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Interfaith Fundraising: How to Make it Work

By Eboo Patel


Eboo Patel – Photo: Aspen Institute

Eboo Patel – Photo: Aspen Institute

Eboo Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) in 2002.Today IFYC is a 40-person organization with an annual budget approaching $5 million, making it the most robust interfaith organization in the United States. While IFYC ran a variety of programs in its early years, its exclusive focus today is advancing interfaith cooperation on American college campuses.

At every stage of its history, IFYC’s driving theory has been pluralism, which it defines in three parts: developing respect for diverse faith and philosophical identities, building mutually inspiring relationships between diverse groups, and creating common action for the common good. IFYC programming includes: Interfaith Leadership Institutes (four each year) that train college students to be interfaith leaders; networking faculty who are teaching courses in interfaith studies; and consulting with senior higher education administrators seeking to make their campuses ‘ecologies of interfaith cooperation.’

IFYC is involved on nearly 500 campuses and has maintained a steady $4-5 million budget and 35-40 person staff for the past five years - a singular achievement in an interfaith world where financial difficulties are nearly universal. TIO talked to Eboo last month to find out why things are working out so well.                      

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TIO: The most appropriate way to begin this conversation is by thanking you, Eboo Patel, for the work you do, for your books and work with the White House, and particularly for nurturing healthy interfaith skills that the thousands of young leaders you have helped train now take into the world.

Today though, we’d like to talk about money, sustainability, about generating the means to run an enterprise like IFYC. Why don’t you start by telling us how it was at the beginning, a dozen years ago, when you thought for the first time about how your ‘project’ needed funding.

Eboo: That’s a good place to start! But before jumping in, let me thank TIO – I consider it required reading for any interfaith leader. I’m glad you chose the topic of financial sustainability and am honored you are interviewing me.

Ok, back to your question. IFYC began as the shared project of three different interfaith organizations. But it was clear from the get-go that begging for a portion of their budgets, already badly stretched, was no way to run an organization. I learned something very important back then from watching Bill Swing, the founder of United Religions Initiative. Bill clearly enjoys fundraising. He helped me understand that for your organization to thrive, fundraising needs to be something you enjoy doing! For so many nonprofits, fundraising is considered dirty work: something that has to be done, and that no one really wants to do. But if asking grows out of your love and commitment to the work, it can be inspiring.

TIO: So if the ‘parent’ organizations were left out of the financial equation, what did you do instead?

Eboo: First we get money for activities – an interfaith service project with high school students, an interfaith retreat for young adults. Things that cost in the range of $5000 or so. The key here is that the project has to be concrete – we’re going to get x number of people together to do y activity that will have z result. And you actually have to pull off the project successfully. It works even better when the person who put up the $5000 to make it happen attends the event and is proud of their sponsorship role. When that goes well several times, you can offer a series of such events – a monthly interfaith service project, for example – all building on what you started out doing.

There are three requirements for succeeding at fundraising in the early stages of an organization: One, you need to constantly cultivate a network of people who care about your work and have financial resources. Two, you need to execute excellently on the projects you propose. That is, you need to meet your goals and deliver what you promise. And three, you need to constantly hone the story of your vision and mission. You need to have lots of versions, from the elevator pitch to a 20-page grant application.

The linchpin – the secret sauce – is having people who enjoy fundraising. Again, this is not ‘dirty’ work, and it is not just utilitarian. It is how one set of people – namely donors – can participate in your work and thus experience being important contributors. That is the gift you give them, and once you really get this, fundraising becomes a much more attractive activity.

TIO: It’s wonderful when it goes that smoothly. But you’d probably agree there are bumps in the road for everyone, especially financial bumps. How has IFYC survived the bumps and grinds along the way these past dozen years?

Eboo: Our biggest struggle came back in 2008, and it was a transition that lasted three or four years. Back then we had 12 pretty separate projects going, here and overseas. There was no cohesion between the projects, no interconnections, no coherent set of goals. A consulting company did a pro-bono assessment of our programs, and the findings were that we were not particularly good at anything. Moreover, the struggle to fund a dozen different programs was not just a financial quandary; it generated staff fiefdoms and internal antagonism. The lack of cohesion among our different programs made every part of the organization a challenge. For example, by what criterion do you hire staff when you are running a dozen different programs?

It was a long process – a year in assessing the work, another in planning, and then the transition, which took another two years when all was said and done. Along the way, we lost a third of our staff. It was painful, and a lot of folks didn’t understand why it was necessary.

But our work is so much better now that we are focused on one sector, higher education. We can actually evaluate and improve a program year-over-year. We can hire staff who are specialists in campus issues and student affairs. Most importantly, we can create five-year plans with measurable goals, and actually attain them!

TIO: Besides the disappointment some must have felt in the transition, were there any other downsides to narrowing the scope of IFYC’s mission?

Eboo: The truth is, short-term, we lost 70 to 80 percent of the funding opportunities we had back then. We had an immigration project going with the Carnegie Endowment, speaking tours with the State Department, a major partnership with the Tony Blair Foundation. We don’t do any of that now – the programs are gone, and the money is gone. It is hard to say no to funding, particularly when you are invited to apply. But now we can drive our own agendas and go after mission-centric goals rather than chasing dollars. Saying no to some things allows you to focus on other things. So we’ve stepped aside from some funding, but we’ve been able to develop more expertise and better connections throughout academia and its funding opportunities. Bottom line, the long-term payoff has been very good.

Los Angeles IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institute, 2013 – Photo: Facebook

Los Angeles IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institute, 2013 – Photo: Facebook

We are launching into our next planning process, and even though we are at the beginning, here’s something I can tell you for sure: IFYC has no desire to be the Walmart of interfaith.

We see ourselves continuing to focus on U.S. higher education. We view college campuses as both a laboratory and a launching pad for interfaith excellence. It’s a focus that comes with a multiplier effect.After our Interfaith Leadership Institutes, four this coming year, more than 400 students will go back to their campuses, sponsor Better Together campaigns and other local interfaith activities, and, in some cases, get more involved with IFYC programs. We trust they will take this experience with them into the world. At IFYC we strongly believe the interfaith sector should grow, and we hope that some of our alumni start the organizations that drive a good part of this growth.

TIO: Any other thoughts about the general financial malaise facing the interfaith world?

Eboo: As a sector, interfaith cooperation has to be able to more clearly define what it seeks to contribute to the broader society. Then we need to define how we measure effectiveness. That’s the next horizon for the movement as a whole, at least as far as I’m concerned. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Interfaith funding is a young field, and it will take us time to develop focus, measurable goals, and communities of support for the work. I am proud to be part of this movement, and very optimistic about the future.