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.
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
Building relationships is one of our seven universal fundraising rules that will never let you down. But developing relationships amid social distancing, and when your time is stretched, is difficult. While it's been a pleasant surprise just how much can be achieved online in recent months, there's no easy substitute for face-to-face interaction when it comes to getting to know supporters or getting introduced to new contacts.
Nevertheless, we mustn’t abandon our attempts to build meaningful relationships. Harpreet told attendees that now is the time to be creative, test new channels, and invest time in ideas and conversations on social media. It could also be a good time to re-examine your lawful basis for getting in touch with your supporters – Harpreet observed that many charities haven’t communicated with some supporters since 2018 because they didn’t give opt-in consent when GDPR came in, but some of these supporters may never have understood why they stopped being contacted. You could explore using ‘legitimate interests’ to get back in touch now.
If cancelled events have freed up budget and staff time, consider investing this in phoning supporters and being more active and visible on social media. Don’t hold off communicating with supporters because you don’t have a specific ask ready. Phone them anyway, even just to ask how they’re doing or to update them on your work. Investing time in relationships now will lead to stronger support and donations tomorrow.
4. Keep externalising your case for support
Drawing on her experience in the arts sector, Lottie observed how many organisations have recently asked for money to ‘keep their doors open’ or avoid laying off staff. Sadly, while this is paramount to you, it's unlikely to be compelling to your donors, unless they’re extremely invested in your organisation.
Donors care about the people you support and the positive impact of your work, not keeping you afloat. So you need to be telling inspiring stories and presenting a clear case for support that explains who you help, why they need support, what you do to meet the need, the impact of your work, and why you’re best placed to achieve change.
Virtually all our speakers highlighted the importance of a good case for support - for funding applications, individual giving campaigns, major donor asks and legacy fundraising. It’s more important than ever during a crisis, with so many organisations competing for donations and emergency funding. One possible negative impact of the recent Government bailouts for the charity sector and the arts is that the general public might mistakenly perceive that charities are now well-funded. The reality is that these bailouts are tiny in the face of rising need, but it’s up to you to make this case to your supporters.
5. Maintain quality and good practice
We asked our speakers to explain what hasn’t changed in fundraising since Covid-19, as well as what has - and it was abundantly clear that good practice doesn’t go out the window when a crisis strikes.
Time and again, our speakers emphasised the importance of doing things the right way, even when there's a sense of urgency. Louisa talked about the need to plan events well in advance and budget very carefully, especially when social distancing might mean your events have to be smaller-scale and less profitable. Claire highlighted the need to maintain common good practice in legacy fundraising: not leading with a scary focus on death, taking a ‘drip drip’ marketing approach, and always respecting donors’ wishes and wellbeing.
It’s easier to keep an emphasis on quality and good practice when you don’t overcommit. For example, you’re likely to make a better impression - and raise more money - if you take the time to write three emergency funding applications well, rather than rushing out eight poor-quality bids.
6. We’re all still figuring things out - so be curious, flexible and kind
Harpreet put it best when she said that right now, fundraisers have to be comfortable not knowing all the answers, as we’re all feeling our way in the dark. This is an unprecedented crisis – nobody really knows what is round the corner, or which fundraising tactics will yield the best response. So I believe we need to do three things:
Be curious - test out new messages and ways of communicating with supporters, before committing significant time and budget to them. Measure and reflect on the results. Monitor what other organisations are doing well, and badly. Ask other fundraisers for advice, and sign up for events where people share observations and best practice.
Be flexible - lockdown restrictions and public mood are liable to change quickly, so be ready to respond. Your Senior Management Team will need to be more agile and get used to signing off ideas more quickly, or your organisation could be left behind.
Be kind - it’s ok to not know what’s round the corner, to make mistakes, and to sometimes just feel overwhelmed and despondent. Equally, Louisa mentioned the importance of celebrating your successes when they come – this keeps you feeling positive, makes the inevitable rejections easier to deal with, and boosts colleagues’ moods too.
Like many, I’ve been watching on with despair at the impact of coronavirus on the charity sector. One of the things we’re doing to help in our own small way is to run a series of free live Q&As to give small charities advice on how to deal with the crisis.
During the first Q&A, amid the technical questions about emergency grant funding, urgent fundraising appeals and strategic planning, one question jumped out: “Are there opportunities in the general gloom?”
I really don’t want to trivialise what is an incredibly tough time for many. The current crisis is likely to have a huge long-term financial impact. Many charities are facing closure or being tested like never before. At a time when there was already nowhere near enough funding to go around, this is one more straw added to the camel’s back. And as Emily Maitlis brilliantly said, coronavirus will disproportionately impact the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. It’s no exaggeration to say that I worry about these things every day.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t any positives in the gloom. New attitudes and ways of working are being born out of necessity, but some of them could be here to stay. At a time when we all need a boost, it’s helpful to highlight a few…
The flexible response from funders
Barring a couple of horror stories, most funders have responded overwhelmingly positively and are rallying around the sector. They’re giving grantees an unprecedented level of flexibility in terms of how, where and when they spend the money. In general, funders are giving away more money more quickly, with easier processes and fewer restrictions and reporting requirements, than ever seen.
It’s important to remember that many funders are also registered charities and have their own charitable objectives to adhere to. This often explains why they have restrictions and reporting requirements in place. However, sometimes it also comes down to control and trust. Funders are currently ceding this control to charities and trusting them to use their judgement on where money is needed most - and if charities prove that this trust is well placed, it’s possible that many funders will continue offering increased flexibility in future.
If you're unsure how best to tackle funders in these unusual times, we've tried to explain through the unlikely medium of an onion:
The groundswell of public gratitude
Public and media attention are focused on things like the NHS, food banks and grassroots community organisations like never before. The Prime Minister is praising the NHS for saving his life, and looking like he might even still remember it in six months. Conservative MPs are publicly questioning their assumptions about so-called ‘low-skilled workers’. You really do have to pinch yourself to be sure this is actually happening – although it’s a shame and disgrace that it took this level of crisis to prompt it.
Of course, the challenge will be to maintain this level of public support whenever things go back to(wards) normal. Still, maybe I’m being naïve, but it does feel like there’ll be an opportunity to change long-term perceptions for the better, and keep up public pressure on decision-makers, if we can harness the amazing stories of community solidarity, and the levels of recognition and gratitude, that currently exist.
Some people have more time and money to give than usual
Again, we mustn't trivialise things. Many people are under more financial pressure than ever, and face the thankless task of juggling work commitments and care responsibilities. But equally, plenty of others actually have more time and money to give. There are people furloughed from work, desperate to do something to help, saving on their daily commute, and not spending money in pubs and restaurants. This is an opportunity.
Pressuring people to donate in the current climate is unconscionable. And you should consider the ethics of running an ‘emergency fundraising appeal’ now for the sake of hitting targets, if there isn’t actually an urgent need. But if you’re being hit hard, explain what problems this crisis is causing for you, and give your supporters the opportunity to help fix them. Not everybody will be able to donate, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask. If any of the charities that I regularly support went out of business now, and hadn’t asked for my help, I’d feel very frustrated.
This is an opportunity for volunteering as well as fundraising. More than ever, don't be afraid to ask people to give their time. Trust me, there are plenty of people out there – including children, teachers, graphic designers – who will jump at the opportunity to channel their creativity positively. Check out our associate consultant Gemma’s amazing blog on why micro-volunteering is more important than ever.
Necessity really is the mother of invention
How often do we hear phrases like “that’s not how we do things”, “there’s no point in trying that” or “it’ll never work because…”?
Coronavirus and social distancing are removing many of the obstacles that might traditionally block innovation. People are inventing like never before, and entire businesses and workforces are being re-purposed. Formula One teams are making ventilators. Louis Vuitton are making hand sanitiser. Virus-killing snoods...hands-free door handles...anyway, let’s get back on topic.
I’ve been blown away by the response from so many charities. Many seemingly and understandably took a week or two to quietly panic and face up to the new reality, then came roaring back with new, incredibly well thought-out ways of delivering services, interacting with supporters and engaging staff. Digital delivery and remote working have taken off like never before. New and unexpected partnerships are being forged within and across sectors.
At Lime Green HQ, we’ve provided online training for several years but there are other things we’ve always insisted on doing face-to-face – to be honest, I now realise that many of the barriers were in our heads.
For many organisations, the results of their efforts have been surprisingly positive. Not everything will work first time, or even at all – but there’s a tremendous opportunity now to test things and learn, at a time when people are being more patient and accommodating than ever.
Increased flexibility and reduced travel are also bringing unexpected benefits – for the environment, for people’s wallets and, for example, for people with a disability. That’s not to say that many people won’t be counting down to the day we can all meet, learn and do things face-to-face again. But we should examine many of the things born out of social distancing, and ask whether some of them should be here to stay.
Any big positives that we've missed? Tell us on Twitter or in the comments below...
Ask people about a trust fundraiser's most important skills and I bet these would be common answers:
These are all vital, but I've got an underrated one to add to the list: the ability to ask the right questions.
The trouble with the art of ‘writing convincingly’ is that it can be misunderstood as ‘papering over the cracks to make sure we've got a good chance of succeeding’.
As a trusts fundraiser, have you ever been guilty of the following:
Many organisations approach us for fundraising support to help make their jobs easier. And in many ways, we try to be easy to work with: we plan ahead to allow time for deadlines, we condense funding guidelines into a few key bullet points, we'll sift through dense background reading to find a few key points for an application.
But you know what - sometimes we’re a bit of a pain to work with, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s easy to keep people happy, pretend you’ve got everything you need for a strong application and submit it as quickly as possible. Initially, everyone will feel great. Then when the funder comes back and says no, suddenly everybody is a lot less happy.
That's why it's important to avoid papering over the cracks and be prepared to ask the difficult questions:
This isn't about voicing your personal concerns. It's about trying to really get under the skin of the funder and anticipating what they'll think when reading your application. What will they be looking out for as proof that you know your stuff? What aspects might they be concerned about, given their own funding priorities? Will they understand all the language you've used if they don’t have specialist knowledge of the subject?
Sometimes this means having a certain amount of distance from the cause is a good thing. Our clients often tell us that they chose to work with us because we're knowledgeable and passionate about their work. I agree this can be a good thing, particularly when approaching specialist funders, but it's also risky to know far more about a subject than the person who’s going to be reading your work, or so convinced about a project that you lose the ability to critique it objectively.
All that said, when you’re working with people who are super busy and a funding deadline is looming, I appreciate that digging your heels in and asking difficult questions won’t always make you popular.
But ask yourself this - would you rather have a difficult conversation during the drafting process when there's still time to address something, even if people think you're being too cautious? Or deal with the disappointment later when an application is rejected and you're powerless to fix it?
I’d always rather trust my judgement and stick to my guns on a point that could be crucial to the funder, than regret having backed down later.
People do usually appreciate this in the long run. We've had plenty of tricky conversations with clients when working on a major application, but they frequently tell us later that it was worth going through the pain to make it stronger.
That's not to say you'll always get your way - we all get overruled sometimes, and have to back down or at least pick our battles. The important thing to remember is that your job is to ask the right questions, not to provide all the answers.
So here's my challenge to all the trusts fundraisers out there: be bold, be prepared to ask the difficult questions, and don't think you're doing your organisation a favour by papering over the cracks. If your colleagues think you’re always a dream to work with, perhaps you're not raising as much money as you could...
And if this leads to the odd difficult conversation internally, then by all means blame us and point people towards this blog!
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!
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.
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.
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:
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