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INNOVATORS Q&A

Rethinking how one of R.I.’s largest nonprofits can grow

Idrees “Lanre” Ajakaiye was recently appointed the new chief development officer at the United Way of Rhode Island.

Idrees “Lanre” Ajakaiye, the new chief development officer at the United Way of Rhode Island, is the son of two Nigerian immigrants and grew up in the Hartford Projects in Providence.Courtesy of the United Way of Rhode Island

For Idrees “Lanre” Ajakaiye, every part of his career has been about giving back to Providence.

Ajakaiye, the son of two Nigerian immigrants who were working in local factories while they were earning their college degrees, grew up in the Hartford Projects in Providence. He attended Classical High School, where he won a statewide innovation competition from the Providence Journal for helping come up with a campaign for driver safety and the importance of buckling up.

Today he considers himself a “brand architect” who has had more than a decade of experience in real estate, Fortune 500, startups, and nonprofits. Most recently, he was inducted into the City of Providence’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame for being the driving force behind the 25 Bough Street community initiative in the Olneyville neighborhood. The building, which has been a vacant, blighted property for years, will soon become a public space for youth and workforce development, education and mentorship, innovation, and entrepreneurship programs. (Construction, he said, will end sometime in 2024.)

In October, Ajakaiye was appointed the new chief development officer at the United Way of Rhode Island where he’ll be in charge of helping the United Way achieve its current strategic plan, which outlines the nonprofit’s investment of $100 million over five years to help achieve racial equity.

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What are some of your responsibilities as chief development officer of United Way?

Fundraising, but not in the traditional way of going after high and mid-major donors. It’s looking across our people, procedure, and technology for how we can engage the next generation. What is not unlike the national level, there’s a lot of donors who are aging out. They’re retiring and they’re relocating. So my role is to raise funds, leverage channels of communication that we haven’t used, and engage with people we haven’t yet in Rhode Island in order to deliver impact across key themes.

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Why isn’t the “old school way” of fundraising working?

Email, calls, and direct mail is typically the way we’ve been engaging with people. But texting is not an option right now. Paying us through Venmo or CashApp is not an option right now. But emails as a medium are generally opened about 17 to 24 percent of the time and then the click-through rate is less than 4 or 5 percent. A text is opened within three minutes of being sent 90 percent of the time.

So if I’m dealing with 10,000 people that give me their permission to text them, we could have 9,000 people open them. If that’s an email, maybe only 2,000 people open the email and less than 500 people are actually clicking. We have to look at things in a new way that conforms to the way that people want to engage with us and not the way that we want to engage with them.

Most young people in their 20s and 30s can’t sign a check for $10,000 to any nonprofit of their choosing. How are you rethinking the fundraising model?

We have to meet them where they’re at. Studies show that millennials are very much concerned with societal and socio-economic issues. But if you don’t meet them where they’re at, they can’t participate. If we say “would you give $10 to $15 each month to help your community” it sounds a lot more attractive than one big lump sum. That’s $120 to $180 annually. If I get 7,500 people to do that at $180 each, that’s $1.35 million. We can start eating away at the 57,000 youth that can’t participate in after-school learning in Rhode Island. It’s a recurring, sustainable model, but most organizations don’t go after that donor.

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I think of my own journey, when I was just starting my career or when I became a senior manager at MetLife. I would have gave $10 to $15 each month then. As I moved up in my career, like many of the people [United Way is starting to target now], I could begin giving $50 each month.

Political candidates and major political parties already do this for their fundraising efforts. Retail and online stores send out discounts via text. Why haven’t nonprofits been able to keep up?

The average nonprofit in Rhode Island has less than five people working for them. So they are so burdened with the critical services they are providing that to be an expert in marketing and leveraging technologies is impossible. Skills For Rhode Island just received a major federal grant and, with the United Way, is working on technical assistance for nonprofits.

What other fundraising challenges do you think United Way has right now?

Other than an aging donor base, there’s also the natural erosion of workplace campaigns and giving. People don’t stay at a company for 15 to 20 years anymore. They stay for three to five years and move on. And we probably don’t have their personal information after they gave through their workplace. But we are also facing natural macro-economy issues like rising utility costs, the rising costs of goods, and housing.

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The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.