According to Wiktionary, the above proverb is used to describe "a disappointing or mundane event occurring straight after an exciting, magnificent, or triumphal event."
Now it's a stretch to call any strategy process magnificent or triumphal - I love strategic planning and even I wouldn’t go that far. But you can probably remember a time when you saw a new strategy launched with much fanfare, the product of many exciting conversations about the future, and then…nothing. The strategy goes to its final resting place in a dusty drawer or the dark recesses of your shared drive, and everybody goes back to their daily business as if nothing has changed.
This is a huge waste of time. Everybody knows it, but it still happens more often than most people care to admit.
At Lime Green, we try to make any strategy process as collaborative and inclusive as possible - I'm a firm believer that the conversations are as important as the final document. You need to involve people from all levels of your organisation, rather than entrusting a senior leader or consultant to sit in their ivory tower and write your strategy alone. But this alone isn't enough to avoid the pull of the strategy graveyard.
There are loads of resources out there about how to create a strategy, but very little on the all-important topic of what to do after you've finished it. So here are some tips for making sure your published business plan or fundraising strategy remains a useful and relevant guiding document…
Organise launch sessions for all staff
Expecting everyone to independently read and engage with a new strategy is a tough ask. Even if they want to, the realities of their job may get in the way, and words on a page are rarely that exciting or inspiring.
This is where a strategy launch session - for the whole organisation or your particular team - can work really well. Ask people to read the strategy in advance, but be prepared to summarise key points at the start. Encourage staff to ask questions, voice concerns, and think creatively about what they need to start doing differently to turn the strategy into reality. While this absolutely isn’t a substitute for involving people in the planning process, it's a great additional step.
Providing a space to discuss concerns is important, because a new strategy can inadvertently make people worry about things like job security or underinvestment in their area of work. Dealing with these worries head-on will reassure people and make them engage more positively with what you want to achieve.
Update your budget, plan and other resources to reflect your strategy
If a strategy is meaningful and well thought out, it should ultimately result in you changing the way you work - but it's not the strategy itself that does the heavy lifting.
It’s highly likely you’ll need to update your budget and re-write your operational plan. Job descriptions and even job titles may need to be changed. Regular meeting agendas will need updating, so you can monitor and discuss the things that you’ve decided are most important. Forget to do this and your strategy quickly becomes irrelevant, because people won’t have the resources or permission to start doing things differently.
Shout about your strategy to service users, partners and funders
A good strategy, with a bold vision and clear direction, should build confidence and trust in your organisation and improve how you work with others. If that’s the case, you want it out in the open. So make sure that everyone you work with knows about your strategy, understands how it changes things, and holds you to account for turning it into reality.
But you can’t expect your strategy to be important enough to external people that they’ll sit down and read it in full. There may also be parts of it that are for internal eyes only. This is where a well-written executive summary or eye-catching infographic, which summarises key information in a concise and engaging way, can be hugely helpful.
Make your strategy visible
I don’t just mean saving it somewhere easy to find, although that helps.
If you've created a clear list of strategic priorities, milestones or values, make these impossible to miss. Print them and stick them up in your office and meeting room. Add them to login screens, backgrounds and screensavers. This makes your key messages impossible to forget and ignore, but it also shows pride in your strategy and promotes accountability - because someone, somewhere is going to look a bit silly if the whole team gets a daily reminder of all the things that the organisation changed its mind about doing.
Show how your strategy is helping to achieve success
If colleagues are wrestling with a tricky decision, remind them to refer back to the strategy and consider how it could guide them. If following your new strategy has enabled some kind of success - securing a new grant, forming a new partnership or receiving positive feedback - shout about it from the rooftops.
In my experience, there are enough badly-planned and painful strategy processes out there that a lot of people approach this type of work with a big dollop of suspicion and scepticism. Showing the value of a good strategy, and vindicating the time spent on it, can help to change attitudes. You'll be grateful the next time you need their time and input.
Commit to a strategy review
No strategy gets everything right or accurately predicts the future. But that’s never a reason to hope everybody quietly forgets it ever existed.
To get real value out of a strategy, you'll need to review it part way through the strategic period, say after 12 or 18 months. Committing to this in the strategy itself, and scheduling a review process well in advance, makes it far more likely it'll actually happen.
Just before you publish a strategy is a great time to identify anything that will particularly merit a review. If you've faced a particularly tough decision, or committed to a direction that some staff are worried about, then promise to revisit this. Thinking like this may give you a list of natural questions to work through later. This again builds confidence and accountability, and might persuade doubters to give something a try for a bit.
March 2022 marked the end of an era, as the Small Charities Coalition (SCC) closed its doors for good. Hundreds of people listened to the voices and experiences of small charities by joining their final celebration event ‘The Power of Small’ or reading their ‘Small and Mighty’ follow-up report.
If you haven’t seen the report yet, it’s well worth a read. There are lots of interesting reflections on the value and future of small charity infrastructure support, as well as an announcement to bring relief to many: SCC’s free HelpDesk and Charity Set Up Tool will continue under the new joint stewardship of the NCVO and FSI.
The question of how the sector secures long-term funding for this type of vital infrastructure support, and how we can get people to value it, still looms large. I was really hoping the report would tackle this head-on, but it doesn’t really say anything new - that’s a disappointment, but a topic for another day.
The report outlines four Small Principles for those working with, funding and supporting small organisations. The first of these is ‘If you support or fund small charities, say so upfront.’ The context is that the small charities surveyed for the final report overwhelmingly said they trusted SCC because it was explicitly set up to support small charities, as well as being a small charity itself. While many organisations offer support and services to small charities as part of a much broader programme, this rarely inspires the same confidence.
This is a really important point, and on reflection something we at Lime Green need to say more clearly on our website and elsewhere. While we don’t work solely with small charities, they were the original reason why we started, and remain the main audience for our consultancy, training and resources.
So in response to Small Principle #1, this blog is about one thing: showing that we're here for small charities.
We could never, and don’t want to, replicate the broad suite of support and services offered by an organisation like SCC. There’s loads we don’t do, in which case we'll always signpost to others. But if you need something that we do provide, I hope you’ll feel able to come to us with confidence. Here’s why:
Our experience is small charity to the core. My entire time as a charity employee and trustee was with charities with a turnover below £1million. As a guide, in the past three years nearly three-quarters of our consultancy clients have been either registered charities or social enterprises below this turnover threshold, often significantly below it.
This small charity experience shapes how we work. I’ve personally felt that frustration when support is unintentionally alienating or irrelevant for small charities. You know, assumptions that you have a marketing budget, a ‘team’ of fundraisers, available reserves. Training that leaves you with plenty of ideas but no clue where or how to start implementing them. This frustration drives our approach - we always strive to be relevant and proportionate for small charities. It's great to get positive feedback about the quality of our work, but I’m equally proud that we’re seen as being friendly, flexible and kind - easy values and cliches to put on paper, but only meaningful when backed up by feedback.
We use expertise as a force for good. The knowledge and skills gained from working with a wide range of organisations can be a double-edged sword. Specialist expertise can solve problems, empower organisations and build confidence - but used incorrectly, it can overcomplicate things, demoralise people, and only serve to make the consultant look clever. We aim to do all of the former and none of the latter - in my experience, that's not as common in our sector as you'd think. While we do sometimes use specialist tools and frameworks (some designed ourselves, some borrowed from the business world), we’ll only do so if they genuinely solve a problem, and if we can explain to an organisation how to keep using them in-house. We strive to create practical content that make sense, and we’re vehemently anti-jargon - if you see us breaking these rules, please call us out!
We create free resources specifically for small charities. Too often, I feel like fundraisers and consultants operate in an echo chamber, endlessly recycling and debating issues that may be interesting but are ultimately irrelevant for small charities, who form the majority of the sector. While we do of course write and talk about topical issues, we do so with the explicit aim of demystifying them and being practically-minded:
We train hundreds of grassroots organisations each year. We work with partners that focus on serving small organisations, including the School for Social Entrepreneurs and various CVSs (Councils for Voluntary Services). We were also an approved trainer for SCC up until their closure. Again, you’ll see that our training feedback reflects our small charity focus - I love that we’re seen as being warm, friendly and approachable, as making groups feel comfortable, structuring content clearly, and giving encouragement to people who are already doing things well.
Working with us costs less if you're a small charity. We offer a guaranteed discount of 10-20% (depending on the service) on our consultancy fees for small registered charities. The work we do with larger organisations helps to subsidise this, as well as generating new learning and resources that we can then use and share more widely.
Thanks to the Small and Mighty report for outlining their four Small Principles for future small charity support. I hope we can rise to the challenge and do our bit.
This month we're taking a breather from writing punchy opinion pieces or gazing into our crystal ball and focusing on something more straightforward but still vital - everything you need to know about the humble case for support.
What do we mean by a case for support?
A case for support is an internal document that you create to outline the problem your organisation exists to solve, what you do about that problem, and what you're going to achieve as a result. Quite literally, it's your case for why donors or funders should support your work.
A good case for support effectively acts as a comprehensive, well-organised filing cabinet of convincing content that you can pull out whenever you need it - for a funding proposal, a meeting with a donor, to create copy for a webpage.
It’s very unlikely that anyone outside your organisation will see - or would ever want to see - this full document in all its glory. But it should be the starting point for your external, donor-facing documents. It's never a case of just copy/pasting large chunks of content from your case for support into an external document and just adding images and a catchy title - the text will always need tailoring for the audience and context - but it’s still a brilliant shortcut.
(Just to confuse things, often organisations create a shorter, branded external document to 'sell' their work to donors and also call this a ‘case for support’, but that’s not what we’re talking about in this blog.)
Working with organisations to create their case for support is one of my favourite jobs. As well as it being a privilege to learn all about fascinating and important new causes, I love the process of asking a few targeted questions, rapidly building up an array of content on colourful post-its, then shaping it into a structured document.
And organisations always seem to really value having that outsider’s perspective - while they can supply all the passion, lived experience and raw content, a few ‘devil’s advocate’ questions from us can help to clarify details, tease out vital extra information and explain things clearly and convincingly for an external audience.
What are the benefits of developing a case for support?
Many organisations shy away from creating a case for support, because they don't feel they have time. I’m not going to lie, it does take time to create. But it will certainly save you time in the long run, and also increase your return on investment from fundraising.
A good case for support will equip you with:
What should you cover in your case for support?
There are many ways to structure a case for support, and they can get pretty long and complicated, but fundamentally you need to cover four key areas:
The need for your work:
Your expertise and credibility:
Where can you go for the information needed to create a strong case for support?
There are loads of potential information sources to draw on, but here are a few:
This can feel like a daunting process if you’ve never done it before, but it's important to stress that you don’t need everything to get started. As it's an internal document, developing a case for support can be an ongoing, iterative process - start ASAP, but make a note of what else you'll need to research, gather and add over time.
The best cases for support are never finished, they evolve over time. For example if new research is published that reinforces the need for your work, or if you've just written a brilliant answer (even if you say so yourself) to a specific funder question that you want to re-use in future, find a place for it in your case for support.
If you're now convinced that you need a case for support, what should you do next?
We’ve tried to write this blog as a stand-alone free resource for anyone wanting to get started on their case for support. Remember that you're the expert on your work and the reasons why you do it, and your case for support is just a way of laying all that out in a logical, structure way.
If you feel you do need some extra support, we’ve got a couple of options:
WHY THE CLOSURE OF THE SMALL CHARITIES COALITION IS A DISASTER FOR OUR SECTOR AND PROOF OF A COLLECTIVE FAIURE BY FUNDERS
When the news that the Small Charities Coalition (SCC) is closing first broke, people expressed a range of emotions: shock, sadness, gratitude for their help, concern for the grassroots charities they support.
This is all justified, but I think there’s been too much resignation (that this is just one of those things that happens) and not nearly enough anger.
I want to explain why this is a disaster - specifically for SCC and the many brilliant charities they support, but more broadly because of what it says about our sector and the lack of support for infrastructure organisations. This is a collective failure by grantmakers, resulting from short-sighted policy and too much ego.
First, a small disclaimer
I’ve been a pro bono trainer for SCC and general supporter of their work since 2015, so I can’t claim to be 100% neutral, although I should emphasise that we've never received any payment from our work with them.
Secondly, I don't have any knowledge of the inner workings of SCC, or exactly what they've done to try to secure funding. I'm sure there will have been things they could have done better or differently - that's the case for all of us - but I don't think that would fundamentally change what I want to say.
Why is infrastructure support so vital for charities?
The vast majority of charities and social enterprises are tiny organisations run by people with lived experience of the issues they’re addressing. I've personally worked with so many brilliant founders who have been full of knowledge and passion, but who haven’t benefitted from professional training or the best education, don’t speak English as a first language, or have little money for professional development.
Inevitably there are times when they need expert support in areas outside their comfort zone - for example finance, fundraising or IT - but they don't have the budget to recruit a specialist staff member, or pay a consultant.
Sometimes they secure ad hoc pro bono support from an expert – frequently a wealthy person in the twilight of their career after spending 40 years making money in the finance and business worlds, often perpetuating the same social issues they now claim to want to solve. For obvious reasons, this isn’t - and shouldn’t be - a solution for everyone.
I’ve seen a few people argue recently that local infrastructure organisations can step up to the plate after SCC closes. Indeed I've come across some truly brilliant local services. Yes their support is excellent, and yes being localised is really valuable, helping to promote collaboration not competition between organisations.
But in my experience, the quality of local support can really vary, and funding for it can suddenly evaporate in the winds of political change. It certainly isn’t available to everyone, everywhere. Economies of scale mean that most local infrastructure organisations can’t offer the same quality and cost-effectiveness as a national organisation. Even if they could, they'll still eventually face the same funding realities as SCC.
So national infrastructure organisations like SCC are vital - but who can we rely on to fund them?
Certainly not this government, which has alternated between being antagonistic and totally disengaged with the charity sector. As austerity has bitten, charities have necessarily become more vocal about the injustice faced by vulnerable people, and this government has worked progressively harder to discredit and demonise charities in response. Think back to how Conservative MPs seized on things like the Olive Cooke scandal.
Not the general public, who realistically will never be engaged with the nuances of how grassroots charities should be supported. Especially not when, following the lead of the government and the right-wing media, most public focus has been on red herrings like how many pence in every pound charities spend on ‘admin’, or how much their CEO is paid.
This means we inevitably rely on grant funding - but funders haven’t stepped up to the plate
You could argue that it shouldn't be their responsibility, but then again, they’ve done it for countless other underfunded, niche and unpopular causes during a decade of austerity.
Funders are ideally placed to understand the value of grassroots charities, and the need to empower them. But astonishingly few have been willing to fund infrastructure organisations – and that’s due to short-sighted policies and too much ego in their decision-making.
People with far more authority than me, including Paul Streets and Jake Hayman, have long criticised funders’ obsession with short-term, project-based impact, at the expense of strategic support, movement-building and core funding.
This collective failure has gradually shamed grassroots charities into playing down their core costs and development needs, and systematically devalued learning, collaboration, professional development and long-term strategic planning.
So many times, I’ve had to persuade small charity CEOs that they can include a contribution towards running costs in their project budget, and they do deserve to pay themselves a salary for their work. They’re terrified that they’ll be judged and penalised by funders. And sometimes, they're right.
Contrary to what we’re often told, most grassroots charities don’t ‘waste’ money on salaries and running costs - they chronically underinvest in them. If, as a result, staff can’t or won’t pay for even low-cost training, infrastructure organisations like SCC can’t develop a sustainable business model – but they haven't been able to subsidise it through grant funding either.
"Oh sorry, we really value the work that you do, we just can’t fund it ourselves."
If a few funders say this, it’s their problem. But when almost every funder does, organisations like SCC fold, and that’s a problem for everyone.
SCC's closure is proof of this short-sighted grantmaking policy, but also problematic ego
Because well-funded infrastructure support does actually exist, just mainly in the form of Funder Plus programmes.
This sees funders often hand-pick a small number of their grantees to receive infrastructure support, mentoring or training alongside a grant. These charities aren’t the only people to benefit. Experienced consultants get to do exciting, generously-funded strategy and consultancy projects, either in-house for a funder or as a freelancer. I know, I’ve been one of them.
I’ve previously been an advocate for the Funder Plus model because, in isolation, it achieves badly-needed, often transformational impact for a few charities. But if Funder Plus support comes at the expense of funding for centralised infrastructure support for everyone, it’s part of the problem - expensive to deliver, only benefitting a few, and driven by ego.
"I want to decide which charities get support. I know best what types of support that people and organisations who are nothing like me really need. I want to see and shout about the tangible impact of my contribution, not fund an experienced, national organisation to do it at scale, for everyone."
If this sounds like harsh criticism, consider this: SCC supports over 16,000 members and their annual budget has never topped £400,000, only rarely exceeding £200,000. They might have survived with just four or five moderate multi-year grants from progressive funders, or a smaller contribution from a slightly larger number of funders.
That this has proved impossible is a damning indictment of our sector. How can you possibly argue that Funder Plus models achieve more impact and better value for money?
I’m painfully aware that this comes too late to save SCC. That’s already a tragedy - but if we don’t use it as a wake-up call, we'll be facing an existential crisis.
As a sector, we’re not so much shooting ourselves in the foot, we’re tearing out our own heart.
There’s rarely a convenient time to be able to take a step back and commit to working on a new strategy, but recently it's felt harder than ever.
We’re nearly two years into a pandemic that has kept everyone guessing and in firefighting mode - and with a new variant raising the stakes again, sadly there’s no let-up in sight. But with so many things having changed since the start of 2020, if you haven’t done a strategic refresh yet, now might be the time to take the plunge.
Creating a new strategy is a unique process for every organisation - you’ll be facing your own cocktail of opportunities, barriers, community needs and tricky decisions. However inconvenient, there’s no definitive list of topics and issues that everyone should work through.
That said, we're seeing a number of themes that keep coming up in our conversations with charities and social enterprises. So here are some key topics to have on your radar - you'll be able to decide how much each one applies to you…
1. Staff burnout
Your team may now have spent nearly two years battling through rising community need, pressure to stay financially afloat, and uncertainty around where and how they do their jobs, combined with personal concerns about health, job security and the impact of multiple lockdowns on mental health. Few people are feeling energetic or clear-headed, and the festive break (if we get a proper one) won’t be a complete reset.
Any strategy that doesn’t acknowledge or address this risks falling flat, no matter how good the rest of your decisions. Talk to your team about how they're genuinely feeling, and what they need to have in place to do their jobs to the best of their ability in 2022 - which could mean more support, flexibility or encouragement than they previously needed.
That might have an unexpected budget implication, but leaving people to just muddle on through could cost you more in the long run.
2. Hybrid delivery and digital exclusion
Should we go back to running meetings and services in person, or keep them online? This was already a dilemma, even before the Omicron curveball.
During the initial lockdowns, many organisations realised they could reach new people and deliver services more cheaply online. On paper, this seemed like a surprising positive from the pandemic, but there’s been rising concern about digital exclusion - who are we inadvertently leaving behind, and does digital delivery exacerbate inequalities?
And there’s the added complication of how - and whether - to cater for everyone when some people want to be in a room with you and others want to participate remotely.
These are key strategic challenges to wrestle with. Check out our original blog on digital exclusion from early 2021, our guide to running engaging and accessible strategy workshops online, and Zoe Amar’s excellent tips on making the right decisions about hybrid working.
3. Building long-term relationships with funders
For me, one highlight of the past two years has been seeing funders engage more meaningfully and collaboratively with charities. This started with the collective commitment to flexible funding and reporting early in the pandemic, but has continued as many funders have acknowledged that grassroots community organisations are best placed to be their eyes and ears on the ground in a rapidly-changing landscape.
But too many organisations are missing opportunities to build meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with funders. Amid the pressure to bring in new grants and submit more applications, it’s too easy to neglect the positive impact of things like a well-written and honestly reflective grant report to an existing funder.
And if we only value conversations with funders that are about immediate financial impact rather than learning and collaboration, we risk prioritising short-term target-hitting over long-term growth.
While I get that organisations living hand-to-mouth will struggle to prioritise long-term relationship-building, if you have the breathing space to build this into your strategy, you'll soon see the benefits. Our recent blog on building relationships with invitation-only funders is a starter for ten here - we’ve had feedback from several funders that these are exactly the things they’re looking for.
4. Capitalising on that surge in public fundraising, donations and volunteering
While this felt particularly pressing back in spring/summer 2020, it’s not too late to bear in mind.
The amazing community response to Covid-19 saw many people get a new taste for donating, fundraising or volunteering. Crucially, many actions were all about grassroots humanity - helping your neighbour with their shopping, or donating to the local foodbank. While big charities have household name brands, finely-tuned structures and economies of scale, grassroots organisations could promise immediate impact and a direct connection to those in need.
Some charities have done an exceptional job of nurturing this - continuing to inspire, engage and connect new donors and volunteers through stories, events and further opportunities to make a difference. Treated right, these people have the potential to be their loyal regular givers, major donors and community fundraisers of the future.
Have you benefitted from a surge of grassroots support during the pandemic? What have you done to keep that passion and humanity burning? And what can you still do to nurture and replicate it in future?
5. The way that people come together (or don't) is changing
Beyond the physical lockdowns, the pandemic is having a long-term impact on how people behave, consume, congregate and interact. Offices have remained half-empty and high streets still feel eerily quiet. I was in central Bristol last Friday to buy my daughter’s first pair of shoes and most shops were deserted, two weeks before Christmas.
This has massive implications, particularly for fundraising. ‘Old ways’ of doing things no longer feel fit for purpose, maybe permanently. What does it mean for corporate fundraising if most employees are never in an office together? How will your previous major donor tactics work if you rarely get to ‘work the room’?
When we finally catch a longer break between variants, maybe some aspects of our pre-2020 life will gradually return. In the meantime, activity plans and budgets need to look very different. If you’re still spending more time designing printed materials than landing pages, or more money on branded stationery than search engine optimisation and social media advertising, you need to have a very good reason. Few of us can afford to wait until we can get people in a room together again before resuming our public fundraising.
6. The source of your donations is more important than ever
Nearly 18 months on from the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston - just two miles from my house - philanthropy and ethical fundraising remain hot topics. In the past few weeks, we’ve received more enquiries about ethical fundraising reviews than pretty much anything else.
Many organisations have woken up to the importance of understanding the source of their donations and grants. What created that wealth in the first place? Are people and companies using philanthropy to ‘buy a seat at the table’ and gain influence over things like equality, social mobility and climate change? If your organisation is complicit in that, is this an unfortunate necessity in a tough financial climate, or an unforgivable oversight?
These are difficult questions with no easy or short-term answers, but if you’re working on a new strategy then it might be time to put them on the table. We’ve shared a few ideas and potential solutions in various talks and blogs recently – this slightly provocative piece is probably the best starting point.
At the end of August, we commissioned a joint survey with the School for Social Entrepreneurs to explore how the pandemic has impacted the training needs and preferences of fundraisers, with a particular focus on small-to-medium charities and social enterprises.
We received 54 responses in total - thank you so much to everybody who took the time to share their detailed experiences and feedback. While this is a small sample and not representative of the sector as a whole, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what we’ve learned and how we’re responding...
1. The financial impact of the pandemic has varied wildly for different organisations
It was striking how varied the responses were to this question, mirroring what we've heard from organisations taking part in our online training over the last 18 months. Encouragingly, 37% of organisations said their financial position had improved, particularly for those well-positioned to access emergency grant funding, albeit with some concerns for the future:
Worryingly, 31% of organisations felt financially weaker, particularly those whose work isn't directly related to the pandemic:
It’s clear that, for many, emergency funding has done its job in shoring up the sector and ensuring organisations survive. As a result, some organisations have been able to develop promising relationships with new funders, presenting a long-term opportunity. But as always, there’s a danger that more complex and/or less popular causes are being left behind, particularly where their impact is longer-term and harder to measure - for example, infrastructure organisations that play such a vital and under-appreciated role in supporting smaller organisations in the sector.
We'll continue to offer practical tips on how organisations in this position can build a convincing case for support, through our regular blogs and fundraising training.
2. Confidence and morale have been understandably knocked
If you're feeling varying degrees of challenged, disillusioned and exhausted, you're not alone. 46% of people reported becoming less confident about fundraising, compared to just 24% becoming more confident. It's clear from the written responses that while fundraising itself is tough, it's the challenge of juggling the demands of running an organisation, securing vital funding and navigating current life that's really hard:
Respondents voiced a particular need to build skills and confidence in high value fundraising i.e. corporates and major donors. These areas are particularly susceptible to the combined financial damage wreaked by Covid and Brexit, and the logistical difficulties that come with limited face-to-face interaction. We'll be exploring how we can put a stronger emphasis on these areas in future courses.
In general people seemed more confident with public fundraising (events, community and individual giving) with many organisations benefitting from a groundswell of grassroots support during the pandemic.
3. Organisations are feeling surprisingly confident about their strategic direction
Given the amount of firefighting done over the past 18 months, and the comments above about how people are generally feeling, we were surprised and hugely impressed to see more than half of organisations feeling clearer and more confident about their future strategy. Some organisations have benefitted from the breathing space afforded by emergency funding to be able to take a step back, while others have naturally been evaluating their place in the world - and the changing circumstances and needs of their service users - during the uncharted territory of the pandemic.
This certainly mirrors our experience. We’ve been busier than ever with our strategic consultancy, with many organisations committing time and money now to reflecting and learning from the past 18 months. This has led to organisations identifying ways to do things better and more cost-effectively, wrestling with difficult issues such as digital exclusion and financial sustainability, and emerging from a turbulent period feeling clearer and more confident as a result. There’s no doubt that this strategic clarity will be a huge confidence boost to funders, donors, trustees, volunteers and service users alike.
If you haven’t sat down and formally discussed yet what you’ve learned from the pandemic, and how you can do things differently in future, it’s certainly worth trying to do this ASAP. If your team is trying to do this while still working remotely, check out our recent blog on how to run better online strategic planning workshops.
4. Online training remains a better and more accessible option for many, even as things open up
Online training may have been born out of necessity, but we all better believe that it's here to stay. While current circumstances have allowed us to resume some face-to-face training, close to half of respondents still prefer online sessions:
It’s clear that online training is simply a better long-term option for many, particularly those with limited time, care responsibilities or based outside of major cities:
We've heard this message loud and clear, and will ensure that online training remains a significant part of our future offer. However, we’ve also learned over the past 18 months that online training absolutely can’t just be a face-to-face training format moved online. We’ve now had loads of time to learn on the job and listen to feedback both after courses and in the survey, and will be trying to put this into practice in the coming months:
Have you ever found a funder that seems like the perfect fit, only to learn they don’t accept unsolicited applications?
If your work is niche or you’ve approached all the ‘obvious’ trusts and foundations already, then engaging a couple of these invitation-only funders can feel key to broadening your funding base. But there's an age-old question - how can we get on their radar, especially if they don’t even welcome initial enquiries?
Over time I’ve seen various organisations succeed in building thriving relationships with private, strategic funders. It isn’t quick or easy, but there are a few steps you can take.
Firstly, why might a trust or foundation decide to take the invitation-only approach?
Rightly or wrongly, there can be many reasons:
So...what can charities and social enterprises do about this?
1. Look for potential introductions within your network
If a funder relies on their expertise or networks to identify potential grantees, then a recommendation from the right person could make all the difference. For example, your existing funders or project partners will already be engaged and invested in your work – perhaps they know someone working for an invitation-only funder and would be willing to introduce you?
Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask nicely for an introduction, explaining why it’s strategically important to you – you might by how willing people are to help.
2. Engage (and if necessary improve) your Board
We’ve run countless network mapping exercises with Boards. The conversation often starts the same way: “None of our trustees know anyone / are willing to help.” But it’s amazing how quickly things can change if you explain that (1) you’re not looking for introductions for rich and famous people, just prominent people in your sector; and (2) you don’t expect Board members to open their address books willy-nilly and start asking for money, but simply make a couple of strategic introductions.
Trustees will know more people than you (and they) think. I’ve seen organisations build on such tenuous links as “I worked with them 10 years ago”, “I play badminton with them on Tuesday night” and “Our kids go to the same school”.
Try running a network mapping exercise with your trustees, or circulating a list of staff working at a target invitation-only funder to check for connections. And if your trustees really aren’t well-connected, this doesn’t have to always be the case. Explore why – does your organisation focus on recruiting trustees with particular skills and backgrounds in a way that prevents people with better connections from applying? Could you persuade your Board to set a strategic objective to recruit new trustees with funder connections over the next 1-2 years?
3. Engage invitation-only funders in new and more meaningful ways
Tired old introductory letters and emails are far from the only ways of making first contact. Trusts and foundations can and do interact openly on social media, attend funder fairs, speak at events or collaborate on things like research, policy or advocacy work.
Jumping straight into a direct approach about money often goes nowhere. Instead, do your research into where/how funders are actively engaging (e.g. social media platforms or events), find a topic that could be mutually beneficial to you both, then start a conversation accordingly.
4. Focus on thought leadership
I once met an organisation that was told by a funder that “everyone we speak to mentions you, so we thought we should find out what you’re about.” In their own words, they created so much “white noise” around a funder that they eventually couldn’t resist getting in touch.
Organisations that successfully build relationships with invitation-only funders often have one thing in common – they’re thought leaders. They might be known for their high-profile CEO, engaging blog, or policy work.
The term “thought leadership” sounds daunting, but you absolutely don’t need to be a large organisation with a big comms budget. If you work in a niche area, you’ll already be an expert in your field, with people coming to for advice. Sharpening your public expert voice takes time, but is a great way to get on a funder’s radar, and will bring many benefits beyond fundraising.
5. Get the online basics right
While some invitation-only funders simply continue to fund the same organisations every year, many do proactively research new grantees. So if a funder did a niche online search for your specialist area today, would they find you? And if they landed on your website right now, what would they think?
There are a few fundamental things you need to be visible and appealing to potential funders:
These final tips might seem the least relevant to trusts fundraising, but they definitely an indirect role in getting you in front of invitation-only funders over time.
Amid the many challenges we’re facing as a sector, one difficulty that predates the pandemic is recruiting the right fundraiser.
Put simply, there are a lot of organisations out there looking for talented fundraisers, and not enough of them to go around. We've worked with countless small to medium charities who have had to go through multiple recruitment rounds, each time tweaking the job description and bumping up the salary in the hope that it'll make the difference.
While they may get there in the end, they often don’t find the perfect candidate and/or they end up overpaying, and there’s certainly an opportunity cost associated with the months lost to a drawn-out process.
There’s been plenty of reflection around this fundraising recruitment crisis, with fingers pointed at vague job descriptions, unimaginative person specifications and unrealistic expectations - and the broader, existential issue of whether enough people value and understand the charity sector and fundraising profession.
I’m not a recruiter, but I’ve been around enough charities in this position to understand many of the common problems, and know a few things you can do if you’re struggling to find the right fundraiser:
Who's actually auditioning? It's time to rewire your brain...
A common assumption with fundraising recruitment, especially if you're new to it, is that you're the one running the audition. You might expect to welcome a conga line of candidates through your door, and give each one a thorough grilling to decide if they’re right for you.
But in a market of few great fundraisers, it's very much a two-way process. Talented candidates know they have plenty of opportunities to choose from, and won’t necessarily rush to jump into a new role. They’ll want to put you under the microscope too, to understand the requirements and expectations of the job, and evaluate whether you can offer them the right environment to succeed.
Rewiring your brain to this reality will help you recruit more successfully. In your advert, candidate pack and interview process, you need to give a flavour of your organisation’s approach to fundraising. For example, how does your organisation work with and support a fundraiser to make sure they have all the information and tools they need? Is your Board engaged in fundraising, and what does their involvement look like? How have you arrived at any targets you've mentioned?
Allow plenty of scope for the fundraiser to ask you detailed questions. It’s absolutely their right to challenge you too, and it’s a positive sign if they are clear and even a bit demanding about what they need and expect in order to succeed.
Create your fundraising strategy before you go to market
Organisations looking to make their first significant investment in fundraising naturally target the perfect all-rounder - someone who can both create and execute a knock-out fundraising strategy. But there are numerous problems with this approach.
Firstly, you’re looking for very different skillsets – there are experts in strategic planning and analysis, and experts at doing hands-on fundraising, but far fewer that excel at both. By trying to cover all bases, you risk narrowing the field and compromising in a key area.
Secondly, if you haven’t analysed your organisation’s current position and best income opportunities, how do you know what type of person you’re looking for? Do you need an events expert with a bit of individual giving experience? Or is it more important to find someone who feels comfortable asking for major gifts face-to-face from wealthy individuals and in corporate pitches?
Without a strategy, you often end up writing a vague job description and unrealistic person specification that require a bit of everything. Even worse, there may be a vague fundraising target attached to it that you've never tested, to determine whether it's realistic.
You might think that “this sort of challenge will appeal to the right candidate” but in my experience it’s very off-putting. Successful fundraisers will smell the lack of clarity a mile off. Why would they pack in their current job and take a punt on a new role where, two months in, they might realise they’re not actually the right person for that organisation, or that the job isn't right for them?
If you’re struggling to recruit a fundraiser, or have a limited budget to play with, creating your fundraising strategy first is potentially the most cost-effective approach. Invest a bit of money now in strategic consultancy support or an interim Fundraising Lead, get all your ducks in a row, then recruit the permanent fundraiser. By taking time to clarify your requirements, you’ll not only increase your chances of finding the right person, you might avoid having to throw so much money at a candidate too.