How to improve fundraising results even when others believe it’s impossible.

All the stats appeared to be against the England football team going into their recent penalty shootout against Colombia. England had had three defeats from three World Cup shootouts; six defeats in seven shootouts in major tournaments. They had the worst penalty record of any team that had been in at least 5 shootouts (a pathetic 14% win rate). Furthermore, against Columbia, a) they had been the team to concede a late goal, and b) they were to shoot second in this shoot-out, both facts which statistically reduce your chances of success.

And yet, they triumphed 4-3 to go through to the quarter final of the World Cup against Sweden. How on earth did they pull off what many commentators referred to as a miracle.

The answer, it turns out, is simple. Their leader, Gareth Southgate refused to believe the utter nonsense that you can’t train for penalty shootouts. He believed that taking penalties is simply about performing a skill under pressure. And guess what? Penalties (like fundraising skills) get better when you deliberately learn and practice them. This might sound blindingly obvious, but for the last 28 years a succession of England managers and supposedly wise pundits have asserted the opposite.

‘You can never recreate on the training ground the circumstances of the shout-out’, said Glenn Hoddle in 1998 after England crashed out. Sven-Goran Eriksson said something similar in 2006. And in 2012, Roy Hodgson stated ‘You can’t reproduce the tired legs. You can’t reproduce the pressure.’


Southgate has been working with his team for five months, preparing for the prospect of a penalty shoot-out, to help them ‘own the process’. There are many elements to this, both in terms of individual players’ technique and team dynamics, but what makes them all possible is choosing not to believe the fatalistic, disempowering narrative, and in so doing he helps his players take control of their own destinies.

After the victory, Kieran Trippier explained they had ‘practised and practised and practised’ penalties, taking spot-kicks when fatigued at the end of exhausting training sessions. It turns out there are numerous small distinctions you can practice when you believe in and focus on improving an outcome. For example, the England keeper Pickford, handed the ball to each England player as they walked to the spot, making sure that the opposition keeper could not disrupt their routine during the changeover.

How does this story help you raise more money?

Whether or not you care about the fate of the England football team, this story has important implications for any dedicated, ambitious fundraiser.

Step 1. Be really careful what you do and don’t believe, about your own potential; and the ability of any fundraiser to improve their results through an intelligent attitude to learning and practice.

For years I have heard fundraisers assert ‘the earth is flat’ myths about the development of fundraising expertise: ‘Ultimately, you can’t really practise handling objections’; ‘the only way to get better at leadership / high value fundraising / winning staff votes’ is through years of experience…’ etc etc

For example, in another blog I debunked Five Dangerous (but Seductive Beliefs) about Major Donor Fundraising, and what you can do when you refuse to believe them.

Step 2. Deliberately study and practice whatever skills would make a disproportionate difference to your results. These vary according to your role, but like Southgate, get really clear what one or two areas would make the greatest difference.

If you would like to better understand how to get better at any skill, I highly recommend The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. One fascinating element of the book is it shows what happens in the brain as skill level increases. It’s all about a substance in the brain called myelin. Chess grand masters and Wimbledon champions have more of it in the relevant places than weaker competitors. The more expert you become, the more myelin wraps like electrical insulation tape around the relevant nerve fibres in your brain.

By improving the efficiency of the way the nerves transmit signals, increased myelin makes you much better and faster at making fine distinctions. He likens this advantage to your brain harnessing broadband speed compared to an old-fashioned dial-up connection.

The million dollar question…

Question: So how do you get more myelin in your brain (and in so doing master a key skill in sport, music, business or fundraising?)


The most important idea in the book is that just practicing (spending time going through the motions) is not enough. By studying the practice habits of talent hotbeds around the world, from an outstanding music school in Texas, to a tennis academy in Moscow, Coyle shows that if you deliberately practice at the edge of your abilities, where it is uncomfortable, dramatically more myelin wraps around the nerves, and your skill level grows far more quickly.

This is one reason why on our Major Gifts Mastery Programme and Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programmes we work so hard to help participants get more meetings with donors and potential supporters. Not only does this lead to increased income (almost all participants at least double the number of meetings they secure with donors), but it also increases your skill and confidence in handling donor / partner meetings, because in meeting more donors, your circuits fire more often and more myelin gets wrapped around nerve fibres for this skill.

For example, in this blog, I report how one Mastery Programme participant, Stu Thomson secured a transformational gift of £100,000 for his small London youth club. In it reveals the steps he took to greatly increase the number of meetings he could have with supporters, and how he practiced making those meetings more persuasive.

One of the most important ideas in the book is that myelin does not care who you are – it only cares what you do. So whether you’re German or English, ‘deep practice’ of penalty-taking wraps more myelin. And whether you’re in your early twenties and new to fundraising, or your late forties and experienced, studying and practicing key fundraising skills will produce more myelin, causing your confidence to soar. With higher confidence, you take yet more bold action, and it becomes very hard for your results to not soar as well.

Want to increase income in high value or corporate fundraising?

You can find out more about how the Major Gifts Mastery Programme and Corporate Mastery Programme help you increase your skill and raise more money.