Mobilize Professional Society Membership and Giving with a Foundation

With their built-in targeted membership, professional societies have an opportunity to translate a collective career bond into philanthropic passion.

Years ago many professional societies organized fundraising efforts -- or hired a fundraising support person to oversee the activities. But most of these efforts lacked vision and were limited in staff size, budget and authority. Recently, however, we have seen a marked increase in more focused fundraising programs to support professional societies’ missions that embrace drafting donor-centered commitments. These societies are recruiting highly respected volunteer leaders, developing prospect identification and research systems, allocating funds to update operations and systems and hiring talented professional staff.  A number of these professional societies have organized separate 501(c)(3) foundations that have contributed to improved and more sophisticated member engagement activities, and have enhanced the professional society’s visibility nationally or even internationally. Since foundations often have missions that are distinct from their parent societies, the challenge is to maintain a mutual intent between the two organizations.  

This was the topic of a recent Campbell & Company webinar, How to Build Philanthropic Partnerships with Your Society’s Members and Corporate SponsorsMarc Hilton, Vice President of Campbell & Company, led the panel that included Steven Churchill, Executive Director of the American Medical Association (AMA) Foundation; and Peter Pangman, Director of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) Foundation. 

Foundations are organized as 501(c)(3) entities, independent but supportive of their parent organizations. Over time, successful foundations exhibit a number of key characteristics: responsiveness, focused missions, donor-centric activities and corporate partnerships.  

Responsiveness to industry catalysts
Because foundations are smaller, separate entities of larger organizations, they can respond easily to internal or external catalysts, like funding scholarships to encourage career choice in a shifting economy, or lending support to an international crisis. Often such programs are beyond the main society’s mission. Both the AMA and the SEG foundations fund several initiatives that would be out of scope of their parent organizations.  

“Our members often come to us with programming requests. An example is our humanitarian effort, Geoscientists Without Borders,” explained SEG’s Peter Pangman.  By sending society members to developing countries, the program has direct impact on improving quality of life. Pangman adds, “This wouldn’t have developed under the umbrella of our parent organization.”
Similarly, the AMA Foundation looked at industry trends and saw that medical students with high debt loads were choosing lucrative specialties over family practices, leaving a gap in community service needs. Steven Churchill explained that the foundation is committed to providing scholarships to medical students to help make this choice less obvious.  

Focused missions separate from the parent
Societies sometimes form foundations when a member donates a large sum to the organization, and it takes time to develop a clear purpose for that funding. So one of the challenges is identifying a separate but collaborative mission. Having a strong and compelling case for support from the parent organization can be challenging.  

“The AMA Foundation has a mix between internal initiatives supporting the organization and external initiatives, like supporting public health programs that were out of scope of the parent group’s mission,” said Churchill. “We absolutely need to keep up with the priorities of each organization. Yet we have a pretty strong litmus test to make sure that we fund initiatives to meet our own mission.”  

Pangman said of the SEG Foundation that its status as a 501(c)(3) organization with a separate mission protects the parent society from liabilities. “We realized the parent didn’t need to have certain legal exposures associated with grant-making functions. The foundation accepts those liabilities. We make sure we don’t have duplicate board members, to maintain transparency and eliminate conflicts of interest.”  

Donor-centric activities
With its focused mission and smaller staff, a foundation has an opportunity to improve oversight of funds, to engage members in philanthropic programming, and to sustain thoughtful communication and build relationships with key donors and prospects.  

Being able to target programming that will appeal to this audience is just one benefit of separating a foundation from its parent. Perhaps a transitioning industry foresees gaps in competencies or shortages in next-generation staffing. A society’s foundation can address these specific challenges in ways that will resonate with its members.  

Separate foundations further provide clarity with funds and programming oversight. Peter Pangman was frank in describing the SEG prior to the foundation. “We had members who made gifts to advance scholarships, but we didn’t do a very good job of honoring their requirements. Now that we have a focused foundation with a dedicated staff, we work hard to make sure that we fulfill our donors expectations and that their support is appropriately recognize and acknowledged,” said Pangman. This encourages engagement and leads to further giving.  

Corporate partnerships
When looking for sources of fundraising support, societies should leverage their members for potential contacts. A corporate partner is more likely to support a non-profit based on an employee’s suggestion. “Your members are a built-in network of advocates who can speak on your behalf,” said Marc Hilton.  

And by targeting programming that is sensitive to member and community needs, foundations can foster an image of responsiveness that resonates with corporate partners. “But think in terms of short term partnerships, not seeking corporate funds that will support a program in perpetuity,” Marc added.   

“Corporations are less and less willing to make long-term financial commitments,” Marc warned. “Foundations should encourage partnerships for four- or five-year financial commitments, where corporations can see the results of their funding.” With a staff that is focused strictly on foundation activities, it is easier to track outcomes and promote successes to benefactors.”  

With the assistance of Campbell & Company’s counsel, this is precisely the strategy deployed by SEG Foundation in its campaign, Investing in Geophysicists Today, Inspiring Geoscientists Tomorrow. Marc Hilton worked in tandem with Peter Pangman to develop tailored benefits and deliverables that convinced corporations of the merit of investing in the SEG Foundation campaign. Especially attractive were campaign opportunities that strengthened the workforce pipeline, to help assure an adequate supply of geoscientists to meet the demands anticipated in the coming years.  

For more information on society foundations or how we can help, contact Marc Hilton at  

Learn more about Campbell & Company’s webinar series
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Nonprofit Trends

Sarah Barnes

As an Online Fundraising Consultant, Sarah Barnes works with organizations to optimize their online presence through analyzing data that ultimately reveals strategies for the future. In her work with clients, Sarah most values opportunities to review and assess online data from multiple channels such as an organization’s website, social media channels and email marketing initiatives, to inform decisions, as well as working closely with organizations to brainstorm and identify and optimize strategic online fundraising initiatives.