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Understanding and appreciating your supporters’ situation is a crucial element in consistent fundraising success, but how do you gather this insight more effectively?
In this episode of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast, we share the second half of Rob Woods’ interview with Lesley Pinder. Lesley is the Head of Supporter Experience at the British Red Cross and here she shares a range of lessons she’s learned about the discipline of gathering insight to improve fundraising.
These tips include: how you get the sceptics in your organization, including those more senior than you, to buy into the importance of better insight; how to be more open-minded, curious and brave, in spite of the natural human need for certainty; and ideas for how any fundraiser, even in a small charity with limited resources, can do some basic things to improve their fundraising in this way.
If you like this episode, we recommend you also check out Episode 10, also with Lesley.
- If your charity needs to solve a big complex problem or make a big change, it certainly requires rigour and the help of a professional research agency. But the tactics Lesley describes in this and Episode 10 will help any fundraiser improve the success of their day to day projects.
- Even if you do commission an outside agency to manage the research, do whatever you can to involve your colleagues in the process. This greatly increases the chances that following the research, your charity will act on the insights.
- Making efforts to genuinely understand your supporter’s real lives and feelings, will help you do more effective fundraising and reduce frustraing meetings, where lots of the stress and conflict come from people being attached to untested assumptions.
- When people think they already know what will work best / how donors feel, listen rather than dismiss this. Welcome that input, take it seriously, and then offer to go and robustly test it. When someone is pretty sure they’re right, they’re often willing for their ideas to be tested.
- Another key step when people are sceptical is to find a way to involve them in your insight-gathering process. This often turns them into the biggest advocates for your process and any findings from the project.
- Seek input from as many different people as you can.
- This process is scary because its unpredictable what you might discover. Lesley’s way to handle this uncertainty is to find reassurance in a robust process. This helps her trust each step and be more open to learning what the process provides.
- If you have limited resources and you want to improve your fundraising in this way, start by thinking who it is for? How could you find out why they support you, what they care about, how they feel about certain issues, how they support other organisations. Starting here is more productive than asking them specific questions about the event or project you’re trying to improve. There is more detail on this Episode 10.
- Lesley gives an example of how seeking more insight as to why people make pledges to leave legacies for Breast Cancer Now flipped a lot of the assumptions that had previously been held about what those people actually wanted.
‘The amount of time and money you will save by genuinely understanding your supporters’ real feelings and lives, is insurmountable.’ Lesley Pinder
‘It’s frightening and unsettling because most organisations are not built for uncertainty.’ Lesley Pinder
‘Start with more focus on the supporter’s life and feelings about a particular issue, more than their approach to your charity or your events.’ Rob Woods
Just Enough Research By Erika Hall
Episode 10 of this podcast, which is the first half of this interview with Lesley Pinder.
Hello, this is Rob Woods, and welcome to episode 11 of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast. This is the show for anyone who works in charity fundraising and who wants ideas and inspiration for how to raise more money, really enjoy their job, and make a bigger difference.
Rob: In this episode, if you want to get better at the skills and beliefs you need to understand your supporters, we’ve got a real treat for you. We’re again looking at the crucial subject of how to gather insight in fundraising, and I’m so excited to be able to share the second half of my interview with the fabulous Lesley Pinder. Lesley is the head of supporter experience of the British Red Cross, and when we sat down to find out her ideas to help fundraisers improve in this area, we found there was so much to say that there was no way it would fit into a half hour episode, which is what I normally aim for. So if you like this one, please do go back and listen to more of Lesley’s ideas in episode 10.
Rob: But for now, you’re about to hear Lesley’s advice on several more important elements of fundraising insight, including how you get the sceptics in your organization including those more senior than you to buy into the importance of gathering insight, how Lesley helps people embrace the need to be open minded and brave as they search for insight in spite of the natural human need for certainty, and ideas to make it less arduous and more fun for your supporters to provide you with valuable insight.
Rob: I learnt so much from my conversation with Lesley and I hope you find it helpful too.
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Rob: We join the conversation as Lesley is weighing up the issue of when you really should seek help and get insight research done professionally, and when, as we’re talking about for most of this episode, you could do some things yourself that will absolutely improve the success of your fundraising project.
Lesley: I think it’s important to say that by no means do I think that you should never do big, large scale research projects with professional research agencies. If you’re trying to solve a big complex problem, or you’re trying to make a really big change for your organization that really does require a huge amount of rigor, absolutely you should work with a professional research agency. If you want to understand who your supporters are so that day in, day out you can have a bit of empathy and understand who you’re creating for, you can do it yourself.
Lesley: Even if you do big research pieces of work, I would always state that a research agency that brings the client in to observe the interviews, to be involved in the research, to help analyse the findings, that research will get used. A 200 page deck of graphs and quotes and footnotes will never get used, or it will by about three people, usually the people that were involved in getting your research done.
Lesley: So yes, there’s always a space for good, robust, professionally done research by professional researchers, but you shouldn’t also be afraid of having a go yourself. But just know that you don’t want to make vast investment decisions based on a small set of interviews. It’s about you getting a much deeper understanding about who you’re creating for.
Lesley: The number of arguments that you’d have internally about whether people like this or don’t like this, or whether somebody will respond to this are going to respond to that, the amount of time and money you will save by genuinely understanding your supporters, genuine real life feelings and lives, is unsurmountable. I can’t even come close to saying how much time and money you will save and how many arguments you will save about issues that we have huge assumptions about how people feel about certain topics. The only way you’re ever going to know if you’re right is by speaking to them and asking them.
Rob: Yeah, I agree. There’s so many arguments and difficult meetings we have because someone is giving their opinion on what is good copy or bad copy, or what the name of the event should be, and often they are a person with importance or authority in the charity, and they’re saying it based on them, and they are just not the target market.
Rob: Probably our listeners, they know that problem only too well. What would you be your advice if some of the solution is to get better quality insight and understanding into that supporter in order that the person who’s got to sign off the budget has a more robust approach to it rather than just their own opinion, do you have any tips on how they might go about actually making that work in practice?
Lesley: Oh, that’s such a good question. I just had a chat with an insight colleague earlier today and we were talking about that moment where the sceptic becomes the biggest advocate for the thing that you’re doing, and it happens a lot where you might start a research project. I did one with an organization and the one of the senior leaders just didn’t buy into it at all. He used to say you’re going to make decisions based on post it notes. No, really we’re not.
Lesley: I think the only answer is, well, not, the only answer, there’s a couple of answers, is get all those people in the room and find out what they think the answer is. Get all those assumptions out, find them out, write them up in a big list, and go, okay, we’re to go out and test some of these things. We might find that you’re right. Cool, that’s great. But let’s go and check. That’s good because it makes them feel like they’ve been heard, and sometimes they will be right, and then that also means that we won’t get that, well, I could’ve told you that. You’re like, well, you did tell us, but now we know it’s true. Therefore when you say it next time, we’re not going to argue with you.
Lesley: But the converse also is you think you know the answer, but you might not. I think it’s really important to get those fears and objections out early, and listen to them, and write them down, and don’t just dismiss them as, oh God, they’re moaning again about it. They could be right, and that is just as valid as if they’re wrong.
Lesley: Then involve them, bring them along to interviews. Get them involved, not as like behind the glass window, like in the room, taking notes for you, helping you out with research. Get them involved in the process and show them your workings as well so that they can see that there is thought behind it and rigor.
Lesley: Again, like I said earlier, I think we do have a tendency, ‘we’re making a decision on this’. We’ve made the decision, that’s it, and then we never change anything or look at it again for two years. It should be a constant development process. We think this is what we found out, you still don’t agree with us, can we please just go away and test it then? What more evidence do you need from us to show you that this is right? Is it prototyping something? Is it taking it out and do something live? Is that a small test? Whatever you need, we’ll go out and we’ll try and find the evidence until you can feel comfortable that we’re making the right decision. I think that’s the only way, really. Listen to them and don’t just dismiss it.
Rob: Yeah, so a couple of really smart things there. Surprise, surprise, if we knowingly involve them in the process, it’s so much more likely that they’re not going to be just evaluating it in a months time when it’s all done and dusted. They are more likely to just intellectually respect the rigor with which we’re approaching.
Lesley: Yeah, absolutely. Similarly, not just with senior stakeholders, with everyone. So when we kicked off that first project at the Red Cross, we had a hunch workshop that was with the data analyst that had done the data analysis for us. He did a big report, but we were like no, come and tell us what do you think it means? What do you think this is telling us? Which makes people deeply uncomfortable, because they’re like, I don’t know if it doesn’t mean that. I just think it might. I’m like cool, that’s fine. You don’t need to know the answers.
Lesley: Then we’d ask the web analysis guy, and the people who delivered our welcome journeys, and the direct marketing team, what do you think? What do you think the answer to this is? What do you think the problem is here? What do you think these people need? Then as you start to build evidence that either confirms or denies it, then they’re involved in that process and they’re not just handed a document five months later that says all that stuff you said is wrong, by the way. We’re doing it this way now.
Lesley: People are smart, and they want to learn, as well. It’s just about being curious. Ultimately, it’s just a curiosity. And anyone can be curious, it doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO or an exec. It doesn’t matter.
Rob: Yeah. Wait, so you say people are curious, and I do agree that all human beings have the capacity for curiosity.
Rob: I mean, I’m doing my best to become more curious, to more value curiosity as a thing I do. But the reason I’m having to try harder is I also think there’s a thing in the human condition that likes to be right.
Lesley: Oh yes.
Rob: We like right and wrong. I’m watching a TV program at the moment which keeps annoying me because it’s all shades of gray, and I want to know who the goodies and baddies are. I recognize my wife is much more mature in her attitude to story and art and life and that, and it doesn’t bother her at all. But I do think the attractiveness of certainty, I can see why human beings need some level of certainty, but early in this interview you said something which in a way was surprising to me, which was there is never going to be one final right answer.
Rob: I mean, I guess that was always true, but it’s especially true at this time in history where socially, politically, economically, everything is in so much period of change. I’d love your opinion on that notion of human beings, what have you observed about some of your customers, your clients, and them tempted to want to know one final right answer? What have you observed about that and/or any other response you’ve formed in this particular job where you believe the opposite?
Lesley: Gosh, that’s a hard question. So yes, I completely agree certainty is calming. As humans, we like patterns and for things to slot together nicely in our brains. I think that’s one of the reasons why as a sector I would say we’re very good at looking to each other for reassurance and certainty.
Lesley: I’d say as a sector, we’re amazing at doing research into what other charities are doing and what’s happened in the past, because that’s stuff that has happened and that is fact. But we depend on that way more than… You know, we’re looking constantly to the past, and constantly to what other people have done that has worked for them, for a sense of certainty so that we don’t feel like we’re taking any risks. I think that’s what’s led to a sector that looks identical, and does the same, and all of our marketing is identical, our letters all look the same, or our websites all have the same headings, and our community fundraising events are all identical. We look the same because there’s safety in that, I think.
Lesley: What I hear more and more from supporters is that that isn’t meeting their needs anymore and they’re not inspired it by anymore, and they become bored of it. But that’s the only way of giving they know because it’s the only way of giving we’re giving them. Then that becomes self-perpetuating because people think, well, but people respond to that, so therefore we should keep doing that. It just becomes self perpetuating despite the fact that a lot of our donor bases are shrinking because people are done with that and we’ve not worked out a way to offer them anything different because we want certainty.
Lesley: So we’re waiting for the next thing for somebody to do that we can all jump on and copy, but the world just doesn’t work like that anymore. So the approach that we take, which is asking questions constantly, is really unsettling. Starting a project, if I start a project, somebody will always say, so what’s going to come out at the end? And I can never give them an answer. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if this project that we’re going to be kicking off in the new year is going to mean a new email journey or a completely new way of thinking about support. It might mean we use telephone in a different way. I don’t know the answer, and that’s really unsettling.
Lesley: It’s unsettling because we’re not built in organizations for uncertainty. We do year plans six months before the end of the year before, which put us in boxes for 12 months that doesn’t allow space for uncertainty. Because we can’t fit. We can’t change our resourcing and our budgets. We can’t pivot, because if we pivot it takes three months of decision making and sign off, and by the time we wanted to pivot, it’s too late. So it’s just at the moment, I think we’re in a real transition period as a whole sector moving away from certainty to uncertainty. It is unsettling, and it’s hard, but there are processes and ways of thinking that can create comfort within uncertainty, if that makes sense. So design thinking or service design has an approach to uncertainty that makes uncertainty comfortable.
Lesley: I don’t know if that makes sense, but there’s ways of finding a way through uncertainty that has a process behind it. Just random uncertainty, and I find comfort in the process of finding answers, which research can help you do. The amount of projects that I’ve seen in different organizations where you’re almost having to undo the previous work that was done because somebody just said this is the answer and the answer is this and we’re just going to do it without any research, and then it doesn’t work because they wanted a firm decision and the world doesn’t work like that anymore.
Lesley: So that was a bit of a diatribe, anyway. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as you can probably tell.
Rob: One of the big learnings for me during this interview and trying to get my head around what it is you do and how you operate and the mindset you have to get these results that you get, is the biggest thing is it takes courage. If it’s risky to to lean into and accept a level of uncertainty of what we might find out, the biggest thing, it seems to me, more than time, more than money, more than anything else, it’s a brave approach to be willing to jump in not knowing what’s going to happen.
Rob: But the good news is, I’m hearing, you don’t just have to have this blind courage that not many of us are blessed with. What I’m hearing is you, in your own career, have managed to do it more and better than most, and now you help your colleagues and teams and departments do it better than most, because there is a reassurance in the process.
Rob: So the big picture, it is risky, but the more we believe in the process, the more we are holistic about it, the more we design the correct research approach depending on our particular situation. The more you make use of the process, each one of those smaller chunks actually enables us to take on the risk. Have I broadly understood your situation?
Lesley: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the mistakes I’ve made in the past is forgetting how frightening it can be. I still find it terrifying to be honest, but I just have to hang on to that process. But it’s a process I really know now, and I forget sometimes that it’s still new for other people. So always just we are re-articulating what the process is that you’re going through at every stage of a project is really important, not just at the beginning, and just constantly reminding people like we’re doing it in this way, these are the questions we’re trying to answer.
Lesley: We are so lucky at the Red Cross because there’s my team that is using this approach to exploration through insight and asking questions and trying to solve problems through curiosity, there’s also we have a fundraising and innovation team who used the same approach, and then we have a central hub that are really looking at how we are people centered in our services. Then we’ve service designers joining all the time. So this language of curiosity and problem solving and insight-led work, it’s becoming quite commonplace now in the organization. So people are getting more and more comfortable with it and more and more used to doing it, which is amazing. I think that’s going to just increase as we move into our future, which is all about being people-centered.
Lesley: So yeah, I’m lucky to find myself somewhere where I’m not just a lone person shouting in the background, and it’s at the heart of everything that we’re trying to do now, which is amazing.
Rob: Yeah. It’s so impressive to see how that is in your culture more now and in your process. But if many of our listeners are in either large organizations that aren’t at that level yet, or frankly more of the listeners are going to be in medium-sized or especially small organizations and they might be the sole fundraiser or they might be part of a small team, what would your advice to them be if either there is a particular event or mid-level segment or project they’re planning and they realize they should try to work more this way rather than jump in and do the project without the research? What would your advice be to that listener as to how they could take on more of your mindset and more of your process without this bigger resource?
Lesley: Oh, that’s such a good question. Where to start? I’m closing my eyes and imagining I’m putting myself in the shoes of previous-Lesley, who worked a kind of small, medium sized charity, and what would I have done differently when I set up a new event?
Lesley: I think the best thing you can do is really try and think about who are you creating this thing for and how can you find out how they feel about it? If you’re creating a new event or you want to look at how you might improve stewardship mailing that you’re doing, contact the people that you are sending it to you or that you’re inviting to the thing and talk to them. Don’t ask them how do you think we should improve the event straight off. Just find out why they support you, what they cared about, what else is going on in their lives, how they support other organizations. Then start talking to them about, oh, do you remember that you came to the event last time? How did you feel? What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it? Just speak to them. I’d pick 10 people and see what they tell you, and you’ll be amazed at how it might surprise you.
Lesley: I mean, design thinking is basically the thought process I’m talking through, and there’s loads of brilliant online resources about design thinking that you can access for free. So it might be worth any organization just going and having them look at that stuff and seeing if there’s anything you can learn from it. Because it’s a mindset that doesn’t really require resource or budget, it’s just a way of thinking.
Rob: So it could be really simple of marking out a couple of hours to just make six or seven phone calls to people who’ve done that event in the past or the kind of person who would be doing that event in the future. Simply the act of actually making those calls and having some structure to the way you organize that conversation, and being disciplined in recording it, it could be it was that that could save you a great deal of wasted time and effort if you had not done.
Rob: Now, there’s more you could do as well, and hopefully once you do that, you’ll find it so valuable that you do a bigger process as well. But at its simplest, that’s what you would encourage our listeners to do more of in their project that they’re looking at at the moment.
Lesley: Yeah, absolutely. Even if it’s too late, so if you’ve already done a thing, you could do that research during or after as well. You don’t have to do it before. So if you’re at an event, speak to people, talk to them and find out what they felt about it and get their feedback. But yeah, absolutely. As much as you can make the effort to go out and speak to a real life actual humans. And don’t just ask them about your charity and what you want to hear. Have a conversation and listen.
Rob: So that’s another key learning point I’ve taken from this interview, Lesley, is instinctively we might think we wanted to do ask about our charity or their approach to our event, and the key thing that you’re constantly trying to do is not be so self-focused, but focus on them and their life and feelings to a particular issue or cause, but not necessarily their approach to your charity or your events. More of those questions are more likely to be enlightening, and therefore, in due course, improve your product rather than the knee jerk, what do you think of our thing?
Lesley: Yeah, absolutely. I mean there’s stuff that you can test. Don’t ask an interview what you can learn by testing. So do you prefer this subject line, A or B? Don’t ask those questions, just test it. There’s questions you can just find out by testing. Ask the questions that you can never get the answers to from a survey or an AB test. The the why underneath their behavior is what you want to find out, not their behavior. Because you can see that from what they’re doing already.
Rob: Thank you.
Rob: One question that occurred to me, and I often ask people on the podcast, is you’ve given so much good ideas and tips so I better understand your mindset now, and some tools, I wonder if there’s one example or two that stands out either from when you’ve been at Red Cross, or you mentioned before at Breast Cancer Now? Could you just give us like a mini case study or example of a question that needed more insight and really top line what your process was? Crucially, I’m interested in how that might’ve led to something different being done, how the stewardship piece changed, or you did then explore a market in a different way. Is there an example that springs to mind so that we we can then see your overall process through that mini example?
Lesley: A previous example, okay. At Breakthrough Breast Cancer, we did a piece of work around… Actually, it was Breast Cancer Now by that point, actually, and we did a piece of work around tribute funds and people who give in memory of somebody. To that piece of work, we looped… There’s a lot of off the shelf platforms that you can use for tribute funds and memory giving, and they were very chosen because they gave you all the functionality that you thought people would want. It integrated well with your database, and it was very off the shelf, or you would use JustGiving or a similar off the shelf platform.
Lesley: This was a relatively small number of people. We spoke to around about 10 people who had tribute funds with the charity, and talked to them about what it meant to them. Why they set one up? What it meant to them? How they used it?How they revisited it and the emotion behind it. We realized that really it wasn’t necessarily about all singing, all dancing functionality, but the messaging and the heart of what they were trying to do and why their friends and family would go and make a donation and what gave them emotionally a point where they were feeling incredibly vulnerable.
Lesley: When there was a lot going on in their lives, the simplest we could make it, the better, the more heartfelt we could make it, the better. Crucially, the one thing that came out above and beyond anything that we didn’t expect was that it’s not about the charity and it’s not about the person setting up the tribute fund, it’s about the person who passed away.
Lesley: We used that insight both to help design a platform that was then used, and we worked with the a digital agency that actually hadn’t really worked in the charity sector before, who helped create. Interestingly, the digital agency from the charity center said, oh, it’s impossible to set up a platform like that. You might as well just use one that already exists. These guys were like, of course, you can, and they continued throughout the processes of developing that platform to bring those tribute fund holders into the design process to make sure that it was still reflecting what they felt that they needed.
Lesley: So they helped with the build of the actual platform, but then on the other side it also impacted the creative and the way that the language that they used. The design agency that we worked with on the creative side of it came to all of that, the interviews with the tribute fund holders, and spoke to them and were partners with us rather than just getting a brief and told to go off and do that thing. So it both shaped the messaging that we used, and then also the platform that we used.
Lesley: I don’t know, actually, now if it’s still live, if I’m brutally honest, because it was a few years ago before the most recent march. So that was really powerful because it changed our assumptions that you can’t set up your own platform, that the platforms already existed, were created for the tribute fund holders, which they were never done. They were treated created for the charities, not for the people who had a loved one who passed away. I think that was a really powerful and actually quite small piece of research that just completely flipped our thinking around around it.
Lesley: Yeah, it’s one that I’m quite proud of. It was myself and Lawrence, who was our attribute fund manager at the time, that worked on it. He did the bulk of the work, I have to confess, but it was a really good project that we worked on.
Rob: Do you happen to know how it landed and whether it resonated? I mean, instinctively I have a strong sense that it did if it was more designed by what their real reasons, but at the time, did you happen to notice that Lawrence was pleased with how it went?
Lesley: Yeah, and the people that were involved that held tribute funds as well we’re pleased with the outcome as well. That’s an approach that I used with another organization around a legacy program as well. The insight that we got from people that had pledged legacies to them then became like design principles for that organization and every piece of literature or every communication that they sent. In fact, the same design agency used that insight as kind of have we really delivered these supporters needs in every single thing that we deliver to those people?
Lesley: Again, that flipped a lot of the assumptions that we had about what legacy pledgers actually wanted. What they found out was it really wasn’t what they thought it was and they were over complicating it. So yeah, that did really massively uplift response to any sort of mailing they asked for. Any kind of response or engagement, it massively increased. So yeah.
Rob: Great examples. Thank you, Lesley.
Rob: We need to finish soon, but just before, if people want to get in touch, I know you’re quite active on Twitter. Is that the best place people could find you?
Lesley: Yeah, probably.
Rob: What’s your name?
Lesley: Yeah, I’m @skipinder, S-K-I-P-I-N-D-E-R, a long story about where that came from, on Twitter. I’m on LinkedIn, but I’m a bit rubbish at LinkedIn. So Twitter is probably the best place for me, or you can email me at the Red Cross. It’s just firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob: Fantastic. So Lesley, thank you so much. So many good examples, ideas, tips. Sorry for my left field questions which really made you think and churn.
Lesley: A bit.
Rob: Had to mull things over. I so appreciate the thought you gave to those answers and how generous you were in sharing some real examples to bring it to life. I look forward to catching up with you at some other conference somewhere in the world.
Rob: Best of luck in your continuing role at British Red Cross, but for now, thank you so much for appearing on the podcast.
Lesley: Pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Rob: Thank you, Lesley. Bye-bye.
Lesley: Cheers. Bye-bye.
Rob: Well, I hope you found this conversation helpful. If you want to go back to the key ideas we explored this time, there are a couple of options. Firstly, if you’re already part of the Bright Spot Members Club, we’ve posted the full interview there, including a final section in which Lesley shares further wise advice gleaned from what she’s learned in her career so far.
Rob: If you’re not in the club, don’t worry. You can find notes summarizing key takeaways from the episode as well as details for how you can access the Bright Spot Members Club on the blog and podcast section of our website, which is brightspotfundraising.co.uk.
Rob: If you found today’s episode helpful, please remember to hit subscribe today so you don’t miss out on any of the other sessions we’ve got coming up.
Rob: Finally, thank you so much for listening. The habit of continuing to learn throughout your career is something I have seen in all the high achieving fundraisers I’ve interviewed in the last two decades, but I also know how hard it can sometimes be to find the time to do this in practice. I have so much respect for people who manage to do this. I look forward to talking to you next time when we’ll be sharing more ideas and Bright Spot stories to help you make progress in your fundraising.