Key Stone Habits – how could you use them to grow fundraising income?

‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.’  Aristotle

In studying the approaches taken by very successful fundraisers for more than 14 years, I have noticed that their habits are usually different from those of their peers who don’t raise as much.

And when I’ve interviewed these fundraisers I have noticed that there tend to be one or two habits in particular that make a big difference.

In the fascinating book The Power of Habit the author Charled Huhigg explains the particular importance of what he calls Keystone Habits. These are the one or two habits that tend to lead to more good habits.

For example, Duhigg describes studies that have shown that when people start to exercise regularly, they get better at other seemingly unrelated things, like eating more healthily and becoming more productive at work.

So what are some keystone habits usually found in very successful fundraisers?

Clearly they vary according to the type of fundraising role you’re looking at. But for example, in major donor; community and corporate fundraising, one keystone habit that clearly stands out in the ultra-successful is a focus on getting out of the office to have plenty of informal conversations (or ‘cups of tea coffee / tea’) with donors and potential donors.

In another blog I refer to this as ‘test-drive focus’, because I’ve observed that successful car companies like BMW focus not so much on trying to get more people to buy cars, as on encouraging people to take a test-drive. (Not only is it easier to encourage someone to take a test-drive than to buy a car, but also more test-drives usually leads to more car sales.)

But even after you’ve managed to focus more on setting up chats rather than managing your email or seeking donations, most fundraisers still experience challenges in actually succeeding in this area. What to do?

Here is one version of the keystone habit, taught to me by an outstanding fundraiser named Pauline years ago:

Each morning, focus first on donor-focused tasks before getting sucked into any internal-focused tasks.

Pauline had a reputation for raising more than ten times more than any of her colleagues in large part because of this disciplined habit. It enabled her to secure dramatically more coffees with donors than any of her peers.

Her approach is consistent with the advice of author Brian Tracy, in his best-selling book Eat That Frog. He urges us to every day, choose to do first, the activity on your list which will make the biggest difference to your overall objectives. He calls this process, ‘eating the frog’. Note, this process is often misunderstood. He does not say ‘do the most difficult thing’ but rather, ‘the most important thing.’ They are not always the same. Pauline, who had then raised over £17milion for her charity across 7 years, taught me that for high value fundraisers, usually your most important thing every day is any action that will lead to informal conversations with potential and existing donors.

What makes building lasting positive habits much easier?

The trouble is, many fundraisers I know are wholly aware of the importance of securing meetings with donors. And some are even aware of (intellectually) some of the powerful strategies I would teach for how to do this. And yet the habit (and so the results) still elude them.

The truth is, changing something for the better, however easy it sounds in theory, can be extremely hard in practice. If you have ever started a New Year’s Resolution full of good intentions only to be reaching for the chocolate cake / wine bottle / snooze button on 3rd January you know what I’m talking about.

What is a fundamental that makes building a positive habit much more likely to succeed?


You need to believe deep down that a) the new desirable habit is possible (even for you) and b) the benefits will be worth the effort you put in.

And how can you increase your belief?

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg persuasively demonstrates something that is fairly obvious.

‘Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.’

It is of course possible to build a positive habit without being part of a group, but in the book he analyses the astonishing success of movements like Alchoholics Anonymous – which has helped more people stop drinking than any other system – and demonstrates the awesome power of the group to make positive habit-forming far easier.

This group-power is one reason people tend to make such progress in confidence and results when they take part in Bright Spot Mastery Programmes. In designing these programmes we recognise that its one thing to know a powerful fundraising tactic or strategy, it’s quite another to regularly do it, to the extent that it becomes a habit that serves you.

Indeed, on Day 4, at the end of the six-month Major Gifts Mastery Programme, celebrating participants usually talk about not only the strategies they have been learning throughout the course but, crucially, how helpful it has been to be part of a group going through this journey together.

For example, Alice Wilson, a major donor fundraiser from RSPCA and who took part in the most recent course, said that being part of a positive group, all in the same boat as you, had been a really helpful element.

She said that firstly, you realise it’s not just you that can struggle with certain elements of the job. ‘Knowing that you or your charity are not the only ones to experience certain difficulties really helps your confidence…these challenges are normal.’ Secondly, she said it makes it easier to take on the identity and beliefs of a successful Major Donor Fundraiser, as opposed to someone with the identity of someone who works at your charity who may not do major donor fundraising.

Alice has found that this supportive group, as well as the techniques from the Programme have made a marked difference to her results – she is pleased to now be well ahead of her target for this stage in the year and it’s no coincidence that she now finds it much easier to set up informal meetings with (potential) donors – she’s averaging 3 or 4 coffee meetings per month.

Whether or not you’re able to join a course like the Mastery Programme, if you’re looking to improve your fundraising results, I recommend becoming part of a group, even an informal one that you set up yourself, that’s taking deliberate steps to improve. For instance, several fundraisers have recently told me they’ve set up book groups. The solidarity and reinforced belief from being in a group will make it much easier to build the excellent habits, that in turn bring results.

Curious how about the Major Gifts, or Corporate Partnerships would boost your results?

Find out more today (and apply for a free coaching session) by clicking the links above.