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Lebanon’s squeezed nonprofits’ hunt for funding

Innovate, strategize

by Natascha Schellen

The ability to attract donations and sponsors is a vital factor in an organization’s survival and is generally regarded as a full-time commitment in the nonprofit sector. Lebanese nonprofit organizations (NPOs) succeed in this endeavor only when they understand their audience and can engage them creatively—despite the many challenges.

The NPO management that Executive spoke with in August all agreed that the present economic downturn has made it increasingly challenging to raise funds, as charity spending is often the first thing to go when belts are tightened and budgets cut. Fady Gebrane, president of road safety awareness nonprofit Kunhadi, says that his latest bi-annual Taxi Night—a major fundraising and awareness event for the organization, held most recently on August 6—was only able to acquire two sponsors willing to fork over the full amount of $10,000 each, whereas previously the organization averaged five sponsors per Taxi Night.

To maintain their fundraising targets, NPOs are being forced to put in much more effort than was necessary a few years ago. “If we have a specific campaign that requires getting sponsors, instead of targeting, for example, 10 [potential sponsors] to get two, we’re targeting 50 or 60 to get two,” says Nisrine Tannous, the fundraising manager of the Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL).

Another challenge is the increasing number of NPOs vying for funding from the same limited number of corporate sponsors, making it harder to secure the necessary funds for projects and operational expenses. Marie Muracciole, director of the nonprofit Beirut Art Center (BAC), argues that the situation has changed since the center first opened its doors in 2009: “[Sponsors] don’t give only to the arts, and also there are many [more] places now.”

There was a belief among some of those interviewed by Executive that the market for donations and NPO sponsorships was tight due to the economic situation, and getting even tighter due to new NPOs entering the fundraising fray. This, however, was not a uniform belief. As an early player in the sector,  CCCL has 16 years of fundraising experience and, according to Tannous, confidently see itself as a pioneer and a model for other NPOs. Moreover, more NPOs does not automatically translate into greater competition for the same donors. Board member and treasurer of mental health NPO Embrace, Omar Ghosn, argues that, thanks to the broad diversity of needs that are not met by the state, there is room to launch a variety of fundraising initiatives. Instead of having to face direct competition from larger, more established NPOs, Embrace, which was launched in 2017, is able to attract sponsors interested in its niche area of work—there are only two or three other NGOs in Lebanon focused on mental health, he says.

Several of those working in the nonprofit sector allocate some blame to the government, either for the lack of support for the sector from the Ministry of Social Affairs, or for the general mismanagement of funds due to corruption. For those without connections or wasta, any registrations or requests are processed at a frustratingly slow pace. Relating the experience of the suicide prevention helpline that Embrace established in September 2017, Ghosn says that everything takes so much time, and that the launch was delayed by as much as nine months “because of paperwork that doesn’t really make sense.”

Know your market

As Lebanon is a small market, there are not many large local corporations that offer sponsorships, which is an additional challenge for those on the hunt for financial assistance. Moreover, several of those Executive spoke with were skeptical of the philanthropic nature of such sponsorships, as they believed that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was often used as a marketing ploy. Gebrane offers one example of this, in which Kunhadi approached a potato chip manufacturer to sponsor educational conferences in schools. The manufacturer agreed, on the condition that his products be taken into the schools. He ended up funding the conferences once Gebrane was able to promise his products would be taken to 80 percent of the schools.

One obvious target for any NPO is to obtain sponsorship from a well-reputed financial institution, which in Lebanon primarily means a bank. The banks typically appear to value the visibility they can obtain and the good they can do with CSR, but nevertheless have limited budgets for their CSR initiatives. This means that NPOs need to apply early in order to get a slice of the pie. “[Banks] have a budget that starts at the beginning of the month, or [for a] certain time limit, and the budget for social responsibility [runs out] very quickly. So when you apply they are like, ‘We are out of funds, we’re sorry,’” explains Ghosn.

Knowing your audience is key, and Lebanese NPOs that fundraise locally realize this. Social events such as gala dinners and night gatherings tend to bring in the most funds for these organizations—such as Kunhadi’s Taxi Nights or the gala dinners of CCCL. Tannous notes that, on the whole, the Lebanese are more responsive to restaurants and campaigns involving eating out than to sports events, which are a much harder sell.

Art is another field that often finds it difficult to attract a large Lebanese audience. Muracciole explains that, when it comes to acquiring funding, the BAC is not the most obvious thing that comes to mind—so the center must put in extra effort to attract sponsors.  One way to do so, she says, is through family connections, as people in Lebanon gravitate more toward family and social gatherings and may take an interest in art if relatives or friends are involved.

Lebanon is blessed with talented and creative human capital, and fundraisers are no exception. In keeping with the current trend to use smartphone apps for anything and everything, CCCL partnered with mobile operator touch in 2015 to create the Light a Candle campaign. Users of the touch app are prompted to light a virtual candle and donate to the center; the amount is then added to their phone bill or—if it is a prepaid line—subtracted from their credit. After 30 days, the flame is extinguished and users can relight it and donate again. Tannous heaps praise on this project: “We are continuously working on promoting this, because it’s a pioneering and new idea, globally, even.”

Embrace has been trying out several new fundraising ideas this year, one of which was their first charity runway show, and Ghosn argues that creativity is necessary: “You can’t keep doing [the same] fundraising events, because people get fatigued doing the same thing. That’s why we tried to get creative and did the runway fashion show.” To help them come up with ideas, the organization makes use of their volunteers’ personal interests and hobbies; a hiking event, for instance, is currently in the works.

However, creativity alone will not cut it. The example of CCCL shows how a strategic approach to fundraising—the NPO has a dedicated fundraising manager leading a team of seven full-time fundraisers—can yield impressive results. According to Tannous, CCCL’s cost of operations requires them to raise $15 million annually, of which 75 percent comes from local donors and sponsors. Other organizations are apparently catching on to the fact that successful fundraising means more than just asking the senior members of the NPO if they have good ideas for a fundraising campaign and then playing things by ear. In an effort to expand and professionalize the reach of his NPO, Kunhadi’s Gebrane established a board of trustees for the organization this year, with the purpose of increasing finances. These board members, he says, have proved valuable due to their social networks and wealthy friends.

The animal welfare organization Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA) constantly struggles to come up with the $45,000 they need monthly in order to continuously feed and treat the hundreds of animals in their care, explains board member Sevine Fakhoury. To improve the fundraising environment in Lebanon, she notes: “I would say that it’s all about education. People need to know about civic engagement. Everywhere in the world, civic engagement is on your CV even; it’s a plus and it’s something that you can help out the whole country with and benefit yourself as well.”

While it is never an easy task for NPOs to acquire funding and still have enough time to focus on achieving their mission, the current economic environment in Lebanon has made it an even greater challenge. As NPOs try out new methods and are stretched to the limits of their creativity, it may be in their best interest to spend some more resources on hiring professional fundraisers in order to become more cost efficient in the long-run

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Natascha Schellen

Natascha Schellen is vice president of Women’s Federation for World Peace Germany and holds a master’s in CSR and non-profit management.

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