The following is a conversation between Robert Kissane, Chairman of CCS Fundraising, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Robert Kissane, Chairman of CCS Fundraising

Denver: Non-profit organizations have kept a keen eye on both revenues and expenses since the start of the pandemic… some to amplify their services to meet increased need, others to merely survive, and still others somewhere in between. There are a few people who are better equipped to talk about the revenue side of this equation than my next guest. He is Robert Kissane, the chairman of CCS Fundraising.

Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Bob!

Robert: Thanks so much, Denver. It’s great to be here again. 

Denver: Let me begin by asking you about CCS, the work that you do and how you go about doing it. 

Robert: Well, just briefly, the company has actually been around for about seven decades. Got started after World War II. What we do is we provide consulting and management services around fundraising for nonprofit organizations. I think our sweet spot is when an organization is looking to do something big — a major campaign or a major initiative.. build their endowment — they’ll often retain us, and we will provide both advice, guidance, as well as some actual help and personnel to manage and execute major initiatives. It’s been great. 

Denver: You guys launched a multi-part philanthropic climate survey to assess how COVID-19 pandemic was affecting nonprofit fundraising, and the most recent of those reports just came out. So what has been the overall impact of this pandemic on fundraising, Bob? 

Robert: Thanks for that question, Denver. I should’ve mentioned that our firm works in all the major sectors, and the major sectors are healthcare, education, arts and culture, human service, the environment. We surveyed over the past… we’ve done it four times now since the start of the pandemic and about more than a thousand nonprofit organizations from around the country and around the world have responded. 

Denver: Wow!

Robert: And it’s pretty clear what the impact has been on fundraising and philanthropy in terms of the initial blow that took place. So if you go back to March and April and our earliest reports, you could see that this was pretty devastating across the board. 

Over time, what’s been revealed is that certain areas that really hit, frankly, the news and were on top of mind — so obviously, health and issues around health, issues around food and food security. And then, unfortunately, or it’s been on for way too long, but social justice issues kind of rose to the fore. In those organizations, there’s a direct correlation between how well those sectors have done. They fared a bit stronger than in areas like arts and culture where many institutions actually had to close their doors and are still dark — theaters and performing arts centers.

So, there was an impact on everyone initially. Some sectors have done better over the last six months. Some have been surprised by how well they’ve done. But it’s uneven, and it’s uneven more around the sectors than around any particular geographic part of the world. 

Denver: Would you be optimistic for the remainder of 2021 in this context? It sounds to me that it’s less severe now than it was, let’s say, in March, April, May. Do you see that continuing? It’s always hard to get an historical context after an event like this because there’s nothing comparable ever, so I don’t know where you reach for this information, but tell me what you think.

Robert: Right. Well, the way I think is partially on the data that we receive, but then partially what we live and see every day because we’re working right now with about 200 organizations around the world. So, I’ll get off this–we’ll have this conversation, and then I’m on a call with the board of a major university, and then I’ve got something with a human service organization, then a human rights organization. And so, you’re looking at it from different perspectives. 

So, in general, you would feel that things have settled down and that people are getting back into a rhythm of giving. I would be certainly less sanguine if I were an arts and cultural institution, certain ones, maybe not so much a museum but more of a performing arts group, where it’s hard to make the case in some way that “Hey, we’re closed right now. So when we get back together and open up, we’re going to need your help,” although they frankly need the help right now. So, organizations have started to see this settling, and that’s a good thing. 

I would say, too, that the American citizenship, and really people around the world, have become so sensitized to issues — issues around health access, issues around social justice, issues around food and shelter — that people have been… There are many, many examples where organizations have seen extraordinary support, and we’ve seen a little bit of a shift in priorities among donors. 

Denver: I have seen a lot about virtual galas, and I’ve talked to a bunch of people about virtual walks and fundraising events like that. What has been the story about virtual major gifts solicitations? Have they been going on? And to the extent that they have, have they been successful? 

Robert: I rely on you, Denver, for great questions, and you always are on the mark. That’s been a revelation for me, personally, because you sort of grow up in the field where you reach out personally… don’t write a letter… don’t make a phone call… get in the room with the person, the family—

The most recent survey we conducted showed that of those who conducted virtual solicitations, half of them felt that they were as effective as they’d been in the past… half of them. And most surprisingly, a quarter of them said they felt they were more effective.

Denver: You and I are from the same generation. Those were things that… you do not violate those. 

Robert: Right. So, I think of a lot of things this way. That there are fundamental principles, but the way you can execute them changes over time with technology, with other things. So you’re still trying to create an intimate environment. You’re still trying to tell a compelling story and demonstrate how a person can have impact and really be a hero. That’s all still there. And I tell you, the virtual major gift environment has been very effective, and I was really surprised. 

The most recent survey we conducted showed that of those who conducted virtual solicitations, half of them felt that they were as effective as they’d been in the past…half of them. And most surprisingly, a quarter of them said they felt they were more effective, and about 18% said they were a little less successful. And then there were some who were unsure. 

So half of them saying… it’s really three-quarters of them saying they’re either as effective or more effective, which surprises me, but I’ve been involved in them. I’ve been in the room where it happens many times over the past several months. And number one, you have someone’s complete focus. You have an agenda. You can create a certain level of intimacy, and people are taking it seriously. So you’re not in a restaurant where the waiter is interrupting or whatever, or your server’s interrupting. You’re not in a situation where something is happening, and there’s not a lot of small talk, so you’re getting right to it. So I find that the virtual meetings have been effective. 

The harder thing starting now is to get the meetings because it used to be where you could meet someone in a public setting, you might meet them somewhere and say, “Hey, can I give you a call or can I come and see you?” And now, it’s got to be very… send the email, arrange it. So the person who’s agreeing to meet is, in a way, predisposed to hearing you out, which is not always the case. 

Denver: So, well, it’s just another example of those long-held assumptions that guys like you and I had, and they get finally tested, and it turns out maybe it doesn’t always have to be face-to-face. So, who would know? Have there been any trends in the giving sources, where the money’s coming from, that have caught your attention? 

Robert: A bit. Not too much, but a few things. Again, when this first all came down, it was pretty clear for most organizations, not some of the higher-profile ones, but for your average organization, boy, it was going to be your tried-and-true closest friends. They were the ones who would support you. So, we saw members of the board and major donors, that showed in all the data we collected and in our own personal experiences in the firm, that those who were closest to the organization, their stakeholders were really the “main” main donors. 

For the more well-known organizations, so let’s take for example two terribly important issues in the United States: one is food security and people’s ability just to live with financial, economic hardship; and secondly, social justice and racial equity. Feeding America, which is really the organization that works with food banks. It’s a network. It is an incredible organization, and we’ve been honored to work with them for many years. Feeding America saw both sides of it. They saw a huge surge in the number of people who are food insecure. It went from like 34 million to 50-something million people were insecure.

Denver: Just like that.

Robert: But then they did receive, and the amount of money you get in philanthropy can never cover the whole problem, but they did see a tremendous growth in giving. Part of the reason is because they have a brand. They’re out there. They’re on television. They’re there. People know them, and they are confident in them, and they have trust. 

 On the social justice, particularly related to Black Americans and African American community, organizations like the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — three organizations, again, I’ve worked with a long time, three great, great organizations — always received a lot of unsolicited, large contributions as well as grassroots support. 

So that was very interesting, this dynamic that… and we saw this years ago now with the ACLU and the Muslim ban, the ACLU received a surge of giving as a result of that, both large contributions and average Americans. One of the organizations received a tenfold increase in the number of small contributions — $10, $25, $100 — that they would normally receive. Another one raised more money in the month of June than they had raised the previous year.

Denver: Wow!

Robert: You kind of saw that, but that’s only with an organization that’s well-known because it’s a knee-jerk reaction. You want to do something to help, you’re going to go to a place you know. And it does leave a lot of local community organizations and less well-known organizations that are doing essential work behind in that, unfortunately. 

Denver: It reminds me a little bit of the conversation I had with Billy Shore of Share Our Strength. He was saying that this pandemic really showed the importance of investing in your brand because it’s very hard to establish your identity in the middle of a crisis. You have to have a brand out there that people recognize, and as you said, a moment ago, people trust. And sometimes there’d be those people wondering why you do all of that. Well, this would be a perfect example as to why you do it because people automatically turn and give to that organization. 

You said at the very beginning, Bob, that you guys often help institutions manage really big, large campaigns. So I guess I would like to ask you in terms of major capital campaigns or comprehensive campaigns, are those going on now? Or are people shelving those for the time being? 

Robert: They’re going on. Some have been delayed a bit… like they might’ve wanted to start and they’re taking a little longer to kind of announce a public effort. So there were a number of places that were planning on announcing publicly their campaigns in May and June, and then in September. 

And now, as you know and we know in the fundraising world, when you announce publicly, you already have raised a lot of money privately from your closest stakeholders. So that’s continuing to go on. So, all of the… frankly, the shift there was, “OK. We’re not going to announce it publicly. We’re going to continue our quiet work, and we’ll announce when it’s more appropriate.”

There have been places where just the nature of what they were hoping to do, whether it might’ve been to construct a new facility or to launch a new program, that was directly affected by the crisis and the pandemic, so that was put off a bit. But in general, we found that organizations have made adjustments to their timetable, maybe to their financial goal and objective, and they’ve made adjustments — a number have — in what they’re raising the funds for.

Denver: Interesting. 

Robert: So you look at organizations in the health field. There have been some extraordinary financial gifts and contributions that are focusing more on the programmatic side of, again, access and quality of healthcare to broad populations. In New York City, we have amazing medical centers, and because of the way that there’s been consolidation, you now have some of the elite New York- Manhattan medical centers providing that same quality of care in the outer boroughs. 

And so, there’s been an interest from philanthropists to: How do we help those great institutions provide this service to underserved populations? 

The United Negro College Fund is now doing more to actually help the infrastructure, the technology, because what good is getting a scholarship if the institution itself is underfunded and there’s not equity there? So that’s a shift that’s really big, but it fits perfectly within the mission of the organization.

Denver: You are seeing some organizations where there’s been an evolution of their mission because sometimes people think that the mission has to be static and can’t change. But you know what? It sometimes has to respond to the environment around them, and you do need to adjust it slightly if you’re going to remain relevant. And that’s what you’re seeing. 

Robert: Can I give you a great example of that just for a second? 

Denver: I’d love one.

Robert: So we all grew up with “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” One of the great branding from the Ad Council about the United Negro College Fund, and they have done a spectacular job of mobilizing funds to offer the opportunity for people of color to attend HBCUs, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

But it’s been a scholarship mission. It’s been about providing the funds to a family or an individual to attend the institution. And now, the shift is not only towards the scholar himself or herself but the institution. So the United Negro College Fund is now doing more to actually help the infrastructure, the technology, because what good is getting a scholarship if the institution itself is underfunded and there’s not equity there? So that’s a shift that’s really big, but it fits perfectly within the mission of the organization.

Denver: Sticking with that focus, let’s talk a little bit about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I know organizations are doing an awful lot, at least they’re talking about it, and they’re creating committees. But what are some of the ways you have seen DEI principles being applied across development practices?

Robert: Oh, wow! Well, a lot of it’s in… people have talked about it for a long time, and unfortunately, there are good examples, but there aren’t as many as there should be of real movement. 

So, what have we seen? Well, one thing is that… I’m overstating this, but many organizations are reaching out to advisors and DEI consultants. One DEI consultant told me that they received — this is both from nonprofits and profit-making companies — 200 inquiries every day. Two hundred inquires every day from major organizations back in June and July. 

So there are these, we’ve seen across the board, studies. I was chair of the board, I recently stepped down as chairman of Human Rights Watch, which is a very diverse, global organization committed to social justice, and even Human Rights Watch had to get in there and say, “Hey. What are we doing?” I serve on the board of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and even Alvin Ailey had this… you can’t get more diverse, and it’s like, “Hey. What are we doing?” 

So, diversity — the issues have bubbled up from the employees, the staff asking and compelling leadership to be more diverse. So, we’re seeing diversity in hiring at the executive level. We’re seeing diversity in the members of the C suite, the leadership team. We’re seeing training on sensitivity and diversity issues within the whole enterprise, the board, the staff, the rest.

And there’s been a real push for, in organizations I’ve been affiliated with, hiring search firms who are particularly good at this so you can get a pipeline because part of the challenge is getting candidates, and you don’t get good candidates if you’re not at the grassroots. I remember talking to the Ford Foundation years ago about a college in Detroit which really needed and wanted to be more diverse. And Ford was saying, “You guys got to get to work in the high schools. You got to get down to that level. You got to start to build your own pipeline.” So that becomes really important. 

And diversity, Denver, it goes across, but I only talked about one part of it — the staffing structural thing. There’s diversity in the way you talk about yourself. There’s diversity in your mission and who you’re serving. And there’s diversity in who you engage as potential donors and stakeholders. 

And there has been a real wonderful movement in this country of philanthropy among some various communities in the country — the South Asian community, the Asian community. You can do it ethnically. You can do it gender. You can do it sexual orientation, whatever. And we have a real vibrant society here. And I think a lot of nonprofit organizations have ignored communities where there could be real partnership

Denver: Sounds like it’s diversity in the stories that you tell about your organization. And they’ve all been pretty much cookie-cutter, and now those stories are beginning to change.

Robert: Absolutely. 

Denver: Speaking about things that might change, what about the organizational design of a development department? And I’d just be curious in terms of, you know, though everything’s changed and the way we work has changed, and I was just wondering, once we get back to a semblance of normal, will some jobs be eliminated or de-emphasized, and other jobs will be elevated or established to better reflect the world we’re in?

Robert: Wow. Yes. My sense of that would be to say that you’re going to see change, not massive change. But the pandemic in particular and the other social issues we have exposed nonprofit organizations, their fundraising departments. It exposed their weaknesses. 

So, to give you an example, there’s one terrific organization that didn’t have a way to give online. It raises a lot of money, and it does all that, and you couldn’t hit a button. It had no transactional capability. Other organizations didn’t have a way to capture properly the contributions they receive digitally or online and be able to kind of work those lists the way they did work their direct mail and direct marketing work.

A number of organizations had to put junior staff on the front lines of actually talking to donors. There were moments where it was important that an organization speak to all of its donors… so we’ve got to make 400 phone calls in the next 48 hours. So people who might’ve been support staff writing grants, doing whatever, were now talking to donors and were pretty good at it. 

So, the first thing is this issue of: How has your revenue mix changed, if at all? Are there newer possibilities for direct and digital marketing? Are there newer possibilities for major gifts? What’s your corporate situation? What’s your foundation situation? So how is that changing? And then how does your staffing need to adjust to meet those changes? Because it’s not only reactive but then you get strategic about it and say, “What should we try?” And I don’t think we should be committing forever to a new idea. You got to test it a bit and play with it. So, you need staff to do that.

So, we’ve seen a lot of repurposing of existing staff because organizations, not only did they struggle with their philanthropic support, but their earned revenue, their ticket sales, their tuition if a college saw a decrease in enrollment. So, there were pressures on budgets for all of these nonprofits so they had to make do with what they had.  And suddenly, you had to put people in frontline fundraising positions who hadn’t done it, and get a kind of a war room team on the social media side if you weren’t properly equipped. So, it’s really a triage evaluation… and then trying to put people in the right spots. But I know of very few organizations who are not planning to adjust their strategy and their staff. 

We’ve always as a company subscribed to the idea that a blend of youth and experience… This is a high-energy business, high-energy field, but you can’t be just going off in directions without some knowledge of where you’re going. So that blend is important. 

Denver: So often, we just dust off these job descriptions when somebody leaves and then just fill that same role. And this has been that pause where you begin to say, “Is there a new role or a better role that we could fill as opposed to just doing the same thing?” 

Also, it sounds like what you were just saying there, too. This has been a great opportunity for nonprofit organizations to identify talent within their organization who would have otherwise never really had the opportunity to raise their head above the picket fence and say, “Hey, she’s really good.”

Robert: You’re right about that. We’ve always as a company subscribed to the idea that a blend of youth and experience… having both is kind of… because you need the energy. This is a high-energy business, high energy field, but you can’t be just going off in directions without some knowledge of where you’re going. So that blend is important. And we see a lot of our young folks really grow, and grow rapidly, and accelerate because they have real-time experiences, and they’re tested in really interesting ways.

Denver: Do you think the way you go about your businesses is going to change any?

Robert: Well, it already has. Everybody’s working from home. We have 350 permanent professional staff at CCS. We have people working throughout the United States, in Europe.  We have people in Australia, people in Asia working at great institutions. And normally, they’re physically at the place. And then, you cannot go to the Smithsonian Institution. You can’t go in the building in certain areas. You can’t go into some of these institutions. So not all, but most of our people are working remotely. So, we had to change our model and provide the tech and the support to do that and make sure everybody was set up.

I think it’ll be a blend for a while. I’ve had very few in-person meetings, but I think that’ll begin to change. I think that the way that people will operate will be this sort of mix for a while, and that’s going to be tricky to figure out. Like, I don’t know, what am I going to do when I go to a meeting in person in the morning? So, I have an eight o’clock meeting or whatever, and then I come out of the meeting, and now I’ve got a Zoom call, and then I’ve got something else. I’m like in my car. I can’t do it on the subway. How is that all going to work? 

My big worry is the average American household feeling dwarfed by all of this big philanthropy and not feeling that their contributions have impact, and they really do.

Denver: There’s a lot of questions around that. I think everybody, or many people, enjoy working remotely and don’t see a need to go back to the office. But I’ve got to tell you, when some people start going back into the office… and you’re not in the office, there’s a little bit of this fear of missing out or this, “What is going on?” People haven’t, I think, factored that into the equation yet, but you say, “I’ve got to get in there.” So we’ll see what happens. 

Finally, Bob, you have such great vision, and you know the history of this sector, but looking just beyond the next year or two, looking out 5 or 10 years, we know we’ve had these cataclysmic disruptions. We’ve had the pandemic. We’ve had racial justice. We’ve had threats on democracy. How do you think this sector is going to change as a result of this 5 or 10 years down the road? 

Robert: Wow. It’s so great. So, I was thinking Denver, like, I don’t know when the first time we met, but we’ve certainly lived through… it seems like every 10 years, there’s just something completely unimaginable. So just most recently, 9/11, then the economic crisis. This year, you can’t make it up. It’s just too much. But even going back, there have been just crises. People don’t remember the gas shortages and stuff like that. That was a huge deal. And then you have World War, you have wars, you have all that.

So look, we’ve got to put our seatbelt on. And we know that.  Well, here it is 2021. Well, by 2031, something’s going to happen. Something we’ll get through; as Faulkner would say, “We’ll endure.” But there’s stuff that’s going to happen. 

I’m worried about the amount of influence that large donors have on the sector and philanthropy. And not because I have anything against large donors, and a lot of them are incredible people. There’s data — I’m on a working group now looking at all this –but now, half of the money that’s given away in America, so when you read about the $400-whatever billion that’s given away, half of that comes from 1% of households in America. It used to be that half of it came from the households with income of below $100,000 a year. That segment represents now 25% of all income in America.

So, you’ve got these large contributions can have outsized influence on things. They can be subtle. They can be not intentional or not meant for any particular purpose, but if I’m a wealthy person, and I’m giving to my Alma mater, and if my Alma mater has just traditionally had diversity issues or whatever, well, how are you going to change that dynamic? And then studies are starting to show that the communities in Philadelphia and LA, or the human service organizations in those communities, are really getting hit philanthropically. 

So that’s my big worry is the average American household feeling dwarfed by all of this big philanthropy and not feeling that their contributions have impact, and they really do.

Denver: That’s a great point. And these large contributions, as you suggest, they can shape a sector. There’s so much money…people have to sort of follow. What would you do about those though? What would you do about these people who are giving $500 million or a billion dollars or things of that sort? Is there a way to creatively think about how to have more democracy, I guess, in terms of how that money is distributed? 

Robert: Well, I guess what I’m saying is less about complaining about the fact that they’re giving a lot of money. That’s great. I think we need a movement to get more American families actively engaged and feeling that their support is needed.

Part of the reason for that change is that fewer American households are giving or self-report that they’re giving. The Lilly School has a great report they do every year. And it appears that we’ve gone from about 66% of households reporting that they give to charity down to 55%.

Denver: That’s big.

Robert: So that’s 11%. That’s 14 million households. And that’s a direct correlation to the economic crisis and what we talk about in terms of the economic gaps in society. So, I think it’s a matter of if we can get a little more equity around just… and I’m not talking about socialism, but I’m talking about if we can get people jobs and get people money and get people…

Denver: Maybe a little tax reform on charitable contributions, if you think along those lines to help more people.

Robert: Exactly. And I think we need a kind of a national push to amplify it. I’m working with a group to try to do that. We’re trying to, working together to try to get sort of like, “Can we have kind of a national reckoning on this?” 

Denver: When you look at organizations, Bob, too, and you see a couple of large donors… that really speaks ill of the health of the organization because you’re so dependent upon those donors, if they should ever go away — and the whole sector is that way right now — that there isn’t that broad base of support. So if something should ever happen at the top, that $400 billion could become $350 billion very, very quickly. So I do see all the dangers. 

Robert: I always want to be careful about this. I do worry when even I talk about this idea that, “Oh, these large donations.” In no way am I casting aspersions on that because… let me give you two examples of what you just said. 

Mike Bloomberg gives this money to Johns Hopkins, right? Incredible amount of money. They would survive without that money, so he’s not unduly influencing their survival. It’s not an existential thing. He is trying to take that institution to another level and provide people with diverse backgrounds to go there. And Hopkins hits all areas of science, education, medicine, which has societal benefits all over.

And when you read… I read someone or heard someone complaining about the idea that people giving these big grants to Ivy League schools. Well, hey, if they’re doing the best cancer immunotherapy research, I would give them that money. 

Denver: I hear you. I agree with you 100%. That’s right.

Robert: That’s going to help everybody. So, it’s kind of easy to just say, “Hey, rich people are giving things…” but these are very smart people. They’re very good people in almost all the cases. Many of them grew up from modest backgrounds, and they built their wealth, and now they want to use it in ways to really help society. And they are really smart about how they do it. 

Denver: Tell us about your website, Bob, some of the information that listeners will find there, and what they need to do to get in touch with the organization if they should be so interested. 

Robert: You’re very kind. So we’re CCS Fundraising, so And the website has both, obviously, information about our firm, our services, what we do, the sectors we work in, our leadership team and our people. 

But I think the best part of it are the resources, and we’ve worked really hard on it. And I mentioned earlier that we have a large professional staff, and these are brilliant people, and I’m just so impressed. I could never get hired at CCS today. I would have zero chance of getting hired at CCS.

Denver: You wouldn’t even get an interview!

Robert: And if I got the interview and I got hired, I’d be gone in about an hour. But we just had one. I just had one fabulous Elizabeth Abel just wrote a piece on “Reimagining Fundraising in the COVID-19 Landscape: Lessons for Success in 2021.” This is great. And she’s been asked to speak to the Chicago Council.

So, there’s really great stuff in there. There’s data. There’s advice. And there are case studies that I think people would find really interesting. 

Denver: Well, thanks, Bob. It is always such a delight to have you on the show. I so enjoyed speaking to you. And thanks for being here today.

Robert: I love hanging out with you, man. Thanks so much for having me, Denver. All right. Good luck with everything. And thanks for this program. It’s just so valuable to the community, and we all really appreciate it. 

Denver: I appreciate that.

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