Episode 71: Creating a record-breaking Giving Day, with Mel Bushell

Episode Notes

In schools and higher education development we are starting to see a trend to raise funds through Giving Days. There are clear benefits to creating a focal point for donations to a particular need, at one moment in time, and to do so digitally.

To help fundraisers who are weighing up the idea of organising a Giving Day, I’m excited to share my recent interview with Mel Bushell, Director of Development at the Portsmouth Grammar School (PGS).

In March 2021, PGS organised what was at the time the most successful giving day ever achieved by a UK school, raising £280,000 to pay for bursaries. It included match funding from a major donor, and it was a huge team effort. Indeed, the 653 donations were from a broad range of supporters, and more than half of them gave for the first time.

In this episode Mel shares how they did it, her advice for others considering organising a Giving Day, and her reflections on what she learned.

If you’d like to share this episode because you think it will help other schools, universities and charities – THANK YOU! – we are both on Linked In and on twitter Mel is @MelanieBowran and I am @woods_rob.

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‘It’s not only about what you’re achieve in those 36 hours… actually, there are lots of ongoing benefits afterwards. A far higher proportion of people we speak to now are making gifts as a result of the original campaign.’

Melanie Bushell

Full transcript of Episode 71


Hey there folks, and welcome to Episode 71 of the Fundraising Bright Spot’s Podcast. My name is Rob Woods, and this is the show for anyone who works in fundraising, and who wants ideas, and maybe a nudge of inspiration, to help you raise more money and enjoy your job, especially during the pandemic.

And today we’re looking at Giving Days. So if you fundraise for a school, college, or university; or if you don’t, but you want to find out more about this growing trend in digital fundraising, I think you’re going to find this episode really interesting. Because today, I’m sharing an interview I carried out recently with a brilliant fundraiser named Melanie Bushell, who is Director of Development at the Portsmouth Grammar School. In March 2021, they organized what was at the time, the most successful Giving Day ever achieved by a UK school, raising £280,000 to pay for bursaries for the school. It included match funding from a major donor, and importantly, for the culture of this school, it was a huge team effort, with the 653 separate donations coming from former pupils, parents, former and current teachers, and also through current pupils taking part in their own sponsored fundraising activities. Here’s the interview with Mel. I hope you enjoy it.

Mel Bushell, how are you?


I’m very well, thank you. How are you?


Very well on a hot day. Thank you ever so much for agreeing to stay indoors on a hot day, and do this interview for our podcast, Mel. I really appreciate it. Now, you and I go back a little bit, because several years ago, you came on our Major Gifts Mastery Program, and I learned a lot from you, even just back then. And then, over the last couple of years, we’ve had a couple of really interesting chats, and I always get re-inspired when I hear what you’ve been up to at Portsmouth. And I’ve long wanted to invite you onto the podcast to have one of these conversations.

Before we get into the content to do with this particular project that was really successful for your school, to place it in context, what’s the name of the organization you work for, and what’s your job title?


So I work for the Portsmouth Grammar School, which is a fee-paying school, although sometimes people are confused when they hear the word Grammar School. And I’m Development Director, and I’ve been there for eight years.


Great. Okay. And today, I know you’ve been working hard, and serve your colleagues for all of that time. And in another episode, we might go into maybe the bigger picture of the progress you’ve all made, in terms of development and fundraising at the school. But for today’s episode, I really wanted to zero in on this particular event you did; I think you called it a Giving Day. For people who don’t work in higher educational schools’ fundraising, my first question is, what is a Giving Day? Just help us tune into kind of the reality of this kind of event. And secondly, top line, what were your results, because it sounded like an amazing success to me. But if you could place that in context, and then after that, we’ll unpack how you went about it.


Yeah. So Giving Day is really about an online fundraising activity, where you really concentrate all your efforts into maybe a 24-hour or 36-hour period. And they’re pretty common in the US, in schools and universities. They happened quite a bit in UK, or starting to happen more in UK universities. And there’s been, well, in fact, it’s just probably the last six months, there’s been quite a few in UK schools. It’s kind of a growing number. So it’s using email and social media, and just really trying to harness the entire school or university community around a particular cause, for a particular short period of time. And we did ours in March of this year, 10th and 11th of March for 36 hours. And we raised 280,000 pounds, which was significantly more than I was expecting. And it’s all for bursaries, so that bright children, whose parents wouldn’t be able to afford the fees, can come to the school.

So it was £280,000, and we had 653 donors, of whom 63% were new donors; so over 400 people donating for the first time. So on every measure, it exceeded all our hopes and expectations.


And this amount; you raised more than £280,000, is really up there, as one of the most successful ones I had ever heard of for a UK school, isn’t it?


Yeah. At the time we did it, it was the highest amount that anybody had raised in the UK schools. There are a couple of other schools that have tipped above us now, but we’re still absolutely thrilled, because we’ve got very different kinds of constituency from the other two schools who’ve raised more than us. So, for a Day School in Portsmouth, with not many in the way of sort of super rich people around, we really, absolutely, we’re still absolutely thrilled. But yeah, when we realized… Well, first of all, we realized we were going to go over a quarter of a million pounds. And then when we realized that nobody else had got anywhere close to that at the time, it was very, very exciting.


Yeah. So this is really, a glorious team effort. In terms of your view of the factors that caused this to go so well; in another episode where we might talk in depth about the bigger culture in the school, and the acceptance of development is a really great thing, and bursaries is great thing, and so on. Maybe towards the end of this episode, we might have time to touch on that a little, because in my view, lots of the success in the short term were because of all the hard grind over the years. But even how hard everyone had worked to make that a positive in the culture of the school, tell me the tactics. What might you say about how you went about letting people know about it, and the stories, the content; what would you say?


I think a key thing for us, in terms of the team effort side of it; it has to come from the leadership; and the fact that the Head was very onsite through it made a massive difference. Because I’ve got a very small team, and I genuinely could not see how we were going to manage it, in terms of making it a whole school activity. So one thing that worked really well, was a member of the teaching staff, who actually is an ex-pupil in the school as well; but she had only joined last September as well. She got seconded on to the team, to kind of organize the pupil side of things. And having someone who was actually a teacher as well, was extremely valuable. So that really helped it kind of become embedded as part of what the school was doing.

So, yeah, that made a massive difference. And then, once we started talking about it, every kind of opportunity like Inset Day; we had a bit of time, we talked about it. And then when we do sort of.., We have weekly staff meetings. So mentioning then that it was coming up; and you soon start to work out which members of staff are particularly interested. Because I really needed support from across the board, from the marketing team, and teachers who have been there a long time, who are still in touch with some of the young alumni. And you just start to pick up who’s really taking an interest; and so I then started asking them if they would be prepared to be one of the sorts of faces of the campaign, to kind of give us a quote or a little message or a video message, or help get… Actually, because of the timing; because we were doing all the prep time during lockdown, getting video content was really difficult, because everybody was in their homes.

And I struggled with that for a while, but then, there was a particular teacher who is in charge of the prefects. So I got him on side, and he kind of harassed them all to do little videos at home. And then we’ve got someone who taught at the school for 40-odd years, and he’s now in his nineties, and still lives locally. And all the alumni in their sort of seventies always ask if he’s still around, and whether we know how well he is. So we managed to get him to do a video message as well. So it was kind of harnessing everybody that you could think of, for every age group you can think of, and just seeing what they can bring to the table.


Yes. And so, one thing about that is, if it’s going to be an online thing, you just need plenty of content; you need enough content. And we might come onto this in a minute. It needs to have a consistency to what the story is, what is the narrative. But then, this whole, one thing to have that strategy; it’s another to actually get people other than your team giving their own time to make this happen. And it seems to me, really you utilized; lots of that happened, because of how hard you and your colleagues have worked at relationships over the years, so that you feel able to have those conversations, and ask a favour of this teacher or that teacher. And then, for them to respect you, and believe in what the whole project is about, to then not just nod, but actually follow through, and make a decent film and so on.


Yes, exactly. I think I think you’re right. Like I said, I’ve been there eight years, and we’ve been actively fundraising, so I needed to do some sort of restructuring and stuff when I first arrived. So I’ve been actively fundraising for over six years, and it’s been pretty much about bursaries the whole time. And that’s one of the things; when I have looked at other schools that have been doing it, consistently fundraising for bursaries for longer, and I’ve seen the sort of success that they’ve had. So that’s something that I’ve really been able to talk to the Governors about, and convince them that that’s the way to go, and that bursaries are definitely a thing.

And again, going back to the new Head, so she, in her first year, she did a lot of listening to people, lots of talking to people, and came up with a new sort of strategic… “Strategic intentions” with was the phrase that she used. And were sort of five areas to it; but two of them were… One was to do bursaries. It was making a difference for local young people; being an outstanding local school for outstanding local young people.

And the other thing was actually about making a difference to the city that we’re in, because Portsmouth isn’t the wealthiest place in the world. And so, the whole bursary thing fits in absolutely perfectly with the strategy of the organization. And in terms of the kinds of activities that we then put around the Giving Day, some of the stuff that the pupils were doing was about making a difference for people in their community by doing things for them. So I think that made a massive difference as well, because it is absolutely a core part of the kind of school we want to be. And I think, because we’ve been talking about bursaries for a while, one of the other things I’ve learned through the process is that even some people have even applied to work at the school, because there’s something they really believe in themselves. So because it’s been going on for so long, is it is building more of a culture for that to be a real core part of what the school is about.


Hi, it’s Rob. And I want to jump in quickly to let you know about our Major Gifts Mastery Programme, which is a combination of masterclasses and one-to-one coaching, to help fundraising professionals from education and other charities, to grow their confidence and their major donor income. To give you a sense of the difference it can make, here’s what one fundraiser, Linda, said about how it helped her.


Hi, I’m Linda Harwood-Compton, and I work for Animals Asia. I’ve just completed the Major Gifts Mastery Program. It has been invaluable. I was new to major guest fundraising, and recently just secured my very first £50,000 donation. So call Rob. It’s one not to be missed.


If you’d like to find out more, go to brightspotfundraising.co.uk/services, and then click on Major Gifts Mastery Program. For now though, let’s get back to the interview, as I ask Mel for more detail about how she approached the email part of this campaign.

In terms of particular tactics, then, if you could tell us some things we might not necessarily know if we’ve not done one of these campaigns. For instance, in terms of the email approach, how did you do that? How frequent were the emails? What was the messaging and so on?


Yeah, certainly. So we had a kind of a grid, and different types of messages or different type messengers, I suppose. So there’d be… We wanted a certain number of messages from people who have received bursaries, or are receiving bursaries, or the parents of people who are receiving bursaries, or people who are donating already towards bursaries, or people who work at the school, and it’s really important to them that the school does bursaries; so this whole range of people.

And then, in terms of how many messages went out; so we started about a month, five weeks, before the day, with a sort of Save the Date thing. So then there were kind of weekly emails leading up to the day, and then one email went out 24 hours beforehand. And then over the 36 hours of the Giving Day, we sent eight messages, eight emails in total; so four each day, starting on the Wednesday morning, with a video message from the Head, embedded into the email. Some had imagery embedded, some had video embedded, and then at the same time, we had a big sort of social media push going as well on all the platforms that we use: so Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, everything. And again, the same sort of range of messages, a consistency of look and feel. And yeah, just loads of different… I think something we spent a lot of time about, was making sure that there was a message for every type of audience, in as much as we could.

So thinking of people who left the school 50, 60 years ago, and also think about people who left the school last year; or people who were still in the school, or parents, or current staff, ex-staff. And yeah, I think that was something that’s worked really well in the end. And I would definitely, if anyone else was thinking of doing a Diving Day, that was something I would definitely encourage them to do, is really think hard about those individual stories and messages. And also the sort of key individuals who are key colleagues, who can really help you make things happen as well, who’ve got kind of personal relationships that might be closer than yours, with certain types of people, and they can call in those favours, and you do yours. And it really was; I think that the team effort side of it was probably one of the biggest things that really, I felt leading into it, in a way that I haven’t really with anything else we’ve ever done in the fundraising sphere in the school, for all sorts of reasons.

Most of our kind of mass participation fundraising has generally happened in the school summer holiday, which is where we are now; and that’s exactly what we’re doing. And so, by definition, people aren’t seeing it; but this was absolutely front-and-centre, two days in the middle of the school term. But yeah, so that no one could get away from it. So I think it’s not… I think the benefits of it are more than what we’ve already talked about, because it has, in itself, added to the culture.


Hmm. Yeah. I totally see how that would be, because the more people are involved in making it happen, and then seeing it actually working, and the thrill of that; then they know this activity, a benefit of this kind of activity, can only then spill over to make future things easier as well. One thing I’m picking up on is, you’ve achieved a wonderful variety of kind of messenger to appeal to different types of constituents. But then I’m sensing there’s a wonderful consistency, a look and feel. And I’ve seen some of these materials; they absolutely feel like they’re a package, they’re all, they’ve all just got a certain vibe, colourful vibe to them.

And another way there’s a consistency is in terms of what the narrative is. If you had to put it into words, roughly what the main idea was that I would have received from looking at a couple of these emails, or a couple of these tweets, what’s the main story?


Well, we have a sort of a tagline for the Giving Day, which was, “Be the difference.” And that came… Where it kind of came… You know when you have your best ideas is when you’re not trying to think of one. But I think it was because it tied in with those two areas of the school strategy that I talked about, about making a difference to the city that we’re in, and making a difference for bright young people in the city.

And I think it also feels like being a difference can have a life, again, a life beyond Giving Day, because it is so much a part of what we’re trying to do. So, yeah, so that was definitely our overarching theme. And about diversity; we want to a diverse pupil body. We want a diverse staff body. We want to reflect the city that we’re actually in. We don’t want to be kind of ivory tower, in any way at all. And I think Portsmouth Grammar School is on the High Street of Portsmouth. It’s right in the city. And we go off to meetings at other schools, and they’re in these kinds of leafy woodlands and things like that. And that’s so not what PGS is, and that we’re very down to earth. And I think that was a large part of it as well.

And even saying to the people who were there in the fifties, sixties, “It is actually the same school. I know it looks very different now, because it used to be male only, and it’s now co-ed. And the facilities are beyond anything that you’d have dreamed up, but actually at heart, it is the same school that it always was.” Yeah. So I think that’s what helped it be so successful, really, because it was just real.


Yeah. And I sensed the realness in the various emails and tweets I’ve seen, and the assets you have, the social media. My sense was that they weren’t overworked by a copywriter. So that vibe you’ve just told me about, what the heart of our school is really about, and in the context of this city, it comes through in those voices. So it seems to me that you’ve achieved that. And if I sense that as an outsider, then I’m sure that the constituents who already know, and many of whom hopefully, already love the place, would definitely have felt that realness.

I also wanted to just check in, in terms of making the most of any of those stories, am I right to think that you were able to pull in favors, and use your relationships to get these various families and staff and former teachers and so on, to create content. But then you were quite canny in getting permission to reuse them in different formats; for instance, it wasn’t just you’ll do the email, and then we’ll get someone else for the tweet. I sense that you were in the jargon, repurposing content, in a quite organized, strategic way.


Yeah, absolutely. Because we had some kind of longer testimonials, which we would use in the emails; but then, we’d pick out a couple of key quotes, and use that on the slide for social media. So yeah, we did that quite a lot.

And one other thing which I haven’t mentioned yet, which goes into the support that we had from colleagues, was the Deputy Head of the Junior School came to see me a few weeks beforehand. And they had done something during the run there before lockdown. So in the Junior School, they had done, before Christmas, they had done this sort of online TV show for a couple of weeks with elves going around the school giving out chocolates, and all this kind of stuff. And so, he came to me; and they obviously had an absolute ball doing this elf TV thing. And he said, “Melanie, would you like me to do an online radio broadcast for the full 36 hours of the Giving Day?” And I was like, “If that’s what you’d love to do, then yes, please.”

So he and a colleague literally did this radio show for the full 36 hours. They didn’t go to bed. And every two hours, apart from during the night, I went to bed. But every two hours, I was interviewed with where we’re up to on the fundraising. Bursary recipients were interviewed on it. The Head was on it. There all sorts of games and competitions, and so on. And then for the period of time when we were asleep, I’d kind of been in touch with some of our alumni around the world. We don’t have very many, it was like fewer than 5% of our alumni live overseas; but they tend to stay in touch with the school quite well. So I got in touch with some of those, so that he interviewed them during the night about their experience with the school.

And that was something that one, kind of helped they celebratory atmosphere of the whole event; because people are in their offices with the music coming through their computers, which you wouldn’t normally do, but for 36 hours, it was fine. And they did all sorts of hilarious things; and obviously the junior school children in particular, the little ones, loved the fact that their teachers were doing a radio program. But even that had an effect on the giving. It’s kind of, as you’d expect, perhaps on a Giving Day, you track the giving pattern over the 36 hours, and there will always be a spike after an email has just gone out. And that did happen on ours. But when it dropped down again, after the spike, it never went particularly low. And one of the things that in the analysis afterwards, we felt, was it was a combination, actually, of the radio show that people listening into, and the social media, which was sort of more constant that was keeping the level of gifts up.

And it also again, which I would never have expected, took the message beyond the immediate school community. So about 10% of our gifts came from people who weren’t on our spaces, so that they weren’t getting emails. So they can only have been impacted by either seeing the social media, or hearing the radio thing; or maybe they were grandparents. But yeah, some of those people, we’re still trying to work out exactly who they were. But that was amazing.


Mel, one thing that really stands out to me, is how hard you and your colleagues worked at the communication content and the communication strategy. And I wonder if there were various benefits that came out, as a result of you working so hard at that.


Yeah. So one thing I hadn’t really thought about, was the ongoing impact after the Giving Day; because prior to the Giving Day, we’ve done… We have an annual donor report. Every couple of years, we do a telephone campaign, and we send a letter in advance about the telephone campaign to about 3,000 people. But then, we only actually get through to about 800 on the phone. And then suddenly, we have the Giving Day, where we… Because we decided to basically email everybody that we had an email address for, even if their children had left the school quite some time ago, but we still had their current contact details. That was six and a half thousand people were getting those 12 emails, as I talked about.

And I hadn’t really thought before, about the impact that would have, and the extent to which the message about bursaries is now much more embedded. There’s this blitz for a five, six week period, where all these people were hearing about bursaries. And I think it’s very evident now, sort of four, five months down the line, that you can see that people are understanding; far more people are understanding it that were before, and we’re seeing benefit without doing a telephone campaign.

And we’re getting a far higher number of the proportion of people we speak to are making gifts, because we’ve just told the same story in a different way, to more people. And so, it’s not only about what you’re achieve in those 36 hours, although that’s all your focus at the time; but actually, there are ongoing benefits afterwards.


In terms of this event; there’s always lessons to learn. Is there anything you discovered that you would probably do differently next time?


Yeah. It’s a finessing of it, and it just hadn’t occurred to me beforehand; so you’ve got your big mailing list for all your emails, and what I would try and find some way; the technology would have to help this, to do in the future, is that after someone’s made a gift, to slightly amend the messages that they then get. Because they get an automated thank you for the gift, which is great; but then they will continue getting the same emails as the people who haven’t made a gift, in the way it was structured when we did it.

So I don’t think you want to automatically remove those people from the email list, because presumably they’re interested in seeing how it goes on, and where you get at the end of it. But I think certainly, they’ve only just made their gift, and then half an hour later, the next email comes out, and it’s like, “Oh, help us get over the line.” Okay, they’ve had the thank you, but actually, it would be really nice to finesse that in some way. Or even if you explain in the thank you email, you will continue now getting the emails, don’t worry; we have… Because we were then getting some people emailing us saying, “Oh, I’ve just had this, but I’ve just made a gift. I just want to make sure that it came through.” So yeah, just tidying that up a bit. But other than that, everything… Well again, trying to think of a fresh way of doing it, I think, will be the challenge for next time.


Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to talk on and on, but for one episode, I think we better bring it to a close. Maybe in the future, we could have another conversation about the bigger picture of how we can make it, help our organization have a fundraising-friendly culture. But for today, Mel, thank you ever so much for coming and sharing your ideas and examples. A huge congratulations to you and everyone involved in this achievement; I think it’s brilliant. And I look forward to catching up with you soon. Bye-bye.

Well, I hope you found Mel’s insights and examples were helpful. If you did, I can tell you that we’ve got lots more helpful sessions coming up soon. So please do remember to subscribe to the podcast today, so that you never miss an episode. And if you’re interested in improving your skills and confidence in major donor fundraising, in individual giving, or in corporate fundraising, then I’d really encourage you to check out the information on our website, which is brightspotfundraising.co.uk/services. And then click on the page for Major Gifts Mastery, or any of our other training programs.

Before we finish, I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who’s been spreading the word about this show to colleagues and on social media. I really appreciate your help in getting this content out there helping people, especially this year. And we’d both love to hear what you think about this episode. We’re both on LinkedIn and on Twitter. Mel is @MelanieBowran, and I’m @woods_rob. Finally, thank you so much for listening today, and I look forward to sharing more Bright Spot examples and ideas with you very soon.