Here’s a secret that not every fundraiser will admit: we all go through periods where things aren’t going to plan and we’re not quite sure how to change it. Periods when it feels like the money is drying up, you’re hearing no more often than yes, and you’re struggling to inject that fresh sparkle into your work.
With Covid-19 piling yet more pressure and competition on trusts and foundations, there’s arguably never been a tougher time to fundraise. For many organisations, emergency funding will tide them over until the end of the financial year, but the pressure to find that next big grant win is never far away.
If you're going through a lean patch and feel like you've tried everything, here's out checklist of things to try:
1. Beef up your evidence of need
Funders generally only care about what you do and how you do it if you first convince them why your work is so vital. This is one of the best ways to make sure your application truly stands out.
If you haven’t taken the time recently to refresh your evidence base, this is a great way to strengthen your case for support. For example:
2. Bring things to life with case studies, images and videos
If your core narrative is already strong, then turning your attention to the supporting elements is a great way to enhance your applications:
Too many people think of trusts and foundations as faceless institutions only looking for cold hard facts and statistics. But great applications appeal to hearts as well as minds. Even the larger, professionally-run funders like human detail, personal stories and visual content - so this is often an area to make quick improvements.
3. Squeeze every drop of feedback from funders
Trusts and foundations often feel they lack the time and resources to provide feedback (particularly at the moment) or worry it might be contentious and generate unwanted debate. But if you're persistent and diligent about seeking and responding to feedback, it's a great way of turning around a run of rejections.
Even if a funder doesn’t automatically provide feedback, it’s sometimes possible to get it by asking politely, explaining why it would be so helpful and being clear and specific about what you want.
Try calling rather than emailing for feedback - in my experience, funders are often willing to give more detailed and honest feedback over the phone, as it can be more nuanced and ‘off the record’. If you’ve managed to build a rapport with a Grants Officer before submitting an application, they’re much more likely to be helpful afterwards too.
4. Revisit your project - is there another way to deliver it?
In the current climate, many funders will be more risk-averse - with more applicants, and potentially less money to give away, they'll be keen to avoid projects that don't deliver results.
This could pose a problem if you’re trying to deliver an experimental or long-term project, or reliant on grants from several funders to go ahead. With Covid-19, many organisations can demonstrate an urgent need for support and show how grants will have an instant impact. In a crisis-driven landscape, the last thing funders want is the possibility that your grant might lie dormant for a few months before it can be spent.
So now is a good time to step back and consider whether there’s a different way of delivering your project:
5. Anticipate and address any ‘red flags’
There are common reasons why funders might be concerned about your organisation – if your reserves seem too high or too low (sometimes you can’t win!), if your work sounds unusually expensive to deliver, or perhaps if it sounds like a service that they expect another organisation (or the local authority) to be delivering instead.
If you’re experiencing a run of funding rejections, spend some time anticipating what your ‘red flags’ might be, and proactively address them in your applications. If you can’t get feedback from funders to help with this, try going through your applications with a mentor, friend or fundraiser from another charity to get some independent advice and a new perspective.
6. Do some fresh prospect research
Trusts and foundations frequently change their priorities and new programmes spring up all the time, particularly as funders scramble to respond to changing needs arising from Covid-19. While you'll inevitably stumble across some opportunities by chance or word-of-mouth, doing some proactive research will help you to unearth better prospects, and is a great way out of a rut.
It helps to think creatively about the impact of your projects, particularly if they're a bit niche. For example, with a few tweaks to your case for support, your community gardening project might appeal to funders that are focused on improving mental health or reducing social isolation for older people, but weren't previously on your radar.
We recommend using a funding database like Funds Online or Funding Central, or the excellent free database by Charity Excellence Framework. You should also check whether you can sign up for regular funding alerts with your local authority or Community Voluntary Service (CVS).
7. Review the balance between quality and quantity
When a couple of key funding decisions go against you, it’s easy to hit the panic button and start churning out as many applications as possible. While this might temporarily ease the pressure, it rarely produces better results. Actually, you probably need to spend more rather than less time getting applications spot on, in the ways that we’ve described above.
If you’re on an unlucky run, take a step back and make sure you’re focusing on quality rather than quantity - even if that involves pushing back on pressure and targets from anxious colleagues. Use previous successes to remind yourself that you are good at your job, and that by following some of the steps above, you’ll turn around results in no time.
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.
Time will tell, but I really hope the last couple of weeks will be a landmark moment in history, with the Black Lives Matter movement gathering widespread support, and people doing some genuine, long-overdue soul-searching about racial inequality. Bristol, where I live, has felt like the epicentre of grassroots change, with the dramatic toppling of the statue of Edward Colston.
Bristol is a city haunted by the slave trade, and this statue has been a focal point of the long debate about the legacy of Edward Colston. It's important to remember that the statue is very much the tip of the iceberg – at last count, Bristol ‘boasts’ eight streets, two pubs, two schools, a fruity bun and the city’s largest music venue named after Colston.
Disentangling the messy web spun by such a prolific philanthropist has proved complicated, particularly as change has long been opposed by influential philanthropists in Bristol. People only took matters into their own hands after many tried - unsuccessfully - to find a democratic solution for years.
This is something to be celebrated - and many have been, including the CEO of the Wolfson Foundation:
I want to agree with this sentiment, but actually I think we're at the very beginning of the argument, not the end. While few people would actively argue that philanthropy excuses the unethical practices that first generated that money, this view is inadvertently endorsed every day - and fundraisers and charities are very much complicit in this. There are examples everywhere, once you start to look.
The day after the statue came down, I felt this strange need to go down to the site myself, and just...think. I started writing this blog down there.
Looming above the smashed plinth and handful of people still milling about was Colston Tower - a building that can’t be torn down by people who are fed up of waiting for official action. If Bristol wants to fully rid itself of the Colston legacy, this is going to take a conscious decision from those in power whose track record - no matter they say - still suggests they believe that philanthropic good deeds outweigh harmful past actions.
Of course, this isn't just a Bristol problem. London's Tate Galleries take their name from Henry Tate, whose company Tate & Lyle was inextricably tied with the sugar industry and the slave trade.
A great many museums have received large donations from the Sackler Trust, and some bear the Sackler name. You might well know that the Sackler Trust was closely linked to Purdue Pharma, who are accused of fuelling the US opioid crisis and spent years aggressively pursuing legal action so they could continue selling their highly addictive drugs.
But we're on safer ground with most corporate foundations, right? I know countless grassroots community projects that have benefitted from grants connected to the banking sector - think Santander Foundation, the RBS Skills and Opportunities Fund, and Barclays' new 100x100 UK COVID-19 Community Relief Programme. Yet a 2018 report by Ethical Consumer magazine said this:
How many charities write ethical fundraising policies that prohibit donations from philanthropists involved in these 'problem sectors', but wouldn’t think twice about applying for a grant from a foundation connected to one of the big five banks?
The trouble is that while most people have clear views about Edward Colston, underneath this there's a huge grey area. And the more you dig, the greyer it gets.
Many social welfare charities are funded by wealthy family trusts whose trustees have, for decades, both implemented and supported policies that drive a coach and horses through social mobility. Their businesses often pay as little tax as possible and profit greatly from things like zero hours contracts - which keep vast numbers of people, including so many charity service users, locked in poverty.
2020 brought a new entrant to the UK trusts and foundations scene: the Hargreaves Foundation – founded by Peter Hargreaves, major donor to the Leave.EU Brexit campaign, friend of Jacob Rees-Mogg, and a man who outlined his employment policies and interest in charities in an interview with The Sunday Times:
And I recently discovered this remarkable exclusion from a small family trust in Oxfordshire: “We will not support charities that in our view are ambivalent about, or actively campaign for the abolition of, field sports.” Imagine being so vehemently pro-field sports that you simply wouldn’t consider funding a charity that has even mixed feelings about fox-hunting?!
Does any of this really matter? Where should we draw the line?
Should we only reject money from those who have been publicly condemned for doing Very Bad Things? Or are harmful but widespread business practices up for scrutiny too? When should we take people's publicly held opinions into account - when they actively harm our beneficiaries, when they go against our charity's message, or when we just find them personally repugnant?
I'm not saying everyone will take issue will all of the above examples - or that you should. But it's an important conversation to have. And I think that recent events in Bristol should mark the beginning of the argument about hypocritical philanthropy, not the end.
It's an inescapable fact that philanthropy is closely tied with extreme wealth, and most of that wealth is derived from activities that increase inequality. Philanthropy often buys people 'a seat at the table', and this gives a particular audience – wealthy, privileged, mostly white, usually male – disproportionate influence to implement their own vision of equality, social mobility and climate change. A vision that is, almost certainly, very different from your own.
If we want to address this, we’re going to have to start digging a lot deeper than Edward Colston.
You don’t need me to tell you that the world has turned completely upside down. In recent months, you’ve likely faced new challenges, had to come up with new ways of working, and completely reinvented services or repurposed people’s roles.
As we've been sharing fundraising advice with our clients, I've noticed that while much of this work involves interpreting and responding to new situations, it’s amazing how much hasn’t changed. So many of our top tips for good fundraising in ‘normal’ times hold true for crisis fundraising too.
Amid the current uncertainty, it's comforting to fall back on some universal fundraising rules. No matter what life throws at us next, we're pretty confident that these rules will never let you down...
1. It’s better to do a few things well than stretch yourself too thin
Whether you’re deciding which emergency funding opportunities to pursue, or making a top-level decision about to do as part of your fundraising strategy, prioritisation is vital. While it’s natural to worry leaving stones unturned, or feel under pressure not to say no, taking on too much is usually the bigger issue. When you spread yourself too thin, you don’t leave yourself enough time to do things properly, and you’ll raise less money as a result.
Every decision you make to sacrifice or postpone something less important frees up more of your time to pursue something you’re really good at, or well placed to succeed with. Fundraising is a skilled profession and requires diligence and quality. That doesn’t mean only ever concentrating on one thing - diversifying income sources over time is important - but don’t bite off more than you can chew.
2. Always play to your strengths
When deciding what to prioritise, always give yourself the best possible chance of success – which funders do we fit best with, or know our work already? What activities have historically raised us the most money? What types of donor do we have the best relationship with, or are most likely to appreciate what we do?
This sounds obvious, but I’m amazed how many organisations make their lives more difficult by attempting things they don’t have the skills to do well, moving into a completely new market, or banking on quickly building good relationships with donors or funders from scratch. By all means try new things, but don't bank on instant success, and consider whether there are easier opportunities to explore first. And don’t assume that something that worked for another organisation will automatically work for you.
Shameless plug: we help organisations to understand their strengths and weaknesses, prioritise the best fundraising opportunities and over-committing their resources to things that won't work.
3. Invest time in quality relationships
I'm reluctant to use the phrase ‘relationship fundraising’, because it's been around (and over-used) for decades. But let’s look at why relationships with funders and donors are so valuable. They give you a ‘way in’ to pick somebody’s brains about an idea or application, and get insight and advice that isn’t available to all. They create friends who naturally want your organisation to do well, and are in your corner when things go wrong. They enable you to reach many more people by leveraging your friends' networks too.
Just like in our social lives, good relationships open us up to new opportunities and help us out in moments of need. In the current crisis, so many organisations have leant on their existing funders and donors for extra financial support, more flexibility in how to use donations, and introductions and recommendations to others. Those key relationships are delivering a financial return like never before.
This rule is being disrupted by rise of online fundraising platforms like Facebook Giving Tools, which make it virtually impossible to gather donor data and consent. In rare cases, you may decide that the immediate fundraising return is worth sacrificing the potential for new donor relationships. But more often than not, building relationships is key to raising money and weathering an unexpected crisis.
4. A great thank you is one of your best fundraising tools
This rule holds true across every type of fundraising. A well-written report to your current funder is more likely to lead to a new grant than a cold application to a new funder. Thanking individual donors often leads to repeat gifts, while asking people for a donation for the first time has a low response rate. Well-timed follow-ups with events participants or crowdfunding supporters build your future regular donor base.
This blog explores the power of saying thank you, and our recent podcast episode explores the psychology behind why it makes donors feel good. Too many organisations still don’t get this right, but why? A common mistake is seeing thanking donors as a tedious admin task to tick off quickly when you have a dull moment, rather than an essential fundraising task to do promptly and do well. Re-framing your approach to thanking donors will help you to raise more - after all, it’s key to building relationships.
5. Fundraising is a whole organisation endeavour
Organisations that develop a strong fundraising culture, where everyone takes responsibility for success, raise more.
This doesn’t mean that everyone has the time or expertise to directly ask for money. But everyone can play a role by introducing their contacts, sharing content on social media, providing quality project information for fundraising updates, volunteering at events, and being a sounding board for ideas. All these things will improve your return on investment, broaden your supporter base, and make your fundraisers feel supported and happy.
No fundraiser excels with all the responsibility on their shoulders. Many organisations have achieved remarkable wins in the past two months because the crisis has focused minds and made people pull together. Now we need to make sure we keep this up in 'normal' times too.
6. All the best fundraising activities take time
Given everything we’ve said about planning activities carefully, taking the time to say thank you and building relationships, it’s not surprising that success is rarely immediate. Expecting instant results not only leads to disappointment, but can cause you to abandon promising activities because you judge them too quickly.
Corporate and major donor fundraising, and particularly legacy fundraising for obvious reasons, take a long time to bear fruit. It can take well over a year to secure big donations from companies or wealthy individuals, and several years to yield a consistent return. These activities can gradually become a crucial part of a long-term profitable portfolio, but they won’t save you tomorrow. Expecting instant results will just put people under pressure, reduce the quality of your fundraising, and harm long-term success.
7. Take a step back to move forward
With money tighter than ever, fundraisers are often under pressure to move straight on to the next event, appeal or application, without considering what they learned and where improvements can be made.
As with saying thank you, this analysis is often seen as an added extra rather than essential part of the fundraising process. But gathering feedback from supporters, analysing data from your CRM and pausing to reflect are crucial to improving your approach over time. If you skip this, you’ll raise less, not more.
The current crisis is no different. Right now we're all hastily adapting approaches and raising emergency funds, but there will come a time for all-important reflection. Which of these new approaches might work in normal times too? Which emergency donors can we build a profitable long-term relationship with? What have we learned that will help us prepare better for the next crisis? The organisations that make time for this reflection will do better in the long-term too.
Tell us any universal fundraising rules that we've missed off this list in the comments below 👇👇
Like many, I’ve been watching on with despair at the impact of coronavirus on the charity sector. One of the things we’re doing to help in our own small way is to run a series of free live Q&As to give small charities advice on how to deal with the crisis.
During the first Q&A, amid the technical questions about emergency grant funding, urgent fundraising appeals and strategic planning, one question jumped out: “Are there opportunities in the general gloom?”
I really don’t want to trivialise what is an incredibly tough time for many. The current crisis is likely to have a huge long-term financial impact. Many charities are facing closure or being tested like never before. At a time when there was already nowhere near enough funding to go around, this is one more straw added to the camel’s back. And as Emily Maitlis brilliantly said, coronavirus will disproportionately impact the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. It’s no exaggeration to say that I worry about these things every day.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t any positives in the gloom. New attitudes and ways of working are being born out of necessity, but some of them could be here to stay. At a time when we all need a boost, it’s helpful to highlight a few…
The flexible response from funders
Barring a couple of horror stories, most funders have responded overwhelmingly positively and are rallying around the sector. They’re giving grantees an unprecedented level of flexibility in terms of how, where and when they spend the money. In general, funders are giving away more money more quickly, with easier processes and fewer restrictions and reporting requirements, than ever seen.
It’s important to remember that many funders are also registered charities and have their own charitable objectives to adhere to. This often explains why they have restrictions and reporting requirements in place. However, sometimes it also comes down to control and trust. Funders are currently ceding this control to charities and trusting them to use their judgement on where money is needed most - and if charities prove that this trust is well placed, it’s possible that many funders will continue offering increased flexibility in future.
If you're unsure how best to tackle funders in these unusual times, we've tried to explain through the unlikely medium of an onion:
The groundswell of public gratitude
Public and media attention are focused on things like the NHS, food banks and grassroots community organisations like never before. The Prime Minister is praising the NHS for saving his life, and looking like he might even still remember it in six months. Conservative MPs are publicly questioning their assumptions about so-called ‘low-skilled workers’. You really do have to pinch yourself to be sure this is actually happening – although it’s a shame and disgrace that it took this level of crisis to prompt it.
Of course, the challenge will be to maintain this level of public support whenever things go back to(wards) normal. Still, maybe I’m being naïve, but it does feel like there’ll be an opportunity to change long-term perceptions for the better, and keep up public pressure on decision-makers, if we can harness the amazing stories of community solidarity, and the levels of recognition and gratitude, that currently exist.
Some people have more time and money to give than usual
Again, we mustn't trivialise things. Many people are under more financial pressure than ever, and face the thankless task of juggling work commitments and care responsibilities. But equally, plenty of others actually have more time and money to give. There are people furloughed from work, desperate to do something to help, saving on their daily commute, and not spending money in pubs and restaurants. This is an opportunity.
Pressuring people to donate in the current climate is unconscionable. And you should consider the ethics of running an ‘emergency fundraising appeal’ now for the sake of hitting targets, if there isn’t actually an urgent need. But if you’re being hit hard, explain what problems this crisis is causing for you, and give your supporters the opportunity to help fix them. Not everybody will be able to donate, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask. If any of the charities that I regularly support went out of business now, and hadn’t asked for my help, I’d feel very frustrated.
This is an opportunity for volunteering as well as fundraising. More than ever, don't be afraid to ask people to give their time. Trust me, there are plenty of people out there – including children, teachers, graphic designers – who will jump at the opportunity to channel their creativity positively. Check out our associate consultant Gemma’s amazing blog on why micro-volunteering is more important than ever.
Necessity really is the mother of invention
How often do we hear phrases like “that’s not how we do things”, “there’s no point in trying that” or “it’ll never work because…”?
Coronavirus and social distancing are removing many of the obstacles that might traditionally block innovation. People are inventing like never before, and entire businesses and workforces are being re-purposed. Formula One teams are making ventilators. Louis Vuitton are making hand sanitiser. Virus-killing snoods...hands-free door handles...anyway, let’s get back on topic.
I’ve been blown away by the response from so many charities. Many seemingly and understandably took a week or two to quietly panic and face up to the new reality, then came roaring back with new, incredibly well thought-out ways of delivering services, interacting with supporters and engaging staff. Digital delivery and remote working have taken off like never before. New and unexpected partnerships are being forged within and across sectors.
At Lime Green HQ, we’ve provided online training for several years but there are other things we’ve always insisted on doing face-to-face – to be honest, I now realise that many of the barriers were in our heads.
For many organisations, the results of their efforts have been surprisingly positive. Not everything will work first time, or even at all – but there’s a tremendous opportunity now to test things and learn, at a time when people are being more patient and accommodating than ever.
Increased flexibility and reduced travel are also bringing unexpected benefits – for the environment, for people’s wallets and, for example, for people with a disability. That’s not to say that many people won’t be counting down to the day we can all meet, learn and do things face-to-face again. But we should examine many of the things born out of social distancing, and ask whether some of them should be here to stay.
Any big positives that we've missed? Tell us on Twitter or in the comments below...
Ask people about a trust fundraiser's most important skills and I bet these would be common answers:
These are all vital, but I've got an underrated one to add to the list: the ability to ask the right questions.
The trouble with the art of ‘writing convincingly’ is that it can be misunderstood as ‘papering over the cracks to make sure we've got a good chance of succeeding’.
As a trusts fundraiser, have you ever been guilty of the following:
Many organisations approach us for fundraising support to help make their jobs easier. And in many ways, we try to be easy to work with: we plan ahead to allow time for deadlines, we condense funding guidelines into a few key bullet points, we'll sift through dense background reading to find a few key points for an application.
But you know what - sometimes we’re a bit of a pain to work with, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s easy to keep people happy, pretend you’ve got everything you need for a strong application and submit it as quickly as possible. Initially, everyone will feel great. Then when the funder comes back and says no, suddenly everybody is a lot less happy.
That's why it's important to avoid papering over the cracks and be prepared to ask the difficult questions:
This isn't about voicing your personal concerns. It's about trying to really get under the skin of the funder and anticipating what they'll think when reading your application. What will they be looking out for as proof that you know your stuff? What aspects might they be concerned about, given their own funding priorities? Will they understand all the language you've used if they don’t have specialist knowledge of the subject?
Sometimes this means having a certain amount of distance from the cause is a good thing. Our clients often tell us that they chose to work with us because we're knowledgeable and passionate about their work. I agree this can be a good thing, particularly when approaching specialist funders, but it's also risky to know far more about a subject than the person who’s going to be reading your work, or so convinced about a project that you lose the ability to critique it objectively.
All that said, when you’re working with people who are super busy and a funding deadline is looming, I appreciate that digging your heels in and asking difficult questions won’t always make you popular.
But ask yourself this - would you rather have a difficult conversation during the drafting process when there's still time to address something, even if people think you're being too cautious? Or deal with the disappointment later when an application is rejected and you're powerless to fix it?
I’d always rather trust my judgement and stick to my guns on a point that could be crucial to the funder, than regret having backed down later.
People do usually appreciate this in the long run. We've had plenty of tricky conversations with clients when working on a major application, but they frequently tell us later that it was worth going through the pain to make it stronger.
That's not to say you'll always get your way - we all get overruled sometimes, and have to back down or at least pick our battles. The important thing to remember is that your job is to ask the right questions, not to provide all the answers.
So here's my challenge to all the trusts fundraisers out there: be bold, be prepared to ask the difficult questions, and don't think you're doing your organisation a favour by papering over the cracks. If your colleagues think you’re always a dream to work with, perhaps you're not raising as much money as you could...
And if this leads to the odd difficult conversation internally, then by all means blame us and point people towards this blog!
We work with many charities and social enterprises who are trying to get new fundraising income streams up and running and/or are tight on unrestricted funds. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that we sometimes get asked if we’d consider working on a commission or performance-related pay basis.
I can see why, at first glance, this might appeal to organisations that have limited cash available to resource fundraising, or feel nervous about committing to expenditure without a guaranteed return. Investing in fundraising often feels like a Catch-22 situation, particularly when you’re prompted to do it because other funding sources have dried up.
However, there are many reasons why payment by commission is actually harmful to you. The simplest answer is that the Institute of Fundraising discourages both fundraisers and charities from taking this approach, however this in itself doesn’t explain the challenges and issues that can arise as a result.
Here’s why we don’t undertake any fundraising work on a commission basis, and why you should think twice about doing so:
IT'S LIKELY TO PUT OFF FUNDERS AND DONORS
In fundraising you inevitably hear ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’, so a fundraiser working on a results basis would have to set a fairly high commission percentage to make it work. Imagine how a funder or donor would feel knowing that the first x% of their donation is going straight into somebody else’s pocket – particularly if they’re donating a large amount, and particularly at a time when there’s so much focus on how donations are used and what percentage is spent on overheads etc. Payment by commission can lead to you excessively rewarding a fundraiser, and is very likely to cost you donations.
IT CAN PUT HARMFUL PRESSURE ON DONORS AND FUNDRAISERS
Fundraising is already a delicate balancing act between the financial needs of the organisation, the wishes of the donor and any ethical considerations. Now factor in a fundraiser who feels desperate to secure that donation, otherwise they won’t get paid. Sometimes we all have to walk away from potential donations, for example if the donor seems vulnerable and unsure about giving, or if the organisation may be compromised in some way by accepting. Paying a fundraiser on a commission basis makes it less likely they’ll make that difficult decision to say no when you need them to.
IT GIVES THE WRONG IMPRESSION THAT FUNDRAISERS ARE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR SUCCESS
Fundraising is a collective effort. When we work with an organisation, we may be responsible for crafting the ask and coordinating the process, but we can’t do it without you: your project information, your impact data and your contacts. If the fundraiser is the only one who loses out if things go wrong, you’re not creating the right conditions for success. When you pay a fundraiser a salary or a day rate, you’re making an investment in fundraising too, so the whole organisation has a vested interest in playing their part.
IT UNDERVALUES SO MUCH IMPORTANT WORK THAT ENABLES GOOD FUNDRAISING
As per Simon Scriver’s blog, a surprisingly small percentage of a fundraiser’s role involves asking for money. They spend most of their time researching prospects, building relationships, saying thank you, gathering project and impact data, and developing processes: this is essential for successful fundraising, even if it doesn’t always lead to a donation. If a fundraiser only receives commission, they’re not being paid for the vast majority of their hard work. So will they still feel motivated to do those all-important support tasks? If they're pressured into a quick-fire ‘spray and pray’ approach, this has a negative impact on your organisation.
IT’S VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO ADMINISTER IN PRACTICE
Fundraising is a long game. You might wait 6-12 months to hear back from a trust. A corporate donation or major gift is often years in the making. Several fundraisers may feed into the process (one makes the introduction, one writes the copy, someone else attends the final meeting). So how do you decide who receives what commission, and when? How do you avoid multiple fundraisers ‘competing’ for the same commission? How do you reward a fundraiser who moved on ages ago? And how can a fundraiser plan their income with so much uncertainty?
IT ACTUALLY WORKS AGAINST SMALLER ORGANISATIONS
We work with a broad range of organisations, from start-up social enterprises with a £50,000 turnover to charities running multi-million pound capital appeals. The work involved with a £10,000 application and a £1million ask may actually be similar, yet payment on a commission basis values them completely differently. If a fundraiser is working on both simultaneously, with competing tight deadlines, you can imagine which one will get most of their attention, even if this is sub-conscious.
So here's the clincher: payment by commission, which at first glance may seem so appealing to you as a smaller organisation, can in reality penalise you and de-value your donations.
If you’re looking for fundraising support, get in touch with us now and we’ll explain exactly how our day rates and fixed fees work – but don’t expect us to use the word ‘commission’ at any point!
We often get asked by charities and social enterprises for advice on how they can raise more unrestricted funding from trusts and foundations.
Many organisations are very successful at securing grant income, yet still find themselves in a tight financial position because the majority of funding tends to be restricted to a specific purpose. While project funding is vital, it rarely gives you the flexibility you need to thrive as a resilient and innovative organisation.
We've compiled some of our best tips on how to achieve the holy grail of unrestricted grant income - from some obvious funders to approach, to how to think outside the box when it comes to improving your financial position through trusts and foundations fundraising.
1. APPLY TO SPECIALIST CORE FUNDERS
While it’s understandably tempting for funders to want to fund tangible and exciting projects, this doesn’t give organisations the freedom to pay key staff or cover central costs. Not unlike yoga, strengthening your core is vital and will make you much better at everything else you’re trying to achieve too.
There’s a growing recognition in the sector that smaller organisations in particular need access to more flexible funding if they are to survive and thrive, particularly at a time when so much local authority funding has dried up. Lloyds Bank Foundation CEO Paul Streets has been particularly vocal about the damage caused by 'projectitis'.
Here are a few funders that give core funding to a broad range of charitable causes:
If you’re looking for core funding, here are a few tips:
2. IDENTIFY YOUR ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT NEEDS THEN APPROACH SPECIALIST FUNDERS
It's easy to focus on core funding, but what are your specific development needs which mean that project funding isn't suitable? For example, you might be looking to scope out an innovative new idea, invest in a building or specific piece of equipment, or improve your digital capabilities.
For each of these areas, there are specialist funders who can help. For example:
Clearly these types of funding will be a little more restrictive than no-strings core funding. However, being specific about your needs will enable you to make a more convincing case for support and open up a broader range of potential funders, thereby increasing your chances of securing that much-needed investment.
3. BUILD GREAT RELATIONSHIPS WITH FUNDERS
Many funders don’t explicitly provide core funding, but will consider providing unrestricted grants to organisations they know, value and trust. But getting in position to access these opportunities takes time, effort and patience.
You’ll probably need to secure at least one, possibly several project-specific grants from a funder first, then focus on building a relationship with them. It helps to go above and beyond expectations by thanking funders quickly and in a memorable way, then reporting well on the grant you received – either by demonstrating that the project went well, or by reflecting honestly on any challenges or complications experienced.
We recently blogged about the importance of building relationships with individual donors and how many organisations get this wrong. The same principles apply to trusts fundraising. A funder that’s engaged in your work is worth 10-20 funders on a cold prospects list, yet so many organisations prioritise the wrong thing.
Once a funder knows you well, they could support you by inviting you to apply for an invitation-only funding round, proactively supporting you with an urgent fundraising campaign, recommending you to other funders, or even just sending you an unsolicited extra cheque. This happens surprisingly frequently but almost never by accident - you need a strategic focus on building great relationships.
4. IMPROVE YOUR BUDGETING AND FULL COST RECOVERY
This tip isn’t so much about securing unrestricted funding, but reducing how much you need in the first place. Trusts and foundations fundraising isn’t just about writing applications – with a better approach to project planning and budgeting, you can ensure you have a smaller funding gap to fill.
Create a budget calculator for staff, with fixed rows for venue hire, volunteer expenses, travel etc. This helps people to cost up projects accurately in the first place and avoid budget overspends which then need to be covered by unrestricted funds.
Calculate staffing costs for projects carefully, checking with every funder what you’re allowed to include. Don’t just include the main project staff – if other staff (e.g. your Director) are committing time for line management or evaluation, include a percentage of their time if possible. This ensures your project funding fully covers the true cost of your projects, meaning your unrestricted funds can go on something else.
Include a contribution towards overhead costs in each project budget – this could be a blanket 10% or a more specific calculation, depending on the funder's requirements. Collecting lots of small core contributions in this way is often easier than leaving yourself with a big funding gap to cover with core funding requests.
5. SEND SPECULATIVE CORE FUNDING REQUESTS TO SMALLER FUNDERS
Trusts and foundations fundraising is not a numbers game, and we don’t recommend the ‘spray and pray’ approach of sending generic funding applications quickly to lots of funders.
That said, if you’ve conducted prospect research to develop a funding pipeline, you might find you build up a collection of potential funders who have very broad funding interests and no specific application form or guidelines, making it difficult to identify a specific project to approach them about.
You could therefore consider putting together a core funding template, broadly explaining your work and impact in 2-4 pages and giving a couple of examples of how a small grant would benefit you. You could then send this to batches of say 10-20 funders at a time. Expect a low success rate (even 5% might be optimistic) but treat this as a shot to nothing with funders whom you wouldn’t otherwise approach.
This is likely to work best for smaller, community-rooted organisations whose work is easy to explain and has emotional impact, and who don’t have high reserves. It’s only worth trying in some circumstances, and the usual recommendations for trusts fundraising still apply – you should try to contact the funder first to check if they can give you any advice on applying, and you should tailor each application to their funding interests and average support level as much as you can.
Buzzwords come and go in fundraising. They get picked up as flavour of the month by fundraisers, charities and funders alike, and fade away just as quickly. Although the words frequently change, the concepts behind them are often more fundamental and enduring.
For me, one of the most important buzzwords in trusts fundraising at the moment is co-production. This is also commonly referred to as co-creation or co-design, and linked to ‘ABCD’ (or asset-based community development). Isn’t jargon exciting?
What is co-production and why is it so important?
Co-production has a broader definition in project management circles, however in a charity context it usually refers to the practice of involving your service users, clients or beneficiaries (more fun lingo to choose from) in the development of your services.
Funders value knowing that your projects aren’t planned in a top-down fashion based on what you think people want or need, but are genuinely based on their ideas, aspirations and unmet needs. This isn’t about token consultation exercises, but actively involving the people you support in your project design. For example here’s a guide to co-production in social care, along with some key principles.
This isn’t a new idea, and it’s not really a fundraising concept at all – it’s fundamental to service delivery.
However I’m seeing increasing examples of funders specifically talking about or asking for evidence of co-production. I review draft funding applications on a daily basis, and it's one of the most common areas where I feel that organisations can make improvements. In a competitive funding climate, failing to show evidence of this can give funders an easy excuse to discard your application.
So how can you build co-production into your project planning and tweak your funding applications to better emphasise what you’re doing?
Don’t underestimate what you do naturally
For many organisations that we work with, co-production can feel like a strange thing to focus on. It’s not something they consciously try to do, because it’s second nature already.
If you run a local community centre, for example, your frontline staff will be interacting with your service users on a daily basis, and constantly evolving activities to reflect their ideas and unmet needs.
And this is fine – in fact, it’s often ideal. Co-production doesn’t always mean contrived exercises. But don’t expect a funder to assume you’re doing it, or give you credit for it, unless you tell them.
Spend some time reflecting on how this happens organically in your organisation, then include at least a paragraph about this in your funding applications. For example you could explain how staff and service users typically interact, the questions that your frontline staff like to ask, and your internal processes for factoring people's feedback and ideas into service design.
Demonstrate how you gather structured feedback
Depending on the nature of your work, co-production may not happen quite as organically. And even if it does, it can be useful to gather more structured, formal feedback periodically.
Surveys are excellent for quickly gathering broad feedback. Online surveys usually enable you to reach more people more quickly and analyse data automatically, but only if your service users have online access. You can use focus groups to test specific ideas or explore topics in more detail and gather more in-depth feedback.
Demonstrate your approach to gathering feedback in your funding applications. Cite both your quantitative results (e.g. survey data) and qualitative results (e.g. individual quotes). If a funder asks a specific question about co-production, use the space to explain your approach and rationale in more detail.
If you have the budget, appointing an independent consultant or agency to design the feedback process and/or analyse the results can bring added credibility. We recently designed an independent consultation process for a charity and later helped them to write funding applications, and the independent feedback data has been invaluable in demonstrating the need for their work and the extent to which service users are involved.
Explain how you use feedback and work with people to improve your services
Of course, listening is only one part of the process. And it counts for little if you don’t act on what you’re being told.
Successful projects often have steering groups or committees who meet regularly to review impact data and service user feedback, then take action where needed. Steering groups should include (ideally multiple) representatives who have lived experience of the issue you’re tackling. Organisations that really succeed in embedding co-production in their work - and maximising their impact - often have representatives with lived experience on their Board of Trustees.
Providing evidence of all this should impress funders, however it can still sound a bit theoretical. So go one step further and include some concrete examples of how you’ve co-created services. For example, were your service users instrumental in designing any of your current services, or have you improved or evolved a project in specific response to feedback?
This is especially important if you’re trying to do something unusual or surprising that a funder may not naturally value. Funders often have specific ideas about how work should be delivered, yet also say that co-production is important to them, which can feel contradictory!
And what about if you’re writing a final report for a project which needs further support, where you already know that the funder won't provide simple continuation funding? Would they be more receptive if you demonstrated your learning and proposed a slightly different, co-created project as a follow-up?
Finally, not everything that you tell a funder needs to come from the horse’s mouth. Testimonials and endorsements – from either service users involved in your work, or delivery partners who are impressed with your approach – are great for increasing your credibility in a funder’s eyes.
10 DONATIONS IN 10 WEEKS - HERE'S WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT THANK YOUS, CONVERSATION-STARTERS & PAYMENT PLATFORMS
The charity sector isn’t short of excellent blogs about the importance of thanking your donors – including this guest blog from our associate Gemma and this article about SUPER thank yous.
Most fundraisers are well aware that thank yous are key to building a relationship with donors, and that increasing support from existing donors tends to be easier and more cost-effective than recruiting new ones. But how many charities are actually putting this into practice, particularly when faced with the realities of lack of time and competing priorities?
I’ve been doing a little experiment to find out, making 10 modest donations to different charities over 10 weeks.
Professional curiosity wasn’t my only motivation – we work with so many fantastic charities, and since moving to Bristol I’ve found out about many worthy local causes. Every year I have to calculate my charitable donations for my tax return – and although I support a few charities regularly, this always reminds me that I could do more.
10 donations later, here’s how I got on and what I think you need to know – about thank yous, conversation-starters and payment platforms...
Each donation was a one-off online gift of £20 – this felt significant enough to have a genuine impact, but small enough to perhaps fly under the radar for charities who don’t routinely thank their donors. I suspect many £20 donors could be persuaded to give again – maybe regularly – if treated well enough.
I’d never supported any of these charities before. Although I have contacts at a couple, I didn’t tell them I was going to donate.
My passion lies with smaller charities, so most donations were to small, local causes that I personally feel passionate about – including youth, homelessness, refugees, food banks and city farms. As a 'control', I also donated to two large charities who really should have the resources to thank donors properly – including one spontaneous donation for Cyclone Idai, which has been scandalously under-reported in the British media.
When given the option, I always included a message explaining my reasons for giving, and opted in to further contact by post, email or both – these are causes I’m naturally interested in after all.
I haven’t named any of the charities in this blog, unless to show examples of amazing things they did – this is about general lessons learned, not naming and shaming.
The headline results
I don’t know who first said ‘silence is golden’, but I doubt it was a donor
It was disappointing to never hear back from two charities, and wait weeks for a reply from two others.
I’m realistic enough to know that a £20 donation isn’t going to change the world, but making a contribution definitely feels good. There’s plenty of research to suggest this feeling can be an addictive buzz for donors, and a nice thank you – and some further information about the cause – is a great way to nurture that buzz. I know that I’ll support several of these charities again, based on my interactions so far.
On the other hand, doing nothing is a sure-fire buzz-kill. More than being rude, it’s a missed opportunity. There are so many worthy causes out there, and if someone has chosen yours then that’s an opportunity worth investing in – because if you don’t make them feel good about their support, another charity will.
Sure, thanking a donor isn’t guaranteed to lead to further support. But think of all the other fundraising activities you willingly do which don’t guarantee success – grant applications, corporate pitches, mass appeals. My gut feeling is that a memorable thank you takes much less time and has a better chance of paying off.
Don’t miss an easy opportunity to start a conversation
For most donations, I was given the opportunity to add a message, which I used to explain why I’d decided to donate, and which aspect of the charity’s work particularly interested me.
None of the 10 charities referenced this in their thank yous. Maybe they didn’t see the message, or just didn’t think it was important. This surprised me, as I’ve already considered this one of the simplest and most natural ways to personalise your reply and start building a relationship.
Phrases like ‘Since you expressed an interested in X, I thought I’d tell you…’ or ‘Is there anything else you’d like to know about Y?’ show donors that you’re listening, and encourage them to open up about their motivations and interests. It only takes 30 seconds to start a conversation – and you can potentially use this information to make future asks more personal and relevant, therefore more successful.
Great thank yous go the extra mile – but you need to follow through
So that’s the bad news – but did I receive any mind-blowing thank yous that you can learn from?
I received this lovely handwritten thank you card and annual report from Bristol-based Bridges For Communities, who connect people of different cultures and faiths through events and activities, in order to increase tolerance and understanding:
The card emphasised how much they rely on and feel motivated by donations, and the report really emphasised the impact they’re having locally. Some people might query the cost of buying and posting a thank you card in exchange for a £20 donation, but it’s worth considering the bigger picture – isn’t a new donor who feels valued, welcomed and engaged likely to contribute more in future?
This lovely personal reply from a local food bank also made a splash:
Wow – this was a lovely idea! I replied saying I’d love to pop in – anxious about not wanting to waste their time, but sure I’d donate again once I found out more. I felt excited, both personally to understand a local organisation better, and professionally to be able to share the story of a brilliant thank you.
The only problem? Five weeks later, I haven’t received another reply. I'm still hoping I'll get a chance to speak to them again about their work. The lesson here is that if you’re going to thank your donors in a way which genuinely stands out, make sure you’re ready to keep up the conversation.
You’re only as good as your third party systems
Many charities use payment platforms like PayPal, Justgiving or Localgiving to handle their online donations, as the cost of building your own system can be prohibitive.
Most charities that I donated to had clearly invested time in placing a prominent donate button on their homepage and writing a convincing message about why you should donate. But frustratingly – and sometimes amusingly – things often went wrong when I left their site:
Ok, some of these are minor issues, but that’s over 50% of my donations which had something that went wrong or made donating difficult. A smooth donor experience is important – and it’s not possible if your third party platform isn’t up to the job or not configured properly. A less patient donor could well have given up a few times, particularly someone less confident with technology.
The moral of the story? No matter how good your own website, your third party payment platform can make or break the experience. Choose your platform carefully, and test how it works from a donor’s perspective before going live. Then keep testing it periodically, in case something breaks over time.
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