If You Build It – Will They Come?

Screen capture: YouTube

By Yoni Heilman

“If you build it, they will come.” That’s what a friend told me five years ago, when I became the CEO of a fledgling nonprofit with no staff, no fundraising experience, and 1000 students looking to me to sustain the rapid growth of their project. Keep my focus on the mission, he advised – success will draw funding.

TAMID Group was, at the time, not much different than a startup organization supported by the philanthropic equivalent of angel investors. A small group of forward-thinking foundations and lay leaders invested in a vision of building an institution that would both train future business leaders and connect them to Israel.

The program was growing virally, there were so many success stories, and we were one of the only Israel initiatives on campus that was impactful whilst transcending divisive politics. Day one on the job, I had little fundraising experience but a lot of optimism. Keeping my head down and doing the real work, I agreed, would no doubt attract the support we needed to make it happen.

My friend was right, to a point: the funders who find amazing, impactful, fast-growing grassroots programs are those who are looking for them. Major philanthropies, individuals who are active on the national scene, the occasional personal connection to the program. As for the rest? Well, they’re not looking for you

TAMID was a great idea that germinated and grew quickly. Word of mouth took it from student to student and campus to campus. Five years after we reached our second campus, we reached our 30th.

Thanks to the addition of a full-time staff, we were able to add some important components to our programs: year-to-year momentum, data to support the stories, and a strategic plan. It began to feel like we were unstoppable. The work that got us this far began yielding even more incredible results: our target population coming to us in droves and a surplus of the hardest-to-source programmatic component: elite internships in Tel Aviv. Not to mention we’d found the best professionals on both sides of the Atlantic – even the folks at Leading Edge were impressed.

Just as we were hitting our groove, we recognized that funding was not keeping pace. Major funders were responsibly keeping an eye on how much they were becoming a crutch, so even as gifts increased, it wasn’t at the pace we needed. And in the meantime, there are inevitable departures; early funders who just wanted to jumpstart the nonprofit, or the clarity that comes with time to others, showing too little overlap between their strategy and ours.

So here we are: a nonprofit that has kept administrative costs low because it focused mostly on programming, with little to no need for a fundraising operation. Until now. Suddenly we need a ground game, a broad base of donors, a way to proactively reach those who might fund us but aren’t on the lookout for new investments. Enter crowdfunding.

We decided to deploy our students as fundraisers, running a campaign with high ambitions and no gimmicks. We didn’t ask a few volunteers to raise money or cherry-pick those who we knew had the right connections. We didn’t lean on social media, as we intuited that phone calls yield better results. We didn’t artificially boost the numbers displayed on the campaign website with gifts from board members or others who we already knew were planning to give.

Though we did not worry ourselves with style, we worked full-throttle on substance. We mobilized the beneficiaries of our programs. We set up campaign goals by counting heads, we demanded results, and we held our members to it with incentives for success and consequences for non-participation.

Here’s what happened: over the course of three days, our ~2500 students raised more than $265,000 from more than 5,000 individual donors. The vast majority of them were new to us. It was an incredible effort across 54 chapters and set the stage for a whole new set of relationships with donors that we hope to cultivate over the coming months.

What does it take to ask your own constituents, the beneficiaries of your programs, to fundraise on your behalf at such a significant level? It’s simple – but not easy: know the value that you bring not just to the funders, but to your target population. Communicate it to them in plain terms, eye-to-eye. Make it clear that there’s a value to what you are doing for them, which depends on real money. And paint a clear picture of the consequences of not securing that funding.

It turns out that, just like in the movie, ‘if you build it, they will come’ is not about who we thought it was. Yes, we drew major funders to seed our early growth. But the true test of our success was in our ability to mobilize our constituents. They came when we needed them, and they delivered.

We are not in the clear though – far from it. Success in the campaign took a tremendous amount of effort, planning, the full investment of our entire staff, and our entire student body. But most of all, it took a great deal of time. As proud as we are of the amount raised, we still are not keeping pace with our own growth. The programs are there, the students are there, the evidence that we are building serious connections between future leaders and Israel is there – and as we lean forwards into our success, we’re working harder than ever to find funding partners.

Not for the first time, it’s only dollars that are holding us back. But for the first time, we need them for two reasons – to make our programs happen, but also to enable us to keep our focus on the long game – constituent-based crowdfunding and other efforts that will be a more sustainable source of long-term funding. That means looking to major partners to introduce us to others; learning how to put ourselves out there to attract attention from smaller foundations, family philanthropies, and those whose focus tends to be more local. And an unshakeable belief that strong programs with real results are the key. We’ll keep building – hopefully they will come.

Yoni Heilman is the CEO of TAMID Group, a nonprofit that forges lasting connections to Israel among the next generation of business leaders. Founded in 2008 by two undergraduates, TAMID has spread to 2500 students at 55 campuses around the world.