An anniversary is a perfect time to reinvigorate staff and board and close friends with the meaning and mission of the organization. I promise you, some strategic planning will get done in the course of the year.

    Nine basic activities that made the difference

    Let’s be clear: nothing would have worked if CFSECT President Alice Fitzpatrick hadn’t built a staff who work together like I seldom see. Everyone stepped up without hierarchy or boundaries. Hats off to them! (And they’re all such nice people, too!)

    Beyond that, here are what turned out to be the nine most important elements of the year.

    The first five prepared the soil:

    1.  The board and staff agreed to be ice cold clear and realistic about our goals for the year. Alison kept great notes!
    2. 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.
    3.  We developed a no-surprises budget that even Ed, the CFO, could comfortably live with (thanks, Ed!)
    4.  Everyone agreed to and embraced the answer for “It’s your anniversary. So what?”
    5.  Every public mention of the anniversary included the “so what?” answer. 

    The next four were key activities for this particular organization; yours may be very different:

    1. CFSECT held two lovely gatherings. The first was at the beginning of the year and was limited to key donors and funders, former board members, and committee members, primarily. Attendees were told why the anniversary mattered. They were reminded of their essential roles in the organization, 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 insiders, people more loosely connected to the foundation, grantees, and just about everyone of influence in the state. (They all came, too!)
      The program and the setting (breathtakingly designed by Jennifer and Jessica) were choreographed to answer the “So what?” question, but entertainingly, of course.
    2. 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, the Board and staff spent many months deliberating over several options. After thoughtful and, yes heated debate, they chose to divide $1.5 million among the 13 public libraries in the 11 towns the foundation serves. The genius of the gift was that it included endowment, collaboration among towns and agencies, due diligence by the foundation, and several donors chipping in to generate the $1.5 million, all attributes of the fine community foundation that CFSECT is.

    3.  The foundation created an award-winning annual report. The publication is pretty spectacular, but the process was almost as important. CFSECT President Alice Fitzpatrick and others interviewed people who had started the foundation as a dream and a promise 25 years earlier.
      In doing so, Alice honored people who had drifted, perhaps, from the fold, and reminded them they were welcome.
           The annual reports quickly became keepsakes, especially for the several thousand people who, inevitably, couldn’t make it to the party.

    4. We requested, and received, editorial meetings with the daily press. The parties and the annual report brought their existing circles closer. The gift to the community and the media work introduced them to a wider public.

    Sure, we had some great outcomes,
    but the best are yet to come

    Was it worth it? Some of the measures are quantitative:

    • A 59% 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
    • Governor Jodi Redl declared a “Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut Day”
    • Congratulatory editorials.

    Alison Woods, the director of gift planning, reports that professional advisors are more likely to come up to her and say, “I have a client…” Just last week I bumped into someone who was still talking about the party six months later.

    I can hear good people writing the community foundation into their estates right now. It’s up to the community foundation to keep that spirit of celebration alive.

    Anniversaries work for all nonprofits

    These ideas hold true for more than community foundations. I’m working now with a children’s services agency that turns 175 years old this year. (That’s not a typo!) Even it has to answer the “So what?” question.

    But I’m going to write about that next time. I haven’t decided whether to call it “Give a d**n about your annual report” or “Yes, sigh, you must do an annual report”. Check in next month to find out.