In this episode, Trista chats with Shelley Milstein, Manager of Philanthropy at Spinal Cord Injury BC about how she raises funds for her organisation including 1 event that started at 15k but now brings in 100k in fundraising each year.

Other topics covered include:

  • the most challenging aspect of fundraising
  • how Covid-19 is affecting fundraising
  • how to retain employees in times of uncertainty
  • how to reciprocate and connect more deeply with donors

Learn More About Spinal Cord Injury BC

To learn more about Spinal Cord Injury BC, visit their website at and if you wish to donate to someone who is dealing with a new injury or struggling with the ongoing challenges of living and ageing with a physical disability here. Spinal Cord Injury BC helps connect people with the support and resources they need. Alternatively, you can get in touch with Shelly Milsten on LinkedIn.

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Hi everyone! Trista McIver here, program advisor with AMC NPO Solutions. Today on the podcast we are going to be talking about fundraising. Now, this is a very common topic with many not-for-profits there. There’s so many ways that a charity, organization, association, society goes about securing funding for their cause. I have invited Shelley Milstein, the manager of Philanthropy at Spinal Cord Injury BC on the podcast today. Shelley will highlight some common challenges which organizations face with fundraising and securing funders. Welcome, Shelley for the podcast. Hi!

Thank you.

Tell us about your role at Spinal Cord BC and what are you responsible for?

Great. Thanks for says so. As mentor of philanthropy my responsibility is to manage our fund development team, sounds big. We actually only have two and a half staff that work directly on our fund development team but my job is to manage the team. Manage all the fundraising pieces, make sure that grants get in on time that our campaigns are successful, keep an eye on the budget and of course leaves with our program staff to make sure that we’re finding funding for the programs that they need funded.

The Most Challenging Aspect of Fundraising

Perfect. Now, what is the most challenging aspect of fundraising that you find for organizing?

Yeah. Finding money is the most challenging part. To be honest that there’s a real different challenge, I think for me one of the things is that most challenging is funding parameters. So, we got our funding from a variety of different sources from government, corporate sponsors, foundations, sometimes municipalities. Each different funder has their own very specific parameters about how they work, what they will fund and what they won’t fund. So for example kind of top of my list that I find most challenging is not funding core what they call core expenses or and often those are salaries. That would mean basically anything we need to keep the ship afloat on a day to day basis, that means HR, that means finance, that means our program staff, that also means our executive leadership like our executive director, any managers, staff and of course fund development. So that’s a lot of the organization’s expense and so when funders exclude that, it can be very challenging.

Do you even find things that they can fund in our programs and that is very common so those funding parameters? I find really challenging of another part of the funding parameters is people really get excited about funding new initiatives, very innovative programs, anything that’s new and shiny and that’s great because we need funders who are willing to take a risk on any kind of new programs or projects that you want to introduce. Now, the challenge of that is that Spinal Cord Injury BC has been around for 67 years. We know what we’re doing. We’re very good at what we do. We have very established programs that need to run year after year. So trying to fit into that box of new and shiny, it’s pretty challenging for us and I would say it’s not appropriate because we need to fund the programs that we know that there’s a need for and that’s really what we need the funding for.

Another thing that I could talk all day about this, by the way, but another that we find challenging in my personal, in my field is small grants. Our budget is 2.1 million dollars and a lot of the kind of some of the corporate grants that we apply for some of the foundation grants are in the range of anywhere from $500 to $1,500 so as you can imagine trying to make up a budget of 2.1 million dollars with that many small grants is not only really time-consuming. It gets very tricky to be able to fit that into a work schedule so the sort of small amount of money that is available from some of those grants makes it very challenging. You don’t want to not apply for them because you need the money but at the same time it’s not a great investment of your time as a fundraiser and I would say kind of related to that is its repeat funding. Many funders will say this is not meant to be ongoing funding. You can apply and get the funding this year but we will give it to you for another year. You can’t apply for another year or two which means that basically every year we have to go out and look for brand new funders again which is extremely time-consuming and really I think has an effect on our ability to provide stable funding for our programs.

Securing Funders

With that how do you secure those funders, those repairs?

It’s a good question. One in our organization, we have some corporate sponsors. These are program sponsors that have come on to join our organization in a bigger way so they are usually in, you know, $20,000 of $200,000 and those and additionally, I really work with our funders to try to help them understand that we need ongoing funding and so we push for, you know, two and three-year agreements so that we aren’t having to go back to them every year to renegotiate a new contract. It’s time-consuming on both sides doesn’t leave a lot of time for employee engagement and to really get into it with a sponsor and help them sort of making their way into our organization so that’s one of the ways and then we have a lot of individual donors as well. We’re very lucky that we have individuals in the community that support us either annually or kind of year after year or come back to some of our fundraising campaigns so those are some of the ways that we try to make sure that we have some stable funding.

Coping With Covid-19

Now, what’s going on lately we Covid-19, I’ve heard from a lot of organizations that I’m talking with that many of their fundraising galas, their conferences are all cancelled and I’ve heard that’s a huge chunk of their budget. What do you think we could do next?

Well, I’ll give you in a bit of an example from my own organization. We have cancelled all of our programs. We are still working but we’re all working from home, in terms of fundraising. We are coming up to one of our biggest public fundraising campaigns it’s the Scotiabank charity challenge where 80 charities come out to Stanley Park and they’ve all been fundraising for two or three months and I do expect that will probably be cancelled because it’s being held in June so I’m not sure that’s going to go ahead. For our organization that means $100,000 hit, that’s what we anticipate to raise and that’s no small potatoes for us. We’ve also already heard from one of our longtime corporate sponsors that they will not be able to fund us this year because they’ve already seen such a hit in the last couple of weeks we’re only at the end of March. Now, we don’t know how long it’s going to happen, it’s going to go on and so I fully expect that we are going to see a really big hit to our fundraising. I think organizations have to weigh whether or not they’re going out to their loyal donors right now. There’s a lot of fundraising campaigns that are being centred around Covid-19 because there’s a lot of populations out there that this will impact right now and so people need to still be funding those organizations. For us, we don’t have that immediate need and so we’ll be deciding what, how we approach our fundraising campaigns coming up, knowing that everybody is taking a hit on this at the same time. We’re still working and worse for our members and we want to keep our staff employed and engaged in the work.

Retaining Your Loyal Employees

Yeah. And I mean you know with the staff because I think, we chatted a little bit about when you mentioned it earlier about the overhead of costs and how the fundraising definitely helps with that and retaining your loyal employees. In general, like it right now there’s uncertainty but in the past when you had the funding when you had the right donors coming in how do you retain your employees?

In the past, we’ve got staff all over the province as far up on tier and staff as far up as fort St. John and so and also I’ll mention that half of our staff are living with a disability most of them have spinal cord injury and the statistics for people with a disability and employment are much different than the general population as many as 60% of people living with disabilities are unemployed and so our employees we really try to keep our employees on full-time or part-time whatever their agreement is throughout the year. There’s some charities that are more program based and they’ll bring on and sort of end contracts throughout the year. We’re more of a 365 day a year staffing and so we work really hard to make sure that our staff stay employed, we will cut all other costs. I think before that to make sure that we are still able to support our staff because supporting our staff means supporting our members and so these staff are in more remote communities and especially in times like these, they need those connections with other people with spinal cord injury.

Absolutely yeah that’s great!

Fundraising Formula

In terms of fundraising, what do you find works?

Sure, yep. I’ve been doing fundraising for several organizations and I like to watch closely what other organizations do. I like to volunteer on for other organizations fundraising events and campaigns so that I can kind of learn as much as possible because what I’ve seen through my all my years the whole 25 years I’ve been working the organization is a bit different and so the fundraising for each organization looks a little bit different although there’s lots and lots of commonalities so for us what has worked for us. We have a strong grant-writing team so that’s something that is very much a part of our success, in terms of diversifying how we get our money in and also in terms of building relationships with some of these granters or foundations. We find that those that do offer more than one shot at funding, we’ve got some long-term relationships with those might be united ways, there might be community foundations, they might be cities like the city of Victoria or City of Vancouver so some of our grant writing is one of the ways that we’ve sort of been a successful one. Other one’s kind of on the other side of the map is our peer-to-peer campaign, the one that I mentioned earlier which is the Scotiabank Charity Challenge so probably most people know what appeared for your campaign is but it’s basically when you’ve got your members or your clients or your family and friends and staff out there collecting money on your behalf. So we’ve got a team of about a hundred members usually who are out there rolling, walking, running. For this one-day event and between all of them, they reach out to their friends and family and contacts and they raise a heck of a lot of money for us. It’s been incredible when we started that campaign seven or so years ago that we raised I think we thought we hope to raise maybe ten thousand dollars. We raised 15, we thought that’s amazing and now last year we raised 98 thousand dollars.

Wow. It’s fantastic!

Yeah. It’s been building every year and so we’ve found a bit of a niche and our fundraising with our particular membership. This is something, we get excited about. It gives them a chance to give back to our organization and for us it’s been very successful. Those are just two other just two examples.

Failed Formula

I’ll give you one example that doesn’t work for us. It’s galas. Dues as friendly likes to say on CBC so we live in Vancouver our head offices in Vancouver. Event space is incredibly expensive here. The cost of throwing something like a dinner or an event, we just don’t have the type of the donor base that’s going to come in and spend ten thousand dollars on an event. So, we chose a few years ago to stop doing those types of things because the math just didn’t add up and I think we’ve stopped doing that. It’s a bit of a shame because we lose that personal connection with donors which is very important for us but at the same time like I said the math just doesn’t add up. Galas and events like that are too expensive for a small issue charity like Spinal Cord Injury BC.

Yeah fair enough.

Thanking Back To Donors

Now, you’re talking about your your new donors, your supporters. Now, how does Spinal Cord Injury BC think they’re thanked their donors?

Yeah, it’s a good question and I’ll say that for a lot of charities. This is something that we love our donors very much but we get caught up in the day-to-day of how am I going to make my budget this year so that kind of gets lost. Every year, we try to find better ways of thanking our donors. One of the things that’s very successful for us is thank you calls. We have a wonderful person on our admitted finance team that calls every single donor after someone makes a donation so if you’re donating four or five times a year you get four or five phone calls and it’s just to say thank you and we find that people are very receptive to that. That’s very personal and another thing we’ve done in the past and similar is actually had our board members call some of our donors that have given for long periods of time or maybe extraordinary amounts and that gives the board members also an opportunity to connect more deeply with the organization and with the donors. The donors seem to really appreciate that. I’ll mention one more thing that we love to do and people love to receive videos. Now, videos can be very expensive to produce and I’ll just put this out there for anybody who’s thinking of doing more or wondering. Okay, I can’t do this or I don’t have a big budget for videos. We’ve had one of our staff put together a very easy template and give us people like me who don’t know how to make a video really really clear instructions on how to make a really good quick iPhone thank you video for donors and so that’s a strategy that we’ll be implementing this year to to give our donors more of that sense of what it’s like to be in an event to be able to hear a message directly from an event participant or from a program participant that’s really from the heart and really gives them that connection. Because at the end of the day what we’re really trying to do is thank the donor and show them where their money is going and where do you stand.


And seeing who is directly benefiting from it. That’s really touching.

Mission and Vision

Yeah look at space so I guess you’ve touched on it a little bit but what is the mission of Spinal Cord Injury BC?

Sure, yeah! Spinal Cord Injury BC works with people with spinal cord injury and other related disabilities like MS or CP and we connect people to one another, in communities, provide information and support and really what we’re there to do is to help people adapt and to adjust and to thrive after an injury. It’s a writ, can be a huge life change for somebody who has spinal cord injury, in the beginning, they really need to adapt to their new body to their new mobility challenges, to their new route daily routines and then after that, we’re really we’re there during that moment but then we want to help people throughout their lives so we’re there to help them adjust. Help them whatever it is find employment, learn about their different health needs, figure out how to have a baby, figure out how to start a new business. We really covered and we’ve created these really beautiful communities of support all over the province and our members are very open to sharing what works and what doesn’t with one another and so that’s what we’re there to do, to help people adapt, adjust and thrive after an injury.

Yes exactly. Thank you so much for coming on today and information with us a very important topic. What’s the best way that people can get in touch with you and donate to your cause.

Sure so the easiest way is to go to our website which is There’s a donate button, lots of resources for people who are looking for information about spinal cord injury. You can also find our staff page there and but it’s got instructions on how to get in touch with any one of us.

Perfect. Yeah. We’ll also have your website at the written notes section of our podcast, super and if anyone ever wants to chat fundraising I’m all ears. I love it, glad I chose you to talk about all right, we’ll have a good day. Thank you.

Okay, thanks, everyone! Bye!

About Tom (TJ) Abbott

Tom (TJ) Abbott, CSP is the Managing Director of AMC NPO Solutions and an authority on Governance. He has over 25 years experience as CEO, President and board director of several not-for-profit organizations. Tom has also spoken in over 20 countries.