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.
Statistically, events fundraising has never been one of the more profitable forms of fundraising. While both special events (e.g. a gala dinner or concert) and challenge events (e.g. a marathon or sporting challenge) can sometimes raise a lot, promotion costs are often high and a lot of staff time is required. For example, while you might expect a return on investment of 10:1 (£10 raised for every £1 spent) from trusts fundraising, or 5:1 from corporate fundraising, events are often closer to 2:1 or 3:1.
Even this figure is decreasing as fundraising events are hit by the current financial climate, market saturation and supporter fatigue (the challenge of keeping on going back to the same limited pool of supporters). If you have a small fundraising team, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether it’s worth your time committing to new fundraising events at all.
So in what circumstances are events still worth your time, and how do you decide whether they’re right for you?
Despite the challenges, events provide plenty of advantages, not all of them related to short-term income:
To capitalise on these advantages, you need to be crystal clear what you’re looking to achieve from your fundraising events, and plan accordingly
MAXIMISING THE BENEFITS OF SPECIAL EVENTS
Special events are excellent for engaging corporate and major donor prospects, encouraging existing supporters to introduce people from their own network, and recognising the contributions of key supporters. Particularly when your event features stories and speeches from the people you support, or creates an inspiring and celebratory atmosphere, or when senior staff and trustees are on hand to mingle with people.
When planning an event, liaise with people across your organisation to map out who should be invited. Then invite them well in advance, warmly, and with a personal message. Depending on how much you want them to be there, you can consider offering discounted or free tickets where appropriate, particularly if the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term cost.
On the night, make sure key prospects get plenty of time and attention, and take every opportunity to educate and inspire them about your organisation’s work. If you have a long-term plan about how you ideally want them to support your cause, you might be able to cunningly sow some seeds on the night.
Carry on the personal touch after the event, by thanking people and sending any follow-up material promptly, personally and creatively (for example with a handwritten card or colourful social media image). This often requires some advance planning, particularly if staff plan to take some much-needed time off after your event.
Bear in mind that high-value prospects expect ‘senior’ attention, so you need to enlist support from management and trustees at every stage - before, during and after your event. Particularly for corporate and major donor fundraising, it's rare to be successful without senior level buy-in.
MAXIMISING THE BENEFITS OF challenge EVENTS
Building long-term relationships with challenge event participants is typically much harder, but not impossible.
Firstly, you need to consider whether this is a realistic goal at all. This will depend on the nature of your event. If it's a big brand in its own right, or if it has no natural link to your cause, people are more likely to be participating in the event on its own merits, and have less natural interest in supporting you further. If your event has a high fundraising target - or, perhaps more importantly, involves a bigger fundraising effort - this provides greater scope to engage people further.
If you're trying to keep people engaged for the long term, a few things can really help:
If 'converting' participants into long-term supporters feels unlikely, it could be better to focus on maximising short-term profit instead. This can be achieved through:
STAYING FOCUSED ON THE BIGGER PICTURE
Many events potentially bring broad benefits, but often fundraisers only give this serious thought once it’s too late. When we take part in events, we’re often told it’s not the winning that counts, but the taking part. However, with a successful fundraising event, perhaps it’s not (just) the taking part that counts, but what happens next.
You need to think about this bigger picture from the very beginning, as soon as you start the planning process. It should dictate how you design your event, how you communicate with participants and which of your colleagues you ask to be involved.
If you do decide that your event has a higher purpose, make sure this is reflected in the evaluation process too. I’ve seen fundraisers get persuaded by colleagues to do an event because it has awareness-raising potential as well as income potential – but when push comes to shove, management lose sight of these objectives and only measure the return in hard cash. This can result in giving up on events early, or sacrificing the long-term benefits.
It sounds obvious, but if your event is primarily about long-term value, you need to find ways of actually measuring that value, and convincing people that results will take time to become visible.
It's often said that good fundraising and dating etiquette have a lot in common. We're frequently using dating analogies during our fundraising training and work with charities, so we've taken the plunge (prompted by a chat with our consultant Gemma Pettman) and included all our favourite lessons in one place...
Don't talk about yourself all the time
We've all had one of those terrible experiences with someone who can’t stop talking about themselves. You keep asking them questions but they never ask you anything in return, and you can’t get a word in.
Doesn’t feel great, does it?
Charities can be guilty of the same thing. Of course it’s important to tell your supporters and donors what you’ve been up to, but also take the time to find out about their interests and reasons for supporting you. It’ll make them feel valued and will help you to improve and personalise your content in future. Like with dating, finding common ground helps to create chemistry.
I remember hearing someone once say that it’s a common mistake to “we all over your supporters” (I’d love to give credit for this delightful phrase, but I can’t remember where I heard it). When you’re next writing a newsletter or annual review, instead of just talking about what “we” have achieved, try engaging your supporters better by talking about what “you” have helped to accomplish.
Don't expect too much on the first date
One for the major donor fundraisers out there. You probably know it takes time to get to know a donor prospect and cultivate a relationship with them, but fundraisers often feel under pressure to make the ask and secure that donation immediately.
If you’re not sure why this is a bad idea, try going on a first date with someone and asking them to marry you or hop into bed with you after one hour.
When you have a first meeting with a prospective donor, you’re probably both expecting it to lead somewhere eventually. But while you might both have done your research, you need time to explore their interest in supporting your charity, understand which of your projects or activities most appeal to them, and build a picture of how much they might be willing to give.
This may take several meetings, and cultivating a major donor to the point of making that first donation can easily take 12-18 months. The long-term payback will be worth it, but rush things and you’ll get nowhere.
Don't talk about your ex all the time
Trusts and foundations often say that they won’t fund work which they consider to be a statutory responsibility, even at a time when statutory funding is being withdrawn for critical services. This is understandably very frustrating for charities, and it can be hard to work out what a funder means by this.
Often, funders simply don’t want to feel that they’re just picking up the slack for government spending cuts, or that you’re only interested in them because another source of income has disappeared. Telling a funder that you need their support because statutory funding has been cut is a bit like going on a date and talking about your ex the whole time – hardly a good way of making the new person in your life feel special.
Instead of just re-hashing a previous statutory-funded service, show that you’re over the past by talking about your work as an exciting and valuable project in its own right, clearly explaining why it's a response to your beneficiaries' real needs and how you'll deliver social impact.
Don't call them by another name by mistake!
Accidentally calling someone by your ex’s or another person’s name is just about the worst thing you can do. In both dating and fundraising, it can easily happen if you’re not careful.
We all use previous funding application content as a shortcut for writing new bids. But please, check it VERY carefully to make sure that it doesn’t contain the name of a previous funder or contact, or your application could be destined for the bin.
While we’re on the subject of names, always personalise your letters. That funding appeal or thank you letter which begins with ‘Dear Supporter’? If you’re wondering what impression that makes, try going on a first date and calling them ‘Date’ for the whole night…
Invest time in keeping the spark alive
Most relationships begin with a honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting, and you can do no wrong. Sooner or later, you start noticing the little things about the other person that annoy you, you forget your manners, and you have to find new ways to keep things interesting or it might all fizzle out.
In the same way, most donors won’t just keeping giving to you unless you keep paying them attention, educating them about your work and giving them new ways and reasons to support you.
A good donor relationship is built on engaging newsletters, memorable thank yous, invitations to events and maybe even the occasional call to say “I love you”. This takes time but it’s well worth the effort, as well as being the right thing to do. It’s easy to just focus on acquiring new donors, but it can be far more valuable to keep the spark alive with current ones.
"It's not you, it's me" – know when to walk away
Sometimes a donor or funder simply isn’t the right match for your organisation – and, just like in a relationship, it can be nobody’s fault.
A trust may have financial restrictions (e.g. on the percentage of overheads you can claim) that could put your organisation at risk if you accept a grant. A major donor may want a level of recognition or control in return for their donation that you’re not able to provide. Accepting a corporate donation may compromise your charity for ethical reasons, even if it wouldn’t be a problem for another organisation.
Successful fundraising involves being confident enough to sometimes say no for your own good, without pointing any fingers. After all, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.
10 DONATIONS IN 10 WEEKS - HERE'S WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT THANK YOUS, CONVERSATION-STARTERS & PAYMENT PLATFORMS
The charity sector isn’t short of excellent blogs about the importance of thanking your donors – including this guest blog from our associate Gemma and this article about SUPER thank yous.
Most fundraisers are well aware that thank yous are key to building a relationship with donors, and that increasing support from existing donors tends to be easier and more cost-effective than recruiting new ones. But how many charities are actually putting this into practice, particularly when faced with the realities of lack of time and competing priorities?
I’ve been doing a little experiment to find out, making 10 modest donations to different charities over 10 weeks.
Professional curiosity wasn’t my only motivation – we work with so many fantastic charities, and since moving to Bristol I’ve found out about many worthy local causes. Every year I have to calculate my charitable donations for my tax return – and although I support a few charities regularly, this always reminds me that I could do more.
10 donations later, here’s how I got on and what I think you need to know – about thank yous, conversation-starters and payment platforms...
Each donation was a one-off online gift of £20 – this felt significant enough to have a genuine impact, but small enough to perhaps fly under the radar for charities who don’t routinely thank their donors. I suspect many £20 donors could be persuaded to give again – maybe regularly – if treated well enough.
I’d never supported any of these charities before. Although I have contacts at a couple, I didn’t tell them I was going to donate.
My passion lies with smaller charities, so most donations were to small, local causes that I personally feel passionate about – including youth, homelessness, refugees, food banks and city farms. As a 'control', I also donated to two large charities who really should have the resources to thank donors properly – including one spontaneous donation for Cyclone Idai, which has been scandalously under-reported in the British media.
When given the option, I always included a message explaining my reasons for giving, and opted in to further contact by post, email or both – these are causes I’m naturally interested in after all.
I haven’t named any of the charities in this blog, unless to show examples of amazing things they did – this is about general lessons learned, not naming and shaming.
The headline results
I don’t know who first said ‘silence is golden’, but I doubt it was a donor
It was disappointing to never hear back from two charities, and wait weeks for a reply from two others.
I’m realistic enough to know that a £20 donation isn’t going to change the world, but making a contribution definitely feels good. There’s plenty of research to suggest this feeling can be an addictive buzz for donors, and a nice thank you – and some further information about the cause – is a great way to nurture that buzz. I know that I’ll support several of these charities again, based on my interactions so far.
On the other hand, doing nothing is a sure-fire buzz-kill. More than being rude, it’s a missed opportunity. There are so many worthy causes out there, and if someone has chosen yours then that’s an opportunity worth investing in – because if you don’t make them feel good about their support, another charity will.
Sure, thanking a donor isn’t guaranteed to lead to further support. But think of all the other fundraising activities you willingly do which don’t guarantee success – grant applications, corporate pitches, mass appeals. My gut feeling is that a memorable thank you takes much less time and has a better chance of paying off.
Don’t miss an easy opportunity to start a conversation
For most donations, I was given the opportunity to add a message, which I used to explain why I’d decided to donate, and which aspect of the charity’s work particularly interested me.
None of the 10 charities referenced this in their thank yous. Maybe they didn’t see the message, or just didn’t think it was important. This surprised me, as I’ve already considered this one of the simplest and most natural ways to personalise your reply and start building a relationship.
Phrases like ‘Since you expressed an interested in X, I thought I’d tell you…’ or ‘Is there anything else you’d like to know about Y?’ show donors that you’re listening, and encourage them to open up about their motivations and interests. It only takes 30 seconds to start a conversation – and you can potentially use this information to make future asks more personal and relevant, therefore more successful.
Great thank yous go the extra mile – but you need to follow through
So that’s the bad news – but did I receive any mind-blowing thank yous that you can learn from?
I received this lovely handwritten thank you card and annual report from Bristol-based Bridges For Communities, who connect people of different cultures and faiths through events and activities, in order to increase tolerance and understanding:
The card emphasised how much they rely on and feel motivated by donations, and the report really emphasised the impact they’re having locally. Some people might query the cost of buying and posting a thank you card in exchange for a £20 donation, but it’s worth considering the bigger picture – isn’t a new donor who feels valued, welcomed and engaged likely to contribute more in future?
This lovely personal reply from a local food bank also made a splash:
Wow – this was a lovely idea! I replied saying I’d love to pop in – anxious about not wanting to waste their time, but sure I’d donate again once I found out more. I felt excited, both personally to understand a local organisation better, and professionally to be able to share the story of a brilliant thank you.
The only problem? Five weeks later, I haven’t received another reply. I'm still hoping I'll get a chance to speak to them again about their work. The lesson here is that if you’re going to thank your donors in a way which genuinely stands out, make sure you’re ready to keep up the conversation.
You’re only as good as your third party systems
Many charities use payment platforms like PayPal, Justgiving or Localgiving to handle their online donations, as the cost of building your own system can be prohibitive.
Most charities that I donated to had clearly invested time in placing a prominent donate button on their homepage and writing a convincing message about why you should donate. But frustratingly – and sometimes amusingly – things often went wrong when I left their site:
Ok, some of these are minor issues, but that’s over 50% of my donations which had something that went wrong or made donating difficult. A smooth donor experience is important – and it’s not possible if your third party platform isn’t up to the job or not configured properly. A less patient donor could well have given up a few times, particularly someone less confident with technology.
The moral of the story? No matter how good your own website, your third party payment platform can make or break the experience. Choose your platform carefully, and test how it works from a donor’s perspective before going live. Then keep testing it periodically, in case something breaks over time.
I’m sure you saw Andy Murray’s maybe-retirement announcement recently, and the media reaction to it. It was hard to miss.
Aside from the sporting implications, his display of human emotion felt all-too-rare. Most sportspeople give little away beyond guarded responses and cliches, seemingly ever-suspicious of media intrusion and conscious of sponsor obligations. In the often male-dominated world of sport, real emotion and honesty are frequently still associated with weakness. Yet the media response to this fateful press conference in Melbourne was overwhelmingly positive.
I’m not a huge tennis fan, but I’m fascinated by the transformation in Andy Murray's public reputation. Back in his early days, he had a reputation for being surly, bland and seemingly mistrustful of the media. In return, he was firmly portrayed as a Scottish rather than a British sportsperson, not helped when he made his infamous “anyone but England” comments ahead of the football World Cup in 2006!
While much of this transformation is down to sporting success, his personality and honesty have played a part. He’s not afraid to stand up to perceived injustices and voice his views on difficult issues such as gender equality and Scottish independence. And following his recent openness about his physical and mental struggles with injury and pain, his public stock has never been higher.
Watching Andy Murray reminded me just how refreshing, disarming and impactful authentic honesty can be. This is an under-used tool in the charity sector.
Charities are often brilliant at holding up a mirror to society and making people notice and care about injustice. But are we always good enough at holding up a mirror to ourselves? And what holds us back?
When you’re short of time, it can feel easier to present a simple, sanitised version of yourself and your work. Crafting messages about your struggles and weaknesses feels like it must be done carefully. After years of negative media coverage about charities, it's natural to want to present yourself positively: we know exactly what we’re doing, and every penny we spend goes to plan.
I don’t think it always has to be like this. Here are a few ways of showing your more honest side, and why it's worth the time and effort:
1. Show that your work is challenging and things don’t always go to plan
Many projects are complex to deliver. Talking about your setbacks gives people an insight into what your work is really like and makes them more emotionally invested. Think of the narrative of any good film or book - it's rarely plan sailing to the end, and the setbacks draw you into the story.
Great fundraising is often a response to adversity. For example, in 2014, Manchester Dogs' Home raised £1.2million in 48 hours after a devastating fire. Communities rally around organisations in times of crisis, particularly with the rise of crowdfunding. Hopefully you won't experience a disaster, but being honest and open about minor setbacks – for example if you experience a delay or issue with building work after a capital campaign – can help you to raise vital extra funds if needed.
2. Trusts and foundations reward honesty too
It’s not only public fundraising – honesty with funders usually pays too. With the precise focus on outputs and outcomes, we can often feel mortified if we're unable to deliver a project exactly as planned. However most funders are too experienced to expect everything to go as planned. If there's a hitch they’re usually on your side – they want things to go well too, and are often surprisingly willing to help.
I know one charity that's delivering a big six-figure project. They rely heavily on volunteers, but had struggled to find a good volunteer coordinator, and failed to achieve some outcomes as a result. Instead of disguising or finding excuses for this, they explained the situation honestly in their mid-project report. The funder’s response: how much would it cost to increase the hours of your volunteer coordinator post and pay a better salary to find the right person? A top-up grant of £10,000 was on its way a few weeks later.
3. Involve your supporters in decisions that affect them
I often see charities second-guessing how to communicate with their supporters. Would they prefer a monthly or quarterly newsletter? What types of story do they most want to hear about? Will they prefer Event A or Event B? Staff often have differing opinions, but rarely think about actually asking supporters.
Perhaps charities assume their supporters won’t appreciate the question – will they feel the charity should know the answer already, or simply not bother to respond? However, consulting your supporters on important decisions shows a willingness to learn and leads to better engagement and more reliable insights. The real honesty here is asking for advice, and admitting that you don't have all the answers.
4. Handling complaints well is worth its weight in gold
We all make mistakes sometimes, but it's too easy to respond with a weak excuse or with the defence that "we're just following our policy". Have you ever responded to a complaint with: “You know what, no excuses, we just got this wrong”?
Most supporters complain because they care, and want to give you a chance to get things right. They’re not trying to catch you out. They’ll usually understand if you made a mistake because, guess what, they also make mistakes sometimes. A well-written apology and honest explanation actually builds trust and appreciation for what you do - several times I've seen this not only salvage a relationship with a donor, but also lead to increased support.
5. Show the people and personality behind your work
Finally, being honest is also about showing what your work is really like – even if you look stressed, your desk is messy and your office is cramped! Showing the real you leads to empathy and familiarity more than judgement or criticism, in my experience.
In my first job in the sector, I ran a major student fundraising event. We frequently tried to post photos on social media of us sending out welcome packs, taking deliveries of T-shirts or welcoming new staff. Our fundraisers genuinely liked this – for some reason, most seemed to think we were running the event out of a broom cupboard, and were amazed that the charity had a ‘normal’ office! It helped people to get to know us and appreciate that we were a professional organisation doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
So thank you Andy Murray for the reminder about the power of honesty - and if you've got any other tips or stories about putting this into practice with your supporters or donors, we'd love a comment below!
In the world of fundraising, I can't think of a more anticipated and talked-about date than 25 May 2018. It feels like the countdown to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into place has been going on forever, but now we're barely two weeks away from the big day.
Don't worry - this isn't another blog telling you how to get ready for GDPR. There are plenty of them already. I'm interested in the longer-term view - how could public fundraising fundamentally change as a result of the introduction of GDPR, and what should charities be doing now to stay ahead of the curve?
A friend of mine, who works in fundraising compliance at one of the big charities, set me the challenge of writing a blog about 'Public Fundraising 2.0' in the brave new world after GDPR. So I've dusted off my crystal ball and shared a few ideas...
Successful charities will focus on better relationships with fewer donors
There's no getting away from it - opt-in consent will make it harder to capture usable donor data and mean fewer contacts on your database. Gone are the days of adding big batches of contacts to your newsletter list gathered through business card drops, event contact lists and via your supporters' own fundraising efforts (arguably many of these methods weren't compliant pre-GDPR anyway, but many charities are only now clarifying their obligations in relation to existing Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR)).
It's easy to see reduced data capture and fewer contacts as 'A Bad Thing'. After all, the traditional donor pyramid approach is very clear - capture enough new contacts at the bottom end and do a few clever things to nurture them, and you'll eventually have more high-value donors and legacy givers at the other end:
Although this approach is often accused of being outdated and fundamentally flawed, I think it has its merits (but that's a topic for another day). However, there's no doubt it's been working pretty badly for most charities. There's too much focus on quantity over quality - why keep building a database of passive contacts who rarely or never engage with your charity, when you're not investing in the capacity to communicate with people on a personal level or the analytics to evaluate what approaches are actually working?
Soon you'll find it much harder to build up your mailing list - or maybe you won't even have much of a mailing list at all, if you've been seeking fresh consent for GDPR - so you may as well start focusing on quality instead.
This means taking the time to use the data you have to personalise your communications as much as possible and segment your contact list more intelligently, making your mailings more relevant and targeted. You're only allowed to store personal data that you use anyway - so if you're collecting it, you ought to be acting on it.
Smaller charities may finally unlock the potential of major donors and legacy fundraising
A smaller contact list means two things - more time to focus on the supporters you do have, and fewer opportunities to get things wrong.
Retaining donors will become even more important, so charities have to be able to delight and inspire their donors. This should mean better thank you letters, more personalised follow-ups after events, and CEOs and trustees dedicating more time to meeting and cultivating high-value prospects.
Major donor fundraising and legacy fundraising have long been undervalued by smaller charities, who are often put off by the lead time and initial legwork involved. Now this might start to seem like a more obvious route, as high-volume individual giving starts to feel like a more difficult and less profitable pipe dream. If smaller charities start to realise the benefits of investing more time (and senior management time) in cultivating donors, I suspect we'll start to see an increased focus on major donor and legacy fundraising.
The value and popularity of communication channels will gradually change
If you do still want to focus on mass marketing, you may need to reconsider which channels work best. The high bar set for the level of consent you need means that email marketing could become a fading force - mailing lists are shrinking, people unsubscribe at the touch of a button, and emails are increasingly being caught in intelligent spam filters.
Meanwhile, unaddressed mail requires much less in the way of consent - so while this is a blunt instrument and the precise opposite of a personalised approach, it's likely to become more popular. It won't become an effective tool overnight, but could start to look more attractive to charities struggling with email marketing. As a result, more cost-effective and creative approaches to unaddressed mail will start to emerge over time.
Social media fundraising will also finally start to take off. Successful charities will focus less on trying to capture email marketing consent from followers, and more on engaging with these people meaningfully within that platform. The new Facebook fundraising tools mean that people don't need to be on your mailing list or even visit your website to spontaneously donate. So why spend time on your dwindling mailing list when you could be mastering these tools or making sure you reply to every single follower quickly and personally?
These changes will happen gradually, so you'll need to keep your ear to the ground and not assume that what worked best yesterday will still be the best option tomorrow. Which brings me to...
Charities will have to collaborate more to make sense of a tricky new world
With the whole sector taking a battering for its fundraising methods, charities need to work together to find the best way forward.
Of course there's naturally competition between charities, but we'll all raise more if we help each other to win back the trust of an increasingly sceptical public and deal with the challenges of GDPR. Large charities have access to more supporters - and therefore more meaningful test data - than smaller charities. Charity A might be more experienced with a specific audience than Charity B. One of your fundraising campaigns may have backfired spectacularly in a way that other organisations could learn from.
Some fundraisers are already collaborating to great effect - the immensely useful Fundraising Chat group on Facebook has topped 6,000 helpful members, but that's the tip of the iceberg for the sector as a whole.
Choosing the right third party platforms will be vital
Your Data Protection compliance and data capture methods are only as good as the third party platforms you use - whether that's Facebook, Mailchimp, Justgiving or any other system.
With data security high on the news agenda, people are becoming more cautious about sharing their data online - so platforms that are trustworthy and creative in how they gather data will be worth their weight in gold. Choosing the cheapest option may be a false economy, and free platforms are often free for a reason.
I recently worked with a charity running their first ever crowdfunding campaign. Despite setting an achievable fundraising target, they knew a lot of work would be involved - so the true value of the campaign would come through the long-term value of the donor relationships they built, more than the short-term income.
They successfully hit their target, but their crowdfunding platform was tricky to use and hadn't given much thought to donor consent. As a result, the charity felt unable to add the donors to their database, or even email them again to seek consent. A different platform, even with higher fees, would've resulted in a much more valuable campaign.
More fundraising will become product-based, and maybe not really fundraising at all
Without a sizeable supporter database, we'll become more reliant on profitable one-off interactions than repeated asks - but maybe that's no bad thing.
With charities increasingly picking up the slack for spending cuts and social inequality, an increased number of appeals feels inevitable. But fundraising is arguably reaching saturation point in terms of how much it interrupts our daily lives - in the streets, at our doors, on TV and through our letterboxes.
One way to address this is to make fundraising a more welcome part of people's lives - through gamification, collaboration with retailers or social media stars, or events that are profitable based solely on selling people a good experience rather than capturing their data for long-term fundraising. This focuses on the product instead of the ask. It blurs the boundary between fundraising and broader income-generation, and sometimes isn't really fundraising at all.
We recently published this blog on the need for more non-disruptive fundraising, which is only going to become more important after the introduction of GDPR. Have a read now to get some inspiration if you haven't already.
It’s tempting to think that the recent fundraising crisis came out of nowhere – that public resentment was just whipped up by the media and a few horror stories – but the reality is different.
Frustration and dissatisfaction had actually been simmering away for a long time. In 2016, nfpSynergy reported that the charity sector had one of the lowest complaint rates across seven sectors, but the highest level of people wanting to complain but not doing so. Given that the other sectors included pensions, mortgages and broadband providers, that’s a sobering statistic.
So why have people been growing increasingly unhappy with charities? Specific cases of bad practice haven’t helped, but I think there’s a broader issue.
Most of our public fundraising methods seem to rely on interrupting – rather than complementing – our everyday lives. We get stopped in the street. People knock on our doors. Charity appeals pop up on TV and through our letterboxes.
In a world marred by spending cuts and growing inequality, this may feel inevitable. More and more people are being denied happy and healthy lives, and charities are stepping in to pick up the slack. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if these fundraising methods work and people have the money to donate, what’s the problem?
Unfortunately, many fundraising methods seem incompatible with a changing society. Digital technology has given people an unprecedented level of choice and flexibility. We stream music that we want to listen to, instead of sitting through songs we don’t like on the radio. We watch our favourite programmes on catch up TV, rather than 'seeing what’s on'.
We increasingly live in our own bubble where we do things on our own terms. So when we perceive that we’re being interrupted unnecessarily – whether by a company, a charity or an individual – we often feel harassed or angry.
So street, door-to-door and television fundraising – while hugely successful financially, particularly for household name charities – are often negative experiences for the public, stirring up feelings of pressure and guilt.
I’m not saying that 'traditional' forms of fundraising are fundamentally wrong, or that negative media coverage is always justified. However, in these tough times, many charities need to raise increasing amounts from the public to keep supporting their beneficiaries. For this to be sustainable, we need to be more creative and varied in our fundraising efforts.
A popular buzzword today is ‘disruption’ – the concept (originating in Silicon Valley) of smaller companies unseating market leaders in an industry with an innovative or simpler solution. But when it comes to fundraising, perhaps the most effective form of ‘disruption' is actually to be as non-disruptive as possible.
We need to find more ways to fundraise that fit in with or add value to people’s lives, rather than interrupting them.
I’ve seen a few great examples recently – and while many are being implemented by large charities, there’s plenty that the whole sector can learn:
1. Rounding up in shops
Recently, staff in my local Tesco in Bristol were fundraising for Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation. To support their efforts, Tesco added a prompt to their self-service machines asking customers to make a small donation to round up their bills:
Over about a month, I must have donated ten times (I’m not a very strategic shopper, and Tesco is a one-minute walk around the corner). Never more than 10p – but with so many customers and transactions, you can imagine how this small but frequent giving can add up.
While this did involve adding an extra screen to the self-service process, I could choose to donate or decline within two seconds. It didn’t feel obtrusive at all, and there was no awkwardness in saying no. Many people will have supported two charities that they might not have thought of giving to before.
Smaller charities may find it near-impossible to forge a partnership with a major supermarket. However that doesn’t stop you approaching local shops or restaurants about a similar arrangement, or applying to supermarket community schemes like Waitrose’s green token scheme. You can also look at joining nationwide schemes like Pennies.
2. Good old-fashioned community fundraising
Community fundraising is brilliant because it performs a social function as well as raising money. It's something positive to do and provides an opportunity to meet new people, which can be really important for some.
While most people immediately think of the Macmillan Coffee Morning – which raises almost £30million annually – personally I love Mind’s Crafternoon fundraiser. This promotes mental health and mindfulness, while encouraging people to come together and focus on making something.
Any charity – no matter what size – can design an attractive community fundraising idea for their own supporters, whether that means a database of a thousand people or a small group of friends and family.
The key is to develop your idea in consultation with your target audience, start small, gather feedback and gradually scale it up. Ultimately, community fundraising works best when it's led by volunteers, with minimal input and support from paid staff.
3. Social media collaboration
Building an audience for fundraising is tough for smaller charities, so getting a leg-up makes a huge difference.
I’ve always loved this example of how the popular Humans of New York photoblog raised over $100,000 in less than an hour, by combining a powerful ask for a local cause with an inspiring story. Founder Brandon Stanton had already built a huge audience that enjoyed glimpsing other people’s lives and hearing their stories, so appealing for help was a logical next step.
Winning the trust of an audience that are already passionate about something, and making a related ask on the platform they already use, is another great way of weaving fundraising into the fabric of everyday life.
Building a relationship with - for example - a blogger or YouTube star isn’t easy, but might be a better bet than approaching major companies, particularly if there’s a reason why they’d support your cause. Try looking out for rising stars and make contact with them before they hit the big time.
Ever been through Stockholm Airport and seen these charity arcade machines?
I love this for two reasons. Firstly, it takes something that’s already popular and adds a fundraising twist. If people like arcade machines in airports, why wouldn’t they love using them for a good cause?
Secondly, this is a brilliant example of the gamification of fundraising. This increasing trend uses games, challenges and adventures to give people an added incentive to support a cause – and it really works.
You’ll probably struggle to get arcade machines placed in major airports. However, you can still use this as inspiration: can you ‘gamify’ any of your existing fundraising efforts, or add a fundraising twist to something your local supporters already enjoy doing?
5. Making donating easy
When people decide they want to donate to you – no matter how or where – it’s not the end of the story. The physical act of donating has to be intuitive and convenient – if it’s too complicated, you’ll lose donors.
As technology moves on, people expect the organisations they interact with to keep pace. The use of contactless cards is booming – contactless payments now account for a third of all card purchases, up from 10% just two years ago. Cash is a fading force, and charities are losing out by still relying too much on it – by as much as £80million per year, according to this report.
It’s worth exploring options now for taking card and contactless payments, as the cost and barriers to entry will continue to come down for smaller charities. Also, make sure your donation and registration forms (both online and paper) are as simple as possible.
How do you ‘sell’ your cause to people?
If you find yourself talking to someone about your charity in the pub or at the school gates, what do you tell them? Do you trot out your vision and mission statement, and those inevitable bullet points describing your main services? Is there a particular story you always tell?
I’ve been involved with many charities as a fundraiser, consultant, mentor and trustee. If you work for one of these organisations then you might want to look away now. Sorry, but when I tell someone about what your charity does, I rarely use your carefully crafted marketing language.
The unavoidable reality is that many causes are hard to explain, particularly in these times of austerity. Multiple disadvantage, multiple services for one beneficiary group, or one particular issue that affects multiple groups.
It’s often tricky to distil this into one concise, meaningful description. That bullet point list might sound ok on paper but it’s instantly forgettable when recited verbally. Staying 'on brand' can sound a bit…bland.
I think there’s a better way to engage people in what you do. Stop trying to tell them everything, and instead look for your ‘diamond in the detail’.
All the charities I really ‘click’ with and enjoy talking about have something in common. Amidst all their services, statistics and slogans, I’ve found a particular thing that for me really captures why they do what they do.
Often this is a beneficiary story, but it could just be a concept or an idea that’s easy to understand and memorise. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
I spent five years at Link Community Development, a charity working to ensure children in sub-Saharan Africa receive a meaningful education. Link provides teacher training, quality assessments of schools and helps headteachers and district authorities to run schools better. The Millennium Development Goals focused on getting children into school but not what happened when they were there. So Link’s work was vital, but not very ‘sexy’.
Over time, by speaking to teachers and parents in South Africa and Malawi, I understood things better. Children growing up in countries ravaged by HIV/AIDS don’t miss school because they don’t want to be there. They stay at home to look after sick relatives, or work the land to earn money for their family because their parents are no longer with them.
Many people see children not attending school as the biggest problem. But for me, the burning injustice is encouraging children to walk five miles to school because it’s ‘the right thing to do’, meaning they can't perform a critical role in their families, then failing to provide them with an education that makes any difference when they get there.
This was my ‘diamond’ for explaining why Link’s work was so important. As a problem that urgently needed fixing, it meant so much more than saying ‘Link works in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa doing X, Y and Z to improve the quality of education in schools.’
I’m currently working with a very different charity called The Camden Society, who provide a range of services to people with a learning disability. Among other things, this includes supported living, employment and health and wellbeing.
But if you ask me about The Camden Society, this isn’t what I’ll tell you. Instead I’ll talk about their amazing apprenticeship programme, helping to arrange job trials for people who would otherwise lack the core skills to secure a role in the catering industry.
I’ll tell you about the apprentice I heard speak who knew he would never shine in a formal interview, but proved in a trial that he could prepare food more quickly than any of the regular staff. He secured a job where he could thrive and feel proud of his skills, and he’s not looked back since.
This is just one aspect of the charity's work, but it's the one I feel most comfortable and passionate talking about.
You don’t need to talk about the whole of what your charity does, or even focus on your main project. By finding your own ‘diamond in the detail’, you'll be able to explain things with more belief and passion. Crucially, this diamond may be different for every staff member or volunteer.
I've heard people find their own engaging ways to talk about their charity, only to be told that it's not on brand - which I think is a real shame.
It can be helpful to think of your charity as a cube. There are many sides to what you do. People can only see one or two sides at any one time, but those sides are still part of the whole shape.
Ultimately, is it better to give someone a concise and complete summary of what you do and hope they remember it? Or tell them one specific memorable thing that can be a ‘hook’ for finding out more later?
You might be willing to try this approach when talking to family and friends, but I’m convinced it can be just as effective with donors, funders or companies. So isn’t it time you found your diamond in the detail?
What particular diamond works best for your cause? Do you have some different advice for engaging people? We’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment below.
This is a guest blog by Gemma Pettman, our new Associate Consultant. Click here to find out more about Gemma and our growing team.
If you’re a parent, there’s every chance you spent the weeks after Christmas encouraging your children to write their thank you cards. Once you finally convince your child to put down their new toys and pick up a pen, it doesn’t take *that* long. It’s a nice gesture and (provided the envelope doesn’t shower the recipient in too much glitter) always welcomed.
If you’re a fundraiser, the chances are you returned to work after the Christmas break and set about writing your own thank you notes.
We know that offering the right thanks is as important as making the right ask; a well-crafted thank you is one of the best fundraising tools out there. So, writing thank you letters is something we do regularly. Right? Maybe not…
A few years ago, I heard philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley speak at the launch of a new fundraising book. Having gone back through her paperwork she discovered 40% of the donations she has made have never been acknowledged. Can you imagine?
Let’s be honest; we all can. It’s no excuse but fundraising generates a *lot* of admin and we’ve no doubt all had that sinking feeling when we realise a gift has been missed. If this happens more frequently than you would like, why not forget the never-going-to-happen New Year’s resolutions of giving up chocolate or going jogging five times a week and stick to a much more achievable aim: ‘get better at saying thank you’.
I spoke to three very different donors to find out what matters to them when it comes to being thanked (I’m really not spoiling the ending if I tell you that a generic letter isn’t going to cut it).
1. Time is of the essence
Rosie, who has organised several charity balls and made personal donations to good causes, says the single most important thing is speed:
"I really notice when I receive a thank you from a charity a few days after the event; hand-written would always be the most impressive.
"I recently organised a gala and the excellent development manager at the charity rang the people who made substantial donations the very next day to say a huge thank you. She explained she would be writing but wanted to say thank you immediately. It was clever because it enabled her to build a personal relationship and to use it as an opportunity to get direct feedback about the event. Then she followed up in writing."
This development manager’s approach reminded me of something Charity Water did. The video is more than five years old but as a concept, it feels fresh and current:
Next time you’re thanking donors after a big event or campaign, could you do something similar? As well as giving them a warm fuzzy glow and an opportunity to speak directly with you about your work, it’s a great team-building experience.
2. The personal touch
Gary has raised thousands of pounds for two charities through the products he sells online. He receives regular emails, rather than letters, from both organisations:
"I very much appreciate reading kind comments in a personal email. I enjoy fundraising and don't do it for thanks but it’s nice to know my efforts are appreciated and that funds are going where they are most needed."
Some of us might baulk at the idea of emailing, rather than writing, to a donor but if that’s what your supporters prefer then it’s the right thing to do. It’s worth remembering that among younger people email is already seen as ‘old hat’. In fact, for 16 to 24 year olds, instant messaging is now considered the single most important means of communication [source: Ofcom].
What might this mean for your organisation’s donor communications in the future?
3. A multi-channel approach
Jenny understands this move away from ‘formal’ communication. She supports three charities, including Moorview Animal Rescue, by way of monthly direct debits and enjoys watching the impact of her gifts online:
"The sums I give are modest and the way I look at it, rather than a proportion of my donation being spent on stationery, ink and postage, it’s better off being used in another way. I appreciate the gesture of a thank you but I follow the charities’ Facebook pages so I can see for myself the difference donors like me are making."
Rosie, Gary and Jenny are three donors out of many tens of thousands, but their experiences and preferences give us something to think about. So, let’s kickstart our New Year’s resolution by learning from children and their Christmas thank you letters.
First, let’s get them out as soon as possible. Let’s make them personal and include comments that mean something to the person reading them. And last of all, if it’s appropriate let’s have a bit of fun with our thank yous. But please… no glitter!
“We really want to create the next Ice Bucket Challenge / No Makeup Selfie / <insert high-profile viral campaign here>.”
In my experience, this is one of the most common aspirations voiced by well-meaning staff and trustees. But here's the truth: almost every attempt to emulate this kind of campaign is destined to fail. It's not just that creating a viral campaign in such a busy market is difficult. It's that most people miss the very thing that makes these campaigns successful in the first place.
The best campaigns aren’t dreamed up in a boardroom or on flipchart paper. They begin organically - someone shares a personal update which resonates with a few other people who share it. If it's simple, seems genuine and, crucially, doesn’t have any obvious branding or marketing message, then it might gain traction from there.
It’s the organic messages, the simple supporter stories that aren’t put through a brand filter, that really have the potential to capture people's imaginations. So when charities are eager to raise awareness about their organisation and “get their message out there”, all too often they manage to achieve the complete opposite.
Of course, I understand the urge to tell your message and story in your own voice. It's definitely a trap I’ve fallen into myself. Particularly for small charities, the chance to shine in the public eye is all too rare. So if you ever get an opportunity, you feel the need to “polish” your message as much as possible. If you’re anxious about measuring the return on your efforts, you're naturally keen to link to your website, ask for a direct donation etc. The problem is, it very rarely works.
When your clever marketing people - or staff with expert knowledge of your work - get their hands on your message, they can inadvertently make it sound much drier, and strip away that all-important authenticity.
Most people aren't actually very passionate about specific charities, they're excited by causes and by stories of the people they want to help.
So when you try to reframe your message using the words that matter to you, and put your charity front and centre, you usually miss out on those all-important shares as a result.
A couple of weeks ago I went to SOFII's I Wish I Thought of That, an annual event where 17 experts showcase the best and most inspiring fundraising campaign they wish they'd come up with. This year, one theme kept popping up again and again – charities can really gain from being braver about taking a backseat, instead letting the people they help 'own' their own voice.
One amazing example of this is Emmy and Jake’s tandem fundraising challenge for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. When Emmy Collett received the heartbreaking news that she had thyroid cancer, she embarked on a 2000km tandem cycling challenge with her childhood sweetheart Jake.
Their poignant, inspiring and authentic personal story quickly gained publicity, but The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity made a conscious decision to remain in the background and let the young couple speak freely to the media and ‘own’ their story. People wanted to give these two amazing people, but it was the charity that really gained - to date, Emmy and Jake have raised over £100,000.
And this wasn't a one-off, as shown by the unique fundraising efforts of Paul Trueman, inspired by a hard-hitting domestic abuse storyline in BBC Radio’s long-standing The Archers:
This unique fundraising campaign – using a fictional storyline to highlight the plight of real women – captured the imagination and empathy of the public. Refuge, the beneficiary charity, could have jumped on this and taken the opportunity to tell their organisational story, sell their work and 'polish up' the message. Instead, like Royal Marsden, they trusted the creator of the story to be its best ambassador. £170,000 later, it seems like a pretty good decision.
Christmas 2016 provided some great inspiration too.
The festive adverts were a great reminder of the power of storytelling, lingering longer in our minds than the leftover turkey. We’re all familiar with the heart-warming Christmas advert stories by John Lewis and Sainsbury’s – but have you stopped to think about how little the companies feature in their own adverts? By deliberately staying out the limelight, they make their adverts feel less 'salesy' and more authentic, so people are far more likely to share them.
My favourite Christmas 2016 advert actually came from Poland, in the form of this lovely tale about a man learning English so he can visit his new family:
It’s been viewed nearly 13 million times and widely shared by countless people have fallen in love with the simple, human story. The people behind it, an online auction company called Allegro, barely feature in it at all – yet they’ve gained loads of column inches and seen a big spike in searches and website hits as a result.
So why not enlist others to help tell our stories?
In today's world of spontaneous online interactions, I think that too many charities underestimate how well others can tell their story for them.
I was listening to a social media expert answer questions from charities recently and one of her answers really stuck with me. She was asked how to balance the need to be nimble and react quickly on social media with the need to have ‘brand control’ and sign-off procedures for less experienced staff.
Her view was simple: when you take on new staff, they automatically become your ambassadors. You trust them to represent your organisation to their friends and family, to talk about you at parties, in the pub, or over a cup of coffee, and often this leads to really useful introductions – so why not do it online?
As you consider your New Year’s Resolutions for 2017, do you think your organisation is brave enough to take a step back and let your supporters tell their own story too?
This undoubtedly requires courage, faith in the people who represent you, and a willingness to relinquish control. But get it right, and maybe someday people will be talking about your viral campaign and wondering how they could replicate it.
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