Forget About Grants! Annual Fundraising for Park Foundations & Friends Groups

February 1, 2017, Feature, by Nathan A. Schaumleffel, Ph.D., CPRP, CNP, CFRM, CVA, IYD

2017 February Feature Park Foundations Friends Groups 410

At the 2016 NRPA Conference in St. Louis, I shared best practices on how to set your park foundation’s cornerstone to build optimally functioning fundraising and engaging volunteer organizations. Setting the cornerstone is code for building a board of directors that works, gives, gets and understands the role and benefits of operating a friends group or park foundation to hone the power of philanthropy to improve your public park system.

Admittedly, there are a host of benefits for creating and operating a park foundation, but the essential function is relationship-building and resource development that starts with the board of directors and membership. Resource development includes fundraising; acquiring in-kind donations of equipment, supplies and land; and engaging volunteers.

Articulating Your Case
An annual fundraising plan needs to be nested within a comprehensive fundraising case statement, which absolutely should align with the organization’s vision, mission, core values and strategic plan. No one from the organization should be soliciting funds on behalf of the organization without being intentional and understanding the strategy of multichannel fundraising. Whether you are launching a membership retention effort, a donor acquisition campaign or giving a speech before a 5k about the impact of the organization, all of these strategies, or what we call a “case expressions,” need to be spawned from the case statement to ensure consistent communication, branding and messaging.

As rec people, we tend to be program people; we also tend to not be numbers and math people. When we think fundraising, we often default to special event fundraisers and grants. Instead, we need to do strategic planning, first! Then, develop a case statement, then an annual fund development plan followed by a membership campaign and then a direct mail campaign. Then, maybe, and I mean maybe, a signature special event.

Establishing a Resource Development Committee that ‘Gets It’
Park foundations and friends groups should establish a resource development committee, led by a board member or two. Otherwise, the committee should largely be composed of members or “friends” serving as volunteers who implement a robust, sustainable annual fund development plan. The board of directors and resource development committee should be acutely aware of the Association of Fundraising Professional’s Code of Ethical Standards, Donor Bill of Rights and e-Donor Bill of Rights.

In an article I wrote for Illinois Parks & Recreation magazine, I described the goal of an annual fund campaign as being “to raise enough money to cover monthly operating expenses for the is better to think of an annual fund as the fund that pays for your organization’s annual operating expenses, like a checking account.” Author and fundraising professional, Stanley Weinstein, teaches that after we get an initial gift, then we must further our relationship with the donor to repeat the gift and, ultimately, increase the gift in a cyclical process.

When establishing an annual fund, don’t rely on one corporate sponsorship or one grant maker or one special event. In fact, put the special events on the backburner for later consideration and forget about grants! If you begin by relying on a grant, then your organization will suffer from what I like to refer to as hand-to-mouth disease. You’ll be living grant to grant, wondering how long you can pay your bills. Operating a park foundation this way is unsustainable and shortchanges the power of philanthropy and what philanthropy can do for enhancing your park system. 

Planning the Annual Campaign
To hone the power of philanthropy and to effectively manage the annual campaign, you’ll need to build a fundraising infrastructure by establishing a gift acceptance policy and adopting a donor management system (DMS). A DMS is an advanced software platform, typically cloud-based, that functions primarily as a dynamic database system that allows you to systematically manage relationships with prospects and donors. If you don’t have or don’t use a DMS, you’re really hurting your chances of getting off the grant-reliant life support!

Before your organization begins soliciting donations and implementing the annual fund plan, the Resource Development Committee needs to identify two to three members who can become the in-house experts on using the DMS. The DMS team should add as many suspects, prospects and past donors as possible. Your fundraising efforts, including your annual fund, will only be as successful as your DMS data are accurate.

While the DMS team is entering prospect and donor data into the DMS, the resource development committee should create a Matching Gift team. The Matching Gift team should simultaneously create a list of local employers who offer a matching gift program whereby a donor gives $25 to your organization and their employer makes a matching $25 donation to your organization. Building a matching gift program is critical to a successful annual fund.  

The next task is to write an annual fund development plan, which serves as the road map to meeting your realistic fundraising goal for the upcoming fiscal year. Setting the goal will require you to assess your organization’s financial needs by reviewing past and current financial statements, audits and program budgets.

Sustainable annual fund campaigns deploy several strategies to generate revenue, or what we call net contributed income in the nonprofit world, to achieve the fundraising goal. Using multiple strategies is called multichannel fundraising. Strategies used by park foundations and friends groups should integrate board giving and five or more of the following channels: membership, direct mail, direct e-mail, phone solicitation, online and social media, face-to-face, sales, contract services and a signature special event (Table 1).

Table 1. Sample Annual Fund Development Plan Summary

Fundraising Strategies

Percent of Annual

Fundraising Goal

Dollar Amount Per 

Fundraising Strategy

Board Giving 20% $20,000.00
Membership 30% $30,000.00
Direct Mail 20% $20,000.00
Direct Email 7% $7,000.00
Phone Solicitation 3% $3,000.00
Face-to-Face 10% $10,000.00
Signature Special Event 5% $5,000.00
Sales 5% $5,000.00
Annual Fundraising Goal 100% $100,000.00


Every park foundation or friends group should use multichannel fundraising. Although there is no one-size-fits-all development plan, most organizations will have some common strategies and overlap. In all park foundations, giving should be compounded with an effort to secure matching gifts from donors’ employers.

Board Giving
Most park foundations have an average board size of 10 members, so in the example in Table 1, the assumption is made that each board member should be giving a gift of $2,000. You may be in shock right now as you realize that your foundation doesn’t even have 100 percent of board members giving, much less giving at a leadership level. The fact that board members are not giving at a leadership level is the single most critical reason that park foundations and friends groups are not meeting their annual fundraising goals.

Weinstein highlights the 80/20 rule of annual fundraising and summarizes it as follows: 80 percent of annual funds should come from the top 20 percent of donors. Most of the top 20 percent of donors should be the board members. If your board members follow the 80/20 rule, then, as a group, they would be contributing about $60,000 of the $100,000 goal. The example given in Table 1 is actually very modest for board giving until your organization creates a culture of leadership giving by the board.

Weinstein also highlights that trends in fundraising are actually transforming the 80/20 rule into the 90/10 rule, so be sure to not just nominate any park lover for the park foundation or friends group board, but nominate a park advocate that has affinity along with the financial capacity. Individual board member annual giving is directly correlated with the impact that the park foundation can make on the park system and users. All park foundations must have a board policy that sets the expectation of 100 percent board giving.

Direct Mail
Annual fundraising should be anchored with board giving and membership, then spring boarded with a solid direct mail campaign. Once you control for board giving and membership, direct mail is still king! These letters, delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, should include a persuasive, donor-centered appeal that highlights the needs of the target audience your organization is serving, not the financial needs of your organization. The mailing should also include a response device, employer matching gift information, a pre-addressed return envelope (sometimes postage paid, sometimes not), and, usually, a free gift or trinket.

It is critical to ask donors and members to give at least quarterly through direct mail, once each season, including a late fall or early winter end-of-year appeal. Remember, annual fund does not mean we ask one-time each year but, rather, that we ask multiple times per year so we can pay our annual expenses. It’s also helpful because the USPS will notify you of prospects’, donors’ and members’ change of address information so you can systematically update mailing address information in your DMS. In essence, the direct mail campaign is critical to maintaining an accurate, up-to-date database.

Your annual new and sustaining membership campaign can be seamlessly combined with your direct mail campaign, so that each year a first gift is the “membership” and any following gift that fiscal year falls under the direct mail campaign.  

Many board members will want to eliminate a direct mail campaign simply because of the assumed cost and the seemingly free online options, like crowdfunding, social media and online gift processing. There’s no doubt online giving has increased exponentially over the last 15 years. However, organizations that use direct mail in tandem with online strategies tend to raise more money, which means your organization will need to invest in establishing a mobile-friendly website with a “Donate Now” online gift processing opportunity. Many times, the direct mail letter serves as the reminder to give online.

Signature Special Events
Now that you have 100 percent board giving, a new and sustaining membership campaign, and direct mail fundraising is underway, consider establishing a signature special event that metaphorically ties to your mission. Signature events can bring new prospects to your DMS and replace donors who have quit giving to the annual fund. Get creative and don’t default to a golf scramble, 5k, 10k, or typical walk or run event.

So what makes a special event a signature special event? The event does several of the following things very well: 

  • It builds mission awareness through metaphors (i.e., missionizing the event)
  • It deepens existing relationships with volunteers and donors
  • It establishes new relationships with prospects
  • Your organization assesses your community’s unofficial social and philanthropy calendar and then carves out a date that the community essentially annually reserves for your organization. For example, your event might ALWAYS be on the third full weekend in September each year.
  • Your organization is KNOWN for the event!
  • Your organization MIGHT choose to use the event as a fundraising event.

 Not all nonprofit special events are intended to be fundraising events. It’s important to determine the role of your signature special event and then intentionally engineer the experience to achieve that goal. Ultimately, the event is ALWAYS about your mission and vision and the specific function of the event is determined by your strategic plan.

Note: Article content is drawn from “Cornerstone Blog with @Drschaumleffel” and is copyright protected. 

Nathan A. Schaumleffel, Ph.D., CPRP, CNP, CFRM, CVA, IYD, is Proprietor and Senior Consultant, Driven Strategic LLC, and Associate Professor and Campus/Executive Director, Nonprofit Leadership Alliance Certification Program, Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport at Indiana State University. He is also the Member Services Consultant for the National Association of Park Foundations.



Association of Fundraising Professionals – Code of Ethics and Donor Bill of Rights.

Schaumleffel, N. A. (2016, January/February). Setting your park foundation’s cornerstone to build optimally functioning, fundraising, & engaging volunteer organizations. Illinois Parks & Recreation, 47 (1), 12-15.

Schaumleffel, N. A., & Ortale, D. A. (2016, October). Setting your park foundation’s cornerstone to build functioning fundraising organizations. Presentation at the annual meeting of the National Recreation and Park Association, St. Louis, MO.

Weinstein, S. (2009). The complete guide to fundraising management (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


National Association of Park Foundations 

Schaumleffel, N. A. (Ed.) (2014). Cooperate - Advancing your nonprofit organization’s mission through college & community partnerships: A guide for nonprofit leaders. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Campus Compact