Context and takeaway: Funding the local movement

Editor's Note

Back to 2014 InFocus: Non-Profits Community Assessment Survey Index…

For non-profit groups, one of the keys to success, among many others, is its fundraising ability. Most non-profits cannot thrive, and many will not survive, without the possibility of increased funds, donor strength and, more importantly, a diversity of revenue streams.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, too. Many non-profits compete for the same donors, the same grants and the same corporate sponsorships.

So, it’s natural that debates over how our community spends its money and prioritizes the issues which receive funding trickle up among non-profit staffers, clients, donors, activists and community members. Here in Charlotte, one debate has been the extent to which local money is spent on national, as opposed to local, causes. It comes and goes depending on season, usually hitting its peak controversy right around when the Human Rights Campaign holds its annual North Carolina Gala in Charlotte each February.

Several weeks ago, I was asked to be a panelist in a forum exploring questions over the community’s present and future. I was there to share my personal perspectives and opinions, independent from the newspaper. I said at the event that I believed it was time for local Charlotteans to eschew their annual giving at the HRC gala and to invest more heavily in local causes, especially in the face of such increased need and some challenge here in our city. To me, it’s more a question of priorities, not worth or value. National groups like HRC do good work. They have an important role in the national LGBT movement and their staffers in D.C. and field organizers across the country are committed to the cause. But national groups like HRC aren’t committed in the same way locals can be and often are when it comes to working on local issues. It’s the nature of the game; no national organization can be attuned to every need of every local community and they don’t, by and large, have the capacity to swoop in and assist with local causes, even if that assistance is justified or sorely needed. That’s why, personally, I think it’s important for us to invest locally. No one else other than locals are going to do the hard, backbreaking and emotional work it takes to create a strong local community.

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If you’ve lived in Charlotte long enough or been involved in the local LGBT community, you already know what happened next. There are just some things one doesn’t say publicly in Charlotte. Criticizing HRC is among them. And while I certainly have critiques on how the organization could better serve it’s national community, my perspective on the local-national funding question isn’t so much a criticism as it is a question of priorities and a call for local conversation.

So, I was glad to have had several conversations with multiple people in the days following that forum. One asked about the level of giving among the community, hypothesizing that the overwhelming majority of LGBT people donate nothing to local causes. Another person and I discussed the possibility that many who give to national groups like HRC very often contribute to local causes as well. For many, giving nationally or locally isn’t an either-or proposition — it’s both-and.

All that is true.

In this print edition, we run our annual Community Assessment Survey, a review of several local and regional non-profit groups’ annual tax filings and other financial information. The data we report is fairly straight-forward, but, here, I want to provide some context and personal takeaway on the data.

Donation rates: In the review, we revisit some numbers we reported last year. We’d asked non-profits to tell us how many individual donors they had giving any amount to their organizations. That number came back to over 4,000 for 10 organizations that chose to disclose that information. There’s two ways to analyze that figure. A 2011 survey of Charlotte showed more than 240,000 potential LGBT people and potential straight allies. A 2012 Gallup poll found North Carolina’s LGBT adult population stands at 3.3 percent of the total population. These estimates aren’t perfect, and they won’t be until the U.S. Census Bureau decides to count all LGBT people (right now, they just count couples). But they do give us a benchmark to measure the rate of local giving — anywhere from 1.7 percent to 17 percent of possible community members (the former including allies) gave to the 10 organizations we reviewed. The latter number is larger and I’d argue more significant, but it’s still far from a majority. It should be noted that these figures don’t take into account the full breadth of the community and data from all community organizations. It also doesn’t count people whose donations might not be recorded — folks who dropped a few unrecorded dollars in a donation bucket, for example, or those who have little-to-no money to give and instead spend their “donation” in the form of volunteered personal talents or time.

Local v. national: The conversations following that forum sparked an interesting and valid question: Who are our major donors and what organizations do they support? So, we undertook an effort to get a glimpse, however small, of what the local major donor community looks like here in LGBT Charlotte. The resulting numbers are revealing, and you can read the results of our inquiries on page 11. It’s worth noting that a small, but not insignificant, minority of major donors contributing at the $500 level and above gave to more than one organization. Most split their major gifts between national and local causes — 66 percent included at least one gift to an organization with a national mission or focus and one gift to an organization with a local mission or focus. And all told, at least 43 percent of the estimated money raised and represented by the donors we studied went directly to local causes.

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These estimates confirm what many have said — folks who have the money to support national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign also very often support local organizations as well. We set our major donor benchmark at $500, but going through the lists of individual donors, we noticed that a far larger portion were also giving at levels as low as $50, $100 or $250.

Locals taking care of their own: Some readers might see concern in the amount of major donor funds flowing into national causes. But our annual non-profit review this year finds that at least some local and regional organizations are outperforming national trends. Now in its fifth year, the non-profit review was able to look back over six years of non-profit tax filings. We reviewed five organizations included in our annual non-profit survey since it began. Many of them are experiencing growth, with some seeing as much as double-digit percentage growth in their revenues each year. These same groups, by and large, receive a significant portion (at least a third for four of them) of their revenue from individual donors — a possible sign that local contributors, whether major donors or small donors, certainly want to see local organizations thrive.

Gaps and the need for more study: Our review of major donor data did not include one of the local community’s largest groups, Time Out Youth Center — arguably one among several shining local non-profit success stories in recent years. We couldn’t find a publicly available list of the group’s major individual donors and it wasn’t disclosed to us. (Note: These sets of data are not usually open to public inspection; organizations have the right to release them as they and their donors see fit.) In the future, I hope this set of data can be included if we or another media outlet or organization explores similar funding questions or research again. My hypothesis is that the portion of major donors giving to two or more groups — 14 percent in our research published here — will rise if Time Out Youth’s data is included.

Secondly, we believe our review of the 10 organizations’ major donor data is a representative sample of local giving. We included national and local groups, organizations with large budgets and those with small budgets and organizations with a variety of purposes and missions. We’ve published our methodology along with the article. Still, this question could use more research and study. We also admit we’re journalists and newspaper folks. While our staff has the experience and knowledge to analyze some giving and financial data, we’re not hardened, trained financial analysts, CPAs or accountants. We challenge those with greater skills to take up similar questions and research projects for local causes, similar to national studies done by research staff at groups like the Movement Advancement Project and Funders for LGBTQ Issues.

Finally, we want to issue a warning against using the research we’ve collected in order to draw unwarranted conclusions not backed up by the evidence as collected and presented. We know opinions and perspectives on a variety of issues intersecting with these questions quite often run strong and deep, but the data must be our ultimate guide. : :

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.