In hard economic times, charitable donations are among the first victims — at least that’s how the story usually goes.
But the Ten Oaks Project — an Ottawa-based not-for-profit that organizes a yearly sleep-away camp and a yearly leadership retreat for youth from queer and trans families and youth who are queer or questioning themselves — has not seen any dip in donations or other funding over the past two years. In fact, Ten Oaks launched a new annual fundraiser in Toronto last fall that has significantly upped its financial resources for 2010.
“I very much believe that whatever you focus your energy on grows,” says executive director Kate Moore. “We have focused our energy on a couple of things that have led to our success, and one is growing our connection to our community.”
Community connection is one of the core values of Ten Oaks, which means that everything is done in consultation with the people served by the program, to maximize relevance.
“We only want to offer programming that the community needs and wants,” says Moore. “We do consultations. We do focus groups. We’re guided by their input in terms of what programming we develop, and that has positive spin-offs. They are very supportive of us in terms of their volunteering, and, when it comes time to make a request of them financially, they step up.”
The current president of the Ten Oaks board of directors, Mark Schaan, agrees that this emphasis on community is a big part of why things have gone so well for the project since Camp Ten Oaks first launched in 2005.
“Working directly with our program users and their families to understand their needs is at the heart of what’s made our programs so successful,” says Schaan, who has been involved with Ten Oaks since 2007. “And the success of our programs is what has continued to drive and intrigue people into wanting to help us make more of that happen.”
But community building is a central tenet of a lot of non-profits. That doesn’t necessarily explain how Ten Oaks is able to sustain the continued loyalty and willingness of its donors. What makes its particular approach so effective?
In talking with the program’s staff and board members, a few themes came up repeatedly: keeping the balance between giving and receiving in interactions with the community, counting on volunteers and dedicating them to specific tasks that they can own, being very intentional about the organization’s focus, knowing the donor audience, and sharing stories of the experiences and growth its programs create — at every opportunity.
“Telling your story is key to involving people,” says Moore. “We get people who can really tell our story [from] firsthand [experience] and speak to what a difference we’re making.”
For example, the board of Ten Oaks now asks parents and kids who have attended its programs to chair its twice-annual donor drives. Former campers are able to speak to the transformative effects of knowing other kids with queer and trans parents, and parents can speak to what their kids gained from being there.
Holly Wagg and Julia Alarie, co-founders and former board members of Ten Oaks — and now parents of Ten Oaks kids themselves — are set to chair this fall’s donor drive.
“There really is something beautiful about the fact that my own children can now experience the magic and self-discovery of a summer program that I helped to found before I even had my own family,” says Wagg, a communications and fundraising professional who sat on the Ten Oaks board from 2004 to 2009. “When I hear their stories… [I realize] we really did develop something amazing.”
A significant amount of behind-the-scenes work is done to ensure that Ten Oaks maintains a strong community presence all year, which keeps the support coming. In fact, just over half the organization’s board is currently dedicated to fundraising efforts in one way or another, says Moore.
“We now have 12 board members, of [whom] three are dedicated to stewarding donors,” says Moore. “In addition to the donor team, we have the board member who looks after the Bowl-a-thon, another board member who looks after Camp Curl [a curl-a-thon in Toronto], another board member looking after third-party fundraisers and another board member who looks after grants and contributions.
“And the fact that we are rooted in camp gives us a mindset of fun. Our two main fundraisers throughout the year — the Bowl-a-thon in Ottawa and Camp Curl in Toronto — are both a heck of a lot of fun. We get a couple hundred people out, each of whom is being supported by donors, and we create this ambiance where [the fundraisers themselves] are community events. This year, our bowl-a-thon raised approximately $40,000 and the first-ever Camp Curl, in the fall of 2009, raised over $25,000.”
Diversified funding streams have also helped to ensure financial stability for Ten Oaks even as other community organizations have faltered during the economic downturn.
“We’ve always tried to have a balance between grants, individual donations and our own fundraisers,” says Schaan. “Any one of those is a bit fragile on its own, but together, hopefully, it will create enough resources to be able to make things run.”
“We’ve been very successful at events, third-party fundraising, individual donations and grants,” says Wagg. “Not all organizations had a dip last year — it just depends on how they get their money. [For Ten Oaks], part of the reason is the stability of the organization, the transparency, the leadership, the accountability. They hear we run good programs, and they hear good things about our board. In part, it’s also about having the right fit for your donor base.”
Which brings us to a point that Schaan makes about the role of self-acceptance — a theme that runs through Ten Oaks’ programming as well as the organization’s administrative mandate.
“We’ve had to be a very disciplined organization, to make sure we weren’t just trying to do things because there was grant money available for it. We do the things we’re good at and try to find people who can support us in doing that. And that’s hard, but it means that there’s a consistency to the organization.”
At the end of the day, though, it’s obvious that the people involved in Ten Oaks are committed to this work and do it well, and that has bubbled over into the community support.
“Where Ten Oaks is privileged is that we have a very defined community from which to draw our donor base, and [we have] passionate advocates in both Ottawa and Toronto,” says Wagg. “Board members and camp staff and families will tap every network they can for our fundraising events, and one of the reasons for our success is that larger donor base.”