Amid the many challenges we’re facing as a sector, one difficulty that predates the pandemic is recruiting the right fundraiser.
To put it simply, there are an awful lot of organisations out there looking for talented fundraisers, and not enough of them to go around. We've worked with countless small to medium charities who have had to go through multiple recruitment rounds, each time tweaking the job description and bumping up the salary in the hope that it'll make the difference.
While they may get there in the end, they often don’t find the perfect candidate and/or overpay, and there’s certainly an opportunity cost associated with the months lost to a drawn-out recruitment process.
There’s been plenty of reflection around this fundraising recruitment crisis, with fingers pointed at vague job descriptions, unimaginative person specifications and unrealistic expectations - and the broader, existential issue of whether enough people value and understand the charity sector and fundraising profession.
I’m not a recruiter, but I’ve been around enough charities in this position to understand many of the common problems, and know a few things you can do if you’re struggling to find the right fundraiser:
Who's actually auditioning? It's time to rewire your brain...
A common assumption with fundraising recruitment, especially if you're new to it, is that you're the one running the audition. You might expect to welcome a conga line of candidates through your door, and give each one a thorough grilling to decide if they’re right for you.
But in a market of few great fundraisers, it's very much a two-way process. Talented candidates know they have plenty of opportunities to choose from, and won’t necessarily rush to jump into a new role. They’ll want to put you under the microscope too, to understand the requirements and expectations of the job, and evaluate whether you can offer them the right environment to succeed.
Rewiring your brain to this reality will help you recruit more successfully. In your advert, candidate pack and interview process, you need to give a flavour of your organisation’s approach to fundraising. For example, how does your organisation work with and support a fundraiser to make sure they have all the information and tools they need? Is your Board engaged in fundraising, and what does their involvement look like? How have you arrived at any targets you've mentioned?
Allow plenty of scope for the fundraiser to ask you detailed questions. It’s absolutely their right to challenge you too, and it’s a positive sign if they’re clear and even demanding about what they need and expect in order to succeed.
Create your fundraising strategy before you go to market
Organisations looking to make their first significant investment in fundraising naturally target the perfect all-rounder - someone who can both create and execute a knock-out fundraising strategy. But there are numerous problems with this approach.
Firstly, you’re looking for very different skillsets – there are experts in strategic planning and analysis, and experts at doing hands-on fundraising, but far fewer that excel at both. By trying to cover all bases, you risk narrowing the field and compromising in a key area.
Secondly, if you haven’t analysed your organisation’s current position and best income opportunities, how do you know what type of person you’re looking for? Do you need an events expert with a bit of individual giving experience? Or is it more important to find someone who feels comfortable asking for major gifts face-to-face from wealthy individuals and in corporate pitches?
Without a strategy, you often end up writing a vague job description and unrealistic person specification that require a bit of everything. Even worse, there may be a vague fundraising target attached to it that you've never tested, to determine whether it's realistic.
You might think that “this sort of challenge will appeal to the right candidate” but in my experience it’s very off-putting. Successful fundraisers will smell the lack of clarity a mile off. Why would they pack in their current job and take a punt on a new role where, two months in, they might realise they’re not actually the right person for that organisation, or that the job isn't right for them?
If you’re struggling to recruit a fundraiser, or have a limited budget to play with, creating your fundraising strategy first is potentially the most cost-effective approach. Invest a bit of money now in strategic consultancy support or an interim Fundraising Lead, get all your ducks in a row, then recruit the permanent fundraiser. By taking time to clarify your requirements, you’ll not only increase your chances of finding the right person, you might avoid having to throw so much money at a candidate too.
Use your imagination and widen the field
Most person specifications narrow the field far more than you realise, particularly after a pandemic that’s led many of us to reimagine how and where we want to work.
Before recruiting, ask yourself some questions. Do we really need to insist on (or even say that we prefer) candidates having a university degree? Is five years’ experience in a particular fundraising area really necessary? Are there transferrable skills from other sectors that we could look for instead? And while you're there, think twice about whether you really need somebody to be office-based and work five days per week.
#nongraduateswelcome have done phenomenal work to highlight recruitment requirements that are not only unhelpful but, worse, discriminatory and against the values that the organisation supposedly stands for.
Often, charities are seemingly on autopilot, including these requirements simply because everyone else is. Building your person specification from the bottom up – based on what you actually need, rather than what you think ought to be there – is not only the right thing to do, but makes it more likely you’ll find the right fundraiser for you.
The past 12 months have been quite the journey at Lime Green HQ. No surprises there.
Like many others, we went into Spring 2020 believing that some things shouldn't be done online unless absolutely necessary. There was simply no way that an online workshop could replicate the experience of a having a bunch of energised people in the same room, armed with a whiteboard, colourful post-its and a plate of biscuits.
Fast forward a year and we’ve run approaching 75 online training courses or strategic planning workshops during lockdown, totalling over 200 hours of screen time. We’ve found ways of replicating most of the best aspects of face-to-face workshops, though admittedly we’re yet to crack downloadable biscuits…
Some people will inevitably have issues and preconceptions about online workshops. Digital exclusion is a key issue to keep in mind, and “Zoom fatigue” is now not only a common phrase but an academically-researched, peer-reviewed phenomenon. And too many people have lost too many hours to unproductive and chaotic strategic planning sessions for there ever to be universal enthusiasm.
However, call us new-fashioned, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the previous approach of “face-to-face unless absolutely impossible”. We’ve had too much positive feedback about online workshops – for many people they’re simply more accessible, not to mention being cheaper and eliminating travel time.
So, as we all stand on the cusp of returning to our offices and meeting rooms, what have we learned from a year of delivering strategy workshops online? And what should you be thinking about if you want to make an online session as productive and engaging as possible?
Plan shorter sessions with regular breaks
This may sound obvious by this point, but you can’t simply move a session online and hope for the best. We often used to run full-day face-to-face workshops, particularly when people had to travel to be there, but that’s more than anyone can handle online.
Our online workshops almost always last no longer than three hours, with a decent break in the middle, plus shorter breaks throughout to avoid people staring at a screen for more than an hour. This still sounds like a lot of screen time, but we find that provided activities are carefully planned and varied (see below), people can and do want to engage for this long.
Keep things moving and mix up the format
It’s easy for sessions to descend into drawn-out, unstructured conversations – these are hard enough to stay engaged with in a room, let alone on Zoom or Google Meet.
You can avoid this by regularly switching between activities and always focusing people on a specific task - this might be as simple as answering a focused question, filling in a table or coming up with three points on a particular topic. But always keep a good tempo, and avoid lingering for too long.
Mixing up the format also helps to keep people focused – for example switching between breakout room tasks, polls and feedback sessions with a bigger group. We’ve recently seen great results from ‘paired walking tasks’ – where we encourage people to step away from their screen, go for a walk and phone a colleague to discuss a particular question.
Invite people to 'park' ideas
Of course, it can be hard to strike a balance between keeping people focused and avoiding cutting them off. People in our sector are passionate about the way things should be done, and often see these a strategy workshop as a rare opportunity to get their point across.
In our face-to-face workshops, we often set up a ‘parking bay’: a piece of flipchart paper to note down any discussions we have to cut short, or issues that haven't been resolved. We invite everyone to come up and write down anything that matters to them, at any point – and we always capture any ‘parked ideas’ in our notes after. This makes it so much easier to move on and keep to time.
In many ways, this is even easier online. You can ask people to use the chat box on Zoom or Google Meet to note anything they want to come back to later – which they can either do anonymously by sending a private message, or publicly for everyone’s benefit.
Use tools like Miro to make things more playful and creative
A workshop isn’t a workshop without a whiteboard, coloured pens and your own weight in post-its. Capturing information visually is important for keeping people engaged - but typing notes in a document on a shared screen REALLY doesn’t cut it.
We’re huge fans of Miro – a free virtual whiteboard tool that's the next best thing to a big wall and half a stationery shop. Miro allows you to capture the output from a session way more creatively and collaboratively - you can easily move post-its around, group ideas together, or invite everybody to add their own annotations.
Set clear expectations about what will come out of the process
One thing I've found with shorter online workshops is that you inevitably make slower progress and need more patience. An initial session with a group of passionate people will literally fly by - fine if it's the first session on a busy agenda, but it can be more unsettling if that's all you've got time for that day or week.
If you’re planning an online workshop or a series of sessions, always share a clear agenda (that you stick to) and a quick list of planned outcomes in advance. I often start a session by saying something like “This week is all about getting all your concerns and questions out in the open – then next week we’ll start working on answers”, which is a great way to build trust and understanding with people from the outset, and avoid unrealistic expectations.
Remind people about settings that will make them more comfortable
When you think about it, using Zoom isn’t really like meeting people face-to-face at all. It’s unnatural and intense to have everybody staring at you the whole time, all while looking at a mirror image of your own face.
Fortunately, platforms like Zoom give you plenty of options to dial down the intensity, for example hiding your own video, only viewing the person who is actually speaking, or turning your camera off for a break. Resizing the screen so people's heads are closer to the size they'd appear across a table, rather than taking up most of your vision, also really helps. Simply showing people how to use these options – and encouraging them to use them if they need a break - instantly makes it easier and more comfortable to participate online.
Bring in an external facilitator
Shameless plug here, but I love seeing how much more people get out of sessions when they don’t have to worry about taking notes themselves, keeping to time or reminding people when to shut up.
Often, before we run a workshop with an organisation, they’re concerned about how much they’ll get out of it, or whether one person will dominate. But with the right planning and a few ground rules, it's almost always much more enjoyable and productive than they expected.
If you’re struggling to get people to engage positively or keep to time - or even if you just want to be able to dive in fully as a participant yourself - an independent facilitator is usually well worth it, whether you’re meeting online or face-to-face.
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.
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 - 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
One speaker 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.