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.
As an organisation, how do you manage risk in your fundraising activities? Do you focus on financial or reputational risk, or both, or other things too? Do you keep going until you’ve eliminated every possible risk from your plans? If so, are your activities still worth doing by the end?
I recently popped along to the Arnolfini for the latest Bristol Fundraising Group talk about risk management in fundraising. The speaker was the excellent Ed Wyatt, an experienced Compliance Manager for multiple big charities and long-time fundraiser and trustee. Ed has kindly given us permission to share some key learning points here…
Conversations about risk in fundraising can be frustrating and unproductive. It can feel like natural risk-takers and risk-averse people are speaking entirely alien languages, and often the loudest voice in the room wins.
This can have several consequences:
Reviewing your current fundraising portfolio, and where you might find The Next Big Thing
In his talk, Ed demonstrated a simple way of reviewing your current fundraising portfolio and defining your activities using four categories:
Low risk, high reward activities are the obvious sweet spot to aim for. Most of your fundraising probably falls into this category already but, since everybody else is thinking the same thing, the growth potential or uniqueness of these activities may be limited.
Low risk, low reward activities might've been very easy to get approval for, but they may not be worth the effort. And in the unlikely event that you have any high risk, low reward activities, you should flag these up urgently. In both cases, terminating these activities could be a good way to free up capacity for something else.
That leaves high risk, high reward activities. Scary territory, but if you’re looking for The Next Big Thing in fundraising, you may need to creep beyond your comfort zone into this space.
To do this, first you need to define your organisation’s risk appetite (the blue line above) - the line you're willing to creep up to, but not cross. ‘High risk’ and ‘low risk’ are likely to mean very different things if you work for an international conservation charity with a history of provocative campaigning activities, compared to a local community library.
Your risk appetite should depend on the nature of your mission, your beneficiaries, your financial position and the characteristics of your existing fundraising activities. It’s crucial to avoid being guided by anybody’s personal judgement, even management and trustees – we recently explored this same topic in our blog about ethical fundraising policies.
It’s vital to remember that ‘high risk’ must never mean breaking the law, fundraising regulations, your internal guidelines, your ethical fundraising policy or your gift acceptance policy.
Identifying risks in new fundraising opportunities
Before you decide what level of risk you’re prepared to live with, you need to identify all possible risks associated with your activity or event. Ed suggested using your own ‘risk library’ of common categories that most risks fall into, for example:
This works best as an energetic debate, not a dreaded tick-box exercise for one person alone behind a desk. Try to ask a few different personality types to sit in a room together and discuss - both natural risk-takers and risk-averse people have a key role here. You need to create the right atmosphere and reassure people that there are no right or wrong answers at this stage.
This was illustrated nicely by a group exercise at the end of the talk. Ed asked us all to imagine we were the Fundraising Team at a local animal park, who had been approached by an events company with a new idea: a series of late-night parties at the animal park for 18-30 year olds. This would be a new and potentially lucrative audience for the charity, but hardly risk-free.
My group had five minutes to consider all possible risks, and came up with the following:
As you can probably guess, this was a light-hearted attempt at risk assessment. But Ed said that humour is a useful tool in real-life scenarios too. ‘Eaten by a bear’ might have been a joke, but it helps to highlight a real risk (injury inflicted by the resident animals) that the organisers of this event might otherwise have forgotten to flag up.
Discuss how to manage risks but decide what level of risk you’re ultimately comfortable with
When deciding what to do about each risk, use the Four Ts:
It’s crucial to adopt a varied approach. Tolerating everything would be reckless, but treating everything is likely to be exhausting and impractical. Transferring everything would be prohibitively expensive, and terminating everything would leave you with a vanilla fundraising activity, or no activity at all.
By taking ownership of your risks, and making sure they’re all within an acceptable level, you can move to a more Zen-like state with your fundraising. Most lucrative fundraising activities carry some level of risk, so you need to think back to your risk appetite (the blue line below) and decide what level of risk your organisation is prepared to accept given the circumstances:
Contrary to popular belief, compliance and risk management shouldn’t be about saying ‘no’ - it's more a case of ‘not like that’. Risk-free activities are rarely financially or commercially realistic, but that’s not an excuse for failing to take responsibility of the situation or control of your risks.
In other words, don’t let your participants get eaten by a bear, but don’t let compliance bears eat up all your good fundraising ideas either.
Huge thanks to Ed Wyatt for giving us permission to share his learning, including his diagrams, and introduce bears into the story for no particular reason.
For many charities and social enterprises in a tight financial position, it's the classic dilemma. You need to invest in fundraising, perhaps to replace dwindling income from other sources, but have less disposable cash than ever.
So building the case for investing in fundraising – whether that means a new staff member, hiring a consultant or increasing your marketing budget – isn’t easy. Particularly when it involves dealing with management or trustees who may know less about fundraising than you, and are naturally risk averse.
If you were asked to put together a robust and convincing case for investing in fundraising, where would you start? How would you address people’s concerns? Here are our top tips:
1. Show how fundraising success would boost your overall mission
When I'm working with an organisation on their fundraising strategy, I initially ask two questions: Why have you decided to focus on fundraising? What do you hope to achieve through successful fundraising?
Many organisations set ambitious goals for their project work, but fail to show the same fundraising ambition. But the two things are inextricably linked – if you’re trying to double the number of people you help, or move into a new region, you'll likely need a step-change in fundraising.
So try to make people focus on how much more the organisation could achieve if it raised more money. You’ll stand a better chance of convincing management and trustees to make the investment needed.
2. Educate people about your current fundraising efforts
I’ve worked with organisations whose CEO or trustees have been genuinely surprised by how much they’re raising in certain areas, or completely oblivious about simple blockages that are holding back fundraising. However, people will make better long-term decisions about fundraising if they understand this properly.
Inspire confidence in your future plans by emphasising which areas are already proving successful, and which ones have the potential for a drastic improvement with a little more investment.
3. Show the long-term financial return…
Investing in fundraising never yields an immediate return. Encourage trustees and management to consider the bigger picture by modelling your return on investment (i.e. how many pounds you raise per pound spent) over 3-5 years.
Fortunately, there’s a way to do this that doesn’t involve plucking figures out of thin air. Check out the excellent Gimme Gimme Gimme guide by nfpSynergy, which outlines 12 different types of fundraising and provides average return on investment figures (based on a sector-wide survey) for each. You can then adjust these benchmark figures slightly, depending on where your own fundraising is stronger or weaker. While this guide is several years old, it still provides the most up-to-date figures that we're aware of.
If you’re investing in an area of fundraising for the first time, assume a more conservative return on investment in the first year while you get things up and running, gradually increasing over several years.
4. …but don’t make promises you can’t keep
If you’re persuading your organisation to take the plunge and invest in fundraising, it’s tempting to promise the world. But over-ambitious projections will only cause disappointment and financial problems later.
If you’ve taken a methodical approach to forecasting return on investment (see above), stand firm and don’t allow other people to push you to unrealistic levels. Don't just say what is necessary to win their support.
In my experience, many organisations confuse fundraising targets with project budgets. Just because your projects and running expenses will cost £150,000 next financial year, you can’t necessarily expect to raise £150,000. That’s a bit like assuming you'll come home to a full fridge, just because you’re hungry.
Ultimately, to avoid going hungry, you either need to make time to cook (i.e. ringfence existing staff time for fundraising) or buy something ready to eat (i.e. pay someone else to do the work). Your fundraising projections must be based on what you put in, not what you need to get out.
5. Emphasise the risk of not investing, to balance up the risk equation
For risk-averse trustees, certain questions weigh heavy on the mind. What if we recruit a new fundraiser and they’re not up to the job? What if we spend more on fundraising but fail to generate more income?
These are legitimate questions, but only part of the picture. Over the years, I’ve seen few organisations invest in fundraising and regret it, but plenty pay the price for standing still.
Income can disappear remarkably quickly, for instance if you lose a statutory contract or a major event flops, but can take years to build up. So asking ‘what might happen if we don’t invest in fundraising?’ is equally important.
It's helpful to highlight fundraising opportunities that you’re currently not able to capitalise on, or looming threats that you need to plan ahead for. This is about human sustainability too – if staff have been working extended hours to cover gaps in capacity, it’s vital to emphasise the human cost if this were to continue.
6. Choose the best way to present your business case
Building your case can take a long time, but you might get just an hour of people’s time and attention to win them over. So finding the right format is crucial – should it be a presentation or a written report? Should you provide all the information on the spot, or ask people to read something in advance and come with questions?
There’s no right or wrong answer. It depends on what you’re personally most comfortable with, and how your audience typically like to receive information (your CEO or Chair could offer some insight here). Don’t offer to do a long presentation if you’re not very good at them and think you’ll struggle to get the key information across. Don’t spend ages writing a long report if you know people are unlikely to read it.
Some final tips for presenting things in the right way:
“Have you got a good template for developing our fundraising strategy?”
This is one of the most common questions we're asked, but one that we don’t have a very helpful answer for. Which is another way of saying that our stock answer is “No”.
There’s a very deliberate reason for this. A fundraising strategy template puts the emphasis on writing – it fuels the common myth that your fundraising strategy can be written by someone in isolation, with just a handy structure to help pull out and shape the information in their head. But I’ve seen plenty of beautifully written fundraising strategies that ended up in the bin or a dusty drawer within six months.
Writing isn’t the most important part of creating a fundraising strategy – it’s talking. To create a really good strategy, first you need to assemble the key people who understand your organisation and your previous fundraising efforts. Then you need to discuss your key opportunities and challenges, and make difficult decisions about how to use your limited resources.
This is why, instead of a fundraising strategy template, we have a series of exercises and processes that we can help you work through to arrive at some key decisions and conclusions. Yes, we can ultimately help you to write up those decisions and conclusions in a structured way, but – cheesy as it sounds – our emphasis is on the journey as much as the destination.
Of course, just saying "No, you can't have a template - go away and do loads of work instead" feels a bit mean. So here are a few reasons why developing your strategy needs to be a collaborative process, and what to focus on:
No one person has all the right answers
Even in a very small organisation, it takes more than one person to create a great fundraising strategy. You’ll benefit from involving your wider fundraising team, project staff, trustees, even key volunteers, supporters or donors. Often these people won’t have the right answers either, but they can ask the right questions to help you get there. Sometimes they’ll even have the wrong answers, but a successful strategy relies on bringing them along for the journey (more on that shortly).
Of course, involving lots of people in the process can feel unnerving – what if certain voices dominate the discussion, or nobody has anything to say and there’s an awkward silence?
When we support an organisation to develop their strategy, we work through a series of processes and structured exercises to help everybody contribute objectively to piecing everything together. This includes:
You need to debate, make and document difficult decisions
Some organisations mistakenly think that creating a fundraising strategy involves listing out all the conceivable types of fundraising you could do, with an action plan and an income target for every area.
The big issue here is assuming that you have the resources to do everything, and that all types of fundraising are equally valuable. For smaller organisations, this usually results in spreading yourself too thin, and doing many things badly rather than a few things well. Even for bigger organisations with capacity to try everything, it still ignores the reality that spending twice as long on Activity A might be better than doing equal amounts of A and B.
So Challenge #1: Making Difficult Decisions. If we focus on an individual giving programme rather than trying to do an annual event too, can we expect a better return? Do we need to prioritise some quick wins from trusts and foundations in Year 1 to safeguard our key service activities, before we try to tackle corporate fundraising?
It takes more than one person to answer these questions – you need a collaborative process, built on the processes and exercises described above.
That still leaves Challenge #2: Documenting Difficult Decisions. What if you’ve decided to discount a type of fundraising that some of your staff enjoy and have good previous experience with? What if a new trustee joins tomorrow who loves major donor fundraising, and can’t understand why you’re not doing it?
A good fundraising strategy doesn’t just explain what decisions you’ve made, but why. Crucially, this applies just as much to the things you don't do. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for deciding not to do certain types of fundraising – for example we don’t have the right expertise, the organisation isn’t ready, it’s too risky. Documenting these choices builds confidence in your strategy, and makes it less likely that people will challenge it in the near future.
Fundraising success depends on the whole organisation
Successful fundraising requires a lot more than a good fundraising team – management need to know how to support your efforts and set realistic targets, project staff need to provide the right information to help you write convincing proposals and report back on grants, and you’ll need cooperation and a joined-up message across your social media, newsletter and at events.
However, all staff are busy and they’re not going to drop everything to prioritise fundraising, particularly if they don’t understand the significance. So taking a collaborative approach to developing your fundraising strategy – and involving the wider team – helps people to appreciate any challenges that are blocking successful fundraising, and the often small things they can do to make a big difference.
Creating a fundraising strategy is a dynamic and different process for every organisation
We’ve successfully helped dozens of charities and social enterprises to create their fundraising strategy, but it’s never been exactly the same process twice.
Depending on your focus and circumstances, you’ll need to do bespoke bits of extra work. This could include anything from analysing why you keep losing out to similar organisations for key grants, segmenting your database to analyse how many people are donating at different levels, or creating an ethical fundraising policy to help you decide when to accept – or reject – donations from companies.
If you involve a broader range of people in developing your fundraising strategy, you have more chance of identifying any weak spots where you need to do extra work, then getting everyone on board to fix them.
This is another reason why a fundraising strategy template is misleading – because it implies that every organisation can just work through the same content, whereas in reality everyone’s circumstances are different.
For more info on how we help organisations to develop their fundraising strategy, click here.
Alternatively, check out our fundraising strategy training courses and free resources.
One of the first rules of trusts fundraising is that relationships are crucial – but forming them can feel harder than ever.
This is the inevitable result of an ultra-competitive climate. With so many funders inundated by interest, they’re taking steps to minimise the number of applications they receive, and the time they spend communicating with applicants.
As a result, many fundraisers scratching their heads by the lack of feedback, the requests for no unsolicited applications, and cryptic guidance notes. Sometimes it feels like funders and fundraisers are barely speaking the same language – but with more understanding on both sides, there’d be less wasted time all round.
We recently launched a new one-day trusts fundraising course – and, in response to the widespread confusion and frustration out there, we included a ‘What funders say, what they mean and what to do about it’ segment.
Having gathered feedback from loads of charities and social enterprises, and compared it to our own experience, we’ve developed a list of five frustrating things that funders say, and what you can do about it:
1. We don’t fund core / running / salary costs
The funder’s point of view: personally I think that charities need to invest in being strong, well-run organisations more than ever, despite the media obsession with things like management and admin costs. Sadly, funders are often more drawn to shiny, tangible projects. There are legitimate reasons for this: funders have their own charitable objectives and wish to demonstrate impact for what they give, and projects often feel cleaner, simpler to understand and more likely to produce short-term results.
However, it’s easy to misunderstand what funders mean when they say they don’t fund core or salary costs. Often, they mean they won’t fund these costs as stand-alone items, or don’t want to pay to simply keep people in jobs. It doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t fund core or salary costs as a part of a project, if packaged well.
How to respond:
2. We only fund new ideas and activities
The funder’s point of view: a bit like magpies, funders are often attracted to shiny things – that means new, exciting and innovative projects. This can be infuriating, particularly if you’re seeking funding for a project that you know works and is needed more than ever. It’s often driven by concerns about sustainability – funders don’t want to feel relied upon to keep supporting the same work year on year, or may feel that it’s better value for money to make a smaller contribution to test a pilot project that can then be scaled up.
How to respond:
3. We don’t fund work which is a statutory responsibility
The funder’s point of view: this is something I find very frustrating, particularly at a time when an increasing number of activities are seemingly being abandoned by statutory services. However, many funders simply don’t want to feel that they’re just picking up the slack for government spending cuts, or don’t recognise how what you’re doing is different – particularly in areas like residential care, housing and employment support.
Applying for direct replacement funding is a bit like going on a date and talking about your ex-partner the whole time – if you make a funder feel like you’re only interested in them to replace something you used to have, don’t expect them to feel special and excited about partnering up with you.
How to respond:
4. We don’t accept unsolicited applications
The funder’s point of view: in the current climate, many funders are inundated by applications, lots of which are poor quality or don’t meet their priorities. As a result, they choose projects based on personal recommendations or their own research. This helps them to make better use of their limited resources.
How to respond:
5. We don’t enter into discussions about funding in advance or provide feedback
The funder’s point of view: again, this is often driven by a lack of resources. Funders prefer to dedicate time to the organisations they’re funding. Also, feedback can be contentious – perhaps they used to provide it, but often got a negative reaction. Finally, they may simply have nothing meaningful to tell you, if they couldn't find any fault with your project but had to make a tough decision between several organisations they liked.
How to respond:
To learn more about how to build relationships with funders, write compelling applications and develop a successful trusts fundraising programme, click here to check out our training courses.
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.
If you were asked to create an ethical fundraising policy, what would you do and where would you start?
With the latest wave of bad news stories – especially the Presidents Club scandal, which saw charities scrambling to hand back donations – I’ve been contacted for advice by several organisations who, quite sensibly, want to avoid getting in a similar position themselves.
An ethical fundraising policy sets out what your organisation is willing to do and not do in relation to fundraising, based on some agreed ethical principles. This often includes (but shouldn't be limited to) when you may choose to reject a donation.
If this sounds like a straightforward exercise, it shouldn’t be. It goes without saying that ethics aren’t black and white, so putting together this policy must involve careful thought and reflection.
Here are six guiding principles to keep in mind if you're creating an ethical fundraising policy:
1. Start a conversation - don’t search for a template policy
A common mistake is to assign this task to one member of staff, and ask them to find an example policy that can be adapted quickly for your organisation.
However, creating an ethical fundraising policy goes right to the heart of your appetite for risk, your charitable objects and the areas of particular sensitivity for your cause. As such, it's crucial that trustees and senior management are involved.
This process should start with a conversation. This is arguably the most important stage, since you need to debate different scenarios and views, and arrive at a position that feels right for your organisation. This is usually a thought-provoking exercise that improves everybody’s understanding and appreciation of the complexities involved. If you treat creating the policy as a box-ticking exercise, you’ll miss out on this valuable development opportunity.
2. Take a broad view – don’t over-react to one event
It's common to be prompted into action by a single event, like a high-profile bad news story. This isn’t a problem as such, but you shouldn't let it skew your whole approach.
In the wake of the Presidents Club scandal, many charities are focused on whether they should accept (or return) certain donations. However, this is only part of the puzzle – your policy may need to cover the ethical standards you expect your suppliers to meet, how you check those standards, and how you interact with vulnerable donors.
It's helpful to start by making a list of all the circumstances and ethical dilemmas your charity needs to consider. This should be informed by the types of fundraising that you do and your existing risk assessment, as well as by external events.
3. Define your attitude towards risk – avoid making decisions that you’ll reverse later
Keeping everyone happy is rarely possible, as recent developments show. Many people were outraged that charities like GOSH had accepted donations from the Presidents Club, but others were reportedly angry when they considered handing them back.
There are no right or wrong answers, so you need to judge what feels appropriate for your organisation, anticipate how your supporters and beneficiaries might react, and be prepared to justify your decision. It's no good having a policy in place, then caving in as soon as you put it into practice and people object.
Defining your organisation’s attitude towards risk is essential – this is why trustees and management must be involved. Accepting some donations can be risky, but being totally risk-averse is a risk in itself – it can demoralise staff, or damage your financial position. This is inevitably a sensitive balancing act. It may be helpful to consult key donors and beneficiaries when creating your policy, to anticipate objections in advance.
4. Make it relevant to your cause – don’t be over-simplistic
When defining whether to accept or reject donations from individuals and companies, you may be tempted to start by creating a list of 'no go' areas, like if they are linked to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography.
Unfortunately, the world isn't that simple - household name companies sell alcoholic products, and established publishing companies produce pornographic magazines. If you're not careful, you could find yourself turning away a lot of donations!
You need to be more specific and mindful of your cause and charitable aims. It's not about what staff or trustees personally think is ethically correct, but whether a donation might damage your mission or beneficiaries. An animal welfare charity might be reluctant to accept a donation from a cosmetics company, but happy to do so from an alcohol brand - whereas an addiction charity might take the opposite view.
5. Include specific processes and procedures - not just general guidelines
Your policy should not only set out your position, but explain how to action it - for example, do you subject donations over a certain amount to more rigorous background checks? What do those checks involve? How do you go about reporting serious incidents?
This will help staff to put your policy into action, and also show anybody reading it that you're serious about fundraising ethically, rather than just treating it as a tickbox exercise.
6. Make your policy part of the bigger picture - don't see it as enough in isolation
It's tempting to sign off your ethical fundraising policy and assume it's 'job done' - but in reality, this is an ongoing commitment and part of a larger compliance picture.
Your policy shouldn't just sit in an obscure corner of your shared drive. It must be an ongoing reference point that's displayed clearly for staff to refer to when needed, and part of induction processes for staff and volunteers. Fundraisers should feel able to raise any concerns or discuss situations they feel unsure about. Management and trustees should review your policy periodically, in response to changing fundraising practices, issues affecting the sector, and changes to your own fundraising portfolio and risk assessment.
Aside from creating an ethical fundraising policy, you may also want to, for example, review your Data Protection compliance ahead of the arrival of GDPR, ensure your trustees are aware of their legal fundraising duties as set out in the Charity Commission's CC20 document, or produce a short supporter promise outlining your commitment to good fundraising (I've always liked this example from Mind).
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.
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