The Muse Writers Center and Give Local 757 Have Grown Together Over Four Years
Michael Khandelwal, Executive Director & Shawn Girvan, Program Associate
The Muse Writers Center
Tammy was nothing but encouraging to us. But, still we were relatively inexperienced using Facebook, and Executive Director, Michael Khandelwal had a lot on his plate running a growing organization. A few weeks before the event, Michael called Tammy “to ask her what to do,” and this has since become an annual phone call. She suggested, because of the late start, trying to win a pre-contest based on the number of likes our logo received on the foundation’s Facebook page. We ended up coming in third.
That little bit of encouragement gave us steam to try our best during the actual fundraiser, even though Michael was helping the City of Norfolk run an election that day. We ended up raising $3,000 from 48 donors. This was our most successful fundraiser to date, and we learned a lot.
Give Local 757 has taught us how to fundraise successfully. It’s taught us how to use Facebook successfully. And it’s reinforced the importance of growing and sustaining our community.
Fast forward four years and The Muse Writers Center is now one of the largest literary centers in the nation. We have a new facility that has allowed us to offer more than just great creative writing classes. We have three or four events a week that attract nearly 6,000 attendees a year. We have space for writers to meet, work, and network. And, of course, our educational offerings have expanded to more than 80 classes, seminars, and workshops offered in each of our three yearly sessions, attracting nearly 400 students per session.
Fundraising has become a big part of our daily work as well. We have now successfully applied for many grants from the city and state as well as private foundations—all vital to ensure we continue our mission and work. Grant writing, though mostly successful, isn’t the most fun part of the day for anyone who works in a nonprofit. There are limited agencies offering limited grants to a limited number of nonprofits. And most of the time, grant applications include pages of narrative information that has to be filled out up to 16 times. It’s tedious at best. Euphoria does come when we receive a positive response, but because the process leading up to that joy is often stressful and frustrating, most grant writers have never described his or her job as a “blast.”
But a “blast” is a great way to describe the Muse’s experience with Give Local 757. This year, especially. More on that in a moment.
During the second Give Local 757 in 2015, we basically tripled the previous year, with $8,700 in donations from 156 donors. Our Facebook presence was stronger, and we took a few photos of our students and teachers holding signs that asked people to donate on the giving day. We posted those photos before and during the fundraiser, and people responded. During that day, we looked longingly at some other great nonprofits atop the leaderboard, but we still held our own—and we learned.
During the third Give Local 757 in 2016, we were prepared with even more photos to post, even more emails to send out, and even more of our community engaged. Now in our new center, we could dedicate the entire day to reaching out. More partners had come on board (Bank of America, Hampton Roads Community Foundation, Southeast Virginia Community Foundation, etc.) on board, and we thought we had a good shot at winning some bonus grants. Frankly, we were just trying to do as well as the previous year. Then the system crashed.
The response from all the foundations was immediate. They kept in constant communication with the nonprofits and the giving platform. On our end, it was a challenge to reach potential donors and let them know about the delay, but sometimes a crisis is what refines you. A crisis is what brings out your best.
The fundraiser was extended an extra day, and once the system was up and running again, we went back to our planned, timed emails and posts, but in overdrive. When all was donated and done, we found ourselves in third place, raising nearly $12,000 (in donations and 3 bonus grants) from 239 donors.
Like we said before, Give Local has reinforced to us the importance of growing and sustaining our community. And because of our community, in 2017, we were more ready than ever for Give Local 757.
Preparation for our campaign started a month out, beginning with Michael’s phone call to Tammy asking her what to do. She noted that we seemed to know what to do, but she still enjoyed our annual phone call anyway.
We vastly increased the number of photos we took for posting. It was heartening that so many people within our community (not just our student community, but people living in our actual community, including many members of the city council) wanted to be in our photos, smiling, and holding our donation sign. Taking these photos also gave us an opportunity to ask for a donation. “Don’t forget, donate ten dollars on Tuesday, May 9” became our mantra. “Of course, you can donate more, but all we ask is for is ten dollars. And don’t forget to tell your friends. Every donation matters!”
Everyone we know has a busy life. One of the biggest challenges of Give Local isn’t finding people to donate, its making sure that people remember to donate. That’s why we began our Facebook photo campaign a few weeks before the event. We started by posting two pictures a day, and by the actual giving day, we were posting at least every hour.
The posts (and emails) hopefully reminded people to donate, but the posts also got people excited about The Muse. People wanted to show their support and they wanted others to join our community. For us, it’s always about serving people and bringing people together. And our community helped us in big ways. When we posted “thank yous” to people who had donated, they shared those posts and then their friends often donated, too. We tried to turn the big day into a nonstop celebration.
Leading up to 2017’s event, Michael really wanted to do at least as well as we had done before. After all, our annual budget called for that. Shawn Girvan, Michael’s assistant, and The Muse’s first hire earlier in the year, thought we should just go for first place. Michael liked the idea, but was still, as always, publicly cautious with expectations. Privately, he thought we could raise $20,000 if we did it right.
As the day progressed, people were donating at an increasing rate. By the early evening, we had surpassed our publicly-stated goals and had already won good bonus grants.
Then we kicked it into overdrive. There was no time to pat ourselves on the back. We had a job to do, and that job wasn’t over until the clock struck midnight. The seeds had already been planted. We repeated our mantra of every donation matters over and over as we continued to post our “donate now” and “thank you for donating” photos. We texted people. We sent personal private messages, one by one, to as many people as we could. We saw that we were in first place, but again, many awesome nonprofits were close behind, and we knew they were doing everything we were doing, too.
People kept on donating, and by midnight, we had stayed in first place, which would award us a $5,000 bonus grant. In all, we raised (and were awarded) more than $20,000 from more than 300 donors.
Without the vision of the Peninsula Community Foundation and all their partners, hundreds of nonprofits in Hampton Roads would be without this vital resource and wonderful opportunity. For us, it helps us pay the bills, expand our programs, increase the number of scholarships we can award, ensures our ability to pay staff, and most of all—gives us confidence. Confidence that we have community support. And confidence that Hampton Roads is a place where people support nonprofits, especially those in the arts and culture, which historically are the least supported of all the various “categories” of nonprofits.
But most of all, Give Local is an opportunity to bond with the most important ingredients of any nonprofit—the people, the people that make The Muse possible, the people that benefit from The Muse, the people that love The Muse. The joy that comes from participating lasts much longer than just 24 hours. Our joy will nurture us until next May. And we will need our community in 2018. We now have a title to defend.