Episode 7 Tony Gaston – Growing major donor income from zero to £2m / year

Episode Notes

How can you increase high value income for your charity? Clearly context matters – the same strategies will not work for every charity – but if you want ideas and an increased belief that growth is at least possible, then a good place to start is to look at a fairly small charity that’s achieved an impressive year on year uplift in major gifts income.

In this episode of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast, Rob Woods talks to Tony Gaston about the strategies he feels contributed to the way EMMS International transformed its high value results between 2013 and 2018. He talks about how he’s learned to deliberately pause and see the bigger picture, and how this habit has helped him spend precious energy on solving the most important (and lucrative) challenges; he explains what he feels is the single most important thing to get right when meeting supporters; and how learning to act very quickly when you notice an opportunity has helped secure several generous major gifts.


  • There is enormous power in choosing to be a sponge for learning. Tony has (and continues to) nurture a hunger and curiosity to learn as much as he can about (in particular) the area of fundraising he operates in.
  • Even when extremely busy with the day to day actions needed in his fundraising role, Tony has learned the value of pausing to take stock and think.
  • A key question he asked early in his career was ‘how are we going to get to where we need to be?’ – this led to him spotting an opportunity and acting boldly – inviting a supporter to a project visit by text that very minute – and it ultimately led to the largest gift Tony’s charity had ever received.
  • When in conversation with supporters, Tony believes the most important thing of all is to overcome the need to do the talking, the pressure to talk about your charity. Instead create the safe space for the other person to feel comfortable to talk.
  • Tony cites an example where he managed to do this and discovered lots of things he just would not have known had he spoken more at the beginning of the meeting. It enabled him to later mention a project that was an ideal match to something the supporter really cared about solving.
  • Pay attention to the patterns you notice about what people say and do when they care about your
  • Not all opportunities are equal. When you sense there is a really good opportunity, move quickly and take massive action.
  • Tony has found that his supporters find it incredibly rewarding to give to a cause they care about. Truly understanding this increases Tony’s confidence to be proactive. Giving is a WIN / WIN experience, but fundraisers and charities struggle when they mistakenly believe it is WIN (for charity beneficiaries) / LOSE (for the supporter).


‘I was a bit of a sponge…really hungry to figure out what is it that made a good fundraiser.’ Tony Gaston

‘It was fast! And if we hadn’t got there fast we would have absolutely missed it.’ Tony Gaston

‘They’re often saying things like ‘it’s the most amazing thing I have ever done in my life…because I’m helping 50,000 vulnerable people. Thank you for the opportunity.’ Tony Gaston

Would you like to find out more about the training programme Tony attended at the start of his fundraising journey? Find out more about Major Gifts Mastery Programme.

Transcription of Episode 7

Hi there, this is Rob Woods, and welcome to Episode 7 of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast.

This is the show for anyone who works in fundraising, and wants ideas for how to raise more money, really enjoy their job and make a bigger difference. And the first thing I want to do is tell you how grateful I am for all the comments I’ve been receiving about the episodes so far. It’s so great to hear what you think, and to know that you’ll find these stories helpful. So thank you to everyone who’s found the time to get in touch.

And today, if you work in high value fundraising, or you’re curious about it, or you manage someone who works in trusts and major gifts, you’re going to find this episode really interesting, because today we explore how certain shifts in skill and focus and belief can create a valuable uplift in your major donor income. Clearly different charities need to strategies to suit their own situation. And clearly some elements of fundraising are an art as much as they are a science – that said, over the years I found we can learn a huge amount from studying what steps other people have taken to grow their results, especially if that year on year growth is way out of the ordinary. And that’s why I was keen to talk to Tony Gaston now at Fields for Life and formerly at EMMS International.

Before he joined in 2013, EMMS International had no proactive major donor strategy and services relatively few large donations from individuals. In 2013. Tony who was new to fundraising joined EMMS International, and to help get their high value fundraising moving attended our Major Gifts Mastery Programme. That first year, he brought in gifts to the value of £200,000. And each year for the last five years since then, income has grown to a point where last year the charity received a major gift income totalling the extraordinary sum of £2 million.

In this the first of two episodes with Tony, he shares examples to bring to life some key lessons he’s learned over the last five years, which he believes have contributed to this success, including how he’s learned to step away from hectic day to day activities to pause and think more clearly about the most important lucrative opportunities he needs to tackle; and what he feels is the single most important thing to get right when you meet a potential donor, and the crucial psychological shift he’s made, which makes him much more confident than he used to be when inviting a supporter to make a large gift. I found this chat with Tony incredibly helpful, not least because throughout the conversation, he offers examples to bring to life the lessons he’s learned so far.

This episode of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast is brought to you by Bright Spot Mastery Programmes. So if you need to increase income in corporate partnerships, or major donor and trust fundraising, these programmes will help. As well as the advanced strategies you learn on the training days, you’ll receive one-to-one coaching to help you put those powerful techniques into practice. To find out more about the Corporate Mastery and Major Gifts Mastery programmes, head over to brightspotfundraising.co.uk.

Hello Tony, welcome to the podcast.

Hello, Rob. Thanks so much for having me.

Okay, and just to help tune into the main idea of this particular interview I wanted to do in a moment I want to get on to in particular, your ideas about high value or major gifts fundraising, but just to kind of set the scene a bit… Although you and I first met six years ago, when you were at EMMS International, two or three months ago you made a job change and you’re now at Fields of Life, so tell me a bit about the charity you’re working now.

Yeah, just three months ago I moved across to an organisation called Fields of Life. They’re a Christian International Development Organisation focussing on education and on water. And in Uganda, Rwanda – and I’m actually tomorrow flying out to Uganda, and to see the projects for the first time. So I’m really excited.

Wow, that’s going to be some trip. So how long are you going for?

It’s not too long a trip – for two weeks. But plenty of travel in and around the project. It should be a busy couple of weeks for me.

And this time, are you going with donors? Or just to focus and learn for your own sake?

Yeah, it’s primarily just to learn and to meet the team. In East Africa there is a donor coming out for a couple of days, who has been a donor for a number of years. So I will have a couple of days with the donor but primarily it’s more for my induction and to really get to know everybody.

So I know that you’re still getting your feet under the desk in the new job, but if I may, I’d like to get to the main focus of why I wanted to interview you, which was this fabulous major donors fundraising journey you’ve been on. In terms of the growth I observed you achieving when you were the major donor fundraiser at EMMS international, and it was about six years ago you joined there. What kind of organisation is EMMS international? Can you paint a picture of the journey you’ve made from 2013 up until just recently?

Okay, well, I guess the first thing to say was when I moved across to AMS International, which is another International Development Organisation working particularly in healthcare, in 2013, I had no fundraising experience at all. So I was coming in from more of a sales background, I worked as a sales manager for a couple of years. And I’d worked as a recruitment consultant for a short time as well. And so it was really quite a new thing for me. I came in to EMMS International as Relationship Manager, and really probably another way of describing it might be as major donor fundraiser. But there wasn’t really anything there.

At that point, the charity had been around for a long time, that’s 175 years – a long time. So there was a database of people there and there were quite a lot of small gifts coming into the organisation, but there wasn’t much of a focus on any major giving. And so coming into that was really exciting for me. It gave me a chance to explore and identify who the people that we wanted to target might be, and really take ownership of it and grow it, and so I’ve been really blessed. And I’m really thankful because over the over the six years that I worked at EMMS International we grew income from major gifts quite steadily, so in the first year we had over £250,000 income, and then the second year that went up to £300,000. And by the time I was leaving, we had just received a seven figure gift. Income was almost up to £2m for that year, and the year before that it had been almost £2m so it was really quite an exciting trajectory. And there wasn’t anything particularly magical about any of it. It was just having that focus and having that clarity.

And you and I first met very early in that journey when you came on the Major Gifts Mastery Programme that we do at Bright Spot and my colleague Kim started coaching you then.

Yes and I know you appreciate her wisdom and support for a lot of this journey and right early on I was struck by how you willing to get on and do stuff you were, which is one of the most important qualities I seen in a fundraiser, to not just overthink and not over theorise – doing it has a great power to it. And but also paradoxically, I saw that you tend to pause and think about stuff and ask some smart questions and I see that thoughtfulness may well be one of the important qualities.

And I wonder also, if that might have been a factor in this steady, upward curve. Because each donor you met or for each year’s strategy overall, you’d be willing to look at things and not always be satisfied, but look at what else you could do. And so in a moment, I’d love to explore with you some other things you think have helped you achieve this growth. But first of all, I wondered what you think about that compliment, about not only action taking but also reflective quality in it, a thoughtfulness…

I wonder if it was because I came into fundraising cold or because I didn’t come from a fundraising background, but I was almost a bit of a sponge in that sense and really hungry to figure out what is it that made a good fundraiser, and I remember joining your Major Gifts Mastery Programme back in 2013. And just, you know, sucking all that information in and trying to understand what it is that set the good fundraisers apart from the not so good ones.

And, as you say, Kim Van Niekerk as well, her coaching me and really asking questions, what about this? What about that? And I was really keen to hear from people who had been successful with some of the biggest gifts. But definitely if there’s one thing that that stands out to me, through listening to what you’ve been talking about listening to others is, is that that sense of pausing, that sense of stopping and not being busy all the time. And what I mean by not being busy is: I’m not saying don’t work hard, but work hard doing the right things, not work hard doing the things that maybe need doing, but are just going to take up your time. So, I’ve always been a big picture person.

Anyway, so that’s very much about thinking ‘So, if my target is this, how am I going to get there? That’s really what I want to be focusing on’

And yes, that hunger to always learn, to always be someone who can learn and to always have that humility and know that you don’t have all the answers… and I know there’s still so much that I will have to learn. So yeah, I guess that would be what I would say.

And clearly, this being willing to pause and calmly see the big picture and work out what ideas that might give us for improvement, that’s part of it. I think you and I spoke a couple of months ago, we just had a quick catch up to find out how you were doing. And you were saying also, across the six years, you’ve got better at applying that ability to just pause and think calmly, bringing that habit to particular donor relationships and opportunities. You told me about one or two particularly big gifts that came about precisely because you were able to pause and see the wood for the trees, and then do better action. I wonder if you could remind me of one of those examples.

So it has been something that again and again that I keep coming back to. I remember in 2014 I had this big target ahead of me. And you know, we’d started from scratch. And halfway through the year, the year before, there was this £250,000 target that I’d given myself to try and achieve and I thought, ‘how on earth am I going to do this?’ and we were so busy. There was a Christmas appeal coming, there were all sorts of things that were happening. And I was just, my diary was absolutely filled. And I just felt like: ‘I just need to stop and I need to focus on how am I going to hit this figure? How am I going to get to where I need to be?’

And I remember I went out for a bike ride, just to clear my head. I was riding next to the canal in Glasgow. I remember just thinking to myself, where is the money most likely to come from? And it became obvious to me when I was sitting on this bench that there this individual that I been speaking with for a while. That’s where it’s most likely to come from. I need to put my time into that. And I remember I got off my bike. I picked up my phone and I texted him. And I said, ‘Would you like to go to Malawi with me?’ And you know, I thought about how I wanted to say that before I sent it, but that was the main message.

And I remember within five minutes he wrote back and, said ‘absolutely, when can we book our flights?’. And we went about a month later. We spent two weeks together, looking at the projects, then we came back. And I then asked him for, I think it was £200,000, over a cup of coffee, which was one of the scariest things I’d ever done at that stage. And a couple of weeks later, he then came back to me and he gave over £100,000. I remember that really clearly just because it was a lot more fun to go on a trip to Malawi but also it was just working a lot smarter, and I could have been way busier doing a lot of other things that would have brought in a fraction of the money. But just having that time to stop and reflect and think, ‘where is it most likely this this one is going to come from?’ And then spending your time figuring out the strategy with that particular donor or that particular idea.

Yes, what a great story and a good reminder to all of us, busy as we get doing stuff. And I know that we’ve mentioned a couple of times, our colleague Kim Van Niekerk. She’s a big fan of mindfulness as a quality, a habit and a practice that can increase one’s ability to see the wood for the trees and think more about what’s really important. And I also know that different people I’ve interviewed over the years have different ways of getting better at that quality. And I know for Kim daily meditation is a key element of how she’s got so much better at it. But for you, is it going for a bike ride that achieves a similar quality?

Yeah, I mean, I always laugh with Kim because maybe I’m not the kind of person that jumps at meditation. And I definitely see the value in just that time of stopping, of reflecting, of praying, of meditating, whatever it is that you do, and just having that opportunity to really think big picture and stop worrying about things and over-analysing things, and there’s definitely value in that. And definitely, before major donor meetings or big presentations that I’m giving, I do like to try and have a little pause and you know, just calm myself, calm my nerves. And, you know, always remember that, actually, this is a two-way conversation. And that I’m there to listen and I’m there to really find out as much as I can, rather than, you know, just talk at somebody. So yeah, I find it useful.

You probably remember what happens across a six month major gifts mastery programme. On day two, day three and day four, we give everyone a chance to reflect on something that they’ve done differently since last time. And by day three, usually the most common breakthrough people are talking about, that they’re really pleased about and they’re noticing it’s helping their results, is that thing that you’ve just said: that confidence when you’re with a donor or supporter, not to feel they need to all do all the talking, but to pause and allow and create space for the other person to do more talking. It sounds like it should be really easy.

But I remember early in my career, when I was more nervous and had less confidence, I filled that space. I’ve noticed that the more people deliberately practice some of the habits and techniques for what you do when you’re with a donor, the better they get at just being present and allowing space for the other person to talk. I wonder if, for the listener’s benefit, there’s an example that springs to mind, where you’ve noticed that helping.

Honestly, I would have to agree with you 100%. But I think that more than anything else, it’s probably the one habit that is going to be the most influential. More than anything else. And you know, a really good example is a new person who I had met, in probably 2015 or 2016, 16 and you have that that first conversation, and almost always you I get asked ‘What is it you’re here for?’ And so I tend to try and have a phrase that I use, you know, which might be something like, ‘Well, you know, there are so many things I’d love to talk to you about. But before I delve in, you know, I’d love to hear just a little bit more about you’.

And so he just started to speak about himself. And it turned out that the charitable trust he was operating from, to give to a particular type of individual, he had a particular reason to care about finding…accommodation for people. And, and as I uncovered that, asking ‘What is it about that?’ and ‘How did that come up?’ and as he began to talk, it was a good example for this conversation. Listening to him, it became very crystal clear that there was one international project that just fitted absolutely perfectly. So when it came to my time to speak, it was another combination project, I knew that was the one to go with.

If I had (done it differently / written that, I’d have originally planned to say okay, I’m going to come into this meeting, totally planned and known exactly what I was going to say.) Maybe I’d be focusing on a completely different project, but because I focused on the project, but after listening to understanding what he was interested in, it was amazing and that relationship blossomed. He was one of our biggest major donors in the end. But it really just came from that sense of really, genuinely finding out about that person, not as I’m going to listen for lessons, for listening’s sake, but genuinely finding out: ‘What are you? What are you actually passionate about? And is there anything in my organisation that matches that?’ I think somebody once described it to me as: a fundraiser is a matchmaker.

But from that point of view, I guess, it’s not just as simple as listening. You also have to know your projects inside out, because you’ve got to study and understand all the different elements of your projects. And if there are different segments of a project that you can then bring into a conversation, you then have to have a case study in your head that would match those particular elements of a project. So there definitely is a lot of work to put in behind the scenes. But I guess it’s less about planning for that meeting, and more being open to their interests, what they are passionate about. And seeing how can that match?

So there’s several things in there, Tony, thank you. Part of it is just having a better plan for how you might answer their question, where they’re trying to get you to do the talking: what is the phrase that you can congruently give back to them to help them see the value in opening up. But I think the more important thing, which many fundraisers learn at some point in their career, is that if the listeners can get better at it even quicker, then that will help. The most important thing, I think, is just to value curiosity in and of itself. Rather than feel as though the pressure is on, rather than feel like you’re doing a sale or practising a technique on someone. In and of itself, just care and be curious, that’s a value which I sense you prize more highly than maybe the Tony of six or seven years ago might have.

Yeah, 100% and I think I probably would have been more prone to jumping in and telling you about what we do and how it’s different from others and, and probably the confidence has grown that if you give someone the opportunity to speak, they will give you the opportunity back. I’ve never, ever, found that they haven’t given me the opportunity to speak, while before I would have felt like, ‘Oh no, time’s running out, I need to say my bit’, you know, and this person just keeps talking. But if you genuinely don’t worry about that, and put that to one side and just listen and ask a lot of deep, deep questions.

I remember one example. This was the donor who gave us a seven figure gift. And in our organisation, it was kind of decided that this donor might go his separate way because we’re on a different paths. And I remember saying, okay, let’s properly listen to him. And I remember asking him question after question about why he was interested in particular area of our work or about the work that he was doing. And three hours into that conversation he asked me about what we were doing. You will get the opportunity. If you really take the time to listen, then you will eventually get your chance to actually speak. And by that stage, you know exactly what you need to say.

Absolutely. And I’ve observed it to work over and over again for people that I’ve met, who’ve come through our courses. One of the questions people sometimes ask is, ‘But what if they don’t want to share more freely? What if the listener is thinking of their donor who’s never given them one hour, let alone three, and who is more introverted or shy or private. When you’re trying to better understand and appreciate their world (as I phrase it in my book), when you’re trying to do that first. And, you know, maybe there’s no one perfect answer, but do you have any tips for things that that have helped for when people are initially less forthcoming?

So, I mean, undoubtedly some people are just are more private, and they are not going to open up. So it’s probably something that’s hard to describe. But there are those soft skills in relationships, you know, skills that most fundraisers have. They tend to kind of get the hint, whenever they need to hurry up or, or whatever. So, obviously, you don’t just keep asking questions. You’re walking into businessman’s office and he’s got half an hour. And you’re just asking him, ‘how was your day?’ And ‘what are you interested in?’ and he’s going to get pretty annoyed pretty quick. So I guess it’s just reading the room, reading their body language, reading them and understanding, okay, when is it appropriate to ask and when is it not? I’d say as a rule of thumb, most people do like talking about what they’re passionate about. So, yeah, try and speak about what they’re passionate about, not what you’re passionate about.

And also, I guess, as If someone’s not willing to give you the time to properly talk with them, then the likelihood of them giving you a six-figure gift is probably fairly slim as well. And that’s what I find: I’ve very rarely received major gifts from anybody who wasn’t interested. And so don’t be overly anxious about those moments. Just keep plugging away with the ones where you can get back a kind of conversation, because there’s no point in working and working and working at something that they’re clearly not that interested in.

And it reminds me of another thing. When I’ve interviewed in you in the past, you said across these years, (this is my phrase, actually, but I hope you’ll understand the concept and agree with me on the concept) across the years you’ve got better at noticing the patterns: when someone is likely to be the kind of person who would absolutely care and be a match for what your charity is doing, and/or have the ability to make a difference. And in the last couple of years, you’ve been much better at noticing those signals than you were earlier. In fact, I think you even told me a particular story of a colleague coming back from some kind of networking event and they mentioned the donor and the light went on your brain. You couldn’t allow this one to wait to the end of the pile, for three weeks’ time. Tell me about what you’ve learned about pattern recognition and decisiveness when the green light is flashing for you.


I think I think that probably many people who have been fundraisers for a period of time, you do get a sense for whenever it looks like we need to put time and effort into something because it’s really looking like it has the certain characteristics of a gift like one you’ve had in the past. And it’s quite hard to put a finger on it sometimes but there’s definitely certain things that really stand out. And that example that you talked about is a really good one because some colleagues have been sitting on that lead for a number of months.

So I didn’t hear about it until a couple of months after. Someone had been in a networking event, they’d spoken with somebody from the charitable trust, who was looking for something around this type of work. And on when they told me about this, I thought there’s something unusual about that, the way they’re telling you so much information up front. The fact that they’re in a little bit of trouble and they’re looking for someone really to guide them and give them a sense of direction. And the fact that they have asked you for that information… I remember saying I will absolutely take this on, and I phoned the person straight away. They gave me a referral to the chairman of the trust and the trust was in Shrewsbury. So if you look at Shrewsbury on the map, it wasn’t exactly easy to get to, it took me four hours to get there, I had a half hour meeting, and then four hours back. It was really, you know, just something that had a sense of.

It was a major investment in time and effort and money on your part. You also had to jump quite quickly.

Very quickly. And so within a week, I had planned that trip, I went down and met that person, and then had to put a full proposal together within a month. My programmes director wasn’t delighted with the budget, but that that led to half a million pounds. So, you know, it was it was fast and if we hadn’t got there fast we would have absolutely missed it. Now, not to say that that will always happen. But it’s just the sense that there are certain things that stand out as you become more experienced as a fundraiser. That you say okay, that’s not something I need to am to move on quickly.

The other thing I’m hearing in that is a philosophy and a belief that our job is not to go and get money to pay for some good charity to do some good work. Our job is to understand who out there cares and might have problems to solve in areas similar to ours. And to look at ‘which donor could I be helping today, which trust is trying to solve a problem, and I sense that is part of what made you act urgently, was them requesting help solving a problem? Yeah, rather than, ‘oh, here’s an opportunity for me to get some money.’

Definitely. And actually I think that fundraising gets a bad rap sometimes for  always appearing to just be going out trying to seek money. I think that what we have to offer people is so, so much greater. It’s that belief that they want to do something good in the world. And I have a solution for that, because what we’re doing is exceptional. And I guess it comes back to that matchmaking analogy, where I’m not trying to sell something to anybody. I’m literally just trying to see ‘What are the things that you’re wanting to do? Is there anything that we’re doing that matches with that?’ Just having the confidence and the belief that we can add value to that and we can fulfil some of those passions and those dreams that supporters have.

And, you know, every single supporter that I work with is really satisfied. And they’re often say things like it’s the most amazing thing I have ever done in my life. And these are people who have, you know, had businesses that they’ve sold for £20 million or £30 million, they’ve had families, and you’re thinking, how could you be saying that, but they’re saying, look, this is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done, because I’m helping, you know, 50,000 vulnerable people. Thank you for giving me the opportunity. So it’s a completely different mindset.

I hope you found the first half of this chat with Tony interesting. I’ve written a summary of key ideas which you can take away in the Episode Notes on the blog and podcast section of our Bright Spot Fundraising website. I’d be immensely grateful if you could spare a moment or two to leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts, as that really helps other people to find and benefit from the podcast. The other thing I wanted to do is explain why I didn’t say goodbye to Tony at the end of today’s interview.

The reason is that although I usually aim for these conversations to last under half an hour, so that most people can finish listening during a commute or lunch break, Tony was sharing so many helpful ideas that I couldn’t bear to bring it to a close. So we carried on talking for twice the length of my usual interviews. So if you liked today’s episode, do subscribe to the podcast today, then you’ll be sure to receive next week’s episode, which will feature the second half of this chat. This includes Tony’s advice on how his proposal for supporters have dramatically changed in the age of the smartphone, as well as another trick that’s made him more confident in asking for large gifts. And one book in particular that he credits with massively helping him to behave more strategically on any given day. If you can’t wait till next week to share your feedback with Tony, he told me he’d love to hear from other fundraisers. He doesn’t really use Twitter, but you should be able to find him on LinkedIn. And his surname is Gaston.

Finally, thank you so much for listening today. I really appreciate the effort it takes to keep on honing your skills and to keep your inspiration levels topped up. Until next time, best of luck with your fundraising. Goodbye.