Tapping thinner wallets

In these uncertain economic times, nonprofit groups are coming up with a new slate of strategies for coaxing dollars from donors. The theme of Hope Through Health’s recent happy-hour fundraiser, for example — Drink to Your Health While Giving Hope to Others — was unusual, given the nonprofit’s goals, but it worked. About 50 members of the under-40 set jammed the Vinoteca Wine Bar in Northwest and contributed nearly $600 to the cause.

The organization (www.hthglobal.org), begun four years ago by Peace Corps volunteers, supports community-based health initiatives in underdeveloped countries such as Togo in West Africa, where 58 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Participants at the D.C. chapter’s quarterly fundraiser were asked to donate $10 each, and in return they received a hand-beaded red ribbon — a symbol of the fight against HIV/AIDS — made by Togolese women living on anti-retroviral drugs. A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but HTH, a grass-roots organization, boasts that it has virtually no administrative costs and so can support social services helping nearly 1,400 people living with HIV in Togo.

The occasion — and the inventive slogan, plus the use of Facebook to tally names — is just one example of the work done by nonprofits of all sizes to rally old and new funding sources to their side. The smaller and less well-known the nonprofit, the more difficult the task will be.

According to Giving USA Foundation, publisher of an annual yearbook on the state of American philanthropy, corporations give just 13 percent of their total charitable funds to arts groups; it remains to be seen how mergers and acquisitions in the current downturn will affect future sums.

“Hopefully what we will see is greater collaboration among small agencies in their back offices,” says Edith Falk, vice president of the Illinois-based foundation.

“Then, too, there is need to look for ways to drive traffic to a Web site as more cost-effective — less paper — and to stay in touch with donors more quickly with the kinds of messages tailored to their particular interest,” she says. “Money spent on newsletters may go to something else.”

Barbara Witten, partner in the consulting and event-planning firm Hayes & Associates, was a scheduled panelist at Tuesday’s nonprofit business forum on fundraising strategies, hosted by the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce.

Expanding the notion of in-kind donations of goods beyond simply wine, as often is done, is one way, she said — a cattlemen’s trade association once donated an entire main course — as is creating atypical events for clients, such as the poker tournament with Ben Affleck the chairman for a Paralyzed Veterans of America event is planning for February in Las Vegas.

The power of celebrity as a lure is stronger than ever, especially when organizations can attract showbiz and athletic luminaries to attend for a cause and not just lend their names as “honorary hosts.”

Robin Williams did more than share his presence at last week’s USO gala benefit at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, which President Bush attended. The actor-comedian did an entire stand-up routine.

Ashley Judd, Anna Kournikova and Sharon Osbourne were among the attractions at the 2008 YouthAIDS gala on Friday at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, which honored Bob Geldof, Annie Lennox and MTV’s Judy McGrath.

Olympian Michael Phelps is to walk the runway at An Evening of Celebrity Fashion and Fun on Oct. 25 at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore to benefit Pathfinders for Autism, a statewide organization founded by parents of children with autism. Tickets for the event are $150.

Another classic audience-getter is the unusual pairing of an activity with its beneficiary. Performing arts and charity runs aren’t often linked, but the Wolf Trap Foundation on Oct. 25 plans to sponsor its first 5K and Howl-o-ween Fun Run.

Even in tough economic times, organizations expect that loyal supporters will stay loyal but possibly will buy fewer or cheaper tickets to major funding events. Thus, the cry everywhere is to diversify and reach out to broaden the base.

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