Culture first – how one small charity made its fundraising so DYNAMIC during COVID

We’re under pressure to get results, so as fundraisers it’s tempting to focus our energies on the results we want, and the activities needed to get there, but these efforts often fail unless we first get clear on something more important.

I wanted to share an example of how making decisions about how you are going to be and what kind of culture you want during challenging times can in turn pay dividends in terms of fundraising results.

Davinia Batley is Director of Fundraising and Engagement at Become. Become is a wonderful charity that provides support for children in care, as well as working to improve the care system as a whole. At our latest Breakfast Club for Fundraising Leaders, I invited Davinia to share how she has approached her leadership and fundraising challenges, and examples of how these choices have affected income during the pandemic.

Davinia started by saying that when the pandemic took hold in March 2020, she put time aside for some self reflection. Although she didn’t yet appreciate the scale of the challenge, she did recognise that this was going to be the biggest crisis she’d ever faced as a fundraiser and as a leader. She asked herself some important questions she felt would help get herself and her team through this crisis in the healthiest and most successful way possible. At the heart of all these questions was: What kind of leader did she need to be?

What is your automatic coping strategy?

She knew that in times of crisis up to that point, her response had been to double down and work harder. Clearly this can be helpful in certain situations, but knowing that this time the team was facing a complex, long-term challenge, she realised it would not be sustainable for anyone.

So she made a series of conscious choices that would be more helpful and developed a framework for what kind of leadership and culture would be most helpful during this crisis.

1) Transparency and openness

Davinia decided it was essential to be as transparent as possible.

Like most fundraising leaders, in March she developed the first of numerous reforecasts for their Senior Management Team and the Board. She was conscious not to be overly bullish about the situation they were facing. She was very clear about the challenges that lay ahead. By taking this approach early, she had open and helpful discussions with the Board.

Similarly when speaking with donors, both Davinia and her team felt openness was key. Actually it can be hard to talk to your supporters when you don’t know all the answers. As the crisis unfolded, they made the choice to talk to donors as much as possible, and it was OK (indeed essential) to be clear when the charity did not yet have answers to all the challenges they were facing. The message was ‘This is the situation and this is where we’re struggling. BUT this is where we want to get to and the path we’re going to forge. Do you want to come on this journey with us?’

Davinia also made the conscious choice to be more vulnerable with her team. She was open about what was helpful and what was difficult about her living situation, how she was feeling on different days, and what self care strategies she was using. These conversations helped strengthen relationships in the team, which was particularly important when they weren’t seeing each other in person.

This tactic really made an impact on their fundraising activity when it came to their Trust fundraising. They were proactive in phoning trusts that supported their work, and this led to some very candid conversations. They were open about their 30% reduction in fundraising income. They talked about the challenges that service users were facing and how they could support them during this crisis. For example, one call Davinia made resulted in a donation of £40,000. It was valuable not only in terms of income to help the charity, but also as motivation to keep reaching out.

Another reward for this proactive approach came over the course of three phone calls. By the third call, the Trust informed Davinia that they had just opened an emergency grant scheme. They told her not to worry about completing the application and that they’d gained enough information over their calls to do it on their behalf. The Trust went away and submitted the application and Become received the maximum available amount of £20,000.

2) Kindness

Of course, most of us like to think we’re kind. But Davinia also explained that she wanted to make sure kindness was a conscious choice that was baked into everything she and her team did.

They understood their supporters were going through a crisis – how could they be there for them as they faced this life altering event? As well as remembering the mindset of caring, Davinia mentioned a couple of specific tactics they implemented:

  • During the summer of the pandemic, they sent a postcard to each supporter to say thank you, without asking for a donation. They wanted to bring respite from the largely dreary post people receive and to recognise the enormous impact they’ve had on the young people that the charity works with.
  • Early in the crisis, Davinia and her team spent time phoning as many donors as they could, just to check in and see how they were feeling. They weren’t calling to ask for a donation. But it did increase the chances that the appeal they sent out a few weeks later would be well received. In fact, this appeal was the most successful in the history of the charity. Having an appeal that resulted in tens of thousands of unrestricted income was enormously helpful for a small charity, and it’s unlikely they would have achieved that result without connecting with their donors first.
3) Staying agile and growth mindset

With transparency and kindness front of mind, the team also practiced making decisions quickly. This was particularly helpful as it cleared up valuable headspace for Davinia and it instilled confidence in the wider team. She found she didn’t need to spend time tweaking their work, she trusted that they were the experts in their roles.

Most importantly, this agile approach gave the whole team the permission ‘to NOT do, what didn’t need to be done’. It helped them get to the crux of what was needed really quickly.

All the above was built on an approach that Become already had in place – a testing and learning, growth mindset culture. Davinia said she believes that failure is not just an option, it’s a gift. It’s from failure that you can learn and that learning is what’s needed to move forward. Especially during an precedented challenge like a global pandemic. They recognised they didn’t need to have all the information or all of the experience but they could evolve and develop as they went, all the while absorbing as much learning as they could from their team, the charity and the sector.

This mindset allowed them to achieve incredible results early in the pandemic. One such achievement was a gaming fundraiser called Become Players. This idea that was already on their work plan for 2020, but in March they decided to accelerate the development. In fact, they managed to  launch the product in a matter of weeks rather than over the course of a year. They were able to do this because they were willing to apply that test and learn approach at every stage, continually refining the new product.

That’s not to say they didn’t get things wrong. The event clashed with the 2.6 challenge, which wasn’t ideal. But they also got things right. For instance, 90% of the sign ups were new supporters! They are continuing with their Become Players concept, with the next one in March 2021, and will continue to learn and adapt.

The journey never ends.

Now it’s nearly been a year since the start of the pandemic, Davinia said she recognises that she needs to take stock again. Like many of us, she didn’t expect this to go on for as long as it has. So it’s crucial to take this time and see whether the decisions she made at the beginning of this crisis are still the best decisions.

To maintain and develop any desirable culture, the job is never really finished. Davinia closed her talk by sharing the importance of continuing to reinforce a helpful culture with messaging, with modelling and with open conversations with everyone that’s involved. In these ways, you increase the chances that you build a culture that helps you achieve your mission.

Davinia is a long-standing member of the Bright Spot Members Club, which is our training and inspiration site for fundraisers. To find out more about how all the 24/7 learning bundles, live coaching and supportive community combine to help you as a fundraiser and a leader, follow the link above.