Playing to your strengths – 3 steps to help shape your charity fundraising strategy

Most fundraisers are under pressure to succeed, but in many small charities this pressure

can be intense. With limited time, budget and brand recognition, it can feel like the odds are against you even in a ‘normal’ year, let along 2020 / 2021.

Recently I spoke to Mark Williams, an experienced fundraiser and leader, who has worked for both large and small charities. He is currently the Director of Communications and Fundraising for the social welfare charity, Wimbledon Guild. He helped me to identify some of the key challenges you face as the sole fundraiser, and strategies he uses to recognise and take advantage of the activities most likely to work in the context of your charity.

You can listen to the full interview on Episode 36. Fundraising for a small charity – Four things to prioritise of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast.

Mark’s three tips to overcome common pitfalls

a) You’re expected to know the answers… so nurture a support network

Your colleagues, CEO and trustees look at you as the expert of fundraising, so the onus is on you to have the answers. But however smart you are, having no fundraising colleagues to bounce ideas off makes problem-solving tough. So Mark has found it’s invaluable to find opportunities to get different perspectives and share ideas with other fundraisers through a wider network. This is one reason he joined the Bright Spot Members Club), our online hub for training, coaching and networking.

b) Serious growth is obviously tough, so practice caution and build your credibility

To keep credibility internally, it’s important not to over-promise future results to your trustees and senior management. Of course, don’t be over pessimistic either, but Mark has found a common annoyance in small charities is when a new fundraiser claims they can over-deliver on fundraising targets.

c) Don’t fall down the rabbit hole. Play to your charities’ strengths

Whether you’re on your own or in a small team, there is a danger of getting sucked into solving relatively unimportant problems, so your focus is taken away from what matters. It’s important to keep coming back to your thought-through strategy, while always keeping an eye out for easy wins. Obviously your strategy must suit your organisations’ strengths and weaknesses, so you are solving the right problems with the limited time you have.

Ideas to help you build credibility and create a strategy that maximises your strengths

1. Before you bring new ideas, first understand deeply

‘For some causes this is not possible, but if you can, go down there and meet some of the people who benefit from your service. This makes a massive difference to your understanding.’ – Mark Williams

The first thing is, get in there and try to understand the organisation. Meet the key staff, the service users if this is possible, the trustees, the donors and supporters… And ask, who else within the organisation is going to be useful for you to meet?

There are few activities more powerful for your fundraising success than meeting (virtually if need be), some of your supporters. Or calling them up.

Work hard to care, listen, understand.

Who are they and why do they support you? What could you learn?

But how do you choose who to speak to? Mark recommends picking the donors who have been the most consistent over time –  for instance, look at the top five people who have been giving regularly over the last year and start to develop a deeper relationship with them.

Pay attention to who already cares. Mark related a story of a woman who brought in a shoe box full of pound coins. He asked if anyone knew who she was and why she donated. No one did. Fortunately, she had left a note, so they were able to follow up, and not only thank properly, but also try to better understand her. In due course Mark was able to set up a conversation with his CEO, which the supporter really appreciated. The relationship continued to develop, which helped the supporter feel really appreciated, and more valuable to the charity than the contents of the original shoe box.

Be curious.

In a previous role, Mark received a letter from a company who had decided to stop supporting the charity he was working at. Though some colleagues accepted the letter at face value, Mark wanted to know why they were stopping their support. Mark sent out a letter from the CEO requesting to talk it through with the company. They listened to what was said and the supporters appreciated this desire to understand. Everyone had the chance to talk, be heard and decide on a future strategy. The charity then managed to nurture the relationship, and in due course the company raised and donated an additional £25,000.

Another important move is to look carefully at the typical steps in your supporter journey. Search for possible gaps that can be corrected relatively easily.

Competitor charities!

 Another valuable activity is to see pick three charities that do work similar to yourselves. Have a look at their accounts to see what you could learn. This will often give you ideas, for instance, of trusts and foundations that you had never thought of approaching. Mark mentioned a donation of £20,000 from a trust that he applied to after doing this research.

2. Use your insights to identify opportunities and gaps

Based on your understanding of the charity and its supporters, you will usually be able to identify opportunities. Some of these will be activities to do more of; some will be in terms of searching for ways to reach more of the type of people who support you at the moment (potentially using ideas from those warm supporters themselves); some will be ideas you get from finding out who has supported you in the past and how they raised money for you.

By seeking ideas based on what is in front of you already, and where support has come from in the past, not only are you likely to get workable ideas, but it also shows your senior stakeholders that you are making use of existing resources, rather than acting like a ‘new broom’, trying new things for the sake of it. Starting in this way builds your credibility with colleagues and senior stakeholders, which can only help if in due course you add new elements to your strategy.

You can (and will need) to innovate, especially this year, in the sense of finding ways to do things more effectively. But you can minimise risk by innovating based on sound insight.

3. Create and maintain a Marketing and Fundraising Committee.

If you don’t already have one, Mark recommends creating a sub-committee in addition to the formal Board of Trustees, to help you with fundraising ideas and decisions.

This can make a huge difference to getting support from the board, harnessing their expertise, and getting decisions made. He found this tactic worked really well in his last two roles.

(If you already have a sub-committee to help fundraising, put time into making it as effective as possible. Such effort will usually pay you back many-fold.)

With the CEO, recruit three or four trustees who sit on the board and form this committee. A couple of weeks before a board meeting, you, as Head of Fundraising, can sit down and talk through what you’ve been doing.  Share details of your plans and genuinely seek their advice.

Not all trustees are interested in fundraising, but some are usually far more helpful and interested than others. A key advantage to a sub-group like this is in getting buy-in to fundraising strategy with the rest of the board.

And consider inviting more challenging members to join the group, as they may have different, valuable perspectives and can become your strongest supporters.

Free e-book

If you’re looking for further strategies and insight from successful fundraisers, you might be interested in our free e-book Power Through The Pandemic. After two decades studying fundraising success, in March and April I carried out more than 20 interviews with fundraisers, from a range of causes, who are virtually meeting supporters and securing gifts, in spite of the difficulties. As the stakes are now higher than ever, in this e-book I outline practical steps, with examples, to help you do more of what works. Get your free copy here.

Further coaching, support and inspiration

If you’d like to try our training, community and weekly live coaching support that Mark has access to, follow this link to find out more about the Bright Spot Members Club