What is the impact? Shifting the paradigm on fundraising for domestic violence organizations

By Noelle H. Lowery

One step forward. A decade back.

This is the trajectory of women’s issues over the last 18 months. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, existing gender inequalities were amplified in every aspect of life for women. Stories abound of careers disrupted, childcare and virtual school debacles, and escalating physical and mental health issues for women.

This trend also is apparent in the increased levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence reported throughout the pandemic. The elevated reports of domestic violence especially revealed what many who work in the cause already know: Reporting domestic violence’s devastating impact without addressing real, attainable solutions puts these groups behind other sectors competing for philanthropic dollars.

During the height of the 2020 summer COVID-19 wave, Sharity conducted a national needs assessment on the state of fundraising for domestic violence organizations. The results provided a clear picture of how the pandemic exacerbated the financial woes of this already overburdened group of nonprofits and their donors. As October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Sharity President Carol Wick is raising the alarm bells once again.

“A year ago, we did the needs assessment and raised some red flags,” Wick explains. “It’s time to have the difficult conversations. It is time to do things differently. I am tired of the same old status quo.”

.22 percent

Wick is no stranger to the inner workings of the cause of domestic violence. She is a survivor herself, and began her career as a therapist for abused children. Later, she was the chief executive officer of one of the largest domestic violence centers in the United States, a position she held for a decade.

“I remember one night, getting up and walking into the dining room,” Wick describes a personal recollection. “The house was dark, and it was pitch black outside. I stood there and felt so isolated and alone. I knew I didn’t want to be where I was, but I had no idea what to do next. The future seemed as dark as the night and just as frightening.”

As such, Wick knows firsthand that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women and the single largest category of 911 calls and homicides in most cities. She also knows that just a small sliver of overall annual charitable giving goes to causes focused on women and girls — 1.6 percent in 2019 — and even less to domestic violence, just .22 percent of overall annual giving in 2019.

As a domestic violence advocate, Wick became intimately involved in the strange and inconsistent world of fundraising for domestic violence centers, contending that finding support to operate these organizations has been problematic since the emergence of nonprofit shelters in the 1970s. Back then, most of the roughly 250 shelters in the U.S. (which served as an underground railroad of sorts) received funding and support services from pro-bono advocates and in-kind donations of time and resources.

In fact, many shelters once were private homes donated for use to domestic violence organizations. Executive Directors received little to no pay, and advocates working at the shelters often did so for minimum wage.

Today, the nation’s nearly 1,900 domestic violence organizations still find it harder to raise necessary financial support than most other nonprofits. As a result, some of the original home shelters remain in operation today, funded by much the same means, and organization directors still struggle to pay even a living wage to themselves and the dedicated, hard-working advocates who have made the eradication of domestic violence their life’s work.

What about impact?

The problem lies in the focus of the ask: need vs. impact. The basic call to action for domestic violence fundraising efforts is familiar: “We have more survivors asking for help than we have resources available to help.” Looking back with horror, Wick even admits that she stood in front of donor groups, saying, “Someone will certainly die tonight without your donation.”

Typically, the funding requests are focused on the lack of resources, unmet requests, and the financial impact domestic violence has on businesses, taxpayers, and law enforcement resources. Few, however, have expressed a clear understanding of the true impact currently available resources have on the cause of domestic violence, and this is where they are losing donors.

This was evident in the results of Sharity’s national study on the state of domestic violence fundraising in 2020. While 78 percent of those surveyed struggle with defining success, the report found that just 22 percent of domestic violence organizations rely on outcome-focused metrics to illustrate their success. Examples of outcome-focused metrics include permanent housing received, increased income, increased successful injunctions and successful prosecutions.

Today, major donors evaluate nonprofits to which they give similarly to the way they invest in other businesses. They assess the organization in terms of what will be accomplished with their money, and they ask the following questions:

  • How are the available resources used to generate change or impact the cause?
  • How does the money invested in the movement or an individual agency change the situation for victims and survivors?
  • How does it ensure fewer assaults occur?
  • How are survivors who seek those services better off?

Wick uses the story of the waterfall to explain the importance of impact. One day, a group of people walking through the woods comes into a clearing and sees a beautiful waterfall dropping hundreds of feet into a crystal-clear pool. The group sees something at the top of the falls and hears the screams of a woman as she falls over. A member of the group jumps in to save her, and just as they are almost to shore, another woman comes over the falls. Soon, everyone in the group is jumping in and pulling women out as fast as they can. Some do not make it. There simply are not enough resources.

One of the group members gets out of the water and starts to walk upstream. Other group members shout at them to come back. After all, how many will die if their help is lost? Theirs is a different mission, though. They understand that their work may have value and impact upstream as well, an impact that may prevent some women and children from falling over the waterfall. They intrinsically know that standing at the base of the waterfall is not enough; the story continues.

When asked where they are going, this determined person turns and says, “I’m going upstream to stop who is pushing them in.”

An impactful story

For Wick and her team at the domestic violence center, they were sitting at the base of the waterfall, waiting for someone to fall over it – to call 911, to ask for a protective order from the courts, or to call their hotline. They even went upstream and trained people to not only recognize the warning signs and not let people fall into the river but also taught people how to pull others out.

“I used this waterfall analogy to describe how we were working to end domestic violence, and we did for a year. There were no homicides in our community,” she continues. “Then the next year, there were more and more the following year until I realized we weren’t doing enough, but we just didn’t have more to give.”

The problem was their inability to tell the story of the real impact they were having in their own community. They did not know how to define success for their organization, and they were not alone. In fact, even studies on national outcome measures generally only reflect self-reports from survivors on how they feel about the services they received, not the true impact that could be turned into a return on investment statement.

While self-reporting is not enough, long-term tracking of survivors is equally problematic, and the lack of it prevents domestic violence organizations from telling their complete story. The time and resources are not available, and many believe attempts to follow up with survivors also may endanger them.

Then there is the serious lack of reliable data. Sharity reports that domestic violence professionals are further hindered by some of the worst data collection of any form of crime in the U.S. Despite changes in laws making crime data reporting mandatory, the ability to find local data, download, and analyze it is extremely difficult. Compound that with the reality that the legal definition of “domestic violence,” “sexual assault,” and “rape” vary state-to-state, and it makes interpreting data accurately nearly impossible.

Despite these challenges, Wick insists that organizations addressing violence against women must start examining the real impact of their work in ways that appeal and attract donors who can make major contributions if they are ever to reach sustainability. Nonprofit professionals can stay ahead of the curve by knowing the basic concepts of impact measurement:

  • Inputs: Number of hotline calls, number of intakes, number of abusers ordered to batterer intervention programs
  • Outputs: Number of nights in a shelter, number of safety plans completed, number of abusers completing a batterer intervention program
  • Outcomes: Number of survivors permanently housed, number of injuries averted, abuser recidivism
  • Return-on-investment: Money saved averting homelessness, money saved per injury averted, money saved decreasing legal system costs

“How do donor dollars result in an immediate return on investment?” she asks. “We are driving down this evidence-based, action-based, data-based road to find out.”

‘We want more warriors’

Recognizing the dire need for a remedy, Wick and the Sharity team have been very busy working to create a new paradigm for domestic violence nonprofits. In addition to beginning the discussion about impact, they are employing a mix of legislative efforts, needs assessments and cause research, and tandem efforts with national and international organizations to address violence against children and women and the re-victimization of survivors.

“Sharity isn’t just talking about DV and training. We are truly supporting the cause,” says Wick. “We are just one little company, and we are harnessing the power of survivors and their voices, fighting for data, doing the research, and moving the needle.”

In the last few years, Sharity worked with the forces behind two new laws in Florida protecting survivors of sexual violence. Donna’s Law removes the statute of limitations for sexual battery of children below the age of 18, and Gail’s Law requires the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to create and maintain a statewide database to track sexual offense evidence kits and to keep alleged victims and others notified about, and have access to, information about those kits.

These activities currently continue as Wick works with survivors and national organizations like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the Joyful Heart Foundation on new legislation around consent and expanding access to services.

On the research front, Sharity’s national needs assessment on the state of fundraising for domestic violence organizations (National Assessment on the State of Fundraising for Domestic Violence Organizations – [LINK]) followed the Spring 2020 delivery of “Estimating the Impact of Intimate Partner Violence on Local Communities: A Case Study of Collier County, FL” [LINK].

The impetus of this research is to be templates for domestic violence organizations to show the effect intimate partner and domestic violence have on the local economy and the value of these services beyond the individuals served. Wick will be presenting the results of this research at the 2022 Ending Violence Against Women Conference for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

On a personal level, Wick wants to challenge domestic violence advocates and nonprofits to change their lens when seeking solutions to the epidemic. Instead of teaching people to avoid abusive relationships or to recognize the signs, she wants to try to identify those who are most likely to become abusers and then work with them while they are young to change their attitudes and behaviors.

“We all need to step back this October and ask what we are doing to make the change,” implores Wick. “If you want to join us, give me a call. We want more warriors in this fight.”