Have you ever found a funder that seems like the perfect fit, only to learn they don’t accept unsolicited applications?
If your work is niche or you’ve approached all the ‘obvious’ trusts and foundations already, then engaging a couple of these invitation-only funders can feel key to broadening your funding base. But there's an age-old question - how can we get on their radar, especially if they don’t even welcome initial enquiries?
Over time I’ve seen various organisations succeed in building thriving relationships with private, strategic funders. It isn’t quick or easy, but there are a few steps you can take.
Firstly, why might a trust or foundation decide to take the invitation-only approach?
Rightly or wrongly, there can be many reasons:
So...what can charities and social enterprises do about this?
1. Look for potential introductions within your network
If a funder relies on their expertise or networks to identify potential grantees, then a recommendation from the right person could make all the difference. For example, your existing funders or project partners will already be engaged and invested in your work – perhaps they know someone working for an invitation-only funder and would be willing to introduce you?
Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask nicely for an introduction, explaining why it’s strategically important to you – you might by how willing people are to help.
2. Engage (and if necessary improve) your Board
We’ve run countless network mapping exercises with Boards. The conversation often starts the same way: “None of our trustees know anyone / are willing to help.” But it’s amazing how quickly things can change if you explain that (1) you’re not looking for introductions for rich and famous people, just prominent people in your sector; and (2) you don’t expect Board members to open their address books willy-nilly and start asking for money, but simply make a couple of strategic introductions.
Trustees will know more people than you (and they) think. I’ve seen organisations build on such tenuous links as “I worked with them 10 years ago”, “I play badminton with them on Tuesday night” and “Our kids go to the same school”.
Try running a network mapping exercise with your trustees, or circulating a list of staff working at a target invitation-only funder to check for connections. And if your trustees really aren’t well-connected, this doesn’t have to always be the case. Explore why – does your organisation focus on recruiting trustees with particular skills and backgrounds in a way that prevents people with better connections from applying? Could you persuade your Board to set a strategic objective to recruit new trustees with funder connections over the next 1-2 years?
3. Engage invitation-only funders in new and more meaningful ways
Tired old introductory letters and emails are far from the only ways of making first contact. Trusts and foundations can and do interact openly on social media, attend funder fairs, speak at events or collaborate on things like research, policy or advocacy work.
Jumping straight into a direct approach about money often goes nowhere. Instead, do your research into where/how funders are actively engaging (e.g. social media platforms or events), find a topic that could be mutually beneficial to you both, then start a conversation accordingly.
4. Focus on thought leadership
I once met an organisation that was told by a funder that “everyone we speak to mentions you, so we thought we should find out what you’re about.” In their own words, they created so much “white noise” around a funder that they eventually couldn’t resist getting in touch.
Organisations that successfully build relationships with invitation-only funders often have one thing in common – they’re thought leaders. They might be known for their high-profile CEO, engaging blog, or policy work.
The term “thought leadership” sounds daunting, but you absolutely don’t need to be a large organisation with a big comms budget. If you work in a niche area, you’ll already be an expert in your field, with people coming to for advice. Sharpening your public expert voice takes time, but is a great way to get on a funder’s radar, and will bring many benefits beyond fundraising.
5. Get the online basics right
While some invitation-only funders simply continue to fund the same organisations every year, many do proactively research new grantees. So if a funder did a niche online search for your specialist area today, would they find you? And if they landed on your website right now, what would they think?
There are a few fundamental things you need to be visible and appealing to potential funders:
These final tips might seem the least relevant to trusts fundraising, but they definitely an indirect role in getting you in front of invitation-only funders over time.
Amid the many challenges we’re facing as a sector, one difficulty that predates the pandemic is recruiting the right fundraiser.
To put it simply, there are an awful lot of organisations out there looking for talented fundraisers, and not enough of them to go around. We've worked with countless small to medium charities who have had to go through multiple recruitment rounds, each time tweaking the job description and bumping up the salary in the hope that it'll make the difference.
While they may get there in the end, they often don’t find the perfect candidate and/or overpay, and there’s certainly an opportunity cost associated with the months lost to a drawn-out recruitment process.
There’s been plenty of reflection around this fundraising recruitment crisis, with fingers pointed at vague job descriptions, unimaginative person specifications and unrealistic expectations - and the broader, existential issue of whether enough people value and understand the charity sector and fundraising profession.
I’m not a recruiter, but I’ve been around enough charities in this position to understand many of the common problems, and know a few things you can do if you’re struggling to find the right fundraiser:
Who's actually auditioning? It's time to rewire your brain...
A common assumption with fundraising recruitment, especially if you're new to it, is that you're the one running the audition. You might expect to welcome a conga line of candidates through your door, and give each one a thorough grilling to decide if they’re right for you.
But in a market of few great fundraisers, it's very much a two-way process. Talented candidates know they have plenty of opportunities to choose from, and won’t necessarily rush to jump into a new role. They’ll want to put you under the microscope too, to understand the requirements and expectations of the job, and evaluate whether you can offer them the right environment to succeed.
Rewiring your brain to this reality will help you recruit more successfully. In your advert, candidate pack and interview process, you need to give a flavour of your organisation’s approach to fundraising. For example, how does your organisation work with and support a fundraiser to make sure they have all the information and tools they need? Is your Board engaged in fundraising, and what does their involvement look like? How have you arrived at any targets you've mentioned?
Allow plenty of scope for the fundraiser to ask you detailed questions. It’s absolutely their right to challenge you too, and it’s a positive sign if they’re clear and even demanding about what they need and expect in order to succeed.
Create your fundraising strategy before you go to market
Organisations looking to make their first significant investment in fundraising naturally target the perfect all-rounder - someone who can both create and execute a knock-out fundraising strategy. But there are numerous problems with this approach.
Firstly, you’re looking for very different skillsets – there are experts in strategic planning and analysis, and experts at doing hands-on fundraising, but far fewer that excel at both. By trying to cover all bases, you risk narrowing the field and compromising in a key area.
Secondly, if you haven’t analysed your organisation’s current position and best income opportunities, how do you know what type of person you’re looking for? Do you need an events expert with a bit of individual giving experience? Or is it more important to find someone who feels comfortable asking for major gifts face-to-face from wealthy individuals and in corporate pitches?
Without a strategy, you often end up writing a vague job description and unrealistic person specification that require a bit of everything. Even worse, there may be a vague fundraising target attached to it that you've never tested, to determine whether it's realistic.
You might think that “this sort of challenge will appeal to the right candidate” but in my experience it’s very off-putting. Successful fundraisers will smell the lack of clarity a mile off. Why would they pack in their current job and take a punt on a new role where, two months in, they might realise they’re not actually the right person for that organisation, or that the job isn't right for them?
If you’re struggling to recruit a fundraiser, or have a limited budget to play with, creating your fundraising strategy first is potentially the most cost-effective approach. Invest a bit of money now in strategic consultancy support or an interim Fundraising Lead, get all your ducks in a row, then recruit the permanent fundraiser. By taking time to clarify your requirements, you’ll not only increase your chances of finding the right person, you might avoid having to throw so much money at a candidate too.
Use your imagination and widen the field
Most person specifications narrow the field far more than you realise, particularly after a pandemic that’s led many of us to reimagine how and where we want to work.
Before recruiting, ask yourself some questions. Do we really need to insist on (or even say that we prefer) candidates having a university degree? Is five years’ experience in a particular fundraising area really necessary? Are there transferrable skills from other sectors that we could look for instead? And while you're there, think twice about whether you really need somebody to be office-based and work five days per week.
#nongraduateswelcome have done phenomenal work to highlight recruitment requirements that are not only unhelpful but, worse, discriminatory and against the values that the organisation supposedly stands for.
Often, charities are seemingly on autopilot, including these requirements simply because everyone else is. Building your person specification from the bottom up – based on what you actually need, rather than what you think ought to be there – is not only the right thing to do, but makes it more likely you’ll find the right fundraiser for you.
The past 12 months have been quite the journey at Lime Green HQ. No surprises there.
Like many others, we went into Spring 2020 believing that some things shouldn't be done online unless absolutely necessary. There was simply no way that an online workshop could replicate the experience of a having a bunch of energised people in the same room, armed with a whiteboard, colourful post-its and a plate of biscuits.
Fast forward a year and we’ve run approaching 75 online training courses or strategic planning workshops during lockdown, totalling over 200 hours of screen time. We’ve found ways of replicating most of the best aspects of face-to-face workshops, though admittedly we’re yet to crack downloadable biscuits…
Some people will inevitably have issues and preconceptions about online workshops. Digital exclusion is a key issue to keep in mind, and “Zoom fatigue” is now not only a common phrase but an academically-researched, peer-reviewed phenomenon. And too many people have lost too many hours to unproductive and chaotic strategic planning sessions for there ever to be universal enthusiasm.
However, call us new-fashioned, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the previous approach of “face-to-face unless absolutely impossible”. We’ve had too much positive feedback about online workshops – for many people they’re simply more accessible, not to mention being cheaper and eliminating travel time.
So, as we all stand on the cusp of returning to our offices and meeting rooms, what have we learned from a year of delivering strategy workshops online? And what should you be thinking about if you want to make an online session as productive and engaging as possible?
Plan shorter sessions with regular breaks
This may sound obvious by this point, but you can’t simply move a session online and hope for the best. We often used to run full-day face-to-face workshops, particularly when people had to travel to be there, but that’s more than anyone can handle online.
Our online workshops almost always last no longer than three hours, with a decent break in the middle, plus shorter breaks throughout to avoid people staring at a screen for more than an hour. This still sounds like a lot of screen time, but we find that provided activities are carefully planned and varied (see below), people can and do want to engage for this long.
Keep things moving and mix up the format
It’s easy for sessions to descend into drawn-out, unstructured conversations – these are hard enough to stay engaged with in a room, let alone on Zoom or Google Meet.
You can avoid this by regularly switching between activities and always focusing people on a specific task - this might be as simple as answering a focused question, filling in a table or coming up with three points on a particular topic. But always keep a good tempo, and avoid lingering for too long.
Mixing up the format also helps to keep people focused – for example switching between breakout room tasks, polls and feedback sessions with a bigger group. We’ve recently seen great results from ‘paired walking tasks’ – where we encourage people to step away from their screen, go for a walk and phone a colleague to discuss a particular question.
Invite people to 'park' ideas
Of course, it can be hard to strike a balance between keeping people focused and avoiding cutting them off. People in our sector are passionate about the way things should be done, and often see these a strategy workshop as a rare opportunity to get their point across.
In our face-to-face workshops, we often set up a ‘parking bay’: a piece of flipchart paper to note down any discussions we have to cut short, or issues that haven't been resolved. We invite everyone to come up and write down anything that matters to them, at any point – and we always capture any ‘parked ideas’ in our notes after. This makes it so much easier to move on and keep to time.
In many ways, this is even easier online. You can ask people to use the chat box on Zoom or Google Meet to note anything they want to come back to later – which they can either do anonymously by sending a private message, or publicly for everyone’s benefit.
Use tools like Miro to make things more playful and creative
A workshop isn’t a workshop without a whiteboard, coloured pens and your own weight in post-its. Capturing information visually is important for keeping people engaged - but typing notes in a document on a shared screen REALLY doesn’t cut it.
We’re huge fans of Miro – a free virtual whiteboard tool that's the next best thing to a big wall and half a stationery shop. Miro allows you to capture the output from a session way more creatively and collaboratively - you can easily move post-its around, group ideas together, or invite everybody to add their own annotations.
Set clear expectations about what will come out of the process
One thing I've found with shorter online workshops is that you inevitably make slower progress and need more patience. An initial session with a group of passionate people will literally fly by - fine if it's the first session on a busy agenda, but it can be more unsettling if that's all you've got time for that day or week.
If you’re planning an online workshop or a series of sessions, always share a clear agenda (that you stick to) and a quick list of planned outcomes in advance. I often start a session by saying something like “This week is all about getting all your concerns and questions out in the open – then next week we’ll start working on answers”, which is a great way to build trust and understanding with people from the outset, and avoid unrealistic expectations.
Remind people about settings that will make them more comfortable
When you think about it, using Zoom isn’t really like meeting people face-to-face at all. It’s unnatural and intense to have everybody staring at you the whole time, all while looking at a mirror image of your own face.
Fortunately, platforms like Zoom give you plenty of options to dial down the intensity, for example hiding your own video, only viewing the person who is actually speaking, or turning your camera off for a break. Resizing the screen so people's heads are closer to the size they'd appear across a table, rather than taking up most of your vision, also really helps. Simply showing people how to use these options – and encouraging them to use them if they need a break - instantly makes it easier and more comfortable to participate online.
Bring in an external facilitator
Shameless plug here, but I love seeing how much more people get out of sessions when they don’t have to worry about taking notes themselves, keeping to time or reminding people when to shut up.
Often, before we run a workshop with an organisation, they’re concerned about how much they’ll get out of it, or whether one person will dominate. But with the right planning and a few ground rules, it's almost always much more enjoyable and productive than they expected.
If you’re struggling to get people to engage positively or keep to time - or even if you just want to be able to dive in fully as a participant yourself - an independent facilitator is usually well worth it, whether you’re meeting online or face-to-face.
Back in June, in response to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and the Black Lives Matter movement, I shared some reflections on the issues facing philanthropy.
My argument in a nutshell was this: philanthropy is inextricably tied with extreme wealth, and most of that wealth is derived from activities that increase inequality. Philanthropy gives a particular audience – wealthy, privileged, mostly white, usually male – disproportionate influence over the sector’s work and policies, and an opportunity to implement a vision of social change that is likely very different from your own. This process is inadvertently endorsed every day by fundraisers and charities – so while Edward Colston is an extreme and high-profile case, there are other examples everywhere.
I’m delighted that this blog sparked plenty of debate and discussion, but I’m conscious it offered little by way of solutions. The truth is, it’s very difficult for most fundraisers to take action, especially if their organisation isn’t geared up to question philanthropy.
Several people rightly asked for some thoughts on what organisations can actually do differently, rather than just why it’s important. This is where things get trickier, and more controversial, but here are my views…
Reduce your long-term dependence on philanthropy
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. It’s all very well not wanting to accept certain donations - but in the current climate, for many, it’s not unreasonable to think that turning away a big gift could lead to service closures or staff redundancies.
I can’t pretend there’s a quick or easy answer to this. But we’ve previously shared various thoughts about diversifying your income, which will inevitably reduce your reliance on a single funder, donor or income stream, and make it easier to stick to your principles.
This 2018 blog explores how to build a business case to persuade your organisation to invest in developing a more diverse fundraising portfolio. And in this podcast, I interview Fran Ferris-Ockwell, former CEO of a Sheffield housing charity, on how she guided them through a process to reduce their reliance on contract income, with huge improvements to their independence and organisational culture.
Most organisations won’t be able to reduce their dependence on funders and major donors overnight, but these steps are a key starting point – particularly if you're brave enough to set an explicit long-term strategic objective to become less dependent on grants and major gifts over several years.
Create a fit-for-purpose ethical fundraising policy
We previously shared six guiding principles about creating an ethical policy. While it might be tempting to find a policy template online and quickly adapt it, the most important part of this exercise is having an honest and meaningful conversation with your management team and trustees. You should develop guidelines that feel appropriate for your organisation, mission and service users. Don’t expect this to be an easy exercise, or for everyone to immediately agree, as you’re dealing with a complex issue.
Be aware that enforcing your policy to the letter might lead to both accepting or rejecting donations in controversial circumstances later. This could conceivably lead to negative press coverage, complaints from supporters, disagreements with staff and trustees, or having to close a service. You need to fully anticipate and ‘test’ the potential consequences of your policy, so you can confidently justify decisions later.
Empower your fundraisers and lead by example
After publishing our original blog in June, I was contacted by several fundraisers sharing experiences where they felt uncomfortable about the ethical implications of a donation or a donor’s behaviour, but felt unable to act. For example:
Your ‘front line’ fundraisers are likely to be younger, less experienced and less influential than your donor prospects, management and trustees. They may well be working under pressure, knowing that failing to hit financial targets could well harm the organisation’s financial health, staff livelihoods and service users. So even if a fundraiser feels uncomfortable about something, voicing this might feel daunting and detrimental to their career.
Solving this actually goes beyond having an ethical fundraising policy, particularly one that sits in a drawer gathering dust. Your senior management and trustees need to lead by example by openly talking about the ethical issues with philanthropy, and creating opportunities for fundraisers to raise concerns and ask questions without fearing a backlash.
Something else to consider: is your approach to setting fundraising targets and KPIs creating an environment where fundraisers feel pressured to stay silent and bring in donations at all costs? Unrealistic targets - particularly those based purely on the cost of your projects rather than sector benchmark data, are another potential barrier to thoughtful and ethical fundraising.
Move beyond #donorlove
This feels controversial - when I suggested this on Twitter, I was met with some incredulous responses.
#donorlove is a popular term to describe a donor-centric approach to fundraising that focuses on making donors feel loved, valued and appreciated, to encourage and retain their support. This isn’t totally without merit - many organisations don’t do this, and miss out on donations as a result. I’ve previously shared my own experiences as a donor and why charities should get better at saying thank you.
But too often, #donorlove crosses into advocating putting the donor’s wishes and the importance of building a relationship with them above other concerns. I’ve seen high-profile consultants advise charities to structure annual reports entirely around recognising the contributions and achievements of the donor, even if their service users fade into the background as a result.
I think you can make a case for #donorlove being incompatible with the need to re-examine philanthropy in response to recent events - and an inadvertent endorsement of hypocritical philanthropy, the problematic influence of wealthy donors and the white saviour complex. When fundraisers are faced with the pressure of a financial crisis, silence from their senior leadership, and influential fundraisers’ unswerving commitment to #donorlove, is it really any surprise that they feel unable to do things differently?
I doubt that #donorlove is going anywhere fast - too many high-profile fundraisers and consultants have structured their livelihoods around the concept - but perhaps we need to start taking the first steps.
Challenge how we structure, incentivise and culturally revere philanthropy
Philanthropy is commonly considered an unselfish, freely-taken individual act that increases equality and is open to everyone. Cast in this light, what right do we have to challenge where that money comes from, or how it is used?
Unfortunately, this view of philanthropy is false.
In his book “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better”, Rob Reich examines the philanthropic landscape in the US and reaches two uncomfortable conclusions. Firstly, less than a third of charitable giving actually benefits low-income people. Secondly, the US tax system is massively skewed towards rewarding and incentivising the wealthiest donors: if you earn under $153,100 per year then a $100 donation costs you $100, whereas it can cost a higher earner as little as $60.
Admittedly the UK landscape is somewhat different, not least because we have a Gift Aid scheme rather than just tax breaks for the donor. But essentially, the same problem exists globally: the tax system greatly subsidises charitable giving and enables richer people to donate money at less personal cost. This actually takes money out of the public purse and redirects it towards causes favoured by the rich and powerful, which rarely benefit low-income people. Philanthropy therefore can actually harm rather than help equality.
Reframing philanthropy in this way completely changes our right and obligation to challenge it. For example, how much influence and recognition should a wealthy donor enjoy for their supposedly ‘selfless’ gift? Should we permit a family trust to be opaque about where its money comes from, and how it decides which causes to support? Why can’t we create and enforce a new code of ethics and transparency, and remove the huge tax breaks for funders and donors who won’t play ball?
In barely 100 years, we’ve gone from elite-level philanthropy being met with suspicion and fierce criticism - Rob Reich documents the angry response to John Rockefeller’s early attempts to establish his charitable foundation in the US in the early 1900s - to today’s almost unquestioning endorsement of philanthropy and #donorlove.
In keeping with the positive response to the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue and the Black Lives Matter movement, I think we urgently need to start nudging back in the other direction.
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!
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.
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).
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