Best practice: Diversifying the source of donations.
Nonprofit: Words Beats & Life.
Type of work: A hip-hop arts, culture and education nonprofit
Area location: St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Columbia Heights.
Budget: $443,000 in 2012.
Number of staff: Four full time, three part time and 17 contractors.
Mazi Mutafa, executive director of Words Beats & Life, steadily paced around the private room at Busboys and Poets restaurant, sipping from a mug full of orange juice. His group was hosting a breakfast for about 50 friends and supporters, and he watched anxiously as his guests wrote checks and calculated pledges.
Like many smaller nonprofits in the region, Words Beats & Life has traditionally relied heavily on foundation and government grants for its finances. But last year, the group began working on a contingency plan, and set out to increase the money its raises from individuals, boosting that source to $30,000 from $1,200.
Individual giving is initially what gave the charity its start.
WBL started in 2000 as a hip-hop conference organized by University of Maryland’s Black Student Union. Mutafa was president. The conference drew 500 people the first year and 3,000 in the second.
Wanting to capitalize on its success, when Mutafa graduated, he and a few of the conference founders expanded the vision beyond the campus.
The group decided to focus on an after-school program, conferences, a peer-reviewed hip-hop academic journal and events, including chess tournaments and break-dancing battles.
After receiving a series of grant rejections, Mutafa realized that grantmakers typically fund groups with a track record of success. And his charity was just a dream on paper.
He went out and raised $7,500 from friends, fraternity brothers and family to obtain basic supplies.
As they began to build out a program, Mutafa saw an opportunity for going after grants again.
“We were in a neighborhood where many young people were being shot, and the [District of Columbia] decided it wanted to fund programming in recreation centers, which is where we were operating,” Mutafa said.
The D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. gave a $40,000 grant to WBL, which bought the group time to perfect programming and make itself attractive to more donors.
In the following years, the group’s budget rose to six figures with foundation and public grants representing more than 90 percent of the budget.
But three years ago, amid the economic downturn, one contributor responsible for 60 percent of the charity’s revenue pulled out.
“I got a text from Mazi that day,” said Mark Lawrence, WBL adviser and consultant at Deloitte. “It was disheartening. We knew there were some tough decisions to make. We went into cutting mode.”
The group cut staff, delayed paychecks for months and downsized its space. It became apparent that “individuals need to be the core of the fundraising community going forward,” Lawrence said.
The group began organizing an annual breakfast fundraiser. It revamped its Web site and ditched a direct mail campaign in favor of sending personal notes to all 5,000 of Mutafa’s Facebook friends. From that appeal, 174 signed up to be monthly donors.
Now along with exponentially growing its individual donor base, the group has tripled the number of students enrolled last year, secured three locations for programs and was inducted into the Catalogue for Philanthropy. WBL is on track to double its revenue this fiscal year.
In the private room at Busboys and Poets, a WBL staff member approached the microphone ready to announce the fundraising total to the room of young philanthropists. A spontaneous drumroll sounded as attendees pattered on their tables.
The group raised $64,705. The goal was $50,000
“This is the most we’ve ever raised at a breakfast,” Mutafa said. “This is something to celebrate.”