This is a Q&A I did recently with Joint CEO of Halpin, Susie Hills on all things fundraising strategy, which was first published by Halpin here.
Susie: Most of your work has been in the charity sector – what do you think higher education fundraising teams can learn from the charity sector? And vice versa?
Richard: Yes, I’ve worked more in the “broader” charity sector, certainly and have worked with such a range of causes over the last 25 or more years! It’s been great so far, and every new step is an opportunity for me to learn from what I see being done well, as well as to help the organisations I’m currently working with, synthesising some of the best bits from along the way. I think higher education fundraisers do so much very well, but I’d say there is scope to learn from the best that the broader sector has to offer, particularly around embracing and trialling innovative ideas. I worry that if all institutions fundraise in the same way from the same old sources, they are likely to look too similar to each other, and be vulnerable in the medium to longer term. Conversely, I think higher education fundraisers can teach my broader sectoral colleagues a lot! Particularly around major donor and individual giving fundraising particularly from alumni, where the relationship building that I have seen is often exemplary.
You have recently led a conference on fundraising strategy… what does a good fundraising strategy look like? Are there some key ingredients?
Yes, a whole day filled with experts (both consultants and practitioners) from around the world talking about fundraising strategy development and implementation. It was such fun and a bit of a dream to curate. I decided early on that I didn’t want to speak this time, but just wanted to learn from others because there are so many people doing great things at all levels of organisations who often don’t get a platform. You can see it all here.
I’m often asked this key ingredients question, and people are disappointed when I refuse to hand them a set structure with headings and sections for them to fill in! But the truth of the matter for me is that if it’s to work, each fundraising strategy needs to be tailored for the organisation in question, and not plucked from a template. Essentially, though, if that answer is too annoying, I would certainly want to see an explanation of where the organisation wants to get to, and how they are going to get there, with a clear explanation of what analysis led them to that conclusion, and what resources they need to make it happen.
Given the change the last 18 months has brought should everyone be reviewing their fundraising strategies now?
Being a fundraising strategy geek, I would say that even if there hadn’t been a pandemic, everyone should be returning to their strategy on a regular basis, to ensure it doesn’t stay on the shelf and is a live document. But yes, so much will have changed internally and externally, and so all our strategies will need to be reviewed, even if we don’t have all the answers. We have to think strategically and not spend our time lurching from activity to activity, event to event, crisis to crisis without thinking about the broader picture. There was so much talk from March to June 2020 of fundraisers needing to “pivot” their strategies that I became quite sick of the word! But yes, definitely dust whatever you have off, analyse what has gone well, what hasn’t, what is different, what your opportunities are, get planning and get implementing!
If you don’t have a fundraising strategy, is now a good or bad time to set about drafting a new fundraising strategy or should they wait until things have settled down (if they ever will!)?
There’s an old saying that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is now. Start it now. Devote just a bit of time to it at first. You won’t regret it. It doesn’t mean that you’ll stop fundraising while you think more strategically. And in any case, if you wait for things to settle down, you could be waiting forever!
What do you think senior leadership and boards will be expecting to see in a fundraising strategy?
I think the key questions for me are around responsibility and accountability and differentiating between them. As a senior leader and as a trustee, I would want an answer to the questions “what do you need from me?” and “where do I fit in?”. And from a fundraiser’s perspective, be ready to think hard about who you need to buy into your fundraising strategy, and how you can get them involved and with you for the ride. From a trustee perspective, board members should be thinking about answers to the questions set out helpfully in the Charity Commission’s CC20 paper (Charity fundraising: a guide to trustee duties). How would you address the six principles that are laid out in that paper from your perspective?
- Planning effectively
- Supervising your fundraisers
- Protecting your charity’s reputation, money and other assets
- Identifying and ensuring compliance with the laws or regulations that apply specifically to your charity’s fundraising
- Identifying and following any recognised standards that apply to your charity’s fundraising
- Being open and accountable
Many fundraising teams are under enormous pressure and strategic planning may feel impossible. How can they best approach strategic planning so it’s helpful but not disruptive?
This is such a good question, and I do appreciate the great pressure fundraising teams are facing right now. The important thing to realise is that you can’t come up with a fundraising strategy on your own, or at least not a good one anyway! You need to involve as wide a group as possible, though in the right way. How can you align your fundraising and non-fundraising colleagues most effectively? My guess would be that your most congruent points would be around understanding and defining your organisational mission, vision and values and being clear about why you as an organisation are worthy of support. That’s what you’re all there for in the end. Make sure that when you involve colleagues that they can see they’re being listened to, valued and their contributions addressed. It’s the best way to get buy in, but to get to that point you need to make sure you value their time and think really carefully about the open questions you’re going to ask them.
Are there ways to include the voice of donors and beneficiaries in your fundraising strategy?
Absolutely, yes. And the best fundraising teams are really doing this well, which takes me back to the first question on what higher education fundraisers can learn from other fundraisers. Listen to your donors, whether it’s through “real life” conversations or more formalised focus groups. Either way, their voices should be heard throughout your strategy. I would argue that it’s even more important, however, that the voices of the people for whom your charity exists are centrally included in your fundraising strategy. Does your fundraising represent them well? Is it authentic? Will it benefit them in the longer term? While respecting donors and building relationships with them, does your fundraising model put the community you serve at the heart? I would recommend the 10 principles set out by the Community-centric Fundraising movement for further reading on this. And I would say the principle of involvement is the same – provide opportunities to ensure meaningful involvement at every stage of your fundraising strategy development and implementation.