sk Bill and Judy Opel about what they think is the most effective fundraising technique in these days of customizable analytics, sophisticated online tracking programs and upscale black-tie charity events. Scratch ’em all, they say. Just put on the coffee pot.
“Sitting down with someone personally and sharing a cup of coffee can be one of the most effective fundraising events and you don’t have to spend much money,” says Bill, a lifelong Pasadena resident with a career that spans more than five decades in both medical research and executive nonprofit administration. “Just sit and have coffee and talk. Maybe follow that up with a phone call and stay in touch.” That personalized, no-frills attention can make all the difference in landing a big donor or, on the flip side, finding an organization that will make you, a potential benefactor, feel proud to support it, says Bill.
Bill and wife Judy have witnessed how the landscape of charitable giving (financial donations and volunteering) has evolved over the years. Bill has seen philanthropy as both grant-maker and grant-taker, having served at Huntington Medical Research Institutes (HMRI) for 53 years as president/CEO (and previously, executive director) in addition to his first 10 years as a lab researcher.
Back in 1982, Bill was instrumental in unifying the Pasadena Foundation for Medical Research (PFMR) with the Huntington Institutes of Applied Medical Research to create HMRI. During his tenure, Bill oversaw donations of tens of millions of dollars to fund research. He recently retired from HMRI and is currently active in several local nonprofits.
Likewise, Judy, in addition to being a teacher, has been active in charitable endeavors for decades, and because of her social networking is fondly known as “the first lady” of HMRI. She also served as president of the Altadena Guild of Huntington Memorial Hospital and volunteered regularly there. She was instrumental in fundraising for the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, chairing the annual Baldwin Bonanza plant sale in 1976. Today, she still gets her hands dirty with The Arboretum’s Compulsive Gardeners group.
Perhaps the biggest change the Opels have observed in philanthropy over the years is in its sheer scale — how big and international it has become, with organizations raising money 24/7. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofits are registered in the U.S. and there are millions more worldwide.
Giving USA reports that for the first time ever, charitable giving exceeded $400 billion in 2017, relecting an impressive $14.27 billion increase in individual giving (topping $286 billion) along with substantial gains in bequests and donations by foundations and corporations.
Gone are the days when Judy would enlist surgeons’ wives to cook casseroles for a casual sit-down dinner with potential donors at a medical researcher’s house. “It was all pretty amateur by today’s standards,” says Bill. “We didn’t have an event coordinator or use a caterer, and we didn’t have a high-priced development director,” adds Judy, noting how the professionalization of fundraising has elevated the causal event into a highly curated experience.
Indeed, directed by well-compensated development executives, today’s nonprofits are vying for donor dollars by reaching across many platforms to advertise their differences from other organizations. But the multitude of choices can be daunting for donors — it’s now a bigger challenge to decide what and where to contribute.
An informative website is a good first step, says Bill (“I always look at the scientific publications and reports they have done”), stressing that numbers can be deceiving, especially client numbers. “The fact that you cared for or served so many is just a head count — that’s pretty objective,” he says. “Everyone can tell you that they are doing great stuff, but where is the evidence? Where’s the meat?”
The Opels appreciate how some unbiased websites, like GuideStar and Charity Navigator, rate nonprofits but say that potential donors still need to dig deeper to find out how truly effective an organization is. “With a lot of charities, you go to a social event and often don’t see the people they are helping,” says Bill. “The events I really love are when there is an open house and you can see the faces and hear personal stories.”
Consider community colleges, continues Bill, where many incoming students arrive academically struggling but leave renewed. “The fact that your school turned them into accomplished learners who can achieve is more impressive than a high-end selective university that already gets great kids enrolling,” explains Bill.
Some entities are more transparent than others. Support the Pasadena Symphony or the Sierra Madre Playhouse, and it will be easy to see where your money is going — it’s right there on the stage. But other causes’ activities can be more opaque. Explaining HMRI’s complicated science and research needs to benefactors was a challenge for Bill, who learned early the benefits of telling a human story.
In the 1960s, Bill was a cell biologist working in the El Molino Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PMRI) facility, one of the first research centers to grow human cell and tissue cultures to study cancers. Researchers received small and directed National Institutes of Health grants. “The main discretionary money we got was from grateful patients,” he says, launching into the story of a life insurance salesman stricken with neck and jaw cancer from smoking cigars. Using radiation techniques developed at PFMR, the man recovered and, despite losing half a tongue, was as loquacious as ever and able to continue his high-pressure career. He became a big donor to the lab.
Examine an organization’s newsletters and publications, question other donors and research what that nonprofit has done to “move the needle,” says Bill. “My objective at HMRI was to make meaningful improvements in how medicine is practiced. I can show you how that improved every year.”
Above all, long-lasting nonprofits have to communicate a message that addresses the brain and the heart: “Will my money be well spent?” and “Is this donation the right thing to do?”
Baby Boomers Passing On Wealth
Pressure on the giving community will be compounded in the coming years, when Baby Boomers pass on their inheritance to their children. “It will be the biggest transference of wealth in the nation’s history,” says Bill. A new generation can change the direction of charitable giving, especially when it comes to assuming leadership of family foundations. New generations may have completely different interests from the relative who started the charity decades ago. “It’s not a given that the kids will continue down the path,” says Bill, who sees current social issues such as homelessness and mental health getting more play in the philanthropic spotlight.
Volunteering has also evolved. In the early 1960s, charitable women’s clubs were the main social outlet for many stay-at-home wives/moms. Judy recalls daylong club meetings that often involved lunch, card games and socializing. Today’s volunteers want a more active engagement with the people they help, she says. “My daughter started doing volunteer work in high school, and said, ‘I don’t want to do those social things,’” she says. “In law school she volunteered for a group that delivered meals to AIDS patients. She wanted her volunteering to be directly meaningful.”
While many old-school clubs have faded away, some — like the Altadena Guild — have stayed relevant. Judy credits forward-thinking leadership that re-prioritized to attract working women by changing meeting hours and providing more opportunities for hands-on volunteering.
Even philanthropic products have changed over the decades. You used to send in a check and get a little memorial gift — a card or your name in the newsletter. Now donors can choose from a myriad of ways to financially support an organization, through planned giving, family foundations or a trust gift annuity, to name just a few.
Endowments have also changed the landscape for nonprofits. “HMRI didn’t have an endowment when it was started and by the time I left, there was $40 million in the endowment reserve fund,” says Bill. Today many large medical organizations, including hospitals, have solid endowments (in the past, they didn’t need to compete for dollars to fill funding gaps then covered by operating revenue and government grants).
On a smaller scale, the Opels are creating their own endowment legacy. Bill and Judy launched one of 117 unrestricted endowment family funds managed by the Pasadena Community Foundation (PCF), an entity that also has also seen dramatic philanthropic changes in the last five decades. “When I arrived 15 years ago, the PCF had $16 in assets. Today, we have $80 million,” says President and CEO Jennifer DeVoll, adding that PCF started with 40 to 55 funds. Today it has 350.
While community foundations that pool funds have been around for 100 years, DeVoll says there has been an upsurge of interest and participation, especially in unrestricted endowments that rely on careful management to assist worthy local start-ups and businesses. The Opels are happy their fund can support organizations for today’s needs, as well as for groups and causes yet to emerge. “After we have passed away, our fund can still be making donations in our name,” says Judy.
While old-school philanthropy may seem quaint by today’s standards, the Opels think that people working together for a common cause fuels giving. In the 1950s, the genesis of the PFMR took place at a Pasadena cocktail party where friends were commiserating about the loss of a buddy from cancer. “Let’s do something about it!” they said between martinis. Then someone mentioned a guy they knew doing research — and the rest is history.
“It was formed because there was a group of people that wanted to address a problem,” says Bill. “You and your friends could be regulars at the 35er [Bar in Pasadena], and what if your bartender got sick? You would all work together to do something about it, to help that person you cared about. You’re mobilizing for a cause, for a noble purpose. The cocktail party is only the beginning.”