By Rheba Howard
Agricultural philanthropy is sometimes thought to be synonymous with Farm Aid, starving children in Africa and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation. With continued growth and a sharpened vision, the National FFA Foundation is also becoming a major player developing agricultural leaders for the future of the industry.
Started in the early 1940s with corporate contributions from Firestone Tire and Rubber, the National FFA Foundation has continued to grow. The foundation provides financial support for the programs, initiatives and educational works of the National FFA Organization and other member organizations within Team Ag Ed. Firestone Tire and Rubber was the first of many corporate entities in agriculture to support and help build FFA. Because of that initial investment, the foundation became unique as a nonprofit with 85 to 90 percent of our donations coming from corporate sponsorships and only about 5 to 10 percent coming from individual donors. This is the opposite of the nonprofit sector whose main contributors are individuals and not corporate sponsors. In the early 2000s FFA recognized this and began to think about reaching out to our vast network of supporters.
While recognizing that corporate FFA sponsors were generous in giving--especially during a fluctuating economy, corporate mergers, and management changes--it is important to diversify funding sources to ensure the continuation and long-term sustainability of FFA programs. In 2007 the Individual Giving Council was created to help increase efforts of expanding individual donors. The individual giving team in the foundation was expanded, and new efforts were created to help tap into the approximately eight million former FFA members who might be potential donors. To increase the number of gifts and to spark giving, in 2012 the individual giving team created and personally funded the Leadership Matching Challenge. Every contribution made from a new donor would be matched dollar for dollar. This challenge along with other efforts has sparked more than 400 new donors to make gifts to FFA so far this year.
Non-profits across the United States are focusing on their donors and the retention of donors. According to a 2011 survey of nonprofits, the largest source of charitable giving came from individuals: 73 percent of all giving. Corporations represented roughly 5 percent of charitable giving.
With so many individuals giving to their passions and interests, it is important that they feel thanked for their contribution and connected enough to the cause to give again. Donor retention, as this is called, has been a main focus for FFA. Each new donor is immediately sent a thank you note, but then through a series of other communications a relationship can start to be built. To connect with donors and FFA supporters more locally, the National FFA Foundation brings FFA Alumni and supporters together to network and celebrate their experiences in or with the FFA at regional receptions around the country.
Tapping into an unknown donor base takes a lot of effort. Individual giving has done this by increasing the number of annual appeals, increasing efforts toward major and planned gifts, and providing a unique and personalized donor experience. The first initiative to find all our past members was through the CONNECT campaign in which FFA supporters could self-identify and become reconnected with the organization. The National FFA Foundation has been able to reach other groups like production agriculture lists. The refinement of current donor lists has increased our donor pool and thus donor contributions. The number of annual solicitations has increased, but each appeal is specifically tailored to the donor’s passions or interest. This approach of being more specific to donor interests helps us connect with our audience allowing them to give to something they are passionate about. It also allows us to be more transparent about what their contribution is supporting.
With more people giving online, we have also made online giving easier and accessible to more supporters. In the three month period of December 2012 to February 2013 the National FFA Foundation increased the number of online donors by 57.1 percent. This surpassed the national average increase of online giving, which was 10.8 percent.
The largest area of growth for the foundation has been with major and planned gifts. Major gifts are contributions from individuals of $15,000 or more and can represent a significant amount of impact for the organization. These include cash gifts, planned gifts such as bequests, life income plans, trusts and endowments. We have added two staff members who focus on and help in these efforts. They meet with prospective donors and build a relationship around their passion for FFA and decide how they can best make an impact to support FFA. For example Ron Grapes, an FFA alumni member in Nebraska, saw a need for supervised agricultural experience grant funding and created an endowment so students can get help starting their SAEs.
By focusing on a tailored donor relationship, the foundation has grown donor numbers and increased the amount of monetary support to the organization. New and exciting things are happening in the foundation, which means a better experience for our members. Thank you to our donors: Without you FFA wouldn’t be where it is today.