Impossibilities in Fundraising

Kurt Jostes
When I joined RAI Ministries in New Orleans in 2007, the organization, formed in response to Hurricane Katrina, was less than two years old. Initial funding in the form of a $5 million one-time grant from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was being spent at a rate of over $2 million a year. Part of my job offer was the up-front acknowledgement that the organization might not exist past a year or two. Just coming out of college and sold on the mission, I was ready for an adventure.
The primary work of RAI Ministries centres on the operation of Camp Restore, located in a converted elementary school building in New Orleans East. Here we provide housing, meals and project coordination for more than 3,000 volunteers a year from across the U.S. and around the world. During their week-long stays, they serve with local New Orleans nonprofits in a wide range of roles, including continued efforts to restore flood-damaged homes.
When I arrived, RAI was also operating three more programs in addition to Camp Restore while subsidizing the costs of another volunteer camp. The traditional donor-giving-potential formulas projected we’d raise less than 10% of our annual operating budget from our small list of donors in a best-case scenario. Something had to change quickly, whether we liked it or not.

Not surprisingly, we did not suddenly discover thousands of new donors who immediately contributed millions to the cause. Nor did we apply for and successfully receive millions of dollars in general-operations grant funding. Yet here we are, in 2014, blessed to be welcoming our 25,000th volunteer to Camp Restore early next year.

Long story short, between 2008 and 2011 we divested of everything except Camp Restore, which we heavily streamlined. Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept in Good to Great was incredibly helpful as we sought to define what we were passionate about, best at, and what drove our economic engine.

How we managed to make and survive the immense change between 2008 to 2011 is a much, much longer story that is probably more appropriately suited for a theological discussion about faith and the grace of God.

But I do know that a focused and compelling mission and vision are absolutely necessary to hold on to while riding the roller coaster. If they aren’t there, find them before you get on!

Today, in essence we operate much like a college or university. Similar to tuition and room and board, we charge $40 per day per volunteer. This covers the vast majority of our general operational costs.

For capital projects, including the complete restoration of a church facility in the Lower Ninth Ward, the establishment of a commercial kitchen building, and a housing expansion at Camp Restore, we’ve conducted classic capital campaigns – something we simply couldn’t achieve in 2007 but are now successful at after a decade’s worth of relationship-building with donors, volunteer alumni and grant-making entities.

In summary, when facing impossible fundraising situations, they’re probably just that – impossible – and the problems and solutions may likely be outside of the fundraising field. But if you have a mission/vision worth fighting for, work to help your organization find and connect with its bedrock, and begin building from there using best practices.

For more on Camp Restore please visit: www.camprestore.org

Kurt Jostes is the Director of Advancement for RAI Ministries, Inc. and lives in New Orleans with his wife, Rebecca. A member of the Association of Lutheran Development Executives (ALDE) and a Kellogg Fellow, Jostes graduated from Concordia University-Nebraska in 2007 and was named its Young Alumnus of the Year in 2012.

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