The problem is, we are still raising the same amount (or less) that we have always raised. The result is that we have to make do with less.
The other option is to do things differently.
If fire departments are looking to have a constant, reliable funding source, the best bet is to follow the leaders. Large non-profits such as the Red Cross, universities and hospitals have mastered fundraising.
They all have a fundraising plans and entire departments dedicated to the cause. Often called philanthropy or foundation experts, staff within these departments are highly sought after as they deliver results year after year.
Fortunately even a smaller department can use many of their techniques.
Make a plan
First and foremost, fundraising departments always have a plan that leverages all potential funding sources. A funding plan includes grants, foundations, fundraising events and philanthropy from individuals among other sources.
The diversity in funding sources is designed to keep a consistent flow of donations rather than the peaks and valleys that can often occur. Each funding source has its own strengths and weaknesses just as do each of us.
The success of the Assistance to Firefighters Grants program has made most departments aware of the potential impact a grant can have on a department. Any department that has applied for grants knows that it is time intensive and there are no guarantees with a grant application.
Grants and foundations
Within your funding plan you need to include a proactive approach to grants. The AFG program is not the only grant out there. There are local and state grants along with other federal funds for rural departments and federal priorities.
It is worth investing in having members trained in sourcing and writing grants if they are going to be an ongoing source of funding. Look for courses such as offered by The Grantsmanship Center — they offer both skills and access to grant and foundation databases — or services like Fire Grants Help.
Foundation funds are often overlooked by fire departments. There are multiple personal and corporate foundations that are looking for places to help.
The first place to look may be your town's grand list. The largest taxpayers in the town may be in a place or may have a process already created to provide foundation support.
Foundation applications are usually shorter and there may actually be ways to get recurring support. Foundations will have less funds than state or federal grants, but they can be a quick and efficient way to fund a purchase.
Don't be afraid to offer them a 'naming' option when they are supporting capital purchases. It doesn't hurt you to put a thank you to them on the side of the fire truck they just bought for you.
Departments have historically relied on fundraising events and it is often a tradition. We have all done bingos, pancake breakfasts and sold just about anything we could find. These events are great for bringing the community together, but the amount of work for a bake sale to raise $200 may or may not be worth it.
Large fundraising organizations tend to lean towards gala events, especially with auctions. These events charge a considerable amount to attend and then provide opportunities to make further donations once you are there.
It is not odd for a gala event to raise more than six figures if designed appropriately. If you design the right event and have the right attendees you will be amazed by the results.
We do have a luxury that many non-profits do not have in that we often receive money from the town we serve or through a tax. The downside of this is that it is very rare that the public will agree to more taxes in an economy like this. They would much rather see what they are purchasing or make a conscious donation than have some bureaucracy tell them they need to pay more.
Although you may feel that it is the town’s responsibility to fund the department, they do not have to fund it well. As the ruling body changes, so will your funding so you always need a backup.
The bottom line is that in today's economy, we cannot use last century's fundraising methods. We need to have a plan and leverage all of the sources out there. There are multiple web resources to help get you on a path.
If all else fails, work hard to recruit members to your department who have done this before. Good fundraisers are worth their weight in gold even if they can't drive a fire truck.
About the author
Jason Zigmont, PhD, NREMT-P, currently serves as the Manager/Educator for the SYN:APSE Simulation center at Yale New Haven Health System. He was the founder of VolunteerFD.org, and has written extensively about Bylaws, Fundraising, Grants, Recruitment and Retention, SOGs and Training. He has been a member of the East Berlin Fire Department for more than 10 years, most recently acting as Training Officer. He holds a BS in Public Safety Administration and earned his PhD in Adult Learning at the University of Connecticut. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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