What’s Different about Fundraising for and with Seniors?

Relevant Segment: Aging Services

We can all agree that there are wide-ranging differences from one nonprofit organization to another. From their missions to how they go about solving major, seemingly intractable societal issues, nonprofit organizations think of themselves as unique.

Fundraising strategies should reinforce this uniqueness and appeal to donors’ pride in the organizations they choose to support.

Aging services is no different, and fundraisers in long-term care settings interested in maximizing support from donors need to recognize how their mission is carried out and create fundraising strategies that cater specifically to prospective donors.

Unlike virtually any other part of the nonprofit world, fundraisers working in aging services often conduct their work in the place where their prospective donors reside. This creates an intimacy and level of access that is unusual and must be carefully managed.

Small details, like soggy green beans at dinner or walkers left in the wrong place in a corridor irk residents at retirement communities. Complaints large and small often land at the feet of fundraisers, and residents expect a patient, kind, and sympathetic ear. They also expect the fundraiser to be an advocate and problem solver, directing residents to the appropriate resources to address their issues.

The fundraising term “relationship manager” takes on new meaning in a retirement community. Fundraisers working in a life plan community should budget about twenty-five percent more time for each donor cultivation than they might in a different type of organization. Meetings with residents often require more time and are subject to re-scheduling, as health and other issues can crop up at any moment.

Conversely, resident prospective donors are often decisive and want to move quickly on gift planning issues. It is the fundraiser’s job to ensure proper disclosure and discernment. Whereas encouraging prospective donors to seek financial advice related to their gift plans is important in all nonprofit fundraising, this takes on extra importance in a long-term care setting. Organizations should expect adult children and other relatives to scrutinize any significant philanthropic transactions involving their loved ones. Thus, documenting every fundraiser visit, complete with thank you notes advising donors to seek the counsel of relatives and other advisors, is critically important.

Remember, too, that aging involves constant change in a person’s life circumstances. Spouses pass unexpectedly. Physical and mental health can alter rapidly. Many seniors wish to have their “affairs in order” and like prompt and efficient follow up. Fundraisers should budget extra time to provide more frequent status updates when working with seniors on gift plans.

While fundraisers do not have to be Certified Financial Planners to be effective in a senior-focused fundraising setting, it is important for fundraisers to be fluent in aspects of estate planning that might not be as prevalent in other sectors. Gift vehicles, such as charitable gift annuities, are more popular in senior settings.

Similarly, fundraisers working with seniors need to be educated to recognize signs of dementia and other forms of cognitive challenges. The mantra in senior fundraising: when in doubt, don’t.

Seniors in retirement communities are uniquely financially invested in the mission of the organization. They commonly invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and/or the lion’s share of their monthly income in the community they call home. Thus, financial disclosure and transparency becomes much more important in the retirement community setting. Residents deserve and often demand to know details about the operational performance of the fundraising program or Foundation not often scrutinized in other sectors.

Fundraisers working with seniors should recognize that making a financial gift may be one of the only ways that seniors can act meaningfully on their philanthropic impulses as they face physical decline. Philanthropy is a form of wellness—a way of continuing to be engaged and involved—when participating in an event or serving on a planning committee is no longer possible.

Residents are often self-interested in ways that are less common in other settings. A resident might understand why this year’s operational budget will not allow for the purchase of a grand piano, but that does not mean that they aren’t willing to contribute money for its purchase! It is common for residents to organize themselves to fundraise for amenities they want, from lap pools to gazebos. Residents are uniquely impacted by the case for support. This is their home, and so they are the best prospective donors.

Residents at retirement communities have stronger feelings about donor recognition than in other sectors. Again, it is their home! Fundraisers should budget more planning and communication time around stewardship than other settings. Residents deserve a voice in how donor honor rolls and, particularly, donor recognition walls or plaques are to be handled on the campus. Expect a higher percentage of anonymous donors at retirement communities.

While high pressure fundraising techniques are never a good idea, they are particularly dangerous in a closed campus environment like a retirement community. Every misstep, real or imagined, circulates through the campus gossip mill very quickly. Residents should not be coerced into participating in fundraising.

Similarly, crisis-based fundraising should be avoided. Nothing upsets residents more than perceiving that their contributions are “necessary” to the financial health of the retirement community. Fundraising at retirement communities is strictly about “good to great” or “great to even better”.

Fundraisers at retirement communities need to focus on colleague education in ways not common in other sectors. Staff may not understand how professional fundraising is carried out and, because they are often direct care givers, can be uncomfortable with fundraisers soliciting “their” residents.

Residents are often grateful for the impact of the mission in ways that are not common in other settings. Residents, whether choosing a community of their own volition or through the encouragement of an adult child, often want to give back in gratitude for the care they are receiving, in honor of a new friend they have made on campus, or just because they are enjoying the lifestyle at their new home.

Staff leaders and boards need more education about the value of philanthropy versus alternative financing strategies. Going out to the bond market might be expedient, but it does not promote a culture of philanthropy in the way that residents and other stakeholders giving freely of their own volition does. Increasingly, retirement communities are under scrutiny regarding their tax-exempt status and having a variety of fundraising programs, broadly subscribed to, promotes the values of the nonprofit status.

The old industry saw: “inside, out, top, down” is very important in retirement community fundraising. While residents are at the heart of the program, they expect the board of directors, staff, individuals, corporations, and foundations in the greater community to be their partners in giving to the mission. It is the fundraiser’s job to ensure that all constituencies are effectively cultivated for the betterment of the organization.