In a recent conversation among CCS Fundraising’s Human Services Sector Team, we discussed nonprofit clients tackling industry-wide challenges through innovative solutions and best-practice fundraising. Our recent client, Ability Beyond, a human service organization that provides programs and services for adults with disabilities, was mentioned several times for its forward-thinking approaches and expert fundraising team.
We invited Jane Davis, President & CEO; Tracy Conte, Vice President of Development & Community Engagement; and Elita Walker, Director of Development, to discuss the mission, work, and fundraising at Ability Beyond.
For our readers who aren’t familiar with your work, what do you do?
Jane Davis: Ability Beyond provides services to about 3,000 people with disabilities per year across New York and Connecticut. Our services include residential and day services, employment services, mental health services, and supplemental supports like outpatient clinics, transportation, and participation in Special Olympics. We’re the second largest agency in the state of Connecticut, and this year, we’re celebrating our 70th anniversary!
With a culture of innovation, Ability Beyond is changing the care industry. Our employment consulting service, Disability Solutions, has helped 6,500 people across the country and internationally gain employment and is transforming the worldwide workplace to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Our problem solving doesn’t stop there. Facing the growing, industry-wide shortage of qualified caretakers, we developed an app to match available, trained staff more efficiently with clients and open work shifts. Since launching in February 2022, the number of shifts filled has increased by 40% and the use of part-time flex staff covering shifts has almost doubled. We have also seen positive trends in employee retention due to the ease, flexibility, and opportunity the app provides.
What fundraising challenges are you facing right now?
Tracy Conte: Though it’s always a challenge at a nonprofit, we are in a five-year campaign and have a lot of prospects to pursue with a limited staff. We are figuring out how to deepen relationships with donors. Our services are in Connecticut and New York, but we are looking to pursue foundation funding on a national level. It takes time to develop and pursue these relationships, so we are always working on how we can convey our impact and tell our stories in a way that is approachable to donors.
We’re also strategizing about how to engage donors with all the different innovations and services that their donations make possible so that they can experience the impact firsthand. Our funding model is complex; 90% of our annual budget is reimbursed by the states through Medicaid, but that covers basic care and does not provide for meeting capital needs or innovations (like what Jane just shared), expansion, and technological growth. In the end, fundraising is the key to helping us unlock these new and exciting approaches.
Jane Davis: Notably, we are acclimating donors to post-COVID-19 programs as well, and ensuring that donors understand the ongoing sense of urgency has been a very important part of our efforts.
What solutions are you working on to solve those challenges?
Tracy Conte: We are focusing on reconnecting people with each other and the mission. Specifically, a few initiatives we’ve undertaken to solve those challenges include:
- We are hosting a lot of cultivation events. It’s been really fun. People are hungry to get out and socialize. We just had our mental health breakfast with over 450 people, which was double our past attendance. People were ready to be in person and reconnect to support us. The cultivation and stewardship that we put efforts into paid off.
- Our volunteers are being trained to host their own events too. We’re doing a lot of timely follow-ups and thank-you calls from our staff and volunteers. We welcome people to come by and see our commercial and residential sites firsthand.
- We spent time showcasing our staffing app and several others at stewardship events. A recent event was held to share data and let donors know about how our tech innovations impact our entire industry. It shows that we’re a good investment and that the solutions we offer are good investments.
- We invested in ourselves and hired new fundraising professionals.
- We are rebranding our website and streamlining the webpage to better engage with donors.
Elita Walker: Our trustees, our major gift committees, and our event success is a testament to our volunteer leadership and cultivation efforts.
Could you tell us more about your new website efforts?
Elita Walker: During the development of our new website, we took great care to ensure both its ease of navigation for the end-users as well as its accessibility. Given the population we serve, it was vital to us that the site is accessible to all. The development included color contrast comparisons for the best visual experience, fonts that were easy to read, and a complete content refresh.
Since the launch of our new website in November, we have seen a 9% increase in users during the first month alone, compared to the previous year’s figures. We also saw a 13% increase in the number of sessions on the website, as well as a nearly 6% increase in the time people spent on the site. As we continue to refine the site moving forward, we expect these numbers will continue to improve.
How do you leverage marketing to support your fundraising efforts?
Tracy Conte: With some help from PPP funding, we’ve focused on our branding, website, and digital advertising. When you read about the top 1% of philanthropists, like Mackenzie Scott, we don’t have a detailed sense of how she is choosing her organizations, but we know they have great visibility. Though these transformational gifts are likely data-driven decisions, it’s important to all donors and constituents that your external communications are current and compelling, talk about impact, and highlight your story. When a high-net-worth donor—or any constituent—comes to your website, it’s important that you have a refined brand. This also helps us to attract younger donors amidst the generational transition of wealth.
Are there any innovative approaches that you are taking that you think might inspire others?
Tracy Conte: Some of these approaches are tried and true, but we surveyed our supporters to understand if our communications are appealing. Some questions we asked included: Will they consider a planned gift? Can they share insight on what and how they want to support?
We also used Google Ad grants and social media advertising to raise our external profile, see who is engaging with us, and attract a younger demographic and diverse donors. Third-party events extend our reach and help us deepen community connections and grow our donor base.
What gives you hope about the future of fundraising in 2023?
Tracy Conte: There is a resurgence of in-person events: tours, coffees, and in-person meet-ups that we rely upon. We’ve been developing our story of impact to communicate during these events as well. The “heads down” time that we took while coming out of the height of COVID-19 helped us get clear on priorities, what we’re raising money for, and how we tell that story.
Despite rumblings about a potential recession, we have an engaged community that recognizes the need for the services, inclusive opportunities, and independence we provide. Donors at all levels seem to be tapping into a greater sense of purpose and that has me really excited about the future and philanthropy. Donors seem motivated by this greater sense of purpose.
Could you share a bit about CCS’s role in supporting this amazing work?
Tracy Conte: We couldn’t have done it without you! We are in a five-year comprehensive campaign, Making Beyond Possible, and are about 60% to goal. CCS helped us develop the strategic roadmap for this campaign: focus groups for donors, wealth screenings, research into donor prospects, and solicitation sequencing, all of this went into creating our campaign roadmap and materials. Some of the strategies that we talked about—like conducting a survey to know what our donors are thinking and feeling about how we put their donations to work—that was all done with CCS. And the work that CCS supports us with, like the survey, really helps us feel confident and comfortable that we’re pursuing major gifts from the right people at the right time.
We thank our colleagues at Ability Beyond. To learn more about Ability Beyond, please visit abilitybeyond.org.
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