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Will Knight challenge hurt or help nonprofit fundraisers?

Dozens gather to mull demand's effect on local philanthropy


More than 100 somewhat anxious nonprofit fundraisers gathered Friday at The Association of Fundraising Professionals Oregon and Southwest Washington chapter conference at the Multnomah Athletic Club to discuss what to do about the $1 billion fundraising challenge from Nike’s Phil Knight to Oregon Health and Science University.

Event organizer Kevin Johnson noted that the anxiety had to do with the conference’s midday agenda: “The Knight Challenge & the OHSU Campaign: What does it mean for philanthropy?”

The turnout was the largest for such an event, according to Johnson, a local fundraising consultant. The $1 billion challenge from Nike co-founder Knight, in which Knight stipulated that if the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute can raise $500 million in two years he would match the amount, is the largest single matching grant of its kind in U.S. history.

Already OHSU has secured more than $86 million in private commitments toward the match, and more than a few of Friday’s attendees were wondering whether the Knight grant would leave significantly less money for the rest of the area’s nonprofits and charitable causes.

Johnson said the Knight challenge had the potential to create funding difficulties for some of the smaller organizations that might find donors tapped out, but many of the fundraisers said that the Knight challenge might become a rising tide that could lift all their boats. New donors will likely be identified, and Phil Knight himself might be signaling his future philanthropy could be on the rise.

“The philanthropy landscape is beginning to change,” Johnson said. He told the conference audience that they could not expect to continue business as usual and that if they were going to survive, they likely would need to “pay more attention to their business practices.”

Attendees, who ranged from the Oregon Humane Society to Meals On Wheels, spoke of potentially increasing collaboration with one another in the future, though that almost never extends to sharing the names of donors. Johnson said it was unlikely OHSU would share the names of any new philanthropists it uncovers as part of its fundraising campaign.

In advance of the meeting, the organization commissioned a survey of local nonprofits. When asked whether the Knight challenge would, in fact, be “a rising tide that lifts all boats,” 47 percent of fundraisers said it was unlikely and 27 percent said they were neutral. Smaller nonprofits that raised less than $500,000 in 2013 were more likely to voice concern about the Knight grant, according to the survey.

Those numbers suggest a high level of concern, according to Johnson. “Fundraisers are a pretty optimistic lot,” he said.

At least one nonprofit said major donors had informed them that they would no longer be providing funds so that they could contribute to the Knight challenge instead. “I think this is going to drain resources from other social service sectors,” was one survey comment. Another fundraiser wrote, “There is only so much private funding to go around.” A third said, “Again, the big dogs get the funding. Little agencies die out, even when they are loved by their community.”

Other fundraisers saw potential in the Knight challenge. “We think it will raise, on a national level, Oregon as a philanthropic priority,” wrote one.

Most Oregon nonprofits reported increased fund raising in 2013 compared to 2012. Nearly one in five said their donations had increased greatly. Fewer than one in 20 said it had decreased greatly.

Reflecting on the conference, Johnson said he was heartened by talk of possible collaborations, noting that in the past, nonprofits have occasionally pooled resources toward a common goal, rather than simply compete for donors. An example, he said, could be found in the number of animal welfare nonprofits that came together in recent years to change public attitudes toward animal euthanasia.

Business as usual, he said, would not suffice given how much philanthropy would now be focused on OHSU. “Shuffling money around may not be an answer for our community,” Johnson says.