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Amy Stark, MPA, CAE

Amy Stark, MPA, CAE

Grants and Nonprofit Management Consultant, PL Harper Consulting

Fundraising for Fire Departments: Inspiring Donors to give to Government Organizations in Need

I started working with volunteer fire departments in the mid-1990s. I wasn’t new to the concept of voluntarily running into a burning building—members of my family had been involved in the service since the 1950s. But I was surprised at how difficult it was for my community’s volunteers to get the funds they needed to keep the service going. Our small department received township and county funds, but it never seemed to be enough. We spent more volunteer hours planning fundraisers and grant applications than we did actually serving the community.

When I approach donors and grant funders about an opportunity to support the fire service I am often met with a shocked expression. Why would anyone give money to a government agency? Is that even possible? How do fire departments use donations? Can I give to a large city department or only to a volunteer group? My answer is always this: there is never enough tax revenue available to any fire department to support all of the services they could provide to our communities. Departments rely on foundation and government grants to purchase medical equipment, safety gear, and to replace trucks. Supporting a local fire department offers donors an opportunity to support the individuals who risk their lives and improve their community’s safety.

So how can an individual support a fire service? Many large departments already have foundations that accept donations. The Los Angeles Fire Department has several Support Groups that provide services that “fall outside of the scope of the department and or City of Los Angeles’ annual budget.” Indianapolis first responders are supported by the Indy Public Safety Foundation that supports all of the city’s fire, police, and EMS services. Most major departments have a version of these support groups that allow donors to provide tax-exempt support to a vital publicly funded organization.

While these foundations make it easier for donors, it is the smallest departments that need the most support that rarely have these 501(c)3 foundations. Support from major donors to volunteer departments in rural communities can have a significant impact on the time it takes to respond to emergencies and the services provided. While many volunteer departments were created as 501c4 organizations, the IRS specifically points out that volunteer fire companies are tax-exempt if members are “actively engaged in fire-fighting and similar disaster assistance.” 

Volunteer departments rarely have expertise with major gifts or individual donations. For donors interested in supporting a small fire department it is often best to start outside the organization. Consulting firms that offer fire training and leadership development can sometimes assist funders looking for a department in need. Rural government officials (township trustees, county council members) can also provide guidance. And as with any funding opportunity, a local tax advisor can provide the necessary assistance. 

Every fire department in the United States needs outside support to better provide services and replace equipment. Funders interested in improving their communities should consider the benefits of gifts to volunteer and paid departments. Funding makes a difference not just for the department, but also for the entire city, county, and region. 

By the Numbers

Consider the recruitment opportunities for your organization that these stats indicate:

  • About 63 million Americans (25% of the adult population) volunteer their time, talents, and energy to making a difference.
  • These people spend an average of 52 hours/year volunteering.
  • 72% of volunteers are involved with only one organization, while 18.3% are involved with two.

Random interesting stats presented monthly from various sources.