Fundraiser raises hearts, not money, to build housing for homeless

donna emery

Last week, Mobile Loaves & Fishes announced a bold plan: to house all of Austin’s chronically homeless population — about 1,200 people a year — within the next 10 years. The nonprofit operates the Community First Village, a planned community that houses more than 200 former homeless adults.

The new plan will roll out in phases, with the first to include construction on the new 24-acre site, a $10 million project.

To raise that amount of money, much the work falls to the development director, Donna Emery. Her plan is to raise it in bundles, with 10 groups of 10 people committing to contributing $100,000 each year for 10 years. But don’t call what she does “asking for money.”

“That’s not what I do at all,” said Emery. “I don’t even like to call it a job, to be honest. What I get to do is thank people.”
Emery began her career as a teacher but soon found her nonprofit calling with Bookspring, a children’s literacy nonprofit, where for five years she raised money and ran events. She joined Mobile Loaves & Fishes in 2012 and helped build the Community First Village, which opened in 2015. In February, the Association of Fundraising Professionals will honor her as fundraiser of the year at Philanthropy Day on February 8.

Alan Graham, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, said Emery’s success comes from “cultivating people’s hearts into our vision.”

“She has been a great brainstorming partner. Under her leadership we developed our current fundraising strategy built on the three R’s: relationship, relationship and relationship.”

“I think what we’ve done so far has been pretty phenomenal, mostly because of the breadth and the depth of the people who’ve helped us,” said Emery. Among the 14,000 who contributed to the current $17.5 million Community First Village are corporations, churches, organizations, families and individuals.

“I would almost be disappointed if someone came along and gave me a check for the whole $10 million,” said Emery, though she quickly added that she would overcome her disappointment and accept it. “Because in a way, it’s not about the money. We would have lost that opportunity for another 14,000 people to be involved in this community. We want to empower people into the life of serving the homeless. That’s what we do.”

Deanna Serra, president of the ABE Charitable Foundation, has been an early supporter of the Community First Village, leading fundraising campaigns as a volunteer working alongside Emery. She says she learned a lot about fundraising from Emery and Graham, though not because they set out to teach it. “They’re just steadfast, humble warriors who walk the walk. And people follow. They’re amazing examples for what true love and giving back and fundraising are about.”

While Emery is a professional fundraiser, she says she disagrees with the common mentality that there’s a limited amount of donations to go around. “That’s disrespectful to donors, to feel like we’re competing for their dollars,” she said. “I think it’s more about honoring and respecting our donors and engaging their hearts. That’s my work.”


NOTE: This article is published through a partnership with Austin American-Statesman, where it appeared on November 10, 2017.

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