Campaign Season

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One-stop shop. Social media. Centralized online giving. 

These are the buzz phrases in a report commissioned in 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Combined Federal Campaign, to modernize a charity drive whose roots trace back to the Eisenhower administration.

The CFC-50 Commission, which released its report in July, found donations have decreased in the past two years and participation rates have waned for decades. The panel’s recommendations look largely to technology to help solve the problem.

For one local CFC leader, no matter what the modernization strategy, success stems from the basics. “What I like is dealing with people face to face,” says Edward Gingold, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission attorney in Washington who spearheads the agency’s annual drive. FERC boasts one of CFC’s most successful campaigns.

Gingold, a 35-year career fed and self-proclaimed troglodyte, has embraced the new technologies, but he still relies on traditional forms of communication to net high participation levels and, ultimately, more money for CFC charities. “I’m a people person,” he says.

After President Eisenhower created an advisory commission to develop a strategy for federal giving, President Kennedy established the Combined Federal Campaign in 1961 as an official channel for soliciting charitable donations from federal workers. The program has grown from a handful of charities to approximately 25,000.

The campaign is organized nationally through the Office of Personnel Management, which approves participating charities. Local CFC leaders select from the master list to coordinate drives in their region. With approximately 1 million donors and annual proceeds of more than $250 million, CFC is the largest charity drive in the country, according to its leaders.

“Federal employees are connected to the community,” says Keith Willingham, CFC’s director. “A lot of the missions of the agencies are to serve the interest of the public. It’s in [their] . . . heart to have an interest in community service. It just strikes a chord with a lot of employees.”

Willingham, at the national level, and local leaders like Gingold, say they are always looking for new ways to build on that bond, especially during times of economic difficulty.

As a winner of OPM’s 2011 CFC Hero Award for helping FERC raise $460,000, exceeding the agency’s goal by more than $100,000, Gingold says remaining open to new ideas is critical going forward.

Whether it involves converting the office into a miniature golf course that brings in a few hundred dollars in donations or embracing new online tools that can collect a few hundred thousand, the key is to keep an open mind and listen to others, Gingold says. “I have a fabulous team. They are responsible for the success,” he adds, noting that his crew is committed. “[My] committee serves for life. You either die or retire.”

Gingold receives no budget for his agency’s campaign and no bonuses for his efforts. In a time when CFC’s administrative costs have skyrocketed by more than $10 million in eight years, he has set the gold standard for efficiency. He proudly boasts that in his first year as a campaign coordinator, his agency’s out-of-pocket expenses were $19 and he raised more than $300,000.

Lt. Col. Jason Edwards, a Hero Award winner at Camp Smith, Hawaii, who organized CFC-Overseas, measures his success by the number of people who learn about the program, which reaches out to active-duty military members and federal workers serving abroad. 

In 2011, his first year in the campaign, Edwards led a shift from simply making contact with his donor base to creating what he calls an information opportunity. It’s much less effective, he says, “if a member of chain of command walks up and throws something on your desk, rather than sitting with you and talking about it.”

Edwards established weekly “defense online connect sessions,” in which a specific cadre of personnel discusses issues and challenges to help his team stay ahead of the game. The group has planned for contingencies ranging from a down economy to deployments. “There’s a financial crunch going on right now,” he says. “Because of this effort, people still found a way to give.”

Gingold similarly says tough times cannot stop the need to keep giving, adding that the buck stops with him. “If you want to find excuses, there are many and they valid . . . success has 1,000 fathers, and failure is an orphan,” he says, borrowing a phrase from CFC’s father, John F. Kennedy.

To combat declining participation, the CFC-50 Commission recommended new online programs, like Edwards’ connect sessions. One proposal is to create a website that lists every participating charity worldwide. Some agencies have e-giving sites, but with a central repository donors would no longer be limited to the choices their local campaign offers. As a first step toward this goal, CFC began allowing donations via credit card in 2011. 

The commission also suggested the campaign open participation to retirees and federal contractors as a way to increase the donor pool from the 185 local drives under way.

Willingham says CFC is developing a strategy to implement the recommendations. In the meantime, local leaders are proceeding with their own ideas to modernize the program.  

Edwards says he will “leverage social media pretty hard” to get lots of information out quickly. Gingold, who remains uncomfortable with Twitter and Facebook, has brought on younger people to guide him into the digital age. “They could be my grandchildren,” he laughs.

Regardless of how the word gets out and how the money comes in, the two charity entrepreneurs are confident the spirit of the campaign is what has driven—and will continue to drive—its success. They say that spirit is the reason they came back for another year when CFC launched its 2012 campaign Sept. 1. “I’m proud to be in the military and to be a part of this,” says Edwards, who returned for his second year with CFC. “It’s necessary, and it’s an amazing program.”

Gingold, who has been a part of CFC for most of his career, is drawn to the annual drive because of the impact he knows he is having. “I actually get to see the people who get to benefit from my efforts,” he says. “I hope they let me have the job for life.”

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