It's tricky to generalise about how the pandemic has impacted organisational grant funding levels. While inevitably many charities and social enterprises have struggled, many others with a grassroots community focus have thrived. Some have even unexpectedly smashed their fundraising targets.
However, if there's one thing that’s been consistently difficult in the past 12 months, it's securing funding for capital projects. From talking to various funders, I think there are two (overlapping) reasons for this:
Capital projects are unavoidably high-risk, and many funders are understandably playing it safe
There's no getting away from the fact that renovating a building or creating a new space is complicated and risky. Capital projects often run over budget and behind schedule, and sometimes fail entirely. Even if you've never managed one before, you may know this if you've ever done work on your house – once work begins on the roof or walls, new issues are uncovered, then all bets are off.
This is before you even factor in Covid and Brexit, which will inevitably impact the cost of materials, the availability of labour and the complexity of working on a crowded site.
Funders know all this, and it can worry them. As we recover from the pandemic, they'll continue to be inundated by countless worthy and urgent causes, and won't possibly be able to fund them all. So it’s not surprising that many choose to play it safe. Put yourself in a funder's shoes – would you rather award £10,000 towards a grassroots community food bank that will have a definite and immediate impact, or a complex capital project that might be subject to delays and complications?
Capital projects take a long time, and in a crisis landscape, funders inevitably focus on the short-term
Trusts and foundations often award capital funding in a different way to project grants. If you apply for £25,000 towards a £200,000 project, rather than a funder immediately awarding a grant, they might make a conditional pledge that you can draw down on later, once you’ve raised enough for the project to start.
This approach helps funders to manage risk, but it introduces other problems. If you're in the early stages of a capital campaign, their pledge might remain unused for 6, 12 or even 18 months while you fundraise the rest – and in that time, they’re not having any charitable impact.
Remember that many trusts and foundations are registered charities themselves, so they have their own charitable objectives to work to, and need to report back on their impact. So as well as focusing on lower-risk projects, a funder might well prioritise applicants that can achieve shorter-term impact.
None of this is makes a capital project impossible - but there are a few key steps you can take to help convince sceptical funders:
1. Be crystal clear on your outcomes
With a capital project, it's easy to get wrapped up in the specifics of what you’re fixing or building, and the implications for your organisation. This stuff needs to be in an application somewhere, but it's less important the why.
Who will benefit from your capital project, and in what specific ways? What will they do or experience in the new space you're creating, and how will this change their lives and/or improve the local community?
Try to distill this into four or five clear and distinct bullet points. If you can tie this in with the impact of the pandemic (for example, if this has exacerbated certain needs among the people you support, or resulted in the closure of alternative services), this will help to convince a funder that your project is needed now.
2. Explain how you will deliver your project safely and reliably
As mentioned above, Brexit and Covid bring further complications for capital projects. So the more you can show that you're a safe pair of hands, the more you'll get a risk-averse funder on side.
For example, have you created a risk assessment and detailed contingency plan? Have you consciously chosen suppliers that work in a Covid-secure way? What is your ‘Plan B’ to avoid disruption to services if there are delays? Have you allowed some flexibility in your budget for unexpected costs? Don’t expect a funder to assume these things are in place - you need to convince them that you've been diligent and methodical.
3. Make a virtue of your previous expertise
For similar reasons, your previous track record will be a factor for funders. Has your organisation successfully delivered other capital projects? If not, do any of your leadership team or Board bring relevant experience from elsewhere? Evidence of previous experience in areas such as project management, financial management and architecture / accessible design can be a real plus.
If you can't point to this, a funder might reasonably expect you to show how you're buying in the appropriate professional expertise and guidance, or assembling an experienced project steering group.
4. Ensure you have all the necessary supporting materials in place
Capital funders often insist on specific criteria such as you having an architect’s plan, proof of building ownership or a long lease, and a certain level of match funding secured.
There’s good reason for this. An architect’s plan shows that a project has been professionally designed and can be an insurance policy against nasty surprises that crop up once work has started and threaten to delay or derail a project. A long lease ensures that a project will definitely have long-term charitable impact rather than benefitting a private landlord for unknown purposes. Match funding reduces the chance that a funder's pledge will remain unused for a long time while you scrabble to raise the rest.
Sadly, no amount of engaging project information is a substitute for meeting these requirements, for a risk-averse funder with plenty of worthy projects to choose between. Make sure you know exactly what a funder expects you to have in place before deciding to apply. Even if these items aren’t mentioned as essential requirements, provide them where possible anyway – you can always link to digital files to avoid sending bulky additional material through the post.
5. And finally, consider breaking your capital project into phases
There's no getting around the fact that capital projects are high-risk, even if you can action all of the above, and many funders might continue to be more risk-averse and short-term in their thinking for a while.
You might benefit from dividing a complex capital project into several independent phases, each with their own smaller fundraising target, project timeline and set of outcomes. This could be particularly helpful if you haven’t raised much yet and don’t have previous experience of managing capital projects. It'll enable to get started, demonstrate impact and improve your track record of successful delivery sooner, even if it means temporarily compromising on your ambitions.
DIGITAL EXCLUSION: A GROWING THREAT TO YOUR IMPACT, STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES AND ABILITY TO ACCESS FUNDING?
Since September 2020, we’ve been working with a group of eight voluntary sector leaders to explore how the sector can respond to new challenges and opportunities related to Covid-19. One of the themes has been digital exclusion. With thanks to the group, we’ve shared some key learning and ideas below.
We're expecting to re-launch our Navigating the New Normal leadership course in partnership with the School for Social Entrepreneurs soon. For more info, please click here.
The pros and cons of digital transformation
In 2020, we witnessed digital transformation and innovation like never before. In response to Covid and social distancing, charities and social enterprises of all shapes and sizes were forced to find a way of delivering services online, or stop them altogether.
In mere weeks, organisations overcame barriers that previously seemed insurmountable - with software, skillsets and service user confidence. The results have been truly amazing. Organisations have been able to reach more people, more quickly, and potentially more cheaply than ever before. And many have found digital to be a great platform for their advocacy work - suddenly they’re able to voice their community’s needs and influence policy on a national rather than merely a local level.
Yet is everything quite as rosy as it seems? What about the people who can’t or simply aren’t accessing services online? Are you inadvertently at risk of leaving people behind and exacerbating inequalities? And if so, what does this mean for your long-term impact, strategic objectives and ability to access funding?
We asked voluntary sector leaders to explain the causes and impact of digital exclusion - and here’s what they told us
Covid-19 has significantly increased inequalities in many communities, with a growing digital divide. All too frequently, the people who are most in need of support are also the most digitally excluded:
This is a particular issue in primary care and education settings. While local authorities are attempting to address this by providing essential equipment, distribution is far too slow - even now, we are nowhere near the point where every child has a laptop. Free on-site digital training from businesses (such as banks) is currently not available due to social distancing measures, and even after lockdown could remain inaccessible for those who are most vulnerable.
Overcoming cultural, language and confidence barriers is much more difficult online. ‘Shoulder to shoulder’ activities (such as cookery clubs and Men's Sheds) are amazingly effective at encouraging people to bond, open up and share concerns in informal settings, while doing activities. This simply can’t be replicated in a Zoom call where people are forced to maintain eye contact and feel much more self-conscious.
Digital delivery introduces new safeguarding and privacy concerns that disproportionately impact people on low incomes. What if you need urgent support to protect you from domestic violence or deal with a personal health issue, but live in a small flat and are always within the earshot of family members? Or how can you make the most of online exercise classes if you have no space, facilities or privacy at home?
We are all overwhelmed by more screen time than ever before - adults are working from home and young people are home schooling. This leads to significant fatigue and is another big barrier to engagement, even for services that in theory work well online.
It's challenging to map out who is being excluded from digital services and what their barriers are, when you can’t engage them in the first place. And if digital delivery has enabled you to move into a new geographical area, you might know even less about the local delivery landscape and be working completely in the dark.
Staff who did a brilliant job running face-to-face services might not be natural online facilitators - due to a lack of digital confidence, training or a good home connection. But in current circumstances, they might feel that they should just 'muck in' rather than raising concerns.
For so long we’ve all been talking about digital transformation as a huge potential positive – but there’s an overwhelming sense that while services are changing at pace, too many service users and staff are being left behind.
So what can we all do to address digital exclusion?
1. Grassroots collaboration and activity
Some of our course participants are now exploring the idea of creating ‘digital community hubs’ for vulnerable people who lack the technology, expertise or space to access digital services at home. These hubs would be confidential and Covid-secure spaces for people who need drop-in style digital support and free WiFi connections.
Hubs could be set up in existing community facilities such as libraries, or make use of currently empty buildings such as offices or co-working spaces. To make this happen, local community organisations would need to pool their resources and collaborate on funding bids in order to secure spaces, equipment and staffing. While hubs would cost money, they might enable organisations to make savings by closing some services or facilities that they currently fund in their entirety.
To foster a collaborative approach, every community would ideally need a ‘digital coordinator’. Organisations also need to collaborate better in terms of sharing data and learning about digital exclusion, and pilot solutions.
In the short-term, while services can’t take place face-to-face, it's worth considering whether a digital-only approach is sufficiently fair and accessible. A blended approach involving things like telephone support is likely to better for service users facing safeguarding or privacy issues.
2. Funding and in-kind support
Nobody on our course was currently aware of any significant funding to specifically tackle digital exclusion. Grant funding will be esssential to pay for tangible things like equipment, WiFi connections and data allowances, as well as the additional staff time needed to map out people's needs, adapt services and trial new solutions.
There's a real opportunity for in-kind support too - for example tech equipment and training from companies, and cooperation from mobile phone companies to provide data allowances and devices with pre-installed platforms that minimise data use. Discussing this issue with your suppliers and corporate supporters may be an important first step.
Corporate fundraisers often experience frustration that companies are more willing to give time and ‘things’ than donations. Here’s a tangible opportunity to ask for readily-available equipment that can make an immediate difference - though with many companies severely impacted by the pandemic, the timing could be tricky.
3. Sector-wide lobbying and campaigning
It's clear that we haven’t fully got to grips with the scale of the problem of digital exclusion - there's a lack of awareness among policymakers, a dearth of research to understand it, and a scarcity of funding to overcome it. The organisations that we're working with felt that a coordinated response from the voluntary sector, including support from infrastructure and advocacy organisations, will be needed to:
Research by the funding platform Brevio estimates that UK charities spent a collective £442 million on writing funding applications during the Covid-19 pandemic, with over 50% seeing a declining success rate.
With many organisations struggling to survive - ravaged by the grim ABC of Austerity, Brexit and Covid-19 - surely there’s a better way of doing things? I’m not sure it’s the done thing to write New Year's resolutions for other people, but I've been working on a 2021 wish list for trusts and foundations...
Too many funders are making fundraisers' jobs harder than necessary. Not every funder is guilty - and I've tried to highlight some positive examples below too - but the vast majority could make big improvements by fixing at least some of the following:
Update your reserves policy to reflect a year like no other
If you browse what funders say about reserves levels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that keeping anything below three months or above six months of running costs is a heinous crime. It feels like organisations can’t win - step outside a narrow, arbitrarily-defined window, and you’re either financially reckless or decadent beyond belief.
Yet 2020 provided a compelling justification for more generous reserves - suddenly, six months’ running costs doesn't seem so indulgent in a year-long pandemic. Equally importantly, many organisations will now have severely depleted their reserves to keep themselves afloat. So funders: it’d be great to see you reflecting on the consequences of the pandemic and adjusting your reserves requirements, at least temporarily.
Adopt a two-stage application process
There’s nothing more frustrating than spending days on an application, then being told by the funder that “we don’t feel you meet our objectives” or “we're no longer funding in that area”. Even when you've researched a funder thoroughly, you often have no idea how they'll perceive your work until you’ve told them about it.
That’s why it's great that funders like the National Lottery Community Fund, John Ellerman Foundation and Masonic Charitable Foundation have a two-stage process for larger grants. A simple form to gather some initial information about the organisation and project, then a longer form if they still feel you’re a potential fit.
Unless somebody can give me a good reason otherwise, this is an obvious win-win. Applicants spend less time on lengthy forms that were always destined to be unsuccessful. Funders save resources too, by drastically reducing the time spent assessing so many long and unsuitable applications - this would surely more than make up for the extra administration of a two-stage process.
Commit to giving feedback (at least at stage two)
Getting meaningful feedback on unsuccessful applications is a game-changer for charities. If you understand why an application was rejected, you can judge whether it’s worth ever reapplying to that same funder - and use that feedback to strengthen other applications too.
I get that providing feedback can be problematic for funders, particularly when they’re hugely oversubscribed. Yet this is another justification for the two-stage application process: by initially whittling down applicants to the best 10-20%, it's easier to then commit to providing feedback to those who clear the first hurdle.
This seems a fair bargain to me – we might not be able to give everyone feedback but we'll at least make it a fairly quick and painless process. And if we do decide we need considerably more information from you, we’ll make sure you get something useful from it.
Adopt a standardised format for common questions
"Describe your organisation in 150 words"
"Tell us about your aims and activities in 250 words"
"How are you currently funded? (200 words)"
"Briefly summarise your fundraising strategy (1,000 characters)"
It's frustrating to see funders use so many variations of wording and word counts for questions that essentially want the same information, especially when it's often already publicly available anyway. Asking organisations to produce countless versions of the same description is a huge waste of time and provides next to no additional value for the funder.
I get that funders will assess applications differently and need bespoke information in many areas. But for the more straightforward questions, can't you club together and adopt a standardised format?
Clearly show whether you’re open to applications from new organisations
The downside of using databases like Funds Online or Funding Central is that you turn up plenty of funders that are great on paper but will do nothing for your bank balance. Dig a little deeper (say in their annual accounts) and you realise that although their objectives seem to perfectly match yours, they haven’t given grants for two years or even funded any new organisations for a decade!
These ‘zombie funders’ are a black hole of time for the uninitiated fundraiser. For example, most charities seem to have the Denise Coates Foundation on their pipeline at some point, but never receive a grant. That’s because, while it’s not explicitly said anywhere, unless you’re an organisation in the Stoke-on-Trent area that's well-known to them, you'll do just as well if you throw your application in the bin.
So, funders, how about introducing a basic traffic light system on your websites and annual accounts? Red = not currently giving new grants, Amber = likely to only fund repeat applicants, Green = open to applications from new organisations. It’d save us all a lot of time.
Publish some key metrics to help applicants decide whether it’s worth it
While I’m on my soapbox about increased transparency, there are at least two other bits of data that every funder should publish: the previous success rate for applications (Tudor Trust does this here) and how long it takes organisations on average to complete an application (I know that the Postcode Community Trust used to include this on their form).
This vital information would enable fundraisers to weigh up the wisdom of applying, and make funders more accountable in terms of the impact their application process has on the sector. Which leads me to…
If you're going to measure your social impact, factor in the time organisations spend on failed bids to you
This won’t be popular with corporate foundations that make a big song and dance about showcasing their impact and unveiling their annual awards, but make applicants jump through a hundred hoops.
On the outside, this looks great. For example, the 2020 Movement For Good awards gave away £50,000 grants to ten lucky charities whose good work is showcased here. What’s not to love?
Trouble is, there was a point last summer when nearly every organisation I spoke to was applying for a grant. There was no real indication in advance of what they’d fund, the application form asked some very specific and detailed questions, and of course there was no feedback for unsuccessful applicants. Hypothetically let's say that a thousand charities each spent 1-2 days on an application - when you start to estimate the staff time involved, did this cost the sector almost as much as the amount given away?
With a corporate social responsibility agenda to promote, many corporate foundations want to attract as many applicants as possible. There’s little incentive for them to ensure the application workload is proportionate to the award, and no requirement for them to measure whether they're having a net positive impact on the sector. More funders should assess this - I suspect they’d be shocked by the results.
And finally, the elephant in the room…
Plenty of people will say that it's entirely up to a funder how they distribute their money. What right do grantees and applicants have to intervene?
As we’ve previously argued here, there are some major issues with modern philanthropy that we absolutely have the right to challenge. Charitable status brings plenty of advantages for trusts and foundations (and their benefactors) – and the combination of tax breaks for contributing companies and Gift Aid for individual donors means that a good portion of the money they give isn’t actually theirs anyway.
So, for me, the above list isn’t a list of nice-to-haves. We should put in place some clear and incentivised best practice guidelines for funders. If you want to keep benefiting from your current tax advantages, make sure you’re giving in a way that doesn’t create a nightmare for applicants. If you want to keep giving entirely on your own terms, that’s fine - but then let’s change your legal status and make sure it’s 100% your money to give.
Here’s a secret that not every fundraiser will admit: we all go through periods where things aren’t going to plan and we’re not quite sure how to change it. Periods when it feels like the money is drying up, you’re hearing no more often than yes, and you’re struggling to inject that fresh sparkle into your work.
With Covid-19 piling yet more pressure and competition on trusts and foundations, there’s arguably never been a tougher time to fundraise. For many organisations, emergency funding will tide them over until the end of the financial year, but the pressure to find that next big grant win is never far away.
If you're going through a lean patch and feel like you've tried everything, here's out checklist of things to try:
1. Beef up your evidence of need
Funders generally only care about what you do and how you do it if you first convince them why your work is so vital. This is one of the best ways to make sure your application truly stands out.
If you haven’t taken the time recently to refresh your evidence base, this is a great way to strengthen your case for support. For example:
2. Bring things to life with case studies, images and videos
If your core narrative is already strong, then turning your attention to the supporting elements is a great way to enhance your applications:
Too many people think of trusts and foundations as faceless institutions only looking for cold hard facts and statistics. But great applications appeal to hearts as well as minds. Even the larger, professionally-run funders like human detail, personal stories and visual content - so this is often an area to make quick improvements.
3. Squeeze every drop of feedback from funders
Trusts and foundations often feel they lack the time and resources to provide feedback (particularly at the moment) or worry it might be contentious and generate unwanted debate. But if you're persistent and diligent about seeking and responding to feedback, it's a great way of turning around a run of rejections.
Even if a funder doesn’t automatically provide feedback, it’s sometimes possible to get it by asking politely, explaining why it would be so helpful and being clear and specific about what you want.
Try calling rather than emailing for feedback - in my experience, funders are often willing to give more detailed and honest feedback over the phone, as it can be more nuanced and ‘off the record’. If you’ve managed to build a rapport with a Grants Officer before submitting an application, they’re much more likely to be helpful afterwards too.
4. Revisit your project - is there another way to deliver it?
In the current climate, many funders will be more risk-averse - with more applicants, and potentially less money to give away, they'll be keen to avoid projects that don't deliver results.
This could pose a problem if you’re trying to deliver an experimental or long-term project, or reliant on grants from several funders to go ahead. With Covid-19, many organisations can demonstrate an urgent need for support and show how grants will have an instant impact. In a crisis-driven landscape, the last thing funders want is the possibility that your grant might lie dormant for a few months before it can be spent.
So now is a good time to step back and consider whether there’s a different way of delivering your project:
5. Anticipate and address any ‘red flags’
There are common reasons why funders might be concerned about your organisation – if your reserves seem too high or too low (sometimes you can’t win!), if your work sounds unusually expensive to deliver, or perhaps if it sounds like a service that they expect another organisation (or the local authority) to be delivering instead.
If you’re experiencing a run of funding rejections, spend some time anticipating what your ‘red flags’ might be, and proactively address them in your applications. If you can’t get feedback from funders to help with this, try going through your applications with a mentor, friend or fundraiser from another charity to get some independent advice and a new perspective.
6. Do some fresh prospect research
Trusts and foundations frequently change their priorities and new programmes spring up all the time, particularly as funders scramble to respond to changing needs arising from Covid-19. While you'll inevitably stumble across some opportunities by chance or word-of-mouth, doing some proactive research will help you to unearth better prospects, and is a great way out of a rut.
It helps to think creatively about the impact of your projects, particularly if they're a bit niche. For example, with a few tweaks to your case for support, your community gardening project might appeal to funders that are focused on improving mental health or reducing social isolation for older people, but weren't previously on your radar.
We recommend using a funding database like Funds Online or Funding Central, or the excellent free database by Charity Excellence Framework. You should also check whether you can sign up for regular funding alerts with your local authority or Community Voluntary Service (CVS).
7. Review the balance between quality and quantity
When a couple of key funding decisions go against you, it’s easy to hit the panic button and start churning out as many applications as possible. While this might temporarily ease the pressure, it rarely produces better results. Actually, you probably need to spend more rather than less time getting applications spot on, in the ways that we’ve described above.
If you’re on an unlucky run, take a step back and make sure you’re focusing on quality rather than quantity - even if that involves pushing back on pressure and targets from anxious colleagues. Use previous successes to remind yourself that you are good at your job, and that by following some of the steps above, you’ll turn around results in no time.
There's arguably never been a tougher time to fundraise, so we all need all the help we can get. We've assembled this list of handy tools that weren't designed for fundraising, and aren't widely used by fundraisers (as far as we know), but will definitely enable you to save time and/or raise more money. The vast majority of these tools are either free, or have a free basic package...
Visualping is a tool that detects changes in webpages and automatically sends you an email notification. You know those times when you’re waiting for a funder to re-open applications or finally unveil their new strategy? Stop checking their website repeatedly and start using Visualping to alert you as soon as it's updated.
Cost? Free to monitor up to two pages simultaneously. Paid packages start from $4 per month.
Hemingway reviews your writing to make it bolder and clearer, and identify readability issues. Just copy/paste written text into the box and it flags common issues such as sentences that are hard to read, and words that have a simpler alternative.
This isn’t a perfect tool because of course it doesn't know the context in which you’re writing or who the recipient is. However it’s still a great starting point for reviewing the first draft of a funding application, fundraising appeal or report.
Cost? Their website tool is free.
When you've spent hours labouring over your written work, spotting mistakes is harder than it sounds. Using a read aloud tool such as Natural Reader to listen to what you've written will give you a better chance of spotting errors that the eye skips over.
Cost? Natural Reader is completely free. There’s also an in-built read aloud tool in newer versions of Microsoft Word.
Yesware tracks emails that you send and notifies you when they are opened or when certain links are clicked. It’s primarily for sales professionals but can be helpful if you’re sending funding pitches or introductory emails to funders. No need to sit there wondering if your email actually made it! I haven’t used this one for a while, but they state that it’s fully GDPR compliant.
Cost? Prices start from $14 per month, so may only be worthwhile if you’re sending a lot of cold approaches that you need to monitor.
Crystal is easily one of the most effective and terrifying tools that I’ve come across. It analyses publicly available information about people (including their published written work) to provide insights about their personality type. Based on this, it gives you tailored recommendations about how to communicate with them, such as how to phrase things in emails.
This is helpful if you’re contacting someone that you don’t know very well and really need to catch their attention. I first used Crystal a few years ago and did the obvious thing of searching my own personality type. I thought the observations were way too harsh, but my partner thought they were bang on, so there you go!
Cost? Free package provides a limited number of recommendations each month. Pro package is $29 per month.
Many people will already know Hootsuite as a very handy social media scheduling tool, but it’s also great for “social listening”. You can set up search terms which allow you to track conversations related to your cause or a topical issue. You can then join in those conversations or just use them to tailor your communications to what people care about - great for digital fundraising.
Cost? Using Hootsuite for scheduling is free, but social listening is a paid feature.
Canva is also well-known, but it’s too useful and versatile not to include here. As a design package, it’s so easy to use that even a complete amateur (and I’m definitely one!) can create decent designs. I’ve used it to make social media graphics, website banners, presentation templates and infographics – which are amazing for visually demonstrating statistics and concepts that would take a lot of words in an appeal or funding application.
Cost? Their free package comes with over 8,000 design templates in 100 categories. Canva Pro starts from £8.99 per month, but their Canva for Nonprofits programme gives free access to registered charities and CICs.
Finally, a tool that might be more useful than ever as people settle into another period of home working. StayFocusd is a Chrome browser plug-in designed to boost your productivity.
If you’re struggling to focus on that all-important report or funding application, you can block all other websites to prevent your mind wandering. StayFocusd is customisable, so you can select which websites to block and for how long. They have a ‘nuclear option’ which, once activated, can’t be reversed until the time runs out!
Cost? Free, which is probably for the best.
Back in June, in response to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and the Black Lives Matter movement, I shared some reflections on the issues facing philanthropy.
My argument in a nutshell was this: philanthropy is inextricably tied with extreme wealth, and most of that wealth is derived from activities that increase inequality. Philanthropy gives a particular audience – wealthy, privileged, mostly white, usually male – disproportionate influence over the sector’s work and policies, and an opportunity to implement a vision of social change that is likely very different from your own. This process is inadvertently endorsed every day by fundraisers and charities – so while Edward Colston is an extreme and high-profile case, there are other examples everywhere.
I’m delighted that this blog sparked plenty of debate and discussion, but I’m conscious it offered little by way of solutions. The truth is, it’s very difficult for most fundraisers to take action, especially if their organisation isn’t geared up to question philanthropy.
Several people rightly asked for some thoughts on what organisations can actually do differently, rather than just why it’s important. This is where things get trickier, and more controversial, but here are my views…
Reduce your long-term dependence on philanthropy
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. It’s all very well not wanting to accept certain donations - but in the current climate, for many, it’s not unreasonable to think that turning away a big gift could lead to service closures or staff redundancies.
I can’t pretend there’s a quick or easy answer to this. But we’ve previously shared various thoughts about diversifying your income, which will inevitably reduce your reliance on a single funder, donor or income stream, and make it easier to stick to your principles.
This 2018 blog explores how to build a business case to persuade your organisation to invest in developing a more diverse fundraising portfolio. And in this podcast, I interview Fran Ferris-Ockwell, former CEO of a Sheffield housing charity, on how she guided them through a process to reduce their reliance on contract income, with huge improvements to their independence and organisational culture.
Most organisations won’t be able to reduce their dependence on funders and major donors overnight, but these steps are a key starting point – particularly if you're brave enough to set an explicit long-term strategic objective to become less dependent on grants and major gifts over several years.
Create a fit-for-purpose ethical fundraising policy
We previously shared six guiding principles about creating an ethical policy. While it might be tempting to find a policy template online and quickly adapt it, the most important part of this exercise is having an honest and meaningful conversation with your management team and trustees. You should develop guidelines that feel appropriate for your organisation, mission and service users. Don’t expect this to be an easy exercise, or for everyone to immediately agree, as you’re dealing with a complex issue.
Be aware that enforcing your policy to the letter might lead to both accepting or rejecting donations in controversial circumstances later. This could conceivably lead to negative press coverage, complaints from supporters, disagreements with staff and trustees, or having to close a service. You need to fully anticipate and ‘test’ the potential consequences of your policy, so you can confidently justify decisions later.
Empower your fundraisers and lead by example
After publishing our original blog in June, I was contacted by several fundraisers sharing experiences where they felt uncomfortable about the ethical implications of a donation or a donor’s behaviour, but felt unable to act. For example:
Your ‘front line’ fundraisers are likely to be younger, less experienced and less influential than your donor prospects, management and trustees. They may well be working under pressure, knowing that failing to hit financial targets could well harm the organisation’s financial health, staff livelihoods and service users. So even if a fundraiser feels uncomfortable about something, voicing this might feel daunting and detrimental to their career.
Solving this actually goes beyond having an ethical fundraising policy, particularly one that sits in a drawer gathering dust. Your senior management and trustees need to lead by example by openly talking about the ethical issues with philanthropy, and creating opportunities for fundraisers to raise concerns and ask questions without fearing a backlash.
Something else to consider: is your approach to setting fundraising targets and KPIs creating an environment where fundraisers feel pressured to stay silent and bring in donations at all costs? Unrealistic targets - particularly those based purely on the cost of your projects rather than sector benchmark data, are another potential barrier to thoughtful and ethical fundraising.
Move beyond #donorlove
This feels controversial - when I suggested this on Twitter, I was met with some incredulous responses.
#donorlove is a popular term to describe a donor-centric approach to fundraising that focuses on making donors feel loved, valued and appreciated, to encourage and retain their support. This isn’t totally without merit - many organisations don’t do this, and miss out on donations as a result. I’ve previously shared my own experiences as a donor and why charities should get better at saying thank you.
But too often, #donorlove crosses into advocating putting the donor’s wishes and the importance of building a relationship with them above other concerns. I’ve seen high-profile consultants advise charities to structure annual reports entirely around recognising the contributions and achievements of the donor, even if their service users fade into the background as a result.
I think you can make a case for #donorlove being incompatible with the need to re-examine philanthropy in response to recent events - and an inadvertent endorsement of hypocritical philanthropy, the problematic influence of wealthy donors and the white saviour complex. When fundraisers are faced with the pressure of a financial crisis, silence from their senior leadership, and influential fundraisers’ unswerving commitment to #donorlove, is it really any surprise that they feel unable to do things differently?
I doubt that #donorlove is going anywhere fast - too many high-profile fundraisers and consultants have structured their livelihoods around the concept - but perhaps we need to start taking the first steps.
Challenge how we structure, incentivise and culturally revere philanthropy
Philanthropy is commonly considered an unselfish, freely-taken individual act that increases equality and is open to everyone. Cast in this light, what right do we have to challenge where that money comes from, or how it is used?
Unfortunately, this view of philanthropy is false.
In his book “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better”, Rob Reich examines the philanthropic landscape in the US and reaches two uncomfortable conclusions. Firstly, less than a third of charitable giving actually benefits low-income people. Secondly, the US tax system is massively skewed towards rewarding and incentivising the wealthiest donors: if you earn under $153,100 per year then a $100 donation costs you $100, whereas it can cost a higher earner as little as $60.
Admittedly the UK landscape is somewhat different, not least because we have a Gift Aid scheme rather than just tax breaks for the donor. But essentially, the same problem exists globally: the tax system greatly subsidises charitable giving and enables richer people to donate money at less personal cost. This actually takes money out of the public purse and redirects it towards causes favoured by the rich and powerful, which rarely benefit low-income people. Philanthropy therefore can actually harm rather than help equality.
Reframing philanthropy in this way completely changes our right and obligation to challenge it. For example, how much influence and recognition should a wealthy donor enjoy for their supposedly ‘selfless’ gift? Should we permit a family trust to be opaque about where its money comes from, and how it decides which causes to support? Why can’t we create and enforce a new code of ethics and transparency, and remove the huge tax breaks for funders and donors who won’t play ball?
In barely 100 years, we’ve gone from elite-level philanthropy being met with suspicion and fierce criticism - Rob Reich documents the angry response to John Rockefeller’s early attempts to establish his charitable foundation in the US in the early 1900s - to today’s almost unquestioning endorsement of philanthropy and #donorlove.
In keeping with the positive response to the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue and the Black Lives Matter movement, I think we urgently need to start nudging back in the other direction.
In our Fundraising During Covid-19 online briefing last week, five different fundraising specialists talked about their recent experiences and what organisations should be looking out for in the next 6-12 months. Here are six lessons from the briefing for fundraisers far and wide...
Firstly, a huge thanks to our panel of four external speakers:
1. People are still giving...
The headline news from all our speakers was that, for the most part, people are still donating and fundraising.
Research in May showed that one-third of UK donors were actually donating more than pre-Covid-19. Louisa highlighted the phenomenal success of mass participation virtual events like the 2.6 Challenge. Claire said that while many charities felt uncomfortable talking about legacies in the early months of the pandemic and stopped doing so, the Law Society actually reported a dramatic growth in will writing - potentially an opportunity missed for the sector. Some charities have been working sensitively with executors to speed up legacy payments to help with cash flow problems.
I shared this example of a small family trust that are still giving, and doing what they can to show flexibility and understanding:
They may be facing their own challenges, but funders and donors are also responding to events around them - stories in the news, or experiences of illness or tragedy closer to home - which are often prompts for wanting to support good causes.
2. …but they're also facing new pressures
While people are still giving, many are feeling the strain of the pandemic – financially, emotionally and in terms of time/capacity. With a recession around the corner and dividend income down, some philanthropists may hesitate about donating, and some companies are slashing Corporate Social Responsibility budgets. Trusts and foundations will be dealing with the same logistical challenges as you – staff furloughed, unwell or struggling with childcare, meetings postponed, and technology hiccups.
In such uncertain times, it’s easy to talk yourself out of asking for money at all. This is a mistake. If you don’t ask, you’re denying your funders and supporters an opportunity too, and somebody else will them instead. It’s fine to ask, but be conscious of the challenges people might be experiencing currently, don’t put them under pressure, and listen and respond to feedback.
Contact companies and trusts to check on their current situation before applying, to avoid wasting your time and theirs. Listen carefully to your prospective major donors - as Lottie explained, hearing ‘no’ might not be an absolute rejection, but could just mean no to that amount, no for the next six months, or no to that particular project.
3. Relationships remain crucial, but adapt your approach to building them