Since then, I've met some incredible people, worked on amazing projects and made a few mistakes along the way. Setting up and growing a small business has many things in common with running a small charity, and many of the lessons I've learned will resonate with charity directors, staff and trustees. Here are my top five tips:
1. Be clear on your core purpose
If you want to get noticed, it’s so important to distil everything that you do into a simple, clear message.
When I started out as a consultant, it took some time to understand how to articulate exactly why charities should work with me. I had pretty broad fundraising experience and wasn't sure what was most relevant. I had a naive belief that I could sit down with a charity, discuss their challenges and find a way to make myself useful.
In reality, if you’re not clear how you can help someone, most people will be way too busy to take the time to work it out for you. It was only when I developed a really clear proposition and a small range of headline services that I was really in business.
Charities must distil their often complex projects and sometimes technical work into a crystal clear message. Get the what and why right and people will ask about the how and with whom later. Don’t throw everything at people immediately – have the confidence that if you give people enough information to remember you and start a conversation then they’ll want to come back and find out more over time.
2. Collaborate and grow your universe
When I first started out, I was given some wise advice I've never forgotten: “The most important thing is to meet people and make yourself useful. Don’t worry immediately about making money, it will follow.”
This is a great motto if you want to meet amazing people, find brilliant opportunities and grow your influence. I always embrace opportunities to meet and help like-minded people, whether at a networking event or over a coffee, without worrying about whether there’s a quick win.
Some people think "I don’t want to spend time chatting to someone if there’s probably nothing in it for me – it’s a waste of time." Instead I always ask myself: “What if I turn down the chance to meet someone and it could've been the next big opportunity or introduction?”
I believe that charities can gain a lot from collaborating with each other, sharing ideas and teaming up for joint projects - there can be too much of a tendency within the sector to view other organisations only as competitors.
3. Develop your expert voice
If you run a small charity, there's usually so much to do and so little time. We’re naturally inclined to focus mostly on urgent short-term goals, yet we also expect to be capable of thinking big and staying relevant. In reality, we can only do this if we keep one eye on what’s happening outside our organisation.
I try to dedicate time every week to keeping abreast of wider issues in the charity sector – reading articles, sharing ideas on forums and social media, and writing blogs. It’s sometimes difficult to fit this in alongside other work. However it means that more people notice me and also helps me to develop my voice and opinions on key issues that people expect me to know about.
Always be on the look-out for key developments and conversations that you can contribute to. This is challenging because you can’t control when things pop up, for instance as the result of a news story, so you often have to make time at short notice. However, get this right and over time people will come to see you as an expert and this brings lots of opportunities.
Being the "go to" authority on a particular topic will make your charity more visible - this can open up fundraising opportunities, attract the people that need your charity's help and enable you to better represent the needs of those beneficiaries as a credible expert voice.
So you’re developing your expert voice and publishing great content, but who’s listening?
I read a great tip from Alex Swallow who said that you should spend 20% of your time generating content and 80% sharing it.
With limited time, it’s so tempting to publish something, tick it off the list and move on. However, publishing content is the tip of the iceberg. If blogs are our shop window, then promoting them is the billboard or TV advert that gets people to visit your shop in the first place.
When I publish something, I make a big effort to schedule posts about it on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and send personalised emails to people who would find it particularly interesting. Sharing all your content via your mailing list is another great way to keep reminding people that you exist and builds familiarity, credibility and trust over time. Check out our email marketing tips here.
I know many charities who could be better at promoting their content and successes to the right people. The next time that you win an award, produce a great impact report or write an insightful article, be sure to share it via all your channels, because it’s no use to you in a dusty drawer.
5. Listen to people and don’t be afraid to ask for help
It's easy to think that you know what people want, but harder to ask and be led by others. We’re all guilty of something called confirmation bias, where we sub-consciously listen out for information that proves our existing beliefs and ignore anything that contradicts them.
So often I hear charities pondering how often to send people a newsletter or fretting about which new event their supporters would like best. Often I say ‘Have you tried asking them?’
We often feel the need to present a polished, professional side to people, but involving our supporters in our problems can be a great way to engage people and win trust. Small charities have a natural advantage here as people won’t always expect you to get everything right and will value your ability to be friendly and human. Social media has also made this much easier.
If you can ask people for help and make them part of the solution, you create ambassadors who have a natural interest in seeing you succeed, even if this is partly so they feel part of that success themselves!
This blog is based on a version that was first published on The Influence Expert by Alex Swallow in April 2016. If you've enjoyed reading it, please sign up to our mailing list for more blogs and advice.