Lots has been written recently about the state of fundraising, but it's not all doom and gloom. There are inspirational and innovative fundraising ideas popping up all the time. It's often impossible not to marvel at how people were ever able to come up with such brilliant, compelling and original ideas.
At some point I'm sure that you've been told to "be innovative" or "think outside the box". Sadly, those words often have the opposite effect! Getting creative isn't easy, so if you're trying to come up with that knockout concept but keep drawing a blank, here's our eight-step plan for success:
Why do need a new campaign or event anyway? The obvious answer is ‘to raise money’ but it’s not always as simple as that. Sometimes charities organise events to raise awareness about their work or a specific issue or engage with a particular audience. Some campaigns can be a low-cost way of acquiring new supporters who may contribute in other ways in future - this can be more important than the immediate fundraising return.
Establishing one clear purpose is better than trying to tick lots of vague boxes at the same time. It'll make it easier to evaluate your ideas then measure success later. It may even help you decide whether to go it alone or sign up to be part of a third party event or campaign.
2. Decide whether to link to your mission
Campaigns like Sleep Out for Centrepoint and Live Below The Line have the double benefit of raising money for a good cause and encouraging participants to empathise with people in need. This is something that you might want to replicate, but it's not essential.
When I worked at Link and we first discussed Sumo Run, some trustees were sceptical – why would an African charity want to organise a Japanese-themed run? But the event was so fun and visual that it got wide press attention and introduced us to so many new supporters, despite not being directly relevant to our work.
Think carefully about how closely you want to link to your mission. Bear in mind your core purpose (see above) – for instance an awareness-raising event is more likely to require that direct connection. However, sometimes linking to your mission can seem tenuous or even crass - Live Below The Line has been heavily criticised by many - so don’t be afraid to try something radical instead.
Charities often ask me ‘what new event should we sign up to?’ or ‘how often would our supporters like to receive our newsletter?’ but don’t ask their supporters the same question! I think smaller charities should try to engage supporters more with their tricky decisions, rather than always trying to present a polished, professional face.
Your supporters are the best people to tell you what they do and don’t like. Try organising a focus group, creating a quick survey with a site like Survey Monkey or inviting trusted supporters to join your team brainstorming meeting. You not only get valuable insight, you’ll create ambassadors who are naturally invested in seeing you succeed - if only so they can prove their idea was right!
4. Examine the market
Before you try to come up with your perfect idea, look at what's out there already. Which fundraising events have been particularly successful? Which campaigns have really got people talking? Equally importantly, what can you learn from activities that have gone badly?
Don’t just look at competitors’ websites. Phone them and ask questions or sign up yourself to experience things as a participant. This helps you to understand what people are likely to get excited or unhappy about, meaning you can learn from the mistakes of others. For physical events, this can give you an invaluable insight into specific issues like how to ensure that on-the-day registration runs smoothly or deciding what music to play at the finish line.
5. Generate lots of ideas
With a clear core purpose, a sound knowledge of the market and insight from your supporters, it’s time to start brainstorming ideas of your own. You’re likely to want to identify at least ten initial ideas, then pick out at least three to explore in detail.
Research shows that people tend to be afraid of sharing 'bad' ideas and that we're psychologically resistant to having too many options to choose between. This can make people reluctant to contribute. For a powerful brainstorming session, summarise your initial research (1-4 above), explain the importance of generating lots of ideas to evaluate and foster a relaxed and creative environment where everyone feels able to contribute in the knowledge that no ideas are wrong.
6. ...then evaluate and prioritise the strongest ones
One great approach is to come up with a shortlist of key questions to test each idea against. These may include ‘Will our supporters be excited about it?’, ‘Does it help us achieve our core purpose?’ and ‘Do we have the resources to make it happen?’
This stage can take the form of an open discussion or a much more scientific approach where you score ideas based on different criteria. Either way, it will help to focus people on what really matters when making a decision. Check out Lucy Gower’s brilliant book The Innovation Workout for in-depth advice on brainstorming and filtering ideas.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, but you should again seek supporter feedback at this stage to ensure you haven’t got things wrong. Even the best known charities can misjudge their ideas – Samaritans Radar was an ill-fated app that was cancelled within 10 days due to a public backlash.
Turning a great idea into real-life success requires a strong plan. Pull together a launch team with the range of skills required, but avoiding involving 'too many cooks' at this stage as it can hold you back. Be clear on the main tasks, people responsible and key milestones – and be firm about staying on schedule. Basecamp is a great project management tool for planning campaign launches.
A good launch plan isn't just about logistics. You need to sound your best supporters and friends of the charity in advance so that they’re primed to sign up, donate or share content immediately. This is crucial for launching with a splash - people will naturally be more excited about getting involved with activities that already seem popular. This is particularly important for crowdfunding campaigns.
This may be a great time to consider external support as you'll benefit from specialist expertise, extra resources and independent, unbiased perspective. Take a look at how we work with charities.
8. Perfectionists – just get it launched!
You can go round in circles forever fine-tuning your idea, but at some point you need to launch it and find out what the world thinks. It’s too easy to spend ages fussing about your website copy, timetable or registration form, only to launch and find out that the core idea isn't right anyway.
In business there's a concept called the minimum viable product (MVP). This is a simplified, scaled-down version of your idea that you launch and continue developing later. Early feedback will help you to sharpen up the concept and initial demand will justify putting more time into development. So get your event or campaign out there ASAP and worry about scaling it up and perfecting it later.
This blog is based on a version that was first published on Eventbrite in February 2016. If you've enjoyed reading it, please sign up to our mailing list for more blogs and advice.