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Wolf: Opportunities exist to make something out of nothing

By : Katie Ellis

President Lois B. DeFleur, right, speaks during the Binghamton Fundís annual Faculty and Staff Campaign kickoff March 18 in the University Union. Faculty and staff donated more than $300,689 to the University during the 2002-03 fiscal year .
Spinning gold from straw brings to mind the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin, but Thomas Wolf told the Harpur Forum and community members last week that it is possible to create something out of nothing if the proper elements are in place.

In town for First Night International’s annual conference, Wolf spoke of the challenges non-profit organizations will face this year.

“What a difference a year can make,” Wolf said. “What a difference four years can make. Compared to a few years ago, things are a little worse and the challenge is even greater. Our world has been turned completely upside down, and for arts organizations and non-profits there is a perfect storm of declining income, eroding private support and the drying up of grants.

“We were all concerned about how to keep people coming in 2001, but now, we’re concerned about how to get people out of their houses to go anywhere,” he said. “Entertainment at home is convenient, safe and relatively cheap. The population is older and more fearful.”

Wolf said cultural attendance is only part of the problem. “Fund-raising challenges are compounded as well,” he said. “In philanthropy, there is a lag time, so even if a foundation’s portfolio is now growing, we may find many who have changed how they give away funds.”

Wolf described the changing philanthropic climate, where in the past foundations mainly awarded responsive grants that literally responded to requests made by non-profits. Today, Wolf said, more than 75 percent of foundation grants are more likely to be initiative grants designed by the foundation staff and given to pre-selected partners to be carried out. Wolf said the most alarming trend is “a malaise in society which can undermine the very spirit of organizations such as First Night” and these are not happy times for non-profits.

Yet, Wolf said, some organizations still thrive and are able to get people out of their homes even as they successfully fundraise. “People are yearning for fun, pleasure, meaning, spiritual healing and social interaction,“ he said. “People yearn for meaningful connection, and some organizations are providing it.” Wolf addressed three big ideas he believes are necessary to reshape organizations for success. “First, expand the dialogue with prospects you want to serve,” he said. “Learn about their beliefs, motivations and feelings to know what drives people to attend and support events.”

Second, Wolf said, non-profits “need to shape, manage and route their message more effectively so the right people are hearing things specifically appropriate to them.” In other words, he said, organizations need to know what they want to be known for and how to communicate it well.

Finally, he said, non-profits need to find, cultivate and inform those specifically appropriate people to let them know they’re important to the organization. “Don’t just look inward,” he said. “Successful organizations today also must look outward. Everyone wants to be associated with success. We’re in the business of raising spirits and we can remind people of that.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08