Interviews

Fundraising Internationally with Timothy Higdon

Timothy Higdon, Chief of External Affairs for Girl Scouts of the USA, leads the coordinated efforts of the Fund Development; Communications and Marketing; and Public Policy, Advocacy and Research Groups. He has responsibility for the Girl Scouts 100th Anniversary Campaign efforts, and the overall strategy to position Girl Scouts externally as the premier leadership experience for girls.

Prior to his appointment at GSUSA, Higdon served as Deputy Executive Director for External Affairs at Amnesty International USA, where he provided leadership for national and international fund development, communications and marketing, with responsibility for raising $40 million annually.

Earlier in his career he worked as a vice president for CSS Fundraising, during which time he served as Interim Vice President for External Affairs for Episcopal Relief and Development and Interim Deputy Chief Development Officer for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He also served as a Major in the US Army Corps of Engineers, managing projects and teams across the world, including the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Korea.

Higdon has an MPA (Public Finance) from New York University, Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and a B.A. (Business Administration) from Indiana University, Kelley School of Business. Outside of work, he serves as an Adjunct Professor at NYU's George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, where he teaches a variety of fund development courses. He has received the NYU Excellence in Teaching Award for his instruction. Higdon is also an Eagle Scout.

SJ: Prior to your role with Amnesty International had you done any fundraising on a global level or worked for an international organization?

TH: I worked with the Episcopal Relief Development (ERD) as the interim Vice President of External Affairs for nearly two years immediately after the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. ERD is the official relief and development agency of the Episcopal Church and does work around the globe in countries and communities that have the presence of the Anglican Church. The majority of ERD’s work was based in Africa and the Caribbean, which both have a strong Anglican presence. In addition, the organization has dedicated tremendous efforts in Latin and South America. They generally did not go into countries or communities that did not already have the infrastructure of the Anglican Communion. For example, ERD does not have a strong foothold in most predominantly Muslim or Hindu countries or regions such as Pakistan or the Middle East. In these areas, if ERD was working, it is in partnership with an existing organization.

SJ: What do you find to be the greatest challenge in international fundraising?

TH: I think there are at least three major challenges to international fundraising:

1. It is more difficult to convince donors of your case for support when the need can be so overwhelming. It is difficult to convince donors that their gift, no matter how large or small, can make a difference in the face of abject worldwide need. Often times it is hard to see that the needle is moving to make strides in international philanthropic work. For example, many organizations are attempting to eradicate malaria. Malaria can be eradicated with very simple solutions—insecticide treated mosquito nets and by eliminating standing water. Even with very inexpensive solutions that are easily deployed, malaria remains a violent killer.

2. You can’t show donors the fruits of their gifts. Donors want to see tangible results or progress. This is extremely difficult when the work is being done on a global scale. For example, when you are working toward full integration of women in society, eliminating torture or insuring girls have an education, it is very difficult to prove that an agency is making long-term and lasting progress. In addition, the few donors who are able to travel to see the projects often don’t get the true picture as a show may be put on for their visit.

3. The American model of philanthropy does not exist internationally.
Worldwide, most expect governments to take a key role in providing education, arts, poverty relief, and other services that businesses may not readily embrace. In our country, we do not expect the government to take care of all the social service needs. We traditionally see that as a role of individual philanthropists, foundations, and nonprofits. When fundraising globally, you must adjust to the different mindset of philanthropy outside of the United States. In some areas, when an institution raises money, the government reduces their support a commensurate amount. This makes it very difficult to get leaders of agencies outside of the US to aggressively pursue non-governmental funding.

SJ: In a similar vein, what do you find to be the greatest reward in fundraising for global causes?

TH: A little gift can magnify and can do a lot in a global setting. For example, with ERD they provided things like a smokeless stove, pipes for proper sanitation, and access to clean drinking water for very small amounts of money. In countries where respiratory diseases are prevalent among children living in homes with wood-burning stoves, a smokeless stove can be a life-saving device. Similarly, since women are typically the traditional water gatherers -- providing clean water to the village allows the girls in the community to go to school now that they no longer have to walk 15-20 miles by foot to obtain water for their families. In slums, girls and women are frequently assaulted in or in route to common latrines or at community water sources. While at Amnesty International, I witnessed how letter campaigns can uproot despots, get a prisoner of conscience released, or cause enough international pressure that the offending government relents. The power of single actions done in concert with thousands around the world cannot be underestimated. Thousands have been released as a result of letter writing campaigns through Amnesty in the last fifty years. Together, communities have also seen how a microfinance loan to women transforms a community. A small microfinance loan to a woman has a ripple effect on an entire village. It may allow her to start a small business, grow crops, or raise animals beyond the needs of her family. This extra income allows her to buy and sell surplus in the market. She may now be able to diversify her families diet with items she previously could not have produced or purchased. This may improve the health of her family and the entire village. Mostly, microfinance loans are made to women. What does that say about impact? It is amazing how much further a dollar can stretch when doing philanthropic work globally.

SJ: How has technology advanced your ability to fundraise and connect with people on a global scale?

TH: Technology can get the story out so much faster. When I was growing up in the sixties, we had three news networks. If something were going on in Bangladesh we typically would not hear about it until two or three days after the fact, if at all. Today, with twenty-four hour news outlets like CNN it is virtually instantaneous. Look at Egypt and how cellphones, the web, Twitter, Facebook, and digital cameras facilitated a revolution. The Egyptian revolution is being magnified across the Middle East. Technology has allowed fundraisers to get the message of need out so quickly as seen with such disasters as the tsunami, Katrina, and Haiti where millions were raised via text messaging and online campaigns. On the flip-side, technology has made donors much more informed and therefore, demanding of greater accountability and results. I believe that no charity has solved the technology challenge. How do you provide opportunity in the moment to give, steward the donor, and keep them engaged. The technology landscape is changing very quickly.

SJ: Since the American tradition of philanthropy is so strong, did you find it difficult to reach the same levels of fundraising success with donors from other countries?

TH: The international model of fundraising is incredibly different. With Amnesty International the international format for giving is a street canvas program. Street canvas is where paid solicitors approach citizens on the street or door-to-door and ask them to join / contribute to the organization. The individuals are asked to setup a direct debit transaction from their checking account or bank. For small gifts, this is the primary solicitation vehicle. In Europe, this technique is very mature and with Amnesty International, some markets are approaching 25 percent market share—primarily through street canvas. In Central America, Latin America, and Australia, this is a very common technique. At Amnesty International USA, we launched a pilot street canvas program domestically to see if we could achieve the same results.

In our country, we have made the major gift model the pinnacle of fundraising. In Europe it is the complete opposite, successful major gift programs similar to the US model are rare.

SJ: In your current role with Girls Scouts USA, how much does globalization play into your fundraising strategies and initiatives?

TH: Girl Scouts USA is the largest member of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girls Scouts (WAGGGS). We have over 10 million girls in one hundred plus countries participating in the scouting and girl guides programs. In the United States, the Girl Scouts have a presence in every residential zip code. Girl Scouts USA is moving to leverage this partnership with WAGGGS to involve more girls on a global level. With a global movement like WAGGGS you also have greater fundraising opportunities. You may get a bigger gift when you combine two or three sectors like a local, national and global gift. When working with large and complex international organizations, you must eliminate boundaries and breakdown the balkanization of large institutions like the Girls Scouts or Amnesty International. Over the next five years, Girl Scouts is launching a one billion dollar campaign across the movement. This will require us to cross boundaries and make partnered calls to donors on the local, national, and international level to achieve this goal. Synergy is truly at play—the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

SJ: Does Girl Scouts USA have any cross over in terms of programming or fundraising with other Girls Scouts organizations around the world?

TH: At this point, our international programming is small, but growing; however, the Girls Scouts USA mission is “courage, confidence, and character make the world better.” The mission is focused on the world, not the country. In that vein, we plan to incorporate more international programming moving forward as the girls want to be engaged on a global level. Our girls are engaged in the world and we will move the organization to catch up with them. One of our next steps will be a global summit on girls’ issues in Chicago in 2012. I really believe that eliminating boundaries across organizations will transform the results we deliver.

SJ: What would you say to graduate students who wanted to embark on a career in international fundraising?

TH: Four things:

1. The world and international fundraising is a wide open. The need is great and many organizations are struggling to figure it out. There is a lot of opportunity.

2. Get knowledgeable about the communities in which you are working and serving, always be culturally sensitive. Be wary of our tendency towards American imperialism that “our way is the best” when it comes to fundraising and nonprofit work.

3. You will have a lot of opportunity for unique travels and experiences, seize them.

4. One of the hardest challenges is that donors never see the work that you do, the case for support will be tough, but doable.

5. Finally, when you’re working internationally, the need you will see can be heartbreaking. You must take care of yourself to insure you can stay in the work for the long haul.

 




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