Easter Seals Wisconsin has been around since 1926. But in 1926, there was no Internet. Donors were less skeptical. Fundraising was likely to be done with the U.S. Postal Service.
Christine Fessler, CEO and president of Easter Seals Wisconsin for the past 20 years, acknowledges it is a complicated organization and one that has evolved to eight primary programs and almost 60 full- and part-time employees.
“We are strong and stable financially with a talented and dedicated staff who stay with us a long time,” Fessler says.
Q: Easter Seals seems like a complicated organization, with several different funding sources and missions. Has it changed a lot since you joined the organization 20 years ago?
A: Indeed, we have grown a great deal, tripling our staff, adding many new programs — from programs for veterans and their families to services for children with high-functioning autism to helping farmers with disabilities continue to farm — and serving many thousands of additional people with disabilities and their families. We have diversified our funding base with a balance of private contributions, fees, private and public grants and fundraising methods. But our mission remains the same: to increase independence, maximize opportunities, minimize barriers and enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities.
Q: Has nonprofit fundraising changed significantly in the last 20 years? If so, how?
A: Yes, and I have seen many of these changes over my time with Easter Seals. We have moved from the days of expensive telethons and huge mail campaigns to more locally based and efficient fundraising. In our signature event — Golf Outing for Kids in Wisconsin Dells — after golfing, the participants go to Camp Wawbeek for a dinner with the campers and the opportunity to see firsthand where their support goes.
Technology, the Internet, and social media have played a huge role in the changing structure of fundraising. With the growth of online campaigns and online giving, it is significantly easier for people to become involved with the click of a button. There are approaches and tools now available, which were unimaginable 10 to 20 years ago.
That said, fundraising is still predominantly a personal experience. The heart of a nonprofit is building relationships, and much of this is maintained in ways that are not reliant on technology but on bonds created with people. Most people’s lives are touched in some way by disability. When there is a personal connection to the cause, whether through personal experience or a friend or colleague, the mission and impact of an organization and wanting to make a difference is what matters.
Q: Do you think people, having come through a recession, are less likely to give?
A: Our organization has found that people are responding generously to increased need. We also find they want their support to stay local and to have tangible benefits to their communities. While we saw a decline in overall giving in the years immediately following the recession, we have seen steady growth each year since.
Our experience reflects national trends. According to the most recent report by Giving USA, while charitable giving by individuals has increased by 4.9 percent from 2012 to 2013, giving overall is still down from where it was in 2007.
Q: What is the most thorny personnel problem you face?
A: Many of our positions require unique or specialized skills, and finding quality people who are a good match for our organization is not always an easy task.
Recruitment in general is a challenge, particularly for the high number of summer and weekend counselors, nurses, and other seasonal program staff needed to provide quality services to all the children and adults with disabilities who participate in our camp programs.
Q: How did you find a home with Easter Seals? Is your job what you envisioned yourself doing when you were in high school, for example?
A: Since the age of 5, when I told my mother that when I grew up I wanted to be “the lady who owned the orphanage” — this was before the advent of foster homes — I knew I wanted to help children and people in need. It was my first job, in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky, which introduced me to people with disabilities, and my commitment has not wavered.
After years working in California, I made one of the best decisions of my life – to move back to Madison, where I had attended grad school and worked many years before.
Q: Do you think people are more skeptical of charitable organizations today?
A: Yes, I do believe people are savvier today, and it’s a good thing for donors to be skeptical. Will their donation make a difference? Will their money be used wisely? These are questions that are good to ask.
At Easter Seals Wisconsin, we are proud that we can report that 88.5 cents of every dollar supports our programs and services; our administrative expenses are 3.4 percent and our fundraising expenses are 8.1 percent, according to our most recent audit. Of course, donors need to remember that charitable organizations are businesses too, with overhead such as salaries, electricity, and rent, plus there are inherent costs to doing business.
Q: How does Easter Seals keep its “market share?” There are a lot of competing charities.
A: We provide unique services that are not duplicated by other organizations. We strive to meet unmet needs when we develop new programs, not compete with others who are already providing a service. Finally, we partner with many organizations to provide services, drawing on the strengths of each; strong community partnerships are key to our success.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I love travel, both in this country and international, and will go anywhere, anytime! I love poetry and literature, theater and learning just about anything new. Gardening is a joy. I love to walk, and I enjoy all the simple pleasures of spending time with friends, family and dog.