Photo credit: Holistic Life Foundation. This post is really intended for HLF to follow up on a Facebook conversation, but anyone is welcome to read along and leave comments… HLF is dedicated to bringing yoga and mindfulness to inner-city youth in Baltimore, MD. Please “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter! If you haven’t heard about HLF before, you might want to read my February post about the foundation.
Below I make a couple of suggestions that could perhaps help increase HLF’s funding, for whatever my suggestions are worth – HLF deserves to become wildly successful and thinking about business strategy happens to be part of my line of work.
First, you should fix the pictures on your website. When I looked at your website, not a single picture was displayed (except on the front page) – apparently they’re not in the folder where they’re supposed to be, so only the alternative text is shown instead. For instance, the “About us” page is supposed to have a “Holistic Life Foundation Portrait” picture at the following address: https://hlfinc.org/hlf_wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/about_us_1.jpg but there’s nothing there. It doesn’t give the best impression when people visit the website since all they get is a lot of words, and this is a topic that begs for pictures of smiling youth.
Also, whenever I consider donating to charities, I look them up on Charity Navigator to see if they have good ratings. You’re not rated. In fact, you’re almost never mentioned anywhere. It seems that it’s because you’re way too small. From what I understand, you’re not getting rated because HLF isn’t submitting a Form 990, and it’s not submitting a Form 990 because it has less than $50,000 in gross receipts.
Now, given the significant amounts of media exposure you’ve received in the past few years, that’s a little disappointing: there are probably many people like me who, when they learn about a charity, look it up on Charity Navigator before they make a decision, and you’re most likely losing donations because you’re so small that you’re flying under the radar. If HLF is to grow, it is going to need to get lots of donors. The website makes it sound this is really a company with three people, which just isn’t sustainable in the long term for the scale that you need to achieve in order to keep garnering media attention and fulfill attention.
So, a couple of thoughts from the top of my head:
- Provide a clear vision with measurable goals and well-defined metrics of success (that means numbers). I like the mission on the first page of the website, but it’s very vague. I have no idea how many youth you currently serve, how many you aspire at serving, and what you need from donors to help this vision become reality. To get donations, you need to give people a much clearer picture of what you want from them so that they can get enthusiastic and support you.
- Suggest donation amounts (of various sizes) on the donation page. There is no suggested amount, no list of categories, and no idea of what a gift of a certain size will help HLF achieve. At the very least you should translate a few amounts into terms related to the mission of your organization. (For instance, and I’m making the numbers up, “$50 gives weekly yoga classes to a group of 20 underprivileged kids for a month. $500 pays for weekly yoga classes for a month for all the low-income children in School XYZ.”) People want to help, but they need to feel that their donation will make a real difference. Don’t think “we’ll keep it vague because anything would help.” Be specific.
- Let’s assume one of your intermediary goals would be to grow enough to be rated by Charity Navigator (as it should be, if you want to arise the interest of most donors). You can learn from this page that you will need the following: public support of at least $500,000 and total revenue of at least $1,000,000 in the most recent fiscal year, with at least four years of Form 990. Obviously, “getting rated by Charity Navigator” isn’t going to make any donor swoon. On the other hand, perhaps you can translate a revenue of $1,000,000 in terms meaningful to HLF. (I know, it’s a stretch goal, but stretch goals inspire donors.) For instance, the data center at Kids Count indicates there were 82,000 children in single-parent families in Baltimore, MD in 2011. Assuming that you’d pay the teachers $10/hour, providing one hour of yoga/mindfulness per week for the 26 weeks of the school year for every Baltimore child living in a single-parent family – if the kids are taught in group sizes of twenty – would cost 10*(82000/20)*26=$1,066,000. So you can translate your goal into “providing each Baltimore kid in a single-parent family one hour of yoga or mindfulness every week during the school year.” Of course you can update the numbers for a two-hour yoga class and for more low-income children, for a goal that is really meaningful for you.
- There seems to be enormous interest from developers who are re-developing part of the city, as well as from the Baltimore business community, to keep crime down and advertise Baltimore’s “renaissance”. They have a clear self-interest in your program being successful, since it could alleviate the fears of people considering a move to Baltimore by showing a positive image of the inner city. Well-documented work with a proven track record to help underprivileged youth deal with whatever is going on in their life in a more productive way will benefit them indirectly. However, they won’t have any interest in donating to your foundation if you can’t convince them you’re going to grow enough for them to care.
- Find mentors. It looks like you need people with previous nonprofit management experience to have a beer with while they tell you how their nonprofit made it out of startup status. Find local nonprofits with small-sized assets on CharityNavigator (search for Baltimore charities or charities within a certain distance of a zip code, and then on the next page you can filter search results to only see the ones with small assets. The idea is that they probably still remember how life was like when their charity was very tiny.) Pick charities that are not in your line of work so that you wouldn’t compete for donations, but ideally do something complementary so that they could mention you and you could mention them to the people you serve.
- You don’t seem to have an advisory board. (If you had one, you’d list them on your website to make them feel valued…) If you want to grow, those are the people who will donate either money or expertise and will share the HLF story with their friends, who will also hopefully be able to make donations.
- Write a book. I’m serious. Have you noticed how many Omega speakers have books? They’re on sale at the facility bookstore. (I’ve been to Omega once before.) Some presenters require or recommend their audience to read their books beforehand. The whole idea behind writing a book is that it allows you to generate income through sales without you having to put in any effort once it’s written. To scale the HLF program, you will need to generate revenue in ways that don’t require you to attend. Business speakers like to sell their books in the back of the room after they give a talk, and this gives them a sizable stream of income because some of those people will then place large orders for their friends and associates.
- Upload a good-quality video of the foundation and its work on YouTube. This includes good sound. This way, people can share the video or embed it on their blog, to disseminate it to their friends. Make sure the graduates of the HLF program share their stories, so that the audience can connect with the message. People relate to stories and stories are more effective in video format.
- Develop a speech you could give for paid speaking gigs. You need income to sustain the foundation’s work, and transforming the HLF story into a message that can benefit for-profit organizations (the ones with the money to pay speaking gigs) can help you in that regard. I’m reading a great book by speaker Judy Carter, “The Message of You” (I don’t know her and am not making any profit on the number of copies she sells!) and it seems that you could translate what you’ve done for inner-city youth into a talk for companies and professional organizations about resilience in difficult (business) environments, even when people seem to be at a disadvantage. Former homeless kid and now author and motivational speaker Liz Murray (who wrote Breaking Night and ended up at Harvard) has been able to do just that with great success.
- Use Kickstarter for crowd-funding. HLF is very much a nonprofit start-up. It can achieve its goals through lots of small donations combined together (in contrast with much bigger organizations, where corporate sponsors become much more important.) This is well-aligned with the crowdfunding philosophy. Now, I haven’t used Kickstarter, but there seems to be enough projects having been funded in the Baltimore area that you could get in touch with people who have run successful Kickstarter funding drives and learn how they did it. Here is an example of Kickstarter project. Also check out this page.
- Low on resources? Enlist (for instance to create and edit a video, or help you with a marketing plan) local college students who may work for course credit instead of money, or simply to improve their resume if the work is related to their major.
Good luck! Let me know what you think.
(And why do I care? I come from a very poor family with grandparents who faced war and genocide, and while my parents did all the work of getting themselves into the middle class, I've also seen them become bitter, "chip on their shoulder", "the rest of the world hasn't suffered as much as we have and beside the rest of the world is just out to get us and take everything from us again the first chance they have" types. I won't even get into issues of anger management, alcohol abuse and the like. Being at the bottom and struggling to get out tends to do that to people. There has to be a better way. Yoga and meditation have grounded me and given me strength. I'd love to see more inner-city kids be given such tools. Keep up the great work.)