At one time or another, most charities are victims of donor fatigue, when neither marketing nor the appeals of celebrity fund-raisers can stir donors to give. But for charities whose work involves social issues such as drug or alcohol abuse, donor fatigue can be a permanent ailment.
Substance abuse is viewed as a failing of the self – and an ugly one at that. Images of shadow-eyed, drug-taking suburban teens suggest hopelessness rather than helplessness. The stigma of abuse – for both sufferers and their saviours – can be unyielding.
"In some ways, it’s harder to raise money for kids with drug and alcohol issues than it is to raise money for fish," says Donna Wiench, development director at Daybreak Youth Services, a Washington state drug and alcohol treatment charity.
"At times, I find that kind of ironic," she says. "Salmon aren’t blamed for failing to jump fish ladders, manoeuvre past dams and swim up rivers. But sometimes society blames teens for becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol. It’s a disease. We don’t blame kids with diabetes or cancer for their illness."
The mental imagery conjured by drug and alcohol abuse doesn’t aid these charities, either. As Paul Schervish, director of the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy puts it: "These organisations aren’t sexy."
Stigma aside, several other factors undermine the efforts of drug and alcohol-abuse charities in raising donations.
There is a perception that such groups deal primarily with low-income people who require remedial help and rehabilitation rather than expanded horizons or other opportunities. Instead, "people will give to boys and girls clubs and schools where the programme is to advance the opportunities of select groups that are needy", says Mr Schervish.
A further issue is alumni. Veterans of alcohol or drug abuse programmes are not usually a significant base for donations. "These people may be very grateful, but they don’t have the wherewithal to contribute. That is probably the major factor in not having a core group that will provide regular and sustainable funding and the basis for greater fund-raising," says Mr Schervish.
Also, many of the charities lack a significant endowment because most of their funding goes into immediate programme expenses. And while a healthy endowment can dissuade prospective donors, conversely it can make the charity seem more advanced.
Lastly, locally based charities are usually unable to draw on the fund-raising and marketing synergies enjoyed by national bodies.
With all this against them, non-profits that tackle drug and alcohol abuse need to be especially nimble, ferreting out funds wherever they can find them. Appealing to every donor sense – visceral, emotional and rational – is essential.
While blame is one hurdle, Ms Wiench says, stigma is another. "I sometimes think that people turn off because we are dealing with children a little more troubled than they want to think about."
Because of the stigma, Ms Wiench does a lot of person-to-person fund-raising. "I have to pay special attention to what it is the donor is responding to. If I see the eyes getting bigger, or that someone’s responding to mention of a special interest, then I’ll try and connect," she says. If she can strike a chord on more than one level, better yet.
"We have one donor, a man who lost his father, and a lot of the kids in this programme have lost their fathers, so I will talk to him about the missing parent. But he’s also a successful businessman, so I’ll talk to him about our success," says Ms Wiench.
She says that often it takes some sort of personal experience to move donors. "Whether through a friend or relative, most people have experienced drug and alcohol abuse and have a sense of what it does to people."
LEARN TO VIEW ALCOHOLISM AS “AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY DISEASE
At 75, Adele Smithers is still promoting the cause of alcoholism education, most recently taking to the lectern at the United Nations to talk about the relationship between alcoholism and poverty.
The Christopher D Smithers Foundation was established half a century ago by her late husband, R Brinkley Smithers, who endured 50 alcohol-related hospitalisations before he stopped drinking. Since then, Ms Smithers estimates her family has given more than $100million to various alcohol and substance abuse programmes. "We have zeroed in on education," she says.
Because of her husband’s concern about alcohol’s impact on people in the workforce, one of the earliest beneficiaries of the family’s largesse was Cornell University’s Institute of Industrial and Labor Relations. Today, researchers at the university’s R. Brinkley Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies continue to study lost hours, job stress and other work-related implications of alcoholism. Once seen as a problem of the working class, alcoholism is now viewed as "an equal opportunity disease", says Ms Smithers.
Getting alcoholism acknowledged as a medical condition was another of her late husband’s goals. To that end, the Smithers foundation helps fund a programme sponsored by the Alcoholism Council of New York that provides mandated education about alcoholism to medical school residents, during which time they pair up with recovered alcoholics.
Still, Ms Smithers laments that persuading other foundations to follow their lead has been very difficult. Just as the stigma of addiction can prevent alcoholics from seeking aid, Ms Smithers suggests that it’s also the prime factor inhibiting charitable giving.
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