Jean Brown, executive director of the Chicago Federal Executive Board, speaks during CFC-50 Advisory Commission meeting regarding the Combined Federal Campaign fundraising efforts September 13. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
With the Combined Federal Campaign facing declining participation rates and donations, a new commission is looking for ways to overhaul and improve the government's 50-year-old charity drive.
The CFC-50 Commission's members, meeting for the first time Tuesday, agreed recent trends are troubling. Fundraising totals dropped last year for the first time since 2002, more than half of the 209 regional CFCs fell short of their 2009 totals, and 32 regional campaigns saw double-digit percentage drops.
Kal Stein, executive director of the environmental charity EarthShare, said the declining participation rate is especially alarming. Participation rates have fallen for nearly two decades, and CFC lost 400,000 donors over the last 10 years. Stein said it's hard to tell what is causing those declines, but he fears federal employees have lost faith in CFC.
"From surveys, we know that federal employees don't see the campaign as efficient, effective or accountable," Stein said.
The 2011 fundraising drive started Sept. 1 and runs through Dec. 15.
CFC Director Keith Willingham assigned the 28 committee members to four subcommittees focused on accountability, transparency, accessibility and affordability. He asked those subcommittees to define the problems facing CFC and come up with solutions.
Jean Brown, executive director of the Chicago Federal Executive Board, said she's concerned CFC's labor costs will grow. Those costs are low now because CFC can rely on many federal volunteers. But with many agencies, especially the U.S. Postal Service, expected to steeply cut their workforces over the next few years, Brown said CFC will have a harder time finding volunteers.
"We had a hard time getting campaign executives in Chicago this year," Brown said.
Brown also said CFC needs to drive down its administrative costs to compete in the modern world. Many young donors bypass CFC, and use search engines such as Google to find charities and donate money through PayPal, she said. That way, she said, they make sure more of their money goes to the charity and not to CFC operations.
"There is a cost associated with running CFC," Brown said. "People don't want to go through online giving. They're giving directly because they're trying to get more of their donation dollar directly to the charity."
Willingham said he wants to improve CFC to make sure it lasts for several more decades. But at least one commission member is open to doing away with CFC if the campaign no longer makes sense.
Marshall Strauss, president of the Human and Civil Rights Organizations of America, said CFC has for too long focused on charities and driving up donation levels, and should pay more attention to what the donors want.
"We're not coming at it from a donor-centric perspective," Strauss said. CFC needs "to ask, ‘What do you — federal employees — want? Why do you want the campaign?' "
"What happens if they say, ‘We don't'?" Willingham asked.
"Then we go away," Strauss said.