The Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana affiliate is the largest chapter of Ronald McDonald House charities in the United States, providing over 22,000 nights of respite annually to families of hospitalized children. The chapter was formed officially in 2005 with the merger of several independent houses, although the first area house was opened in1977. The charity currently operates four houses in the greater Chicago area. In addition to providing housing for families near its affiliate hospitals, Ronald McDonald House Charities-Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana (RMHC-CNI) operates a Mobile Care unit, providing vaccinations and physicals to children in underserved areas, awards college scholarships to deserving and economically-challenged youth, and has recently opened the first in-hospital Family Room in Illinois, in conjunction with affiliate Edward Hospital.
Director of Capital Campaign Lisa Mitchell joined the RMHC-CNI fundraising team of four in 2009 and was asked to manage the organization’s first ever capital campaign. The $30MM campaign had been planned and the silent phase launched in 2008. The campaign is to fund the building of the world’s largest Ronald McDonald House, with 14-stories and 86 guest rooms.
Mitchell came from an advertising, marketing and branding background. Starting in 2000, she worked on the advertising campaign for McDonald’s corporate account. This led her to Ronald McDonald House Charities, where she began volunteering by preparing meals for families staying at the homes. “When asked to join the staff, I was a novice fundraiser,” says Mitchell, “but a committed volunteer and donor with a true passion for the mission and the good I could see being done in the community.”
Prior to launching the campaign, RMHC-CNI screened their entire database to help them evaluate their potential for fundraising and to reprioritize their prospects. When Mitchell came on board, she felt the screening was a useful tool, but she realized the top prospect lists had been exhausted and she still needed to raise $10MM. With only four staff members in development, she needed to narrow the prospect lists and specifically identify potential supporters connected to their 30-member board and 26 member campaign steering committee. “I needed very specific, immediately actionable information that our board members could use and be successful with. When I took over the campaign management, we were in a stall. I wanted to quickly breathe life into the campaign and regain momentum,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell worked with WealthEngine to create a high-potential prospect list using Circle of Friends analytics. RMHC-CNI provided their list of board and steering committee members (their “Inner Circle”), and WealthEngine determined who their connections (Circle of Friends) in the community were. Once those connections were identified, they were screened and profiled, providing Mitchell with lists of 147 individuals sharing a connection to their board and steering committee members. Each connection is someone with a relationship to the organization through an Inner Circle member, and has the capacity to significantly impact the campaign and the future of the charity. This was exactly the specific, actionable information Mitchell was looking for.
“This campaign has allowed us to push our board and committee members in directions they would not have gone before,” shares Mitchell. “They are dedicated advocates and donors. And both our board members and WealthEngine’s Circle of Friends Analytics have helped to make us aware of many potential new friends. It helped our best, most enthusiastic supporters realize that they had even more contacts that could help the charity than they had realized.
With $24MM of their $30MM goal now in hand, Mitchell and the team see the end in sight. The new House, located in the downtown area of Chicago, is now complete and open as of June 26, 2012. For the past several months they have been able to conduct “Dusty Shoes Tours” which Mitchell describes as “one of our best sales tools.” As neighbors from the densely populated downtown area are invited and attend these tours and other campaign events, they see firsthand what the charity is all about and catch a passion for the mission. “We have a very high success rate in keeping donors,” explains Mitchell. “Once in, they stay in.” For this reason, she feels optimistic that their many new capital donors will continue to help by contributing to operating support and program funding when the campaign is complete.
RMHC-CNI still has 18 months and $6MM to raise before the end of the campaign in 2013. After the opening of the house in June, Mitchell plans to revisit the targeted prospect lists they received from WealthEngine and continue a structured approach to engaging donors through their board and volunteer connections, and through tours and other events designed to allow potential donors and volunteers to see firsthand the enormous impact of RMHC-CNI.
All four RMHC-CNI development staff members came from backgrounds other than fundraising, and none had worked on a campaign prior to this one. The tremendous success of the first RMHC-CNI campaign is a testament to them, to the organization, its leadership and its mission. It demonstrates that with passion and perseverance, leadership and vision, and a few key tools and technologies, anything can happen.
Lessons Learned on the Campaign Trail
Mitchell has been learning fundraising and campaign management as she goes, and has some valuable advice for other novice fundraisers:
- Carefully allocate your time. It’s time-consuming to work with committees and volunteers. Identify the movers and the shakers early on and spend most of your efforts supporting them. Don’t waste too much time with those who aren’t active.
- A great way to engage people is through volunteering. If you’re lucky enough to have volunteer opportunities, ask prospects to get involved to experience the mission for themselves.
- Don’t be disturbed by the natural ebb and flow of donations. You’ll go through periods where everything “clicks” and you are energized, and then will come a period where nothing seems to be happening. If you are patient, all the groundwork you’ve put in place will come to fruition and you’ll soon be in another period of reaping.
- Be flexible. As the new RMHC-CNI house opens, donation requests may need to change. People might not want to pay for a mortgage. But they will want to fund the activities and programs that are going to take place onsite, so a new and compelling case for support will be needed.