Episode 44: Max Newton – Achieving what seems IMPOSSIBLE, in fundraising and beyond

Episode Notes

If you’d like ideas to help you more confidently embrace very difficult, or even impossible-seeming challenges in this gruelling year, I hope you’re going to love this episode!

Because this time I talk to Max Newton, who is Head of community fundraising at Shelter. Earlier this year, Max completed the Tunnel Ultra, running for 200 miles non-stop (yes, you read that right!), back and forth through a dark tunnel. It took around 50 hours.

I was determined to get Max on the podcast to share some of the things his running hobby has taught him, that can help any of us when facing daunting challenges in life and, particularly, as fundraisers / leaders. This year Max and his colleagues have been making practical use of these ideas to help deal so positively with the challenges of fundraising during the chaos of the pandemic.

If you want to share this episode with your friends and social media contacts because you think it will help other charities at this difficult time, THANK YOU VERY MUCH! And Max and I would love to hear what you think. We are both on Linked In and on twitter Max is @MaximoNewton and I am @woods_rob.

Further Resources

This episode is part of a full film Max and I recorded for my training and inspiration site for fundraisers, Bright Spot Members Club. If you’d like to find out more about all the training films, downloads and live sessions available each week, go to www.brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join/.

One of Max’s favourite books, that has helped shape his resourceful, tenacious approach to doing difficult things, is How bad do you want it, by Matt Fitzgerald.

Quote

‘If you want to do something that feels really difficult, search for the bright spots. If you search hard enough, you’ll find there are people already doing it, showing that these limits that most people accept, aren’t actually real.’

Max Newton

Full transcript

Rob Woods:

Hey there, folks. Welcome to Episode 44 of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast. My name is Rob Woods, and this is the show for anyone who works in charity fundraising, and who wants ideas for how to raise more money, enjoy their job and make a bigger difference.

And if you’d like ideas to help you more confidently embrace very difficult or even impossible seeming challenges in this demanding fundraising environment in 2020 and 2021, I think you’re going to enjoy this episode because today I’m talking to Max Newton, who is head of community fundraising at the UK homelessness charity Shelter.

I first met Max four years ago when he took part in our corporate partnerships mastery program. Max is a brilliant, innovative fundraiser, but that’s not the only reason I wanted to share his ideas on the podcast. Over the last eight months, I’ve found it fascinating and encouraging to watch the positive way that Max and his colleagues at Shelter have responded to the challenges of 2020. But to me, the story starts around a decade ago when Max quit smoking and took up running. In time, he progressed to running ultra-marathons and over the years he’s found that the lessons he’s learned by doing these extraordinary challenges have also helped him as a professional fundraiser. Here’s the first part of our interview,

Max Newton. How are you?

Max Newton:

I’m very well, thank you. It’s budgeting season. So it is fun, fun, fun.

Rob Woods:

Yes. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying that process. Thank you for taking a break from it to do this interview with me. Just to set it up. You’ve been a fundraiser for many years. You are the head of community fundraising at shelter. And I think you and I met when you were community fundraising manager at the British Red Cross.

Max Newton:

I was a community fundraiser at the British Red Cross.

Rob Woods:

Okay. And we’ve enjoyed various interesting conversations over the years. The one I particularly want to talk about today, we are going to talk about fundraising and leadership to an extent, but the particular reason I’ve got you onto this podcast interview was to do with one of your hobbies, which is ultra running. And some of the things that you’ve learned through that hobby that you have noticed have also helped you as a leader and a manager and as a fundraiser. So just to get us into the right zone, what is ultra running? Briefly, how did you get into it? And then if you could lead on to this latest crazy feat you did, which was the Tunnel Ultra.

Max Newton:

Cool. So ultra running is usually running anything over 30 miles, but could be many, many more miles. I got into it by I gave up smoking, needed to do some running to make up for that. Did a half marathon, got sponsored. Did a marathon, got sponsored? And I thought, well, they know that I can run that distance now, all my sponsors, all my friends. So how do I get more money out of my friends and family?

And then I discovered a run that was from London to Brighton for 56 miles and consequently every year since then I’ve needed to go further or crazier in order to be able to ask my friends for money, for the charity, and also to challenge myself and push my boundaries and get a feeling of excitement from doing something different and challenging and so the latest one was the Tunnel Ultra, which was 200 miles back and forth in a cold, dark tunnel with no headphones, no outside support. Yeah and had to run it in 55 hours was the time limit, which meant no sleep whatsoever. And the previous year was the first year it had been run and 40 people started and only two people finished. So I thought that sounds like something that will get people interested in sponsoring me. And that sounds like something that I don’t think I can do. So let’s go for it. And I finished.

Rob Woods:

Yeah. So where did you place?

Max Newton:

I was the fourth finisher in 50 hours and something. You lose track of time a little bit, but it was within the time limits. Yeah. There was only a few times where I was falling asleep whilst running. Yeah. It was an amazing experience. Got to do a bit of thinking, but also thinking about nothing for quite a bit of time and raised a nice amount of money for the British Red Cross.

Rob Woods:

Yes. And I can vouch for the power of choosing something that’s just a bit different or a bit harder than people think one should be capable of doing. And the effect that has given that your main motivation you’ve talked about so far has been, how could I get more sponsorship money. The effect that has on someone who might be willing to sponsor you, it absolutely worked because you let me know in advance. And I think I sponsored you just before you started, which was at tea time on a Friday. And then I set off running. And I think I just, I may have mentioned it to my family, but I remember getting up on the Saturday morning, a little, I was a bit annoyed that I’d woken up earlier than I wanted to on a Saturday morning and mildly grumpy at 7:30 or whatever.

And at some point I had checked what was going on on social media and it just jolted me that I’d had my seven hours sleep or whatever. And you’d had not a single moment’s sleep and you’d run so far, two, two and a half marathons or something. And you still had another, whatever it was, 140 miles to go, 150 miles to go. And I just tried to get my head around that truth. And as I was trying to do that, I explained it to my son. And he said, “What I thought the most you’re allowed to run is a marathon, isn’t that 26 miles.”

And just the two of us, we felt that our understanding of the limits of how much a person could run for, we were just wrestling with that. I mean, I had heard you tell me 200 miles, but it hadn’t truly sunk in that you were now going to have to keep going for a further two days or whatever.

And my whole family on Sunday afternoon kept asking me, “How’s he doing? How’s his knee?” “He’s on the 196 mile Mark. And his knee is agony, but his dad said he’s going to do his best to finish.”

And so my whole family cheered when your dad tweeted you’d got over the line, 200 miles. And that had several effects. It caused us to sponsor you a second time, including my son wanting to, “Daddy can I sponsor with my money?’’

Max Newton:

Going for his piggy bank.

Rob Woods:

And on Sunday morning, him deciding to go for a run. I mean, he is a sporty boy anyway, but he decided to go for a run. He’s never gone for a run before when there hasn’t been a ball around. So it just had this effect of capturing our imagination. And I think, so that’s part of why I can see how it’s enabled you to raise a lot of sponsorship money for good causes over the years.

I guess a key thing I want to get into for this interview is what are some things that the doing of this hobby that most people would flat out say is just not possible because 26 miles is really hard. Maybe 50 miles is hard. But 200 miles with barely sleeping. It’s either in the category of extraordinarily difficult or many people actually, until they heard this interview may have said it was just not possible.

The act of you gradually, in the last eight to 10 years, pushing those limits and, and discovering that these things are possible. I’d like to know what lessons you have learned along the way in this journey. And because I know that they’ve helped you as a fundraiser and a fundraising leader. So over to you really what’s one of the lessons that you’re now a little wiser on than you would have been 12 years ago before you started this hobby.

Max Newton:

Yeah. Good questions. And I think one is to take the leap of faith to look over the parapet at something that is scary. And so every time I’ve signed up for these runs it’s been scary for me and difficult to do, and yeah, but it can be done because other people are doing them. So I guess there’s two bound up in there. One is in the workplace and fundraising and in leading a team, we could make incremental increases in our income budget by 3% year on year, or we could really go for something. We could go for transformational change. We could really seek out that partnership that will create something really, really massive for the organization. And immeasurably help the lives of so many more people. But that’s scary because that’s almost like trying to bust out of what the organization, the sector, society say are the limits, the maximum that you can do.

And yeah, they’re artificial. They’re artificially imposed limits and restrictions. And yeah, we’ve definitely seen that with some of the big emergency appeals that we had at the British Red Cross and right now we’re talking about transformational change and that’s quite scary and how much money do you need, how many hundreds of thousands of pounds do you need to create this huge transformational change in your department. And that’s quite scary because that’s not what I’ve been used to.

So, right now I’m leaning on the lessons learnt from taking a leap of faith, but obviously with planning and good reason and et cetera. And I think very much related to that, like I said, there are other people doing it. And a real key thing in terms of the ultra marathon running and in fundraising, in leadership, in life, I guess, is, who are the, I think you would call them the bright spots. So who are the people that are already doing it? Who are the people that are showing that these limits aren’t the limits that you can do, whether it be running or anything else, and how did they get there? Partly it gives you confidence that you’re not the first person ever to do this and you won’t be in almost anything that we do.

Rob Woods:

So is that something you deliberately did and it helped you in the early stages of trying to run further. You had sought people who were already doing it.

Max Newton:

Yeah, definitely. And I mean, like I say, there’s lots of people that are already doing it. There’s books that are written. There’s films to watch. I could send you a link of 50 greatest films about ultra marathon running that are all available on YouTube if you like. Some of which are watchable. And so there’s the amazing people that are smashing it out the park, and that are running the length of New Zealand over seven days and things like that, which I’m miles away from being. But there’s also the people that are running 50 or a hundred, 200 miles that you can pick up the phone and speak to and connect with on Facebook or LinkedIn and chat with and arrange a call with. And yeah, ones where they are not being restricted by those artificially impose limits, but they’re also, they’re not Superman or Superwoman they are real people and normal people.

Rob Woods:

So I suppose clearly some of what you going to get from reading those books, or even if you’re fortunate enough to have a chat with one of those people, and, in some sense, they become mentor like to you. Clearly, one of the things you get that is valuable is tactics about belief systems or diet or training techniques or equipment or whatever, but I’m sensing, and that’s valuable, but the bigger value is you’re exposing yourself to a world in which, yes, this is very possible. It’s very doable. It’s even normal to us. And the more you get references that are contrary to your previous belief that it’s not possible, the more everything, you’re more likely to follow through on any of the tactics. Because suddenly the possible becomes genuinely possible in your belief system.

Max Newton:

Yeah.

Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, there’s, yeah, definitely that exposure to it is huge and also specific tactics and specific things to look for. But also within those communities, whether it be the running or the fundraising, you will still have the conversations where you go, “Yeah but that that’s ridiculous. That running event is ridiculous.” Like at the start of Tunnel Ultra, you’ll all stand around with that gallows humour about how horrible it’s going to be and so on and how we’ll be going mad and seeing things and so on. And I think in the fundraising world and, I guess, leadership world, there’s still things that even if you are surrounding yourself with the people that are doing that stuff, stuff that seems one step beyond.

And I think a certain thing that I’ve learnt in both of those contexts is to try and find that thing that you enjoy about the challenge.

Rob Woods:

Yes.

Max Newton:

And how amazing would it be if we won this partnership with this organization, even though it’s an incredible amount of work to do and stressful, and maybe working longer hours and putting in lots of other stuff within the organization to come to a head. But just that sort of focus on, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we pulled it off?” Like, “That’d be cool, right?” Like Rob would make another donation and his son would go out running and that’s pretty awesome. And similarly, the value that we’ll have brought to the organization’s and to people’s lives would be tremendous. And that, I think, I found that that really helps me through when you’re slogging over budgets or slogging over miles in the tunnel or, yeah, anything else, if that makes sense.

Rob Woods:

Yeah, it absolutely does. So I have understood there’s a paradox. If you just go for quite a long run or a 3% incremental increase in how much you can raise compared to last time, the good side is, it seems very manageable. And the odds are in your favor. The bad side is it’s unlikely to unlock this extra excitement that comes that is the flip side of scary.

Max Newton:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Rob Woods:

So as long as we can find a way to live with the scary long enough, we get the massive extra dopamine hit of the exciting and the tactic I’m hearing you do is there may be various things about these very long runs, which are not exciting to you, but your tactic is what is it about this new challenge? Be it a fundraising or a running change that I could get excited about.

Max Newton:

Yeah.

Rob Woods:

And ask yourself for that, the more you tend to find something that, for you, pulls you on, gets you excited enough to really go the extra mile, forgive the pun and just do something different and better. And that’s where lots of the juices, because you’re really feeling that bit more alive because now it’s an exciting challenge.

Max Newton:

Yeah. And I think that’s exciting and good for me. And but also, like you mentioned earlier with yourself sponsoring me twice. Thank you very much. And your son sponsoring and going for a run, but it’s exciting for other people as well. Like I know there’s a thing in automatic running about dot watching. So you can log in and watch the dot and see how far somebody has gone, which must be terribly, terribly boring, but perhaps not as boring as running through a tunnel. But I know Paul Amadi who’s the head of fundraising at the Red Cross was at a big ball in Edinburgh while I was doing it. I know that while he was sat at dinner, he was watching the dots on his phone to see how he’s doing.

And I guess that translating that into fundraising, I am head of community fundraising. Community fundraising is not usually seen as the most exciting type of fundraising in an organization. We find it really difficult often to be able to explain what we do to our fundraising colleagues, let alone non fundraising colleagues or externally. So having something that is a big, challenging, potentially transformational thing. And in the same way, the Tunnel Run pulls in lots of interest and excitement from fans and family and colleagues and so on. So setting your stall out with a big transformational income target and project in community fundraising excites other parts of the organization, excites my colleagues in the corporate team, in philanthropy, in the comms and media, and service colleagues to buy into it and go for it as well. And yeah, I think when we’re talking in committee fundraising less about Mrs. Miggins’ collection tins and more about a £250,000 partnership with another organization that we were successful with winning, that’s very different. Just, yeah, it’s very different. It just creates more opportunities and more avenues to raise more money and to build more relationships.

Rob Woods:

Hi, it’s Rob and I wanted to jump into the middle of this episode really quickly to tell you about something I’m so excited about, which is the way that our Bright Spot members club has been helping fundraisers to not only survive, but also to do really well to raise funds so effectively during the pandemic. Through the club, our 300 members get access to a whole library of my best training films, as well as regular live coaching sessions, to help you handle whatever challenges are coming at you each week. And we’ve also found that handling these challenges has not just been about getting the right advice or strategy.

It’s also been about morale, and we’ve found that the encouragement and help that our members get from each other has really helped them to stay positive. If you’re not yet a member, but you’d like to find out more, go to brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. That’s brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. I would love to welcome you to the club and do my utmost to help you succeed in your fundraising. For now though, back to the session. And I wanted to ask Max what he’s learned about creating buy in from other people to new ambitious challenges.

So congratulations, by the way, on the success of that huge partnership you and your team won recently, I gather. And I think this is some of why I wanted you on the podcast, because I’ve noticed that because you’ve got better at doing these things of embracing the very difficult and A getting yourself excited about it, and then B managing to get others excited rather than, “Oh, it’s too difficult.” I’ve noticed that you bring some of those skills and belief systems, and it helps you raise more money and, for instance, win this enormous partnership worth with more than £200,000 over at least a couple of years, I think. So, is there anything else you’ve learned about how to communicate the excitement of a thing and help people overcome the belief that it’s scary or not possible?

Max Newton:

Yeah, I think it’s like, I’m not perfect with that. And my team, we’re not perfect with it. It’s a journey, it’s always a journey and yeah, it’s always a journey and a place, but we know where we want to get to, I guess. So I guess quite a bit of that is around like bounce back ability and grit. I think the whole lockdown situation has felt, I think for many, many people out there, like running through a tunnel for 55 hours in the dark, and I remember towards the start of lock down, a colleague said that it was really difficult, couldn’t see the wood for the trees. There was so much to do, so much uncertainty, so much, yeah. And actually that’s the time for me when, so some of the runs that I’ve done have included running round a 400 meter athletic track in 24 hours.

So to see how far you could run in that time. And whenever I tell people about that, they would be like, “You must be crazy. You would go mad. What would you think about, how would you stop yourself getting bored.” Excuse me. And because there’s also a no headphones rule, which seems to be a thing, but actually when you focused on the, excuse me, the big, almost unobtainable prize at the end, whether that be running for 24 hours around a track, running across Scotland, running in a tunnel, getting to the end of lockdown and still being able to raise some money and still having a team feels so out there and unobtainable, I think it can be crippling. I think it’s why the England football team always seem to panic and almost die and lose to Iceland because they think we’re here. We have to win the world cup.

We have to win the world cup. If we don’t win the world cup. We’re going to get slaughtered by the media when we get home. Whereas the British cycling team don’t focus on how to win the gold medals and the glory or the failure they focus on if I turn my pedals around 38 times a minute, as opposed to 35 times a minute, we’ll get there. So there’s that bit of having some processes and planning and trusting in those process and planning. And it’s all very well when things are going bad and when the world’s been turned upside down, or when you are really stressed at work or running and in physical and emotional pain, that’s when you need the plans. That’s when the plans come into effect, you’re not making it up on the hoof.

You know that if I am falling asleep, whilst running, I need a sit down, a cup of tea, a pot noodle, and then I’ll be fine. You’ve got that built in and I think really important to have those built in as a fundraising leader. And especially during these times of having those, yeah, plans of what to do when things go weird and wrong.

But back to the woods for the trees was to not focus on the seeming never-ending pandemic or tunnel, but to actually go from tree to tree, so in the running terms just actually lap to lap is fine. Usually when you’ve got such a big target miles and miles away, you break it down into pieces anyway in order to get there. And in those runs, it was already done for you. So my now ex colleague used to say actually, let’s just go from tree to tree. Let’s just take it from tree to tree for now. And trust our instincts, trust our data and that’s the way to get through it and not get, yeah, not get crippled by the big prize or the daunting objective.

Rob Woods:

Yes and at the moment, are you literally saying that means you run your day, just try and make this meeting go as well as I can or meet that deadline by lunchtime or when you say tree to tree are you focusing, “Let’s just handle this week,” rather than worry about this whole quarter’s worth of pandemic-related pain. How do you do the tree to tree technique to quite deliberately focus your thinking? What are the units you tend to use?

Max Newton:

Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it’s probably to have a strategy and a strategy for different situations and then really trust the strategy because the tree to tree are the meetings and the conversations, the bits to get there. Yeah. So, in practical terms of ordering the day, it might be that actually some days I’m not thinking about the big picture and the big stuff, because we’ve done that. We’ve done that bit of thinking. We need to park that bit of thinking and I need to speak to my assistant director about this. I need to sort this with finance, I need to delegate these tasks. I need to speak with Rob, and so on and so on.

And yeah. Yeah, mapping those out I guess.

Rob Woods:

Yes I see. Yes.

Max Newton:

And we had quite a good example, I think, at the start of a lockdown with the 2.6 challenge that was launched to replace lost event money. And here at Shelter, we decided it would sit with community fundraising. And I think we had something like 10 days to turn it around for when it was announced or something like that. And we could have gone, “Actually, that’s impossible. We can’t do it. An organization like Shelter, can’t turn around getting a data list of people to contact, of emailing, of paid and organic social, because there’s a process. There’s planning meetings and so on and so on.”

But we went for it. And once we had decided we were going for it. Once you’ve taking that leap of faith, you’ve taken it.

And then we’re committed. And so we mapped out what are the steps, what are the specific steps that we need to do. Who are the conversations I need to have with the right people at the right level to bypass that process, to bypass, I guess, the limitations because that’s not how this organization works to get to getting all that comms out really quickly, to getting the support journey stuff set up to really amplifying the way we look after people and for us it was really, really successful. And I think that was, yeah. We could have shrivelled under the fear of that unobtainable thing. We could have got really stressed and stuck, but I think once we had set the target and then worked out, what are the tree to trees, what are the steps then what I need to do is get the next one done. And let’s worry about the others afterwards, but let’s get that one in, get that one done. And then the next.

Rob Woods:

Thank you so much, Max, for all your ideas, your stories, your advice. I need to finish the interview very soon, but I really appreciate the time you’ve given to this. And I look forward to hearing about your next run in due course and your next fundraising exploits, but until the next time, Max Newton, thank you ever so much.

Max Newton:

It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

Rob Woods:

Thanks max. Bye

Max Newton:

Bye.

Rob Woods:

So I hope you enjoyed hearing max’s take on how to embrace ambitious challenges. If so, please remember to subscribe to the podcast today because we’ve got plenty more interesting sessions lined up for you in the coming weeks.

Today’s episode was the first part of a longer session on growing your resilience as a fundraiser that Max and I created for the Bright Spot members club. If you’re not yet a member and you’d like to find out more about this training and inspiration site for fundraisers, do check it out at brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. As well as the regular coaching sessions on a range of fundraising subjects, you can take advantage of the full library of training films and downloads and our super supportive community.

If you’re curious, you can just join for a single month to test for yourself how helpful these resources are for your fundraising. And if you’d like to get in touch with Max or me, we would love to hear from you. We’re both on LinkedIn and on Twitter, Max is @MaximoNewton with a capital M and a capital N, and I’m @woods_rob. Lastly, thank you so much for listening today. I really hope it was helpful. Until the next time, stay safe and good luck with all your efforts to make a positive difference.