Kittens and Thank you Notes!

MT:Hey, everybody. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and today we are going to be learning about how small shops can really ramp up their major gifts. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Heather Svoboda, which is Czech for freedom. And she works at the Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood, Oregon. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Sherwood, Oregon, it is – Heather, would you say about 45, 50 miles south of Portland? Would you say that’s correct?

HS:We might be a little bit closer than that. But I don’t know that Sherwoodians consider themselves really the suburbs of Portland. We’re a little further out than that. But I would say maybe closer to about 30 miles or so, into downtown.

MT: Right. So pretty far away from a major metropolitan area.

HS: Mm-hmm.

MT: Awesome, so yeah, that’s where you are, and the cat adoption team is part of the, is it the Shelter Alliance, is that correct?

HS: It’s the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland, or ASAP, is the coalition.

MT: And so that includes some of the bigger shelters in Oregon and Southwest Washington as well as some of the smaller ones. I love what you all do, and I heard from – a little bird told me that you had been doing incredible things with your major gifts program, and so today I would just love so much for you to chat a little bit about just how you’ve accomplished these things. First of all, who are you and how long have you been fundraising?

HS: Sure, so as you said, Heather Svoboda and I work at the Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood. And I just Googled, and we actually are a little closer than I thought, so we’re about 16 to 20 miles outside of just the heart of Portland, Oregon.

MT: I said fifty, sorry.

HS: So a little less than that, but even more than I realized, and I commute. I have been working here at Cat for just about three years. Prior to that I sort of had a first life where I worked in communications. I earned a degree in English from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and I worked in catalog and magazine publishing for about six years. And during that time I started volunteering with an organization in Chicago called PAWS Chicago and just really liked the work I was doing there and wanted to start working more with animals. I was working actually at a nonprofit at that time, DePaul University in Chicago, which is a much different beast than where I am now. But I was doing alumni relations, communications, as well as development work on the communications side there and decided that while education is something that I’m passionate about, animal welfare and sheltering is really where my heart lies.

So I ended up finding a program at Canisius College, which was a program for anthrozoology. It’s a really unique, really cool program. It was one of the first master’s level programs in anthrozoology in the States, and I got to be in the first class for that program and earned my master’s in anthrozoology, which is basically the study of human-animal interaction. And I really focused on human-animal interaction with companion animals, so cats and dogs in particular and earned my degree there while I was working as a shelter associate here at the Cat Adoption Team. So I was doing the shelter caregiving job, cleaning litterboxes, mopping, and then also working with people as they came in to meet cats and really, really fell in love with this organization and what we were doing. And happened to be graduating just as they were posting a position for a new communications and development manager, and went to my ED and said, “You probably don’t know this about me, but my background is actually in communications and a little bit of development, and if you’d give me a chance, I’ll prove my worth.” And they did, and so I’ve been now the communications and development manager for about two years.

MT: Wow, I love that. So you really are a perfect fit for this job, but what drew you to major gifts fundraising as a career?


HS: Sure, so nothing. I didn’t want to do fundraising. I wanted to do the communications part, and it came with fundraising. I really did not think that it was going to be something I would enjoy. When I was first looking at this position, I really had to consider whether that was something that I wanted to take on. Like I said, my background was in communication. Writing an e-newsletter, I can do that. Writing an article or a blog, I can do that. Fundraising was something I had just sort of been dipping my toes into at DePaul before I started school, so I wasn’t looking to become a fundraiser, and my boss, she knew that. She has a lot of fundraising background, so I knew that she would kind of help me with that learning curve.

And as it turns out I really love fundraising, I think because of how much I love this organization. That’s really something that’s driven me, but also – oh, all the stats. I love those stats, and being able to talk to people who are as passionate if not more than I am about this organization and the work that we’re doing. That’s made me turn that corner, so I was not looking to be a major gifts fundraiser or a fundraiser of any kind, and as it turns out I’m actually not too bad at it and I quite like it.

MT: Wow, so you kind of answered this earlier, but what sorts of causes have you fundraised for? You fundraised just this one, it sounds like.

HS: This is the main one. I worked at DePaul University and I worked within the development office, which included fundraising and communications. And I mostly worked on the communications side as I was there. But I was also tasked with doing some of the development writing, planned giving writing. We had a very large fundraising campaign that started while I was there that I was involved in, but sort of in a very different level. I wasn’t a gifts officer, I wasn’t meeting with donors. I sort of was connecting with them just through a communications channel. I wouldn’t have considered myself a fundraiser, really, at that time. I was sort of tangentially involved in it and knew about – I knew the jargon and I understood what was going on. But I wasn’t on the ground fundraising.

MT: Right, but now you are.

HS: But now I am.

MT: So now you are. So what do you know or what have you learned about getting major gifts? And major gifts, for the purposes of this conversation, is gifts at or above $500.

HS: Correct, so at Cat we consider our major gifts $500 and above. And we do get a good number of gifts at that level, particularly through our large fundraising event, which is our gala and live and silent auction, but also throughout the year from individuals and corporate sponsors and that sort of thing. And it was like I said. It wasn’t something that I knew a lot about when I first started here, and it’s something that I kind of am continuing to learn about as we go. But I think one great thing that Cat Adoption has going is that our adopters are really big supporters of Cat, so even though they’re coming here to adopt a cat and they could just go to any rescue and adopt a cat, people do come to our organization because they’re interested in what we do. And they stay connected, which, if you talk to other people in the sheltering industry, they go, “Oh, no. Our adopters don’t support us. They’re not sending us gifts.” It’s other individuals who care about animal welfare, this and that. And Cat’s experience has been the opposite of that. Our adopters make up the majority of our funders and our individual donors. So one thing that I’ve really learned about our major gifts is that they come from the heart. These are people who are – as much as they’re giving to support Cat, a lot of that gift is also sort of a tribute or even a memorial gift for an animal that they met through us that meant a lot in their life.

MT: Aww, wow. How do you get those loyal – I mean, people who become so loyal? What have you learned in this role about making them be loyal like that?

HS: I think one piece that’s unique, and becoming less unique as time goes on is that the communications and development roles are so closely tied together. So, in my case, they are actually – I’m actually managing both of those things, and I’ve found that communicating with your donors not at your donors makes a tremendous difference in how excited they are and engaged they are with your organization. So one thing that Cat was not necessarily known for was great stewardship efforts, and that was something that when I came on, I knew was going to be a goal for us. And we’ve really ramped up our stewardship and recognition to really include everyone and to change the internal culture of our organization to really recognize that all of us – anyone who walks in our doors, we have to present ourselves to them as someone who could be a great donor or supporter of Cat in some way. And having that increased stewardship effort and that increased friendly communication with our donors I think has really increased their amount of engagement with us and them feeling close to us and knowing what’s going on with us.

MT: So would you say that you – when you do these communications, you say talking with versus talking at. Can you give an example of that?

HS: Sure, so I do a lot of our social media, and quite a lot of our supporters are friends with us there or they might receive our e-newsletter. And what we try to do is involve them in the conversation. So if someone posts a question or a comment, we really go out of our way to try to respond to that and acknowledge it. And I’ve found that those people there’s kind of a movement that’s going – I don’t know if you’ve heard the term slacktivism?

MT: Mm-hmm.

HS: But the idea that people who are communicating with you online, it’s like, “Oh, I pressed like and I got the same happy feeling as if I would have spent $10.” And so fundraisers are worried like, oh, my gosh. We don’t want people just liking us. We want them sending us checks. Of course we do. But something that I’ve found is that those people that go out of their way to like your post or comment or talk to you, they’re doing that because they’re interested in you, and if you can talk with them, respond to them, acknowledge them, that invites that conversation to move beyond the like or the post to, “Hey, how can I really get involved with this organization that I care enough about to weed out all of the other posts on my Facebook feed or mail in my mailbox to respond to them. How can I get even more involved with them?” I hope that answers the question.

It’s about realizing what’s important to our constituents. What pieces of what we’re doing matter the most to them? And so I might have a specific agenda. Of course I do. I have specific things that I want to communicate through the year to encourage support, but I also want to listen. What are people responding most to? How are they connecting with us? And that’s where I go. Because that’s where their interests lie. If everyone says we want you to save just kittens, I’m going to have to say, “Well, that’s not going to work. I gotta save cats, adult cats, too.” But I also recognize that kittens are where it’s at for some people. For others it’s being neutered. For others it is the adults or the senior cats who are here. And so you kind of have to touch on all of those pieces to meet people where they’re at. Find out where they are connecting, and see what you can do, see what you can offer that makes them want to give back to you.

MT: I love that. So, on that note, how did you start your major gifts program? I mean, you talked a little bit about how you’re personalizing communications a bit more. Is there anything else you did? Any software or did you have a good team meeting where you got together and planned how many major gifts you wanted to get or anything like that? Or…

HS: We didn’t really have that type of a meeting. Of course, we have our budget, and we look at major gifts probably a little bit differently than some organizations because we really weren’t getting gifts at that level really consistently, and so it kind of just got jumbled into historical overall strategy. When I came on, we were using DonorPerfect software, and everyone hated it, I mean just hated it. We called it “Donor Imperfect” and couldn’t figure out what we were doing with it. It was just awful. Well, it turns out DonorPerfect is really robust donor software that has the ability to do a lot of things that adjust no one in the organization knew how to do or how to use the software. So one thing that we did really was ramp up our skills and knowledge using that database so that we could use it to our advantage. We realize that we were keeping records in that software for people who had never given us a gift who maybe bought a $2 toy in our retail area in 2010 and then never did anything else with us again. And we were sending them letters year after year after year. A humongous waste of money. A waste of time. That’s not someone who’s engaged with the organization.

MT: No.

HS: And we really took a lot of time, I would say, this year and last year sort of cleaning up that database and making that useful to us by denoting who are the people who are really giving, who are giving consistently? And weeding out these people who we were sending, like I said, mailer after mailer. If they haven’t responded, why are we still sending them a mailing? We could be putting those efforts toward time spent talking to someone who has the potential of moving into that major gifts role.

MT: So you cleaned up your database.

HS: Cleaning up the database and sort of starting to look a little bit more at who are our consistent annual givers? I think, for me, that’s the first place you can look for your major gift potentials because these are people who are giving year after year whose lifetime giving is usually going to be more than your major gift one-time giver anyway, and people that are the most connected. If somebody’s walking in and dropping in and dropping a donation in our donation bin, that is amazing. I love that person, and I want their gift. Are they probably going to be a major gifts prospect? It’s unlikely. So, we’ve put a big focus actually on our annual donors and stewarding our annual donors more because we know that there’s a better chance of those folks becoming major gift or planned gift donors.

MT: Nice, so you look at the people that have given once a year the last two years or more. That’s a good place to start.

HS: Mm-hmm.

MT: I love that.

HS: We also have a monthly giving program. And that we’ve put a lot of additional effort into that, recognizing those folks, making them feel really a part of our team for the same reason. So it’s those annual and monthly donors who we’re really paying attention to more now and I think we’ll see them move into more of the major gift donors as we move into that.

MT: Wow, so do you have a special name for your monthly giving program or anything or are you marketing it in a certain way or branding it a certain way?

HS: Yeah, it’s called the Meow Team. And the Meow Team has been going on for a number of years. When I came in, we did have a decent number of monthly donors. I believe last January we had about 133 folks who were Meow Team members, and this year we started January with about 152, so made a little bit of movement there. And the thing about it is that you just – they did a sort of initial push to get people to start giving monthly, and people joined. And it’s just on your credit card or your debit card, and it’s just coming out. And they renew it year after year, but we weren’t talking to them. We weren’t inviting them to activities. We weren’t recognizing them as people who are giving to us every single month, and so we made a concerted effort to really start doing a little but more of the branding of that program to make it special to be a Meow Team member, not just like, “Okay thanks. Great, you’re sending us money.”

And so we’ve added more consistent renewal letters, we’ve added a welcome packet, which is something that we didn’t do before. The gift officer just sent an email saying, “Thanks for joining up, this is how the program works.” Now we send you a welcome packet with a nice letter with an image of a cat whose life is being touched because of you, a little coupon to use in our thrift store or here at our retails store, and a little welcome gift. We have little window stickers that we send out, very inexpensive. It’s pretty low budget still, but it makes joining seem like something that’s a little more special than just making your annual gift or something like that.

MT: I love that. You know, reminding yourself, hey, every time I see that sticker I’m a member of the Meow Team.

HS: Mm-hmm. And then we’ve started pushing again, reminding people that the Meow Team exists, how much it means to us that people are on that Meow Team, and we’ve kind of just started doing that, so we’ve started with a blow-in in our mailer in the fall of last year, and we got a pretty good response from that, I felt. Tied in with that we also did, in our fall newsletter, a donor profile. Actually one of our board members who’s also a Meow Team member, so we just hit volunteer, board member, and Meow Team member in one donor profile, which was great. And he’s just somebody who’s involved in Cat and agreed to do that, and he knew also how important it is to kind of show who those people are and encourage other people.

So we kind of tied that in with the insert, and then we’ll kind of continue that again this year. So in our upcoming newsletter we’ll talk about how annual and Meow Team gifts make a difference as far as those bigger gifts. This year we’re really focused on planned giving as part of our major gifts fundraising. And that’s something that neither myself or my ED felt super strongly knowledgeable about so we’ve been doing webinars and went to the Willamette Valley Development Officers Conference and attended all of the planned giving seminars. I really feel like educating yourself about those topics is so important to knowing what’s going on in the industry right now in both fundraising and the industry that you’re fundraising for. You can kind of learn what the new trends are and also recognizing what’s working for you. You don’t have to change it just because the trends are changing if it’s still working for you.

MT: Right, totally. Yeah, that’s something that I’m actually going to be covering in an upcoming webinar with somebody who’s very knowledgeable about this stuff, and he’s going to be talking about mainly how to market your planned giving program. And he’s like, “You don’t have to be a lawyer, you don’t really have to know a lot. You just have to be able to package it in such a way that people really say, ‘Oh, yeah. This is something I’m interested in.’” But most small nonprofits are so overwhelmed by everything that they have to do they don’t do that, even that, you know?

HS: Yeah, yeah. And we’ve been – a lot of our major gifts last year – not a lot of them, a large portion of the funds were from planned gifts. Some that we knew about, others that we didn’t even know were out there. And so we realized like what a huge difference those six-figure gifts make. We’re happy with the 500s, so when we get those big six-figure gifts it’s like a party day. And recognizing that for Cat in particular, but really for any small nonprofit, having those sustaining gifts out there as planned gifts can really be a huge boon to your bottom line down the road. So, looking ahead at where your major gifts funds are going to be coming from in the years to come is also good.

MT: Yeah, that’s a hard thing is that sometimes the work you do for this, your nonprofit may not see results from your work until long after you’re gone, ten, twenty, thirty years from now. So it’s less like you’ll get the credit for that work. And more like where did this person come from, you know? It’s like that’s how they usually are.

HS: Right.

MT: You know?

HS: I was laughing this year because we did. We go some really large bequests this year, which was fantastic, and I’m laughing like oh, yeah. I just boosted our annual fundraising from last year to this year like $500,000 and that was just all me. But really, a large portion of that had very little to do with me at all, and had to do with I hope somebody who really touched them in the past, whether it was a gifts officer or even the front desk staff. Involving everyone in that fundraising makes a big difference.

MT: Yeah, big time. So how much have you grown your program in the last three years, barring your incredible planned giving?

HS: Yeah, that one. That was a very unique year. Last year, just looking at our gifts of $500 or more, we had about 197 gifts at that level, and we raised over a million dollars.

MT: Wow.

HS: Again I have to say that two very large, six-figure gifts make up a majority of that, so let me do some quick math and just pretend I didn’t get any bequests, although always a few come in but usually not at that level. So, let’s see. I had – do, do, do. You’d think for a fundraiser I’d be better at math.

MT: I think fundraising is mostly about relationships. I think we don’t think about the money as much as people probably think we do. It’s much more about language and words and helping people feel good.

HS: That’s true, that’s true. My math skills leave much to be desired. So really if we’re looking at our major gifts, not counting those big bequests, we did closer to about $400,000. So that tells you how much of a difference those make. Let’s see, so that was 2014. In 2013, we did very similar. About 200 or so gifts and about the same for that annual major gifts, although that’s counting a large grant that came in, so actually now I’ve got to do some math again.

MT: Yeah, go ahead. Take your time.

HS: I’m going, that doesn’t seem right. Oh, I added. So I would say probably last year we made about $100,000 more than we did in 2013 at the major gifts level. And the majority of those came in – let’s see – like I said, about a third of those gifts actually come in as part of our annual fundraising gala. So that’s going to include corporate sponsorships as well as individual donations that are going to be at the $500 level and above. And many others come in through our direct mail, so we started doing four annual mailers rather than three, which we had been doing in the past. And I’ve noticed a little bit of a difference from that. We made about 10,000 more in direct mail this year over last year, so it did make a difference there.

I think we maybe talked about this earlier, but Cat has been in a really interesting kind of a growth period. So about the time that I came on as fundraiser, we also got a new executive director and made a lot of internal changes, so not only in our animal care but in terms of the positions that we have and the staff that we had. And we’ve had a few kind of funny years of fundraising because we received a very large grant as part of the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland in 2012 – or excuse me, in 2013. Last year we received those two large bequests that made a huge difference, so it’s been kind of funny to try and track our progress over the last few years because there’s always – and I’m sure this is true for many organizations – something unexpected. In 2012 we actually had a flood in our shelter so we did some emergency fundraising that made a huge amount more than our average, every day, but we’re not going to try to have a flood every year.

MT: No.

HS: You know, just to make up-

MT: You’ve got to make a name some other way.

HS: Yeah, exactly. So that’s been interesting, and the nice thing about where I sit now is we’ve been, like I said, cleaning up our database, which is making our reports more reasonable so that we can compare year over year, specific against specific. Our executive director right now is someone who I really, really admire. I think she has not just the compassion for animals that we’re serving, but really for the people that we’re connecting with. And I think that she’s had personal one-on-one meetings with people, members of our board or members of our Meow Team, people that have reached out to us and I think that her ability to build those relationships – just as you were saying, it’s really about relationships – has been a great boon to our ability to get those major gifts. People feel, obviously, very compelled by, our mission, but to have that personal relationship and to feel really loved and welcomed into our family, I don’t think there’s anything you can do better than that to encourage major gifts.

MT: Wow, I love that. Do you have any face palm moments you’d like to share?

HS: I have many every day. As I said, we’re still in a lot of learning process ourselves. And it’s funny, I had just – I can’t remember if I had read this, or it was a webinar I watched, somebody was talking about it’s okay to say no to gifts. And it’s like as a fundraiser you’re like, it is? But wouldn’t we want any gift, any – we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or make them feel like we’re not grateful or they think we don’t need the money or – we can say no? It’s like okay, well I found out why, why you should and could say no to some gifts.

We have some very generous donors who’ve been giving to Cat for a very long period of time and who are really close to our organization and do a lot for us. And they recently donated a very, very nice set of jewelry. And it had a really nice, high value. And we sat there and said, we’re so grateful for this gift this is wonderful. Thank you so much. We’ll try to sell it or auction it, and so on and so forth. Well, selling and auctioning off jewelry, particularly if it’s very specific style, which this piece is sort of a Southwestern style, it’s a lot of turquoise and gold. It’s really unique and beautiful, not very popular in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve had a couple of jewelers say you might be able to sell this in the Southwest, but honestly going, we could put this on consignment for you but really it’s just going to sit here through, you know – the just isn’t kind of the thing that people in our neighborhood are looking for.

And so now we’ve really spent quite a bit of time and energy figuring out what do we do with this jewelry? How do we get a good value from it, which is of course what our donors want? They didn’t give it to us so it could sit in a security box somewhere. But it’s –we have to just kind of laugh. It’s like, oh, my gosh, this jewelry is a bigger pain almost than it’s worth. I hesitate to say that because it was a very generous gift, but it was also like okay this is one of those times where we say, “You know what would really, really be helpful is if, you know, you sold this jewelry.”

MT: And then gave us the money.

HS: And then made a donation back to us because we’re a small organization. We have one person working in fundraising and communications. I have a part time assistant who does a lot of data entry and some communications things for me. It’s been our retail manager and thrift store manager who’s actually been sort of tasked who was doing this and has got a million other things on her plate, so that was definitely a growing moment, a face palm moment of going, okay, maybe this wasn’t our smoothest choice.

Do I have any other good face palm moments? We’ve had so much fun fundraising this year. It has been a good year for us, and for me it’s like I’m starting to really get it. And I love our donors. That sounds so choosy that I had trouble spitting it out. But I think if you love your donors it shows, and they love you back. We handwrite thank you cards. I do all of our donors from the $100 to the $500 level. Our executive director either calls or send a handwritten note to anyone who makes a gift at the major gifts level. And, you know, talk about time consuming. If we’ve just sent out an appeal, that can really eat up a lot of hours your day handwriting notes and making phone calls and leaving messages.

But it’s also – there’s a joy to doing it, and I think if you do it with joy it shows to those donors and it keeps them coming back for more. I have had people send a gift saying, “Thank you for sending me a note.” And then we send them their receipt, and they say, “Thanks for sending me that note and receipt.” And even laughing with my assistant the other day. She’s like, “I think I’m just going to call this woman because I feel badly that she keeps responding to my thank you notes with a new donation.” But I think that’s a – that’s not the major gifts level, but it is telltale of what stewardship and recognition can do.

MT: Wow. No kidding, wow.

HS: We had someone Instagram our thank you note. I had a couple of people do that actually who were so impressed that they had received a handwritten note. With a current – we print our notecards so that they have either a cat who’s been adopted from us or came to our spay/neuter clinic, somebody that’s here looking for a home. It’s easy to go buy a notecard at the department store, but I think it’s even special to have that little extra touch that makes them feel connected back to your organization. I think – and I’ve probably said it a hundred times in this phone call, but I really think that that stewardship, that donor recognition, loving your donors, like that is what makes them keep coming back to you, that is what makes them want to give and to give at a high level. At least in my opinion.

MT: I love that. I love your passion for this. And so is there anything else you’d like to add?

HS: Well, I hope I’ve answered your questions. I know I might not have been super specific about our major gifts program. We’re really still learning a lot of it, too. My advice to anyone considering starting a major gifts program or revamping their major gifts program is number one, look at the number of gifts you’re getting in, and the types of gifts and levels that you’re getting and set major gifts that are realistic place. At DePaul University, a major gift was between $25,000 and $50,000. When I came to Cat and I was like, “Oh, what’s our major gifts level?” “Oh, it’s $500,” it was like whoa. Is that right? Is that okay?

You have to choose a gift level that makes sense for the types of gifts that you’re getting in. And I’m hopeful that there will be a time in Cat’s future where a major gift – we’re getting in so many annual gifts at the $500 level that we could start considering annual gifts at the $1000 level or the $10,000 level. But setting realistic expectations and then treating those donors who give you at that level with all the joy and love and gratefulness that you can. Donor-centric fundraising is kind of coming into its own, and I think it’s, for my experience, that’s definitely been the way to go. And ask your donors what they want. Ask them what kind of – what the important part of your organization is, what draws them to you? Because it’s usually not just your general mission. There’s usually something specific. And then talk to them at that level. Meet them where they’re at. Find out what, what gets them going about your organization and the work that you’re doing and tell them about the things that you’re doing, timely, right then and there, that address their specific concerns. It’s individualism, it’s thanking them, it’s talking with them not at.

MT: Wow, thank you. I think that’s very clear. Thank you so much. That’s really, really powerful. If anybody wants to get in touch with you, how can they get in touch with you?

HS: Yeah, you’re welcome to email me. My email address is You can also find Cat/it’s mostly me online, on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. It’s Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood, there is another cat adoption team organization out in I think Maine, maybe, so don’t get confused, although I’m sure they’re a great organization as well. But Cat Adoption Team is on Facebook and you could always just private message there. And I’m the person that’s checking those messages, so I can get back to you on those channels as well.

MT: I love that. Thank you, thank you so much.

HS: My pleasure.

MT: Everybody, thank you. Thank you also for listening. I really appreciate it.

HS: Oh, yes, yeah please. If anyone has questions or wants to know more specifics, please reach out. I’d be happy to chat with you or if you have information you want to share with me, I like to learn, too.

MT: Yeah, thank you. And anyone who wants to send a comment in, go ahead, and thanks again. All right, have a wonderful rest of your day.

HS: Thanks, Mazarine. Thanks so much for having me.

Posted in