As a fundraiser for a charity or non-profit, what can you do to improve your skills and results, even if you don’t have a budget for training?
In this first episode of Fundraising Bright Spots, Rob Woods explains a powerful tactic he has been using to help charity fundraisers grow their results over the last two decades. He explores the power of modelling or ‘searching for bright spots’ and shares the most common reason why most of us tend to give up too early when trying to get better at an important fundraising skill.
Rob describes the particular steps he took early in his career, which greatly improved his confidence in sharing real examples and stories to inspire donors, and he mentions some of the inspiring ‘bright spots’ he will be interviewing later in this series. He also explains four simple actions any determined fundraiser could take to increase their momentum.
- The excellent book Switch is all about how to make a change, when change is hard. One of the tactics in that book, which is simple but surprisingly powerful, is the power of ‘searching for the bright spots’.
- When facing an area of your life in which you struggle, asking yourself (perhaps with the help of a friend / colleague / mentor) to remember an occasion when you’ve done a bit better in this area can help give you ideas for what works, and therefore that you could apply to your current situation.
- Equally, you can also search for and learn from ‘bright spots’ in any area of life, including fundraising. These are people who get really good results consistently.
- Finding out their strategies / tactics / beliefs is likely to be more helpful than basing your activity on what the majority are doing.
- That said, searching for bright spot examples in fundraising to ‘model’ is as much about increasing your certainty that its worth working harder in certain areas, as it is about finding new tactics.
- They usually do some things differently to the way everyone else does them, which is precisely why their results are at such a different level.
- Throughout this podcast we will share insights from fundraising bright spots to inspire you.
- Or if you prefer you can harness the power of bright spot modelling more directly – seek out someone you know whose results you admire and ask them open questions about how they go about their job.
- If you can’t think of any fundraiser you know who fits this description, you can still harness the power of modelling by choosing someone you admire but do not know personally – by studying their books, blogs and podcasts etc to understand their beliefs and attitudes as much as their tactics.
- Knowing more real examples relevant to your cause greatly improves your ability to inspire supporters, especially when you meet them. The habit of keeping a notebook to notice and record relevant examples / stories is greatly under-estimated – it helped one charity increase income by 210%.
Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.
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Transcribed notes of Episode 1
Hello, this is Rob Woods, and welcome to the first episode of the fundraising bright spots podcast. This is the show for anyone who works in charity fundraising and wants ideas and inspiration for how to raise more money and make a bigger difference.
And in this first episode, and wonder if you’ve ever done your best to get better at your job, and got frustrated when all that effort didn’t pay off, or indeed, if you got disappointed that if you’re really honest, when it came down to it, you didn’t manage to follow through on your good intentions to work harder in that area.
Well in this, our first episode, I’m going to explore one particular tactic that I’ve been using for nearly 20 years when I want to get better at a fundraising skill. It’s a crucial element of all the fundraising courses and programmes we’ve been providing to charities for over a decade, and I call it searching for the bright spots.
I’ve decided to call this the fundraising bright spots podcast because in more than 19 years in fundraising, during that time that I’ve made some progress in in my own skills, and then subsequently, my ability to help other people learn and improve their fundraising results through our courses and our programmes and our coaching, through all of that time, probably the key strategy that has helped me is this thing I called searching for the bright spots. Now, what do I mean by that?
Well, it comes from a fabulous book, which I highly recommend called Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. And this is a book all about how to help yourself or others change when change is hard. And there are loads of great ideas and tactics in that book. But in particular, there’s a chapter about, if you’re really stuck, and you believe that it’s not possible to solve a particular thing or get better at a particular thing, search for this for the bright spot, which means ‘Is there any time when you yourself get some success in this area?’
Or if not you, when someone else not dissimilar to you actually gets a different and better result. Find that time focus on it and ask yourself, what could I learn from that particular bright spot. And as obvious as that seems, very often that gives you ideas for actually how to solve your own current problem. So, for example, a couple of years ago, I was coaching someone and their major challenge was time management. They were having many, many problems, getting their work done and getting home on time and it was causing a lot of problems for them. And deep down they believed that this was just part of their identity: ‘I am a rubbish time manager’ and a question I asked them was maybe many days, that is your experience, but is there any time on which you do manage to organise yourself in a better way to prioritise to say no to some distractions and get the key jobs done?
And initially she was certain that there were no such examples. But with a little thought she came up with a bright spot, which was…the one time I think I do manage to do that focusing and that prioritising is the day before my holiday. I don’t know if this is your experience as well. But on the day before your holiday, is it true that you are more successful at just deciding the two or three most important tasks that must get done, and you’re more firm and clear in that thought process at the beginning of the day, and across the day, you’re more assertive in saying no to other tasks, or other people that might distract you from that?
And if that is your experience like hers, then the good news about focusing on this bright spot is it helps your brain admit to the truth that you’re not always a bad time manager – so it’s not your identity. The managing of time or the prioritising or the refusal to get distracted, is just a skill like any other. And if you can do it on one day, but not another, it then becomes possible to dare to believe that you could apply those same behaviours, those same tactics that were there the day before the holiday, on the other days of the week, and that’s what I did with that particular client.
And from the bright spot, we worked out two or three things she was able to do that but which she had just not been doing up to that point. So one of the ways you can use this tactic of searching for the bright spot is if there’s something you’re not very good at, and you feel it’s fairly hopeless, you would like to get better at it but deep down you feel this is just not a thing you are good at then if you search for the bright spot, that means, ask yourself is there a time when you may not be great at it, but are there any times when I do it a bit better?
Sometimes doing this process is easier with a friend or a coach or a mentor….Because they can see things that you can’t and they can help you believe that this, this search is worth the effort. But in that moment when you search for and admit to yourself, well, actually, I didn’t do too badly on that kind of an occasion. And then you ask yourself, well, what what happened there? What were the two or three things going on there that caused that result to be a little better? The tactic does help you find those two or three tactics or conditions that you can apply to your current situation that will help you get better results.
But crucially, the more important and powerful reason why the technique helps, is because it helps you believe that all is not lost. It helps you believe there is some potential (even for you!) to do well at this area, which until now you had convinced yourself was hopeless. So that’s one way of using it. The other way is in any given skill or industry to search for someone out there who’s not just doing a bit better than the rest but a lot better. And asking yourself, what could I learn from that person? And, you know, 19 years ago when I started as a fundraiser, initially my results weren’t hopeless, but they weren’t nearly as good as I wanted them to be.
And I started to realise this is because I was just using my own common sense for how to talk to a donor or write a proposal or whatever, either my own common sense, or you know, the established wisdom of those around me. And what I found is that in any given market, a sales market or certainly in fundraising, whilst one would expect for that to just be an even distribution – some people are getting poor results; some people are getting good results; some amazing people are getting excellent results, and so on and one would think that that’s the end of the story.
Actually, when you look at it, the top two or 3% are not getting 5% more income than the excellent people, they’re just ahead of. In practice, what you find is there are a few people and indeed a few charities in any given market, who are not just a bit better for them to be in, quote, ‘gold medal place’, they’re actually raising two or three times as much as those next best people, those in silver medal position, who they themselves are pretty good.
And what I have found interesting is that if as a source of inspiration and ideas, we just look at the good people, then that’s the maximum results we ourselves can possibly hope to achieve. Whereas if you look and are determined to find the people in fundraising, who are getting freakishly great results consistently, then your belief of what is possible starts to expand. And secondly, in terms of tactics, you find they’re doing things different to what everybody else is doing.
And I made a career out of finding such people, getting really curious and fascinated by what they do and how they do it. Understanding that and then finding ways of bringing those tactics to life in the coaching and the training and the programmes that I do. Over the last 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing dozens and dozens of what I would call bright spot fundraisers whose results are at a completely different level to the hard-working majority. One example that springs to mind is Lucy Sargent, she’s at WWF, now but when she was at Marie Curie and she was heading up high value fundraising at that UK charity, income went up from less than 1 million per year, to about two 3.5 million raised per year in just a four year period. And there’s a bunch of ways she did that. But in particular, the changes she made and the standards they all work to were driven by the notion of treating trusts much more like major donors than most charities do…or for a different kind of fundraising – Lucy Squance at Alzheimer’s Research UK, again, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing her several times and did so again just recently, and we’re going to bring you that interview later on in this podcast series.
She’s Director of Supporter-led fundraising at Alzheimer’s research UK. And just to give you a sense of this, during a three year period, the income brought in by that team has gone up by 320%. That’s more than 5 million pounds growth in what they raise in any given year. Top line, there’s some amazing tactics and strategies there… But in particular, so much for the growth she puts down to how hard she and her colleagues work on creating a fabulous, energised, fun, inspiring culture, actually, that then enables her fundraisers to go out and be so excellent.
And indeed, Richard Turner from a smaller charity, if you know my work, you might have seen my blogs about some of his work when he was at Solar Aid. And that small charity – its approach was very different, and still is. And they’ve achieved such success that for instance, they’ve pretty much achieved their mission in the whole of Tanzania, their mission being to rid that country of this really dangerous and expensive kerosene light kerosene lamp – and the tactics Richard and his colleagues have used are so very different and bold compared to what almost all charities do…that it has led to this completely different level of result.
I could give you another dozen examples. But across the last decade, I’ve sought out what I would call bright spots. And so much of the power of a bright spot is not only to find out the tactics that are different to the paradigm we’re currently in, and therefore the potential results that we could possibly countenance achieving, but also to help us believe that actually, far greater success for our mission is possible.
And it’s also worth saying, I appreciate that sometimes hearing when someone else is doing so amazingly well, if our fundraising is not going very well, to hear about someone who’s fundraising is going amazingly, that can actually be quite annoying. I appreciate that. My intention in sharing any of these bright spots, those ones I mentioned just now and across all of my courses, and across this podcast, I share them not to impress you, or to make you feel bad, but rather to impress upon you and your, I guess your subconscious self, that it is worth plugging away doing your best, believing, following through on certain good tactics which you honestly feel will help.
It is worth following through on those because if success at a high level as possible for them, why shouldn’t it also come to you? And one of the first lessons I learned from bright spots who I encountered was when I was at a children’s charity early in my career, and I noticed that there were one or two people in that large children’s charity who were raising far more money than the rest of us.
And it clearly wasn’t luck, because they were doing it consistently. And when I looked more closely, and I talked to them, and I listened to them speak and I, I asked them to try and put into words where they felt this success was coming from. The key conclusion I came to was the way they talked to donors and supporters was slightly different to the way most of us did. And if you’ve done any of my courses, you’ll know that one distinction is that they included more real examples, not exactly storys every time, but more real examples and sometimes storys in the way they spoke. And I decided this was something I wanted to get better at, because not many of my supporters ever said ‘can you tell me a story?’ My supporters never said that. But they did say questions along the lines of ‘what difference would a gift make?’ or ‘why should I give to your charity?’ And the first couple of really successful major donor fundraisers I spoke to help me see that if I was including more examples in the way I spoke, that was one good way to answer the question, ‘does it make a difference?’ So I actually ended up going out and learning from a different bright spot outside of fundraising at that time. And there’s an adult education college called City Lit in London where I lived at the time, and I enrolled in evening classes in storytelling, and a professional storyteller, who had been telling stories professionally, for least a couple of decades, and every Thursday evening, I would go along, it wasn’t a fundraising course. You know, there were lots of drama students there and a children’s entertainer or two… but we would go along a Thursday evening, and we would tell stories and this bright spot in terms of storytelling skill, this master who got great results, she would listen to our stories and she would give us feedback and coaching and then after that coaching retell the story again.
And guess what? The story tended to be much more interesting and persuasive impactful to the audience, compared to before the bright spot gave us this advice. And what I used to do then is take the ideas that she taught me back into my fundraising job the next day, and use it to help me better understand communication, and what I was saying and writing to my supporters. And it really started to help. And that’s one of the reasons why gradually I felt I had some ideas to share with initially my colleagues and then in due course, the sector more widely when I set up my company, bright spot, was this understanding of what is more interesting, and concrete and persuasive.
And how you do that is to search for and be able to give more real examples. And some tips on how you can share those examples and stories in the way you talk to support us. And one reason I’m so excited about this podcast is whereas, for a lot of my career to date, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing these fabulous fundraising stars, like Lucy Squance, and I’ve benefited from their story. And then I’ve tried to understand it and then pass on those ideas to the people who come on my courses.
The reason I love this podcast is on most weeks of the podcast, I’m going to take out the middleman, as in my interpretation of it. And I am going to interview these these really successful fundraisers, so that you can hear the beliefs and tactics and strategies directly from them the way they articulate them. So another way of looking at this whole topic, is to think of the idea of modelling, and if we believe that consistent success leaves clues, and if I see someone who’s getting great results, rather than trying to work it all out myself, if I find out what they do, and model those behaviours or beliefs or tactics, then I have found this tactic of modelling to be a better and faster way of making progress in an area where I want to grow, than other tactics I would do.
Now, I do other tactics as well. I go on courses, I read books, networking, get a coach or a mentor, all of these other things that people talk about, I think are really important, especially if they incorporate elements of modelling within them. But if you’re listening to this, and you would like to grow your confidence and your skills and your results in your fundraising job now and in your career, that I’m suggesting that latching onto the concept of modelling, in your approach to achieving that progress cannot really be ignored.
So why is modelling such a powerful tactic? Well, the best way I can explain it is by looking at a model that learning and development professionals have developed and sometimes use for explaining how you make progress in any given field. And there are four ideas in this model, this professional development loop. These four ideas go round and round.
So the first one, if you picture a clock face, the first key word would be Potential, as in ‘how much of my true potential am I currently tapping into?
The next one at three o’clock is Action – what actions am I taking? And crucially, how much do I follow through and execute?
The third one at six o’clock on the clock face is Results, what results am I getting?
And the last one is confidence or Certainty. How confident am I in my ability and my organization’s ability to affect change and get wonderful results?
Now the reason lots of people’s efforts to get better at something don’t quite work out as they really wanted in my view, is because they don’t have enough certainty or confidence that doing things differently than how they had been doing, or confidence that studying / reading a particular book or confidence that changing their approach to designing a pitch, …they don’t have enough confidence that doing that brave, energy-taking thing will pay them back. And because of that, I believe they don’t follow through and tap enough of their potential. And therefore they don’t take as much action with as high standards as they possibly could, because at some level, they don’t quite believe it’s worth taking that risk, and therefore the results they get are mediocre or merely quite good.
And this is one of the many reasons why for years and years if I’m trying to help someone make progress, wherever possible, I give them examples, bright spots, I show them what story to model and that helps them at some level believe that its worth truly stretching and digging deeper and then they do start to tap more of their potential. They really go for it. And then you get this virtuous cycle rather than a vicious cycle because confidence and certainty has gone up. So the other three elements can’t help but go up in line with your new certainty and confidence.
So as we develop this podcast and we share a new episode each week, we’ve got some really exciting people going to be sharing their success, their ideas, their advice and their strategies. Andy King has a really interesting approach to event fundraising and how if you really treat it like a relationship fundraiser, how it can make a wonderful difference to your long term individual, giving result.
And so just referring back to that professional development loop I mentioned before, in the various examples, I love the strategies and tactics and when I interview them, I’m really curious as to exactly what they did differently to others because in most cases, there are things that they do differently and that truly is part of the mix of how you can lift your results, find the Uncommon Sense not do the common sense that everyone around you has been doing. But in case I didn’t make it sufficiently clear in this podcast so far, all along, I’m also including the story, not just for the strategy, but also to help you believe that success and growth is possible if we’re willing to work a little harder in certain areas.
So if you want to do something practical with the ideas we’ve been looking at today, here are four options for things you could do:
Firstly, I really recommend the book called Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. And this is one of the best books I’ve ever read on how to help yourself and others make positive changes successfully.
Next, seek out people you’d like to model – is this someone you know who gets great results in a particular area that you really admire? Not only for their results, but also for the way they go about it. For this to be useful, they don’t need to be getting astonishing world famous results, just results which are clearly better than your current level. Could you invite them for coffee, or just a chat on the phone to ask them how they do it? Obviously, if that first chat goes well, you could even ask if they’re willing to mentor you. But my advice is, it’s usually best to ask that after you’ve managed to get the first chat, and it’s gone well.
Thirdly, if you don’t know anyone at all, who you think you could learn from, then decide on someone famous who you really admire. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Tanni Grey Thompson or Bob Geldof, or Michelle Obama or whoever your hero is, or indeed an inspiring fundraiser, who blogs or podcasts regularly. Obviously, I do think podcasts and blogs are incredibly useful. But if you already read or listen to them regularly, then I really recommend you try reading either a good biography, or an autobiography.
Because there’s a real power in immersing yourself deeper in someone else’s world. And over time I found this can really help you to take on the mindset and beliefs of that person, if you think that that will serve you.
And lastly, if you want to improve your fundraising results, and you’re in a kind of a role where you sometimes talk to supporters or donors or corporates or trusts or trustees, then a key tactic which sounds simple but is astonishingly powerful in practice, is to get yourself a notebook what I would call a story bank, and use that from now on as a place where you will always capture any examples or stories to do with your cause, to do with your beneficiaries, to do with the difference your charity makes, get such a notebook and have it in your bag wherever you go.
And when you hear any examples or stories find the three or four minutes to write those up. And as silly as this sounds, the act of doing that and I know dozens and dozens of people who’ve done it…the act of capturing those rather than forgetting them, means that whenever you are in front of a donor, you will have more firepower with which to calmly give them a sense of the amazing impact your charity makes.
Just one example. There’s a wonderful fundraiser called Becky, who I first met about five years ago when she was at the Heart of Kent Hospice. And I taught her team there many tactics to do with real examples and stories in fundraising and how you can capture them and bring them to life for supporters. And when I last met her a couple of years ago, she’d moved on to Stroke Association. And a couple of years ago, she said that she has taught those concepts to all of her team, her new team, and they’ve all got story capturing books.
And when I last spoke to her, she said the results for her team on her patch in that 14 months since she joined was 210% up on what it had been previously, and I’m sure there must be a lot of reasons for that growth. But Becky said to me, she felt a lot of the reason for the growth was everybody having so many more real examples and stories at their fingertips with which to inspire their supporters.
So there are four ideas for practical things you can try fairly easily. And if you want more information on anything I’ve covered, do check out the show notes on our website. If you’re curious about any of the in-house training courses, the one to one coaching or the mastery programmes we offer, then again, all of that information is on brightspotfundraising.co.uk. I hope in this episode, I’ve provided not only some interesting ideas you could apply to anything you want to get better at, but also that I’ve got you a little bit curious about some of the fascinating interviews we’ve got coming up in this series.
So if you want to make sure you don’t miss out on those, please do subscribe to the podcast today. I really look forward to talking to you next time. Until then, best of luck with your fundraising.