Chambers of commerce are in the community impact business, and many chambers are leveraging their foundations to create new revenue streams that support their mission-based work.
Traditionally, many chambers have used their foundations to support leadership programs, scholarships, economic research and development projects. But as chambers of commerce broaden the scope of their missions to address community challenges like talent pipeline, economic inclusion and community health, philanthropic and cause-based fundraising has become a larger part of the revenue mix.
"There is more potential for chamber growth through fundraising than through traditional dues and non-dues revenue," said Kentucky Chamber President & CEO Dave Adkisson, CCE.
Adkisson said that wealthy business owners and residents care about their communities. They support organizations like museums, faith-based institutions and local charities. Why not support the chamber if your mission is to build the community and create more broad-based economic prosperity? Find out what they care about and how it aligns with your mission.
“There will be someone who will argue with you and resist a $200 increase in their dues but will then write a check for $25,000 for something that they care about,” he said.
More than half of the respondents to a recent ACCE quickpoll said that their chamber has a foundation, but the structures, level of activity and programs supported by the foundations vary quite a bit.
If you are interested in launching or revitalizing your chamber foundation, start with a few key operational elements. What is the purpose of the foundation and how will its mission align with your chamber’s mission? Does your foundation exist to support chamber priorities, or does it operate autonomously based on a separate set of priorities?
There are no right answers. Chamber foundations operate using a variety structures and strategies. Developing an intentional strategy up front will help you head off future challenges.
"When we launched our foundation, we knew this would be a completely separate organization, with a separate governing board and separate funding, yet the vision is 100 percent aligned with where the chamber is going,” said Kelly Hall, CCE, IOM, president & CEO of the Longview Chamber of Commerce (Texas).
Hall and her leadership were intentional from the beginning. The chamber built its strategic plan around five pillars: redevelopment, education, advocacy, collaboration and health. “The areas that we knew we would need additional assistance and funding were education and workforce development, redevelopment and community development,” Hall said. “That’s why the foundation picked those three focus areas.”
This alignment is key as you build a more intentional foundation strategy. In order to maintain it, it is crucial that you engage stakeholders beyond the foundation board. Don’t overlook the importance of ongoing engagement with the entire chamber staff and chamber board.
"We've learned over time that it is important, if you are going to build up your foundation and do a lot of substantive work, you’ve got to treat it with the same seriousness and engagement of your chamber board and chamber staff as you do everything else in your core mission. Otherwise, you will run the risk of having separation occur,” said David Rattray, executive vice president, education and workforce development, with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
It is also likely that your strategy will evolve over time, based on what’s needed in the community and the impact your work is having. Be sure to work flexibility into your plan so that you can be nimble as opportunities arise.
For example, the Jefferson Chamber in Louisiana launched its foundation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Its initial focus was working with the Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help businesses access the assistance they needed to get back up and running.
Jefferson Chamber President Todd Murphy said, “Over time our mission has evolved to beautification, education, workforce and community development projects.”
After you have a better idea of how your chamber would like to proceed with your foundation strategy, it’s time to establish or refresh your governance and operations structure.
If you need to establish your 501(c)(3), speak with your attorney about the steps needed at the federal and state level. If you already have a foundation, review your paperwork to be sure it is current and structured properly.
Other key elements to consider include:
When establishing a foundation board, there are important factors to consider, including board size, eligibility requirements, board roles and the board’s relationship to your chamber board. Selecting board members who are passionate about the foundation’s strategy and mission is vital.
"We thought it was really important that our foundation board members see themselves as catalytic leaders,” Hall said. “Our board is comprised of CEOs who sit at that 30,000-foot level. I can tell you that the human capacity that sits on our board has been one of our greatest assets. They understand the importance of dreaming, visioning and taking action.”
Adopt or review the bylaws that govern your foundation’s operations to be sure they are current and reflect your strategic goals, board structure, operational structure and alignment with the chamber. Bulletproof bylaws will help you.
Establish or review your financial reporting processes for the foundation. Chamber leaders who have been through the process of reestablishing a passive foundation warn that internal processes can lapse over time if the foundation becomes an afterthought. As you map out a more intentional future for your foundation, be sure you are treating the financial reporting with the seriousness of an ongoing enterprise.
Decide how you will provide staff support to the foundation. Many chambers dedicate a percentage of a chamber staff member’s time to foundation activities or leverage foundation funding for staff time dedicated to foundation supported community advancement work, like workforce and community development. In addition, many chamber foundations leverage consultants to provide expertise in crucial areas like development, fundraising, grant writing, strategic planning and more.
During a recent ACCE webinar, Rattray discussed the six-stage development
process used by the team in Los Angeles to raise money.
Identify who is out there funding the type of work that you do. Determine if you have a reasonable chance of getting funding from them. You can glean key insights on prospects by downloading foundation tax forms at guidestar.org. Foundation 990s list all the grants they made during that tax year.
Based on your research, how do you cultivate a relationship with the prospective funders.
During your research, it is important to understand enough about the funder to know if they accept unsolicited proposals or if their process is by invitation only. Research the staff and identify if your team or your board have the relationships to get you an introduction.
If your cultivation efforts are successful, many funders will ask for a concept paper or outline before inviting a full proposal. The goal of the concept paper is to entice the funder to invite you to submit a full proposal.
This is where you make your pitch and send a full proposal. Rattray said that it is important to be aware of how different foundations manage their proposal schedule. He said foundations will frequently post their proposal dates on their websites.
Execute your program and monitor the goals and deliverables you set in your proposal,
budget and workplan.
In this stage you are trying to make sure you are reporting to the funder based on their guidelines, but you also want to continue to cultivate the relationship. This can help you position your chamber foundation for a follow-on grant if that is possible.
Don’t be intimidated by the six steps. Use them to guide your outreach and make it more targeted and intentional. It is important to view your development activities as a process. It’s easy to focus too much attention on grant writing.
“What I see a lot of chambers do is think that they just need to hire a grant writer,” Rattray said. “We slip into the idea that this is about writing grants. What we had to learn is that this is actually the fourth step, and in some ways the easiest and least important. The first three steps are the most difficult and the more important to learn.”
As you think through the process, spend some time thinking of your funding prospects. Do you plan to accept government grants, or do you want to focus on corporate and philanthropic foundations and individual donors?
In Jefferson, Louisiana, Murphy said the chamber’s foundation doesn’t seek government funds, but it does use corporate endeavor agreements to allow local governments to partner with them on projects.
“Our chamber doesn’t take any government funds,” Murphy said. “We look at other nonprofits and foundations for grants and we look at individual donors for donations. Our community holds a GiveNOLA Day and we collect thousands of dollars just off that one day from people who want to give to our chamber foundation.”
In Los Angeles, Rattray said the chamber foundation works to ensure funding diversification. “We try to make sure our funding is very spread out,” he said. “We have public dollars, we have foundation dollars, we have sponsorship dollars, we have fee for service. We try to make sure it is spread out so that if any one source goes away, we are solid.”
ACCE is developing new resources to help chambers that are interested in launching
or revitalizing their foundations. We are creating a peer network for staff who manage chamber foundations to share insights and best practices. We will also be rolling out foundation-specific resources and professional development activities for chambers in all stages of development. To learn more and stay up to date on developments, complete the brief survey at www.ACCE.org/ChamberFoundations or contact Will Burns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will Burns is the vice president of communications & networks at ACCE.
Connect with Will at email@example.com
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