Skip to main content

American Magazine

In the Community

Nonprofits: A Cross-Country Tour

By Charles Spencer


Nonprofit leaders nationwide are learning how to adapt to a sluggish economy to keep their organizations going. In fact, many are thriving.

Meet some AU people at the forefront of the fight.

New York Women’s Foundation

Location: New York City

Mission: “We are a cross-cultural alliance of women [inspiring] partnerships and leveraging human and financial capital to achieve sustained economic security and justice for women and girls. With fierce determination, we mobilize hearts, minds, and resources to create an equitable and just future for women, families, and communities in New York City.”

AU connection: Christina Ramelli, SPA/BA ’01, director of individual major giving

At the New York Women’s Foundation, which last year gave about $5 million to more than 70 grant partners in the five boroughs of New York City, fund raising is going well, but some positions have been frozen. Although many potential donors in finance, law, and media and publishing have lost their jobs, there are generous wealthy folks around who are willing to give to organizations such as the foundation, says Ramelli.

The foundation gives grants averaging between $50,000 and $80,000 to teens and young women to help break the cycle of poverty, as well as funds to crisis centers for abuse and abuse prevention.

“We’ve seen challenges but I don’t think there will ever be a time that there aren’t challenges,” Ramelli says. “If there are none, become concerned because the bubble is about to burst."

Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Location: Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Mission: The conservancy’s “mission is to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail — ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed . . . for centuries to come.”

AU connection: Royce Gibson, SPA/BA’90, director of development

“Fund raising has been a little rough the last year or so. It’s surprising it took a couple years to catch up. We were thinking 2009 would be bad, but last year it was just harder to raise money,” says Gibson.

The conservancy maintains the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail and has 45 full-time employees in six offices. Nearly half of its approximately $7 million budget comes from the National Park Service. The conservancy doesn’t expect government funding cuts, but it isn’t budgeting for increases either.

Network for Good

Location: Bethesda, Maryland

Mission: “We make it as easy to donate and volunteer online as it is to shop online, and we make it simple and affordable for all nonprofits, of any size, to recruit donors and volunteers via the Internet.”

AU connection: Katya Andresen, chief strategy officer, adjunct in AU’s Key Executive Program

One answer to the challenges fund raisers face is online giving. Andresen sees the future of fund raising in online donations. Network for Good offers both nonprofit and for-profit companies a platform for online giving. The organization has seen tremendous growth through its methodology. The nonprofit has raised over $500 million in online donations for 60,000 different nonprofit organizations, and its volunteer network offers 200,000 volunteer opportunities.

“If you look at overall giving, which is in the neighborhood of $300 billion a year in the United States, about 75 percent of that is from individuals,” Andresen says. “Everything else — corporate, foundation — is dwarfed by the amount coming from individuals. When you look at individual behavior in the other economic spheres, whether online banking or online shopping, you see this gravitation from offline to online.

“I think the same thing is happening with philanthropy, but we’re in very early days. Of that $300 billion only 5 percent is online. For individual giving, maybe 10 percent is online. That’s a very small amount, but I think someday we’ll look back and see that 95 percent of giving is online and only 5 percent is offline.”

Shane’s Inspiration

Location: Los Angeles, California

Mission: “The mission of Shane’s Inspiration is to create inclusive playgrounds and programs that unite children of all abilities.”

AU connection: Paul Satenstein, Kogod/BSBA ’83, treasurer of the board

Shane’s Inspiration has recovered from the initial shock of the recession to refocus its organization.

“The economic times of the last two years have been extremely challenging, enlightening and ultimately, extremely beneficial,” says Paul Satenstein, who is also chief financial officer and chief operating officer of iWatchNow Inc. “Initially, we were hit hard by the recession and had to adjust with layoffs and pay cuts, which allowed us to maintain key staff and programs.”

The board of directors explored several options — merging with a larger nonprofit or for-profit industry partner, cutting programs. None of those options was taken, but the search forced the group to examine its mission and how it accomplished its goals.

“We asked each department, each staff person, and ourselves [the board], ‘Where are we righteous in how we think something has to be done?’”

The result: A reinvigorated organization with a new strategic plan, new partnerships, and a goal to expand throughout North America.

Lighthouse International

Location: New York City

Mission: “Lighthouse International is dedicated to fighting vision loss through prevention, treatment, and empowerment.”

AU connection: Roger Goldman, WCL ’69, chairman of the board

Contributions grew 47 percent and Lighthouse International was able to offer specialized eye exams to 40 percent more patients in 2010 than in 2009 (according to its 2010 annual report.)

How is the organization able to raise money so successfully during tough times?

“Yes, the economy is tough,” acknowledges Roger Goldman, a senior financial executive. “People don’t have as much confidence in the future as they once had. It’s the combination that creates problems, not just the reality.

“And let’s remember that times have never been better for the one percent. So [you have to ask] when is the economy a reason and when is the economy an excuse. The second piece is, like most charities we are a very small market-share company, but if you think about how low vision impacts one in every four families, about the aging of America, and a number of other things, it’s an epidemic.”

Houston Grand Opera

Location: Houston, Texas

Mission: “Our company exists to contribute to the cultural enrichment of the city of Houston and the nation by producing and performing world-class opera and creating a diverse, innovative, and balanced program of performances, events, community and education projects, which reaches the widest possible public.”

AU connection: Angie Lane, MA/SOC ’02, director of development

Arts organizations generally have seen contributions lag, but at the Houston Grand Opera, which receives 75 percent of its annual revenue from contributions, giving has been steady, says Lane.

“We’ve focused on getting our message out to individuals we know who love opera, talking to them about our financial state and what we need. Opera is lucky; we have a built-in fan base. If you’re donating to the opera you’re probably already coming to the opera. That gives us a natural prospect pool.”