How to smash your target

What I learned about increasing fundraising income from a high achieving fundraiser and ultra runner.

In early March I saw on twitter that a fellow fundraiser, Max Newton was running the Tunnel Ultra. If you’re not an ultra runner, you’re probably not aware of this EXTRAORDINARY running event, so I’ll explain…its a 200 mile ultra marathon race, run back and forth through a cold, dark tunnel across a single weekend.

Runners have no headphones, no outside support. They must finish inside 55 hours, which means you’re running pretty much non-stop, and with no sleep! Max was the fourth finisher in a time of 50 hours raising a fabulous total in sponsorship for the British Red Cross.

Max is not a professional athlete, these crazy runs are just a hobby. His day job is Head of Community Fundraising at Shelter. When I interviewed Max recently for the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast, I was particularly curious about lessons he has learned (sometimes the hard way) from his gruelling ultra-running hobby, that have helped him as a fundraiser and a leader.

I was especially keen to hear his insights because over the years I’ve interviewed hundreds of extremely successful fundraisers, and even amongst this company, he is astonishingly bold in his appetite for difficult fundraising challenges. I believe this brave, strategic approach to Scary Challenges has hugely helped Max and his teams do so well. This year at Shelter, this includes some great results achieved by Max’s team, including the way they’ve so effectively innovated their community fundraising during COVID, and winning a fabulous partnership worth £250,000.

In this blog I want to explore four principles Max takes from his recipe for success in impossible-seeming endurance events, that we believe also help you succeed as a fundraiser and leader.

1. Find a reason to get excited

One of the big drivers for Max as a Community Fundraiser and ultra runner is the reaction he gets from other people. He told me he encourages his colleagues to deliberately find and focus on what they like or desire about a particular challenge. Why is this essential? Because it releases dopamine in your system. This feeling of excitement makes you less likely to be put off by all the difficult obstacles in the way.

Knowing that other people found the very idea of Max’s ultra run astonishing, spurred him on, and that tactic can be translated into fundraising. He’s found that Community fundraising is not always seen as the most exciting discipline in fundraising, and it can be difficult to explain to colleagues exactly what you do. But Max has noticed that setting out a big, transformational project can excite colleagues from other departments in the same way that the tunnel run pulled in interest and excitement from Max’s friends and family.

As another example, when his team put in an incredible amount of work towards winning a partnership, they focus on the thrill they’ll experience if they triumph, and the tremendous value that it will bring to the clients their charity serves. As humans we experience a big hit of dopamine when we achieve something that’s a little scary and new to us.

2. To overcome limiting beliefs, find the bright spots

Most people would accept as absolute fact, that it’s simply impossible (or at least astonishingly difficult) to run 200 miles continuously, for 50 hours, with no sleep. So if he is to succeed at a challenge like this, before he has done it, Max told me a key step is to deliberately seek out bright spots, that is, people for whom this kind of feat is not only do-able, it’s even normal!

In the context of ultra-running, Max finds, reads about, listens to on-line, and sometimes talks to, other amateur runners who regularly run these extraordinary distances.

Why is this so powerful? It helps destroy your default limiting beliefs, which would sabotage any serious attempt to achieve the goal.

The idea of searching for and learning from what authors Chip and Dan Heath would call ‘bright spots’ has been a key strategy I’ve used to improve my own fundraising, and is a key tenet of how I help other fundraisers to improve their results, through our Mastery Programmes, training days, coaching and podcast. I explain why this strategy is so powerful in Episode 1 of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast.

For example, in the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme that Max has taken part in, we do not only teach strategies and techniques to help you increase fundraising income, we also discuss dozens of examples of fabulous corporate fundraising success achieved by charities like yours, which helps participants believe that serious success really is possible, so they feel pulled to follow through on the powerful techniques that most fundraisers don’t do.

3. Learn tried and tested strategies

Finding ‘bright spots’ who are already doing well at ultra running, not only helped Max believe, it also helped him learn their strategies. This saves you from having to learn the hard way, through painful mistakes. For instance, successfully running these long distances involves certain strategies for training; diet; mindset; clothing etc etc.

This is another reason Max and I find it is so helpful to not only search for fundraising ideas within your charity, but to deliberately be curious about what is working extremely well elsewhere. On the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast and in blogs like this, I don’t simply give opinions of tactics I think would be a good idea – for most readers the stakes are too high to just follow an opinion.

So I’m determined to search out people who are doing consistently well, and then explore the techniques they’ve used. Of course not all the techniques will work for every kind of charity, with every kind of supporter. So success for one fundraiser does not guarantee success for someone else. But I’ve found that an example of consistent success is usually the most reliable place to start.

When it came to ultra running, Max went out of his way to connect with people already doing it. He read books about it, he watched films, he spoke to some of them, and he used the information he learned to improve his approach.

4. Get yourself to commit, in spite of any fear you feel

Max explained that every time he has looked over the parapet before taking on a new challenge in his hobby or as a fundraiser, it has been scary and daunting.

For example, when the 2.6 Challenge was launched last year to replace lost income from fundraising events, this daunting opportunity sat with Max and his team at Shelter. They only had 10 days to deliver this huge campaign from scratch.

They could easily have reasonably said “That’s impossible, we can’t do it. An organisation this size just can’t turn around a data list, emails, and social campaign etc that quickly.’’ There were so many logical reasons it seemed impossible, compared to the longer lead times that had been needed for every big project in the past.

But in spite of the trepidation they felt, they committed and wholly embraced the challenge of finding a way. And it paid off with fabulous results. Because once they had made that decision and taken that leap of faith, they were committed – and this is often the hardest part.

We know it’s not easy (even in a ‘normal’ year). But we’ve found that courage is not the absence of fear. It’s feeling fear and somehow deciding to take action anyway.

Want to increase major donor or corporate income for your charity?

If you’re looking for ways to grow your results with Major Donors and Trusts or Corporate Partnerships, our Mastery Programmes are designed to help you, as they helped Max. For more information about how this package of masterclasses, individual coaching and inspiring online support combine to increase confidence and results, follow these links Major Gifts Mastery Programme and Corporate Mastery Programme.