We work with many charities and social enterprises who are trying to get new fundraising income streams up and running and/or are tight on unrestricted funds. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that we sometimes get asked if we’d consider working on a commission or performance-related pay basis.
I can see why, at first glance, this might appeal to organisations that have limited cash available to resource fundraising, or feel nervous about committing to expenditure without a guaranteed return. Investing in fundraising often feels like a Catch-22 situation, particularly when you’re prompted to do it because other funding sources have dried up.
However, there are many reasons why payment by commission is actually harmful to you. The simplest answer is that the Institute of Fundraising discourages both fundraisers and charities from taking this approach, however this in itself doesn’t explain the challenges and issues that can arise as a result.
Here’s why we don’t undertake any fundraising work on a commission basis, and why you should think twice about doing so:
IT'S LIKELY TO PUT OFF FUNDERS AND DONORS
In fundraising you inevitably hear ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’, so a fundraiser working on a results basis would have to set a fairly high commission percentage to make it work. Imagine how a funder or donor would feel knowing that the first x% of their donation is going straight into somebody else’s pocket – particularly if they’re donating a large amount, and particularly at a time when there’s so much focus on how donations are used and what percentage is spent on overheads etc. Payment by commission can lead to you excessively rewarding a fundraiser, and is very likely to cost you donations.
IT CAN PUT HARMFUL PRESSURE ON DONORS AND FUNDRAISERS
Fundraising is already a delicate balancing act between the financial needs of the organisation, the wishes of the donor and any ethical considerations. Now factor in a fundraiser who feels desperate to secure that donation, otherwise they won’t get paid. Sometimes we all have to walk away from potential donations, for example if the donor seems vulnerable and unsure about giving, or if the organisation may be compromised in some way by accepting. Paying a fundraiser on a commission basis makes it less likely they’ll make that difficult decision to say no when you need them to.
IT GIVES THE WRONG IMPRESSION THAT FUNDRAISERS ARE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR SUCCESS
Fundraising is a collective effort. When we work with an organisation, we may be responsible for crafting the ask and coordinating the process, but we can’t do it without you: your project information, your impact data and your contacts. If the fundraiser is the only one who loses out if things go wrong, you’re not creating the right conditions for success. When you pay a fundraiser a salary or a day rate, you’re making an investment in fundraising too, so the whole organisation has a vested interest in playing their part.
IT UNDERVALUES SO MUCH IMPORTANT WORK THAT ENABLES GOOD FUNDRAISING
As per Simon Scriver’s blog, a surprisingly small percentage of a fundraiser’s role involves asking for money. They spend most of their time researching prospects, building relationships, saying thank you, gathering project and impact data, and developing processes: this is essential for successful fundraising, even if it doesn’t always lead to a donation. If a fundraiser only receives commission, they’re not being paid for the vast majority of their hard work. So will they still feel motivated to do those all-important support tasks? If they're pressured into a quick-fire ‘spray and pray’ approach, this has a negative impact on your organisation.
IT’S VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO ADMINISTER IN PRACTICE
Fundraising is a long game. You might wait 6-12 months to hear back from a trust. A corporate donation or major gift is often years in the making. Several fundraisers may feed into the process (one makes the introduction, one writes the copy, someone else attends the final meeting). So how do you decide who receives what commission, and when? How do you avoid multiple fundraisers ‘competing’ for the same commission? How do you reward a fundraiser who moved on ages ago? And how can a fundraiser plan their income with so much uncertainty?
IT ACTUALLY WORKS AGAINST SMALLER ORGANISATIONS
We work with a broad range of organisations, from start-up social enterprises with a £50,000 turnover to charities running multi-million pound capital appeals. The work involved with a £10,000 application and a £1million ask may actually be similar, yet payment on a commission basis values them completely differently. If a fundraiser is working on both simultaneously, with competing tight deadlines, you can imagine which one will get most of their attention, even if this is sub-conscious.
So here's the clincher: payment by commission, which at first glance may seem so appealing to you as a smaller organisation, can in reality penalise you and de-value your donations.
If you’re looking for fundraising support, get in touch with us now and we’ll explain exactly how our day rates and fixed fees work – but don’t expect us to use the word ‘commission’ at any point!
Statistically, events fundraising has never been one of the more profitable forms of fundraising. While both special events (e.g. a gala dinner or concert) and challenge events (e.g. a marathon or sporting challenge) can sometimes raise a lot, promotion costs are often high and a lot of staff time is required. For example, while you might expect a return on investment of 10:1 (£10 raised for every £1 spent) from trusts fundraising, or 5:1 from corporate fundraising, events are often closer to 2:1 or 3:1.
Even this figure is decreasing as fundraising events are hit by the current financial climate, market saturation and supporter fatigue (the challenge of keeping on going back to the same limited pool of supporters). If you have a small fundraising team, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether it’s worth your time committing to new fundraising events at all.
So in what circumstances are events still worth your time, and how do you decide whether they’re right for you?
Despite the challenges, events provide plenty of advantages, not all of them related to short-term income:
To capitalise on these advantages, you need to be crystal clear what you’re looking to achieve from your fundraising events, and plan accordingly
MAXIMISING THE BENEFITS OF SPECIAL EVENTS
Special events are excellent for engaging corporate and major donor prospects, encouraging existing supporters to introduce people from their own network, and recognising the contributions of key supporters. Particularly when your event features stories and speeches from the people you support, or creates an inspiring and celebratory atmosphere, or when senior staff and trustees are on hand to mingle with people.
When planning an event, liaise with people across your organisation to map out who should be invited. Then invite them well in advance, warmly, and with a personal message. Depending on how much you want them to be there, you can consider offering discounted or free tickets where appropriate, particularly if the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term cost.
On the night, make sure key prospects get plenty of time and attention, and take every opportunity to educate and inspire them about your organisation’s work. If you have a long-term plan about how you ideally want them to support your cause, you might be able to cunningly sow some seeds on the night.
Carry on the personal touch after the event, by thanking people and sending any follow-up material promptly, personally and creatively (for example with a handwritten card or colourful social media image). This often requires some advance planning, particularly if staff plan to take some much-needed time off after your event.
Bear in mind that high-value prospects expect ‘senior’ attention, so you need to enlist support from management and trustees at every stage - before, during and after your event. Particularly for corporate and major donor fundraising, it's rare to be successful without senior level buy-in.
MAXIMISING THE BENEFITS OF challenge EVENTS
Building long-term relationships with challenge event participants is typically much harder, but not impossible.
Firstly, you need to consider whether this is a realistic goal at all. This will depend on the nature of your event. If it's a big brand in its own right, or if it has no natural link to your cause, people are more likely to be participating in the event on its own merits, and have less natural interest in supporting you further. If your event has a high fundraising target - or, perhaps more importantly, involves a bigger fundraising effort - this provides greater scope to engage people further.
If you're trying to keep people engaged for the long term, a few things can really help:
If 'converting' participants into long-term supporters feels unlikely, it could be better to focus on maximising short-term profit instead. This can be achieved through:
STAYING FOCUSED ON THE BIGGER PICTURE
Many events potentially bring broad benefits, but often fundraisers only give this serious thought once it’s too late. When we take part in events, we’re often told it’s not the winning that counts, but the taking part. However, with a successful fundraising event, perhaps it’s not (just) the taking part that counts, but what happens next.
You need to think about this bigger picture from the very beginning, as soon as you start the planning process. It should dictate how you design your event, how you communicate with participants and which of your colleagues you ask to be involved.
If you do decide that your event has a higher purpose, make sure this is reflected in the evaluation process too. I’ve seen fundraisers get persuaded by colleagues to do an event because it has awareness-raising potential as well as income potential – but when push comes to shove, management lose sight of these objectives and only measure the return in hard cash. This can result in giving up on events early, or sacrificing the long-term benefits.
It sounds obvious, but if your event is primarily about long-term value, you need to find ways of actually measuring that value, and convincing people that results will take time to become visible.
It's often said that good fundraising and dating etiquette have a lot in common. We're frequently using dating analogies during our fundraising training and work with charities, so we've taken the plunge (prompted by a chat with our consultant Gemma Pettman) and included all our favourite lessons in one place...
Don't talk about yourself all the time
We've all had one of those terrible experiences with someone who can’t stop talking about themselves. You keep asking them questions but they never ask you anything in return, and you can’t get a word in.
Doesn’t feel great, does it?
Charities can be guilty of the same thing. Of course it’s important to tell your supporters and donors what you’ve been up to, but also take the time to find out about their interests and reasons for supporting you. It’ll make them feel valued and will help you to improve and personalise your content in future. Like with dating, finding common ground helps to create chemistry.
I remember hearing someone once say that it’s a common mistake to “we all over your supporters” (I’d love to give credit for this delightful phrase, but I can’t remember where I heard it). When you’re next writing a newsletter or annual review, instead of just talking about what “we” have achieved, try engaging your supporters better by talking about what “you” have helped to accomplish.
Don't expect too much on the first date
One for the major donor fundraisers out there. You probably know it takes time to get to know a donor prospect and cultivate a relationship with them, but fundraisers often feel under pressure to make the ask and secure that donation immediately.
If you’re not sure why this is a bad idea, try going on a first date with someone and asking them to marry you or hop into bed with you after one hour.
When you have a first meeting with a prospective donor, you’re probably both expecting it to lead somewhere eventually. But while you might both have done your research, you need time to explore their interest in supporting your charity, understand which of your projects or activities most appeal to them, and build a picture of how much they might be willing to give.
This may take several meetings, and cultivating a major donor to the point of making that first donation can easily take 12-18 months. The long-term payback will be worth it, but rush things and you’ll get nowhere.
Don't talk about your ex all the time
Trusts and foundations often say that they won’t fund work which they consider to be a statutory responsibility, even at a time when statutory funding is being withdrawn for critical services. This is understandably very frustrating for charities, and it can be hard to work out what a funder means by this.
Often, funders simply don’t want to feel that they’re just picking up the slack for government spending cuts, or that you’re only interested in them because another source of income has disappeared. Telling a funder that you need their support because statutory funding has been cut is a bit like going on a date and talking about your ex the whole time – hardly a good way of making the new person in your life feel special.
Instead of just re-hashing a previous statutory-funded service, show that you’re over the past by talking about your work as an exciting and valuable project in its own right, clearly explaining why it's a response to your beneficiaries' real needs and how you'll deliver social impact.
Don't call them by another name by mistake!
Accidentally calling someone by your ex’s or another person’s name is just about the worst thing you can do. In both dating and fundraising, it can easily happen if you’re not careful.
We all use previous funding application content as a shortcut for writing new bids. But please, check it VERY carefully to make sure that it doesn’t contain the name of a previous funder or contact, or your application could be destined for the bin.
While we’re on the subject of names, always personalise your letters. That funding appeal or thank you letter which begins with ‘Dear Supporter’? If you’re wondering what impression that makes, try going on a first date and calling them ‘Date’ for the whole night…
Invest time in keeping the spark alive
Most relationships begin with a honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting, and you can do no wrong. Sooner or later, you start noticing the little things about the other person that annoy you, you forget your manners, and you have to find new ways to keep things interesting or it might all fizzle out.
In the same way, most donors won’t just keeping giving to you unless you keep paying them attention, educating them about your work and giving them new ways and reasons to support you.
A good donor relationship is built on engaging newsletters, memorable thank yous, invitations to events and maybe even the occasional call to say “I love you”. This takes time but it’s well worth the effort, as well as being the right thing to do. It’s easy to just focus on acquiring new donors, but it can be far more valuable to keep the spark alive with current ones.
"It's not you, it's me" – know when to walk away
Sometimes a donor or funder simply isn’t the right match for your organisation – and, just like in a relationship, it can be nobody’s fault.
A trust may have financial restrictions (e.g. on the percentage of overheads you can claim) that could put your organisation at risk if you accept a grant. A major donor may want a level of recognition or control in return for their donation that you’re not able to provide. Accepting a corporate donation may compromise your charity for ethical reasons, even if it wouldn’t be a problem for another organisation.
Successful fundraising involves being confident enough to sometimes say no for your own good, without pointing any fingers. After all, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.
We often get asked by charities and social enterprises for advice on how they can raise more unrestricted funding from trusts and foundations.
Many organisations are very successful at securing grant income, yet still find themselves in a tight financial position because the majority of funding tends to be restricted to a specific purpose. While project funding is vital, it rarely gives you the flexibility you need to thrive as a resilient and innovative organisation.
We've compiled some of our best tips on how to achieve the holy grail of unrestricted grant income - from some obvious funders to approach, to how to think outside the box when it comes to improving your financial position through trusts and foundations fundraising.
1. APPLY TO SPECIALIST CORE FUNDERS
While it’s understandably tempting for funders to want to fund tangible and exciting projects, this doesn’t give organisations the freedom to pay key staff or cover central costs. Not unlike yoga, strengthening your core is vital and will make you much better at everything else you’re trying to achieve too.
There’s a growing recognition in the sector that smaller organisations in particular need access to more flexible funding if they are to survive and thrive, particularly at a time when so much local authority funding has dried up. Lloyds Bank Foundation CEO Paul Streets has been particularly vocal about the damage caused by 'projectitis'.
Here are a few funders that give core funding to a broad range of charitable causes:
If you’re looking for core funding, here are a few tips:
2. IDENTIFY YOUR ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT NEEDS THEN APPROACH SPECIALIST FUNDERS
It's easy to focus on core funding, but what are your specific development needs which mean that project funding isn't suitable? For example, you might be looking to scope out an innovative new idea, invest in a building or specific piece of equipment, or improve your digital capabilities.
For each of these areas, there are specialist funders who can help. For example:
Clearly these types of funding will be a little more restrictive than no-strings core funding. However, being specific about your needs will enable you to make a more convincing case for support and open up a broader range of potential funders, thereby increasing your chances of securing that much-needed investment.
3. BUILD GREAT RELATIONSHIPS WITH FUNDERS
Many funders don’t explicitly provide core funding, but will consider providing unrestricted grants to organisations they know, value and trust. But getting in position to access these opportunities takes time, effort and patience.
You’ll probably need to secure at least one, possibly several project-specific grants from a funder first, then focus on building a relationship with them. It helps to go above and beyond expectations by thanking funders quickly and in a memorable way, then reporting well on the grant you received – either by demonstrating that the project went well, or by reflecting honestly on any challenges or complications experienced.
We recently blogged about the importance of building relationships with individual donors and how many organisations get this wrong. The same principles apply to trusts fundraising. A funder that’s engaged in your work is worth 10-20 funders on a cold prospects list, yet so many organisations prioritise the wrong thing.
Once a funder knows you well, they could support you by inviting you to apply for an invitation-only funding round, proactively supporting you with an urgent fundraising campaign, recommending you to other funders, or even just sending you an unsolicited extra cheque. This happens surprisingly frequently but almost never by accident - you need a strategic focus on building great relationships.
4. IMPROVE YOUR BUDGETING AND FULL COST RECOVERY
This tip isn’t so much about securing unrestricted funding, but reducing how much you need in the first place. Trusts and foundations fundraising isn’t just about writing applications – with a better approach to project planning and budgeting, you can ensure you have a smaller funding gap to fill.
Create a budget calculator for staff, with fixed rows for venue hire, volunteer expenses, travel etc. This helps people to cost up projects accurately in the first place and avoid budget overspends which then need to be covered by unrestricted funds.
Calculate staffing costs for projects carefully, checking with every funder what you’re allowed to include. Don’t just include the main project staff – if other staff (e.g. your Director) are committing time for line management or evaluation, include a percentage of their time if possible. This ensures your project funding fully covers the true cost of your projects, meaning your unrestricted funds can go on something else.
Include a contribution towards overhead costs in each project budget – this could be a blanket 10% or a more specific calculation, depending on the funder's requirements. Collecting lots of small core contributions in this way is often easier than leaving yourself with a big funding gap to cover with core funding requests.
5. SEND SPECULATIVE CORE FUNDING REQUESTS TO SMALLER FUNDERS
Trusts and foundations fundraising is not a numbers game, and we don’t recommend the ‘spray and pray’ approach of sending generic funding applications quickly to lots of funders.
That said, if you’ve conducted prospect research to develop a funding pipeline, you might find you build up a collection of potential funders who have very broad funding interests and no specific application form or guidelines, making it difficult to identify a specific project to approach them about.
You could therefore consider putting together a core funding template, broadly explaining your work and impact in 2-4 pages and giving a couple of examples of how a small grant would benefit you. You could then send this to batches of say 10-20 funders at a time. Expect a low success rate (even 5% might be optimistic) but treat this as a shot to nothing with funders whom you wouldn’t otherwise approach.
This is likely to work best for smaller, community-rooted organisations whose work is easy to explain and has emotional impact, and who don’t have high reserves. It’s only worth trying in some circumstances, and the usual recommendations for trusts fundraising still apply – you should try to contact the funder first to check if they can give you any advice on applying, and you should tailor each application to their funding interests and average support level as much as you can.
Buzzwords come and go in fundraising. They get picked up as flavour of the month by fundraisers, charities and funders alike, and fade away just as quickly. Although the words frequently change, the concepts behind them are often more fundamental and enduring.
For me, one of the most important buzzwords in trusts fundraising at the moment is co-production. This is also commonly referred to as co-creation or co-design, and linked to ‘ABCD’ (or asset-based community development). Isn’t jargon exciting?
What is co-production and why is it so important?
Co-production has a broader definition in project management circles, however in a charity context it usually refers to the practice of involving your service users, clients or beneficiaries (more fun lingo to choose from) in the development of your services.
Funders value knowing that your projects aren’t planned in a top-down fashion based on what you think people want or need, but are genuinely based on their ideas, aspirations and unmet needs. This isn’t about token consultation exercises, but actively involving the people you support in your project design. For example here’s a guide to co-production in social care, along with some key principles.
This isn’t a new idea, and it’s not really a fundraising concept at all – it’s fundamental to service delivery.
However I’m seeing increasing examples of funders specifically talking about or asking for evidence of co-production. I review draft funding applications on a daily basis, and it's one of the most common areas where I feel that organisations can make improvements. In a competitive funding climate, failing to show evidence of this can give funders an easy excuse to discard your application.
So how can you build co-production into your project planning and tweak your funding applications to better emphasise what you’re doing?
Don’t underestimate what you do naturally
For many organisations that we work with, co-production can feel like a strange thing to focus on. It’s not something they consciously try to do, because it’s second nature already.
If you run a local community centre, for example, your frontline staff will be interacting with your service users on a daily basis, and constantly evolving activities to reflect their ideas and unmet needs.
And this is fine – in fact, it’s often ideal. Co-production doesn’t always mean contrived exercises. But don’t expect a funder to assume you’re doing it, or give you credit for it, unless you tell them.
Spend some time reflecting on how this happens organically in your organisation, then include at least a paragraph about this in your funding applications. For example you could explain how staff and service users typically interact, the questions that your frontline staff like to ask, and your internal processes for factoring people's feedback and ideas into service design.
Demonstrate how you gather structured feedback
Depending on the nature of your work, co-production may not happen quite as organically. And even if it does, it can be useful to gather more structured, formal feedback periodically.
Surveys are excellent for quickly gathering broad feedback. Online surveys usually enable you to reach more people more quickly and analyse data automatically, but only if your service users have online access. You can use focus groups to test specific ideas or explore topics in more detail and gather more in-depth feedback.
Demonstrate your approach to gathering feedback in your funding applications. Cite both your quantitative results (e.g. survey data) and qualitative results (e.g. individual quotes). If a funder asks a specific question about co-production, use the space to explain your approach and rationale in more detail.
If you have the budget, appointing an independent consultant or agency to design the feedback process and/or analyse the results can bring added credibility. We recently designed an independent consultation process for a charity and later helped them to write funding applications, and the independent feedback data has been invaluable in demonstrating the need for their work and the extent to which service users are involved.
Explain how you use feedback and work with people to improve your services
Of course, listening is only one part of the process. And it counts for little if you don’t act on what you’re being told.
Successful projects often have steering groups or committees who meet regularly to review impact data and service user feedback, then take action where needed. Steering groups should include (ideally multiple) representatives who have lived experience of the issue you’re tackling. Organisations that really succeed in embedding co-production in their work - and maximising their impact - often have representatives with lived experience on their Board of Trustees.
Providing evidence of all this should impress funders, however it can still sound a bit theoretical. So go one step further and include some concrete examples of how you’ve co-created services. For example, were your service users instrumental in designing any of your current services, or have you improved or evolved a project in specific response to feedback?
This is especially important if you’re trying to do something unusual or surprising that a funder may not naturally value. Funders often have specific ideas about how work should be delivered, yet also say that co-production is important to them, which can feel contradictory!
And what about if you’re writing a final report for a project which needs further support, where you already know that the funder won't provide simple continuation funding? Would they be more receptive if you demonstrated your learning and proposed a slightly different, co-created project as a follow-up?
Finally, not everything that you tell a funder needs to come from the horse’s mouth. Testimonials and endorsements – from either service users involved in your work, or delivery partners who are impressed with your approach – are great for increasing your credibility in a funder’s eyes.
10 DONATIONS IN 10 WEEKS - HERE'S WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT THANK YOUS, CONVERSATION-STARTERS & PAYMENT PLATFORMS
The charity sector isn’t short of excellent blogs about the importance of thanking your donors – including this guest blog from our associate Gemma and this article about SUPER thank yous.
Most fundraisers are well aware that thank yous are key to building a relationship with donors, and that increasing support from existing donors tends to be easier and more cost-effective than recruiting new ones. But how many charities are actually putting this into practice, particularly when faced with the realities of lack of time and competing priorities?
I’ve been doing a little experiment to find out, making 10 modest donations to different charities over 10 weeks.
Professional curiosity wasn’t my only motivation – we work with so many fantastic charities, and since moving to Bristol I’ve found out about many worthy local causes. Every year I have to calculate my charitable donations for my tax return – and although I support a few charities regularly, this always reminds me that I could do more.
10 donations later, here’s how I got on and what I think you need to know – about thank yous, conversation-starters and payment platforms...
Each donation was a one-off online gift of £20 – this felt significant enough to have a genuine impact, but small enough to perhaps fly under the radar for charities who don’t routinely thank their donors. I suspect many £20 donors could be persuaded to give again – maybe regularly – if treated well enough.
I’d never supported any of these charities before. Although I have contacts at a couple, I didn’t tell them I was going to donate.
My passion lies with smaller charities, so most donations were to small, local causes that I personally feel passionate about – including youth, homelessness, refugees, food banks and city farms. As a 'control', I also donated to two large charities who really should have the resources to thank donors properly – including one spontaneous donation for Cyclone Idai, which has been scandalously under-reported in the British media.
When given the option, I always included a message explaining my reasons for giving, and opted in to further contact by post, email or both – these are causes I’m naturally interested in after all.
I haven’t named any of the charities in this blog, unless to show examples of amazing things they did – this is about general lessons learned, not naming and shaming.
The headline results
I don’t know who first said ‘silence is golden’, but I doubt it was a donor
It was disappointing to never hear back from two charities, and wait weeks for a reply from two others.
I’m realistic enough to know that a £20 donation isn’t going to change the world, but making a contribution definitely feels good. There’s plenty of research to suggest this feeling can be an addictive buzz for donors, and a nice thank you – and some further information about the cause – is a great way to nurture that buzz. I know that I’ll support several of these charities again, based on my interactions so far.
On the other hand, doing nothing is a sure-fire buzz-kill. More than being rude, it’s a missed opportunity. There are so many worthy causes out there, and if someone has chosen yours then that’s an opportunity worth investing in – because if you don’t make them feel good about their support, another charity will.
Sure, thanking a donor isn’t guaranteed to lead to further support. But think of all the other fundraising activities you willingly do which don’t guarantee success – grant applications, corporate pitches, mass appeals. My gut feeling is that a memorable thank you takes much less time and has a better chance of paying off.
Don’t miss an easy opportunity to start a conversation
For most donations, I was given the opportunity to add a message, which I used to explain why I’d decided to donate, and which aspect of the charity’s work particularly interested me.
None of the 10 charities referenced this in their thank yous. Maybe they didn’t see the message, or just didn’t think it was important. This surprised me, as I’ve already considered this one of the simplest and most natural ways to personalise your reply and start building a relationship.
Phrases like ‘Since you expressed an interested in X, I thought I’d tell you…’ or ‘Is there anything else you’d like to know about Y?’ show donors that you’re listening, and encourage them to open up about their motivations and interests. It only takes 30 seconds to start a conversation – and you can potentially use this information to make future asks more personal and relevant, therefore more successful.
Great thank yous go the extra mile – but you need to follow through
So that’s the bad news – but did I receive any mind-blowing thank yous that you can learn from?
I received this lovely handwritten thank you card and annual report from Bristol-based Bridges For Communities, who connect people of different cultures and faiths through events and activities, in order to increase tolerance and understanding:
The card emphasised how much they rely on and feel motivated by donations, and the report really emphasised the impact they’re having locally. Some people might query the cost of buying and posting a thank you card in exchange for a £20 donation, but it’s worth considering the bigger picture – isn’t a new donor who feels valued, welcomed and engaged likely to contribute more in future?
This lovely personal reply from a local food bank also made a splash:
Wow – this was a lovely idea! I replied saying I’d love to pop in – anxious about not wanting to waste their time, but sure I’d donate again once I found out more. I felt excited, both personally to understand a local organisation better, and professionally to be able to share the story of a brilliant thank you.
The only problem? Five weeks later, I haven’t received another reply. I'm still hoping I'll get a chance to speak to them again about their work. The lesson here is that if you’re going to thank your donors in a way which genuinely stands out, make sure you’re ready to keep up the conversation.
You’re only as good as your third party systems
Many charities use payment platforms like PayPal, Justgiving or Localgiving to handle their online donations, as the cost of building your own system can be prohibitive.
Most charities that I donated to had clearly invested time in placing a prominent donate button on their homepage and writing a convincing message about why you should donate. But frustratingly – and sometimes amusingly – things often went wrong when I left their site:
Ok, some of these are minor issues, but that’s over 50% of my donations which had something that went wrong or made donating difficult. A smooth donor experience is important – and it’s not possible if your third party platform isn’t up to the job or not configured properly. A less patient donor could well have given up a few times, particularly someone less confident with technology.
The moral of the story? No matter how good your own website, your third party payment platform can make or break the experience. Choose your platform carefully, and test how it works from a donor’s perspective before going live. Then keep testing it periodically, in case something breaks over time.
As an organisation, how do you manage risk in your fundraising activities? Do you focus on financial or reputational risk, or both, or other things too? Do you keep going until you’ve eliminated every possible risk from your plans? If so, are your activities still worth doing by the end?
I recently popped along to the Arnolfini for the latest Bristol Fundraising Group talk about risk management in fundraising. The speaker was the excellent Ed Wyatt, an experienced Compliance Manager for multiple big charities and long-time fundraiser and trustee. Ed has kindly given us permission to share some key learning points here…
Conversations about risk in fundraising can be frustrating and unproductive. It can feel like natural risk-takers and risk-averse people are speaking entirely alien languages, and often the loudest voice in the room wins.
This can have several consequences:
Reviewing your current fundraising portfolio, and where you might find The Next Big Thing
In his talk, Ed demonstrated a simple way of reviewing your current fundraising portfolio and defining your activities using four categories:
Low risk, high reward activities are the obvious sweet spot to aim for. Most of your fundraising probably falls into this category already but, since everybody else is thinking the same thing, the growth potential or uniqueness of these activities may be limited.
Low risk, low reward activities might've been very easy to get approval for, but they may not be worth the effort. And in the unlikely event that you have any high risk, low reward activities, you should flag these up urgently. In both cases, terminating these activities could be a good way to free up capacity for something else.
That leaves high risk, high reward activities. Scary territory, but if you’re looking for The Next Big Thing in fundraising, you may need to creep beyond your comfort zone into this space.
To do this, first you need to define your organisation’s risk appetite (the blue line above) - the line you're willing to creep up to, but not cross. ‘High risk’ and ‘low risk’ are likely to mean very different things if you work for an international conservation charity with a history of provocative campaigning activities, compared to a local community library.
Your risk appetite should depend on the nature of your mission, your beneficiaries, your financial position and the characteristics of your existing fundraising activities. It’s crucial to avoid being guided by anybody’s personal judgement, even management and trustees – we recently explored this same topic in our blog about ethical fundraising policies.
It’s vital to remember that ‘high risk’ must never mean breaking the law, fundraising regulations, your internal guidelines, your ethical fundraising policy or your gift acceptance policy.
Identifying risks in new fundraising opportunities
Before you decide what level of risk you’re prepared to live with, you need to identify all possible risks associated with your activity or event. Ed suggested using your own ‘risk library’ of common categories that most risks fall into, for example:
This works best as an energetic debate, not a dreaded tick-box exercise for one person alone behind a desk. Try to ask a few different personality types to sit in a room together and discuss - both natural risk-takers and risk-averse people have a key role here. You need to create the right atmosphere and reassure people that there are no right or wrong answers at this stage.
This was illustrated nicely by a group exercise at the end of the talk. Ed asked us all to imagine we were the Fundraising Team at a local animal park, who had been approached by an events company with a new idea: a series of late-night parties at the animal park for 18-30 year olds. This would be a new and potentially lucrative audience for the charity, but hardly risk-free.
My group had five minutes to consider all possible risks, and came up with the following:
As you can probably guess, this was a light-hearted attempt at risk assessment. But Ed said that humour is a useful tool in real-life scenarios too. ‘Eaten by a bear’ might have been a joke, but it helps to highlight a real risk (injury inflicted by the resident animals) that the organisers of this event might otherwise have forgotten to flag up.
Discuss how to manage risks but decide what level of risk you’re ultimately comfortable with
When deciding what to do about each risk, use the Four Ts:
It’s crucial to adopt a varied approach. Tolerating everything would be reckless, but treating everything is likely to be exhausting and impractical. Transferring everything would be prohibitively expensive, and terminating everything would leave you with a vanilla fundraising activity, or no activity at all.
By taking ownership of your risks, and making sure they’re all within an acceptable level, you can move to a more Zen-like state with your fundraising. Most lucrative fundraising activities carry some level of risk, so you need to think back to your risk appetite (the blue line below) and decide what level of risk your organisation is prepared to accept given the circumstances:
Contrary to popular belief, compliance and risk management shouldn’t be about saying ‘no’ - it's more a case of ‘not like that’. Risk-free activities are rarely financially or commercially realistic, but that’s not an excuse for failing to take responsibility of the situation or control of your risks.
In other words, don’t let your participants get eaten by a bear, but don’t let compliance bears eat up all your good fundraising ideas either.
Huge thanks to Ed Wyatt for giving us permission to share his learning, including his diagrams, and introduce bears into the story for no particular reason.
I’m sure you saw Andy Murray’s maybe-retirement announcement recently, and the media reaction to it. It was hard to miss.
Aside from the sporting implications, his display of human emotion felt all-too-rare. Most sportspeople give little away beyond guarded responses and cliches, seemingly ever-suspicious of media intrusion and conscious of sponsor obligations. In the often male-dominated world of sport, real emotion and honesty are frequently still associated with weakness. Yet the media response to this fateful press conference in Melbourne was overwhelmingly positive.
I’m not a huge tennis fan, but I’m fascinated by the transformation in Andy Murray's public reputation. Back in his early days, he had a reputation for being surly, bland and seemingly mistrustful of the media. In return, he was firmly portrayed as a Scottish rather than a British sportsperson, not helped when he made his infamous “anyone but England” comments ahead of the football World Cup in 2006!
While much of this transformation is down to sporting success, his personality and honesty have played a part. He’s not afraid to stand up to perceived injustices and voice his views on difficult issues such as gender equality and Scottish independence. And following his recent openness about his physical and mental struggles with injury and pain, his public stock has never been higher.
Watching Andy Murray reminded me just how refreshing, disarming and impactful authentic honesty can be. This is an under-used tool in the charity sector.
Charities are often brilliant at holding up a mirror to society and making people notice and care about injustice. But are we always good enough at holding up a mirror to ourselves? And what holds us back?
When you’re short of time, it can feel easier to present a simple, sanitised version of yourself and your work. Crafting messages about your struggles and weaknesses feels like it must be done carefully. After years of negative media coverage about charities, it's natural to want to present yourself positively: we know exactly what we’re doing, and every penny we spend goes to plan.
I don’t think it always has to be like this. Here are a few ways of showing your more honest side, and why it's worth the time and effort:
1. Show that your work is challenging and things don’t always go to plan
Many projects are complex to deliver. Talking about your setbacks gives people an insight into what your work is really like and makes them more emotionally invested. Think of the narrative of any good film or book - it's rarely plan sailing to the end, and the setbacks draw you into the story.
Great fundraising is often a response to adversity. For example, in 2014, Manchester Dogs' Home raised £1.2million in 48 hours after a devastating fire. Communities rally around organisations in times of crisis, particularly with the rise of crowdfunding. Hopefully you won't experience a disaster, but being honest and open about minor setbacks – for example if you experience a delay or issue with building work after a capital campaign – can help you to raise vital extra funds if needed.
2. Trusts and foundations reward honesty too
It’s not only public fundraising – honesty with funders usually pays too. With the precise focus on outputs and outcomes, we can often feel mortified if we're unable to deliver a project exactly as planned. However most funders are too experienced to expect everything to go as planned. If there's a hitch they’re usually on your side – they want things to go well too, and are often surprisingly willing to help.
I know one charity that's delivering a big six-figure project. They rely heavily on volunteers, but had struggled to find a good volunteer coordinator, and failed to achieve some outcomes as a result. Instead of disguising or finding excuses for this, they explained the situation honestly in their mid-project report. The funder’s response: how much would it cost to increase the hours of your volunteer coordinator post and pay a better salary to find the right person? A top-up grant of £10,000 was on its way a few weeks later.
3. Involve your supporters in decisions that affect them
I often see charities second-guessing how to communicate with their supporters. Would they prefer a monthly or quarterly newsletter? What types of story do they most want to hear about? Will they prefer Event A or Event B? Staff often have differing opinions, but rarely think about actually asking supporters.
Perhaps charities assume their supporters won’t appreciate the question – will they feel the charity should know the answer already, or simply not bother to respond? However, consulting your supporters on important decisions shows a willingness to learn and leads to better engagement and more reliable insights. The real honesty here is asking for advice, and admitting that you don't have all the answers.
4. Handling complaints well is worth its weight in gold
We all make mistakes sometimes, but it's too easy to respond with a weak excuse or with the defence that "we're just following our policy". Have you ever responded to a complaint with: “You know what, no excuses, we just got this wrong”?
Most supporters complain because they care, and want to give you a chance to get things right. They’re not trying to catch you out. They’ll usually understand if you made a mistake because, guess what, they also make mistakes sometimes. A well-written apology and honest explanation actually builds trust and appreciation for what you do - several times I've seen this not only salvage a relationship with a donor, but also lead to increased support.
5. Show the people and personality behind your work
Finally, being honest is also about showing what your work is really like – even if you look stressed, your desk is messy and your office is cramped! Showing the real you leads to empathy and familiarity more than judgement or criticism, in my experience.
In my first job in the sector, I ran a major student fundraising event. We frequently tried to post photos on social media of us sending out welcome packs, taking deliveries of T-shirts or welcoming new staff. Our fundraisers genuinely liked this – for some reason, most seemed to think we were running the event out of a broom cupboard, and were amazed that the charity had a ‘normal’ office! It helped people to get to know us and appreciate that we were a professional organisation doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
So thank you Andy Murray for the reminder about the power of honesty - and if you've got any other tips or stories about putting this into practice with your supporters or donors, we'd love a comment below!
For many charities and social enterprises in a tight financial position, it's the classic dilemma. You need to invest in fundraising, perhaps to replace dwindling income from other sources, but have less disposable cash than ever.
So building the case for investing in fundraising – whether that means a new staff member, hiring a consultant or increasing your marketing budget – isn’t easy. Particularly when it involves dealing with management or trustees who may know less about fundraising than you, and are naturally risk averse.
If you were asked to put together a robust and convincing case for investing in fundraising, where would you start? How would you address people’s concerns? Here are our top tips:
1. Show how fundraising success would boost your overall mission
When I'm working with an organisation on their fundraising strategy, I initially ask two questions: Why have you decided to focus on fundraising? What do you hope to achieve through successful fundraising?
Many organisations set ambitious goals for their project work, but fail to show the same fundraising ambition. But the two things are inextricably linked – if you’re trying to double the number of people you help, or move into a new region, you'll likely need a step-change in fundraising.
So try to make people focus on how much more the organisation could achieve if it raised more money. You’ll stand a better chance of convincing management and trustees to make the investment needed.
2. Educate people about your current fundraising efforts
I’ve worked with organisations whose CEO or trustees have been genuinely surprised by how much they’re raising in certain areas, or completely oblivious about simple blockages that are holding back fundraising. However, people will make better long-term decisions about fundraising if they understand this properly.
Inspire confidence in your future plans by emphasising which areas are already proving successful, and which ones have the potential for a drastic improvement with a little more investment.
3. Show the long-term financial return…
Investing in fundraising never yields an immediate return. Encourage trustees and management to consider the bigger picture by modelling your return on investment (i.e. how many pounds you raise per pound spent) over 3-5 years.
Fortunately, there’s a way to do this that doesn’t involve plucking figures out of thin air. Check out the excellent Gimme Gimme Gimme guide by nfpSynergy, which outlines 12 different types of fundraising and provides average return on investment figures (based on a sector-wide survey) for each. You can then adjust these benchmark figures slightly, depending on where your own fundraising is stronger or weaker. While this guide is several years old, it still provides the most up-to-date figures that we're aware of.
If you’re investing in an area of fundraising for the first time, assume a more conservative return on investment in the first year while you get things up and running, gradually increasing over several years.
4. …but don’t make promises you can’t keep
If you’re persuading your organisation to take the plunge and invest in fundraising, it’s tempting to promise the world. But over-ambitious projections will only cause disappointment and financial problems later.
If you’ve taken a methodical approach to forecasting return on investment (see above), stand firm and don’t allow other people to push you to unrealistic levels. Don't just say what is necessary to win their support.
In my experience, many organisations confuse fundraising targets with project budgets. Just because your projects and running expenses will cost £150,000 next financial year, you can’t necessarily expect to raise £150,000. That’s a bit like assuming you'll come home to a full fridge, just because you’re hungry.
Ultimately, to avoid going hungry, you either need to make time to cook (i.e. ringfence existing staff time for fundraising) or buy something ready to eat (i.e. pay someone else to do the work). Your fundraising projections must be based on what you put in, not what you need to get out.
5. Emphasise the risk of not investing, to balance up the risk equation
For risk-averse trustees, certain questions weigh heavy on the mind. What if we recruit a new fundraiser and they’re not up to the job? What if we spend more on fundraising but fail to generate more income?
These are legitimate questions, but only part of the picture. Over the years, I’ve seen few organisations invest in fundraising and regret it, but plenty pay the price for standing still.
Income can disappear remarkably quickly, for instance if you lose a statutory contract or a major event flops, but can take years to build up. So asking ‘what might happen if we don’t invest in fundraising?’ is equally important.
It's helpful to highlight fundraising opportunities that you’re currently not able to capitalise on, or looming threats that you need to plan ahead for. This is about human sustainability too – if staff have been working extended hours to cover gaps in capacity, it’s vital to emphasise the human cost if this were to continue.
6. Choose the best way to present your business case
Building your case can take a long time, but you might get just an hour of people’s time and attention to win them over. So finding the right format is crucial – should it be a presentation or a written report? Should you provide all the information on the spot, or ask people to read something in advance and come with questions?
There’s no right or wrong answer. It depends on what you’re personally most comfortable with, and how your audience typically like to receive information (your CEO or Chair could offer some insight here). Don’t offer to do a long presentation if you’re not very good at them and think you’ll struggle to get the key information across. Don’t spend ages writing a long report if you know people are unlikely to read it.
Some final tips for presenting things in the right way:
“Have you got a good template for developing our fundraising strategy?”
This is one of the most common questions we're asked, but one that we don’t have a very helpful answer for. Which is another way of saying that our stock answer is “No”.
There’s a very deliberate reason for this. A fundraising strategy template puts the emphasis on writing – it fuels the common myth that your fundraising strategy can be written by someone in isolation, with just a handy structure to help pull out and shape the information in their head. But I’ve seen plenty of beautifully written fundraising strategies that ended up in the bin or a dusty drawer within six months.
Writing isn’t the most important part of creating a fundraising strategy – it’s talking. To create a really good strategy, first you need to assemble the key people who understand your organisation and your previous fundraising efforts. Then you need to discuss your key opportunities and challenges, and make difficult decisions about how to use your limited resources.
This is why, instead of a fundraising strategy template, we have a series of exercises and processes that we can help you work through to arrive at some key decisions and conclusions. Yes, we can ultimately help you to write up those decisions and conclusions in a structured way, but – cheesy as it sounds – our emphasis is on the journey as much as the destination.
Of course, just saying "No, you can't have a template - go away and do loads of work instead" feels a bit mean. So here are a few reasons why developing your strategy needs to be a collaborative process, and what to focus on:
No one person has all the right answers
Even in a very small organisation, it takes more than one person to create a great fundraising strategy. You’ll benefit from involving your wider fundraising team, project staff, trustees, even key volunteers, supporters or donors. Often these people won’t have the right answers either, but they can ask the right questions to help you get there. Sometimes they’ll even have the wrong answers, but a successful strategy relies on bringing them along for the journey (more on that shortly).
Of course, involving lots of people in the process can feel unnerving – what if certain voices dominate the discussion, or nobody has anything to say and there’s an awkward silence?
When we support an organisation to develop their strategy, we work through a series of processes and structured exercises to help everybody contribute objectively to piecing everything together. This includes:
You need to debate, make and document difficult decisions
Some organisations mistakenly think that creating a fundraising strategy involves listing out all the conceivable types of fundraising you could do, with an action plan and an income target for every area.
The big issue here is assuming that you have the resources to do everything, and that all types of fundraising are equally valuable. For smaller organisations, this usually results in spreading yourself too thin, and doing many things badly rather than a few things well. Even for bigger organisations with capacity to try everything, it still ignores the reality that spending twice as long on Activity A might be better than doing equal amounts of A and B.
So Challenge #1: Making Difficult Decisions. If we focus on an individual giving programme rather than trying to do an annual event too, can we expect a better return? Do we need to prioritise some quick wins from trusts and foundations in Year 1 to safeguard our key service activities, before we try to tackle corporate fundraising?
It takes more than one person to answer these questions – you need a collaborative process, built on the processes and exercises described above.
That still leaves Challenge #2: Documenting Difficult Decisions. What if you’ve decided to discount a type of fundraising that some of your staff enjoy and have good previous experience with? What if a new trustee joins tomorrow who loves major donor fundraising, and can’t understand why you’re not doing it?
A good fundraising strategy doesn’t just explain what decisions you’ve made, but why. Crucially, this applies just as much to the things you don't do. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for deciding not to do certain types of fundraising – for example we don’t have the right expertise, the organisation isn’t ready, it’s too risky. Documenting these choices builds confidence in your strategy, and makes it less likely that people will challenge it in the near future.
Fundraising success depends on the whole organisation
Successful fundraising requires a lot more than a good fundraising team – management need to know how to support your efforts and set realistic targets, project staff need to provide the right information to help you write convincing proposals and report back on grants, and you’ll need cooperation and a joined-up message across your social media, newsletter and at events.
However, all staff are busy and they’re not going to drop everything to prioritise fundraising, particularly if they don’t understand the significance. So taking a collaborative approach to developing your fundraising strategy – and involving the wider team – helps people to appreciate any challenges that are blocking successful fundraising, and the often small things they can do to make a big difference.
Creating a fundraising strategy is a dynamic and different process for every organisation
We’ve successfully helped dozens of charities and social enterprises to create their fundraising strategy, but it’s never been exactly the same process twice.
Depending on your focus and circumstances, you’ll need to do bespoke bits of extra work. This could include anything from analysing why you keep losing out to similar organisations for key grants, segmenting your database to analyse how many people are donating at different levels, or creating an ethical fundraising policy to help you decide when to accept – or reject – donations from companies.
If you involve a broader range of people in developing your fundraising strategy, you have more chance of identifying any weak spots where you need to do extra work, then getting everyone on board to fix them.
This is another reason why a fundraising strategy template is misleading – because it implies that every organisation can just work through the same content, whereas in reality everyone’s circumstances are different.
For more info on how we help organisations to develop their fundraising strategy, click here.
Alternatively, check out our fundraising strategy training courses and free resources.
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