Episode 74: Creating a culture that supports fundraising, with Mel Bushell

Episode Notes

One of the factors most likely to affect fundraising results is the extent to which your colleagues understand and care about fundraising.

So the fact that the Portsmouth Grammar School (PGS) now raise over 15 times more per year than they did 5 years ago is in part thanks to how hard the leadership and development team have worked to create a culture that cares about funding bursaries.

You may have heard Episode 71 in which Mel Bushell, Development Director of PGS, shared tips from their hugely successful Giving Day. In today’s episode Mel shares things she has done to build internal relationships and create a culture that supports development in other ways too. She shares a range of tips and examples to show the difference this has made to results.

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.

Further Resources

Episode 71. Creating a record-breaking giving day, with Melanie Bushell. Mel shares tips and reflections on how they created what was at the time the highest value Giving Day achieved by any UK school.

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‘Compared to five years ago, the number of bursaries that we’re now able to offer has gone through the roof.’

Melanie Bushell, Director of Development, PGS.

Full transcript of Episode 74

Rob:  Hello, and welcome to Episode 74 of the Fundraising Bright Spots Podcast. My name is Rob Woods. This is the show for anyone who works in fundraising, and who wants ideas and maybe a little boost of inspiration to help you raise more money and enjoy your job, especially during the pandemic.

Today, we’re looking at culture and relationship building within your charity, and how the effort you put in here helps you grow fundraising income. And, I’m really pleased to share a second interview with the brilliant Mel Bushell, who is director of development at the Portsmouth Grammar School. You may have heard Episode 71, in which Mel explains how her school created one of the most successful giving days that a UK school has ever achieved. In fact, this year the school raised a sum more than 15 times greater than it did five years ago. This growth has enabled it to dramatically increase its bursary provision.

So today, we’re looking at various things that you can do to improve your organization’s ability to raise funds, particularly to do with building a culture that cares about fundraising. As before, Mel shares plenty of stories and examples to go with your advice. So whether you work in school or higher education fundraising, or for any other kind of charitable organization, I hope you’ll find it a really interesting listen.

Melanie Bushell, welcome back to the podcast.

Mel: Thank you very much. It’s good to be here.

Rob:  A while ago, you were very kind and made time to tell us all about some lessons learned from your giving day success for Portsmouth’s Grammar School. And today, I wanted to talk more about culture, and how important that is in achieving fundraising success.

Just so the listener can tune into the context of this conversation, remind us, what’s your job title and what’s the name of the organization you work for?

Mel: I’m development director at the Portsmouth Grammar School and I’ve been there about eight years.

Rob: Thank you, Mel. I know last time we spoke very specifically about a particular campaign, your giving day. But even before that giving day, I had a strong sense that the culture at your school now is much more interested in bursaries, and the importance and value of fundraising, generally. I sense that you’ve worked hard on things that will help that culture.

In terms of results, broadly, how are your fundraising results now or last year, compared to eight years ago when you started?

Mel: When I started, there wasn’t lots of fundraising going on at all. By the time we got fundraising, it was about five years ago. And even prior to the giving day, in the last year we had raised five times more than we raised in the first year that we were doing fundraising.

Rob: I think it’s also true that the best thing about that is it translates into more children receiving bursaries and able to attend your wonderful school than would have happened five years ago.

Mel: That’s exactly right. That’s what really matters, is the impact you can have with the gifts that you’re given. This year, because of the giving day and because of another extremely generous that we’ve had, we’ve gone way, way, way above five times, 15 times what we raised in the first year. The number of bursaries that we’re able to offer has just gone through the roof, really. The need has also increased, of course, particularly since COVID.

Rob: Yeah. Yeah, I understand. If we’re now to talk less about specific tactics in any given fundraising letter or campaign, and more about this more subtle but crucial stuff of people buying in to what development is all about, what do you think is a key theme that the listener should be aware of?

Mel: One of the first things that I think has made the very big difference, and particularly the last two or three years … When I arrived at the school, the school knew they wanted to raise money for bursaries. But it was kind of like, “Well, because it’s the right thing to do, really.” I spent a lot of time trying to get the governors and leadership to sign up, or to really think about the strategy. I said, “You know, it’s really important that the fundraising that we do is actually really about the organization we want to be.” That took quite a lot of work, I’ll be honest.

It needed me having a head who was on side for it, and then between us, working with the governors to the point where we came up with a strategy that said, “We want to double the number of bursaries that we can offer. It will probably take a generation to do it, but we want to get to a point where one in four pupils is receiving some kind of fee assistance.” So it brings it much closer to what the school used to be like, when it was a traditional grammar school but had government funding and all that kind of stuff. Again, it’s getting back to the roots, if you like.

Having a clear vision, a clear direction, and even if we don’t know the exact time scale of how long it will take us to get there saying, “We want to be the kind of school where a quarter of the pupils are there, even though their families wouldn’t be able to afford the full fees.”

Rob: Fantastic. This is interesting, isn’t it, this area, because there’s some things that a fundraiser or development professional has no control over whatsoever, and there are some things that are completely within their control. And there’s some things that they can influence somewhat, if they go about doing certain things. If out there, someone’s in a university or a school and their leadership really is not very interested at all, then I think that just is extremely tough and there’s not loads we can do to create a big change on that, because we are not the leader.

But that said, I think there’s lots of fundraisers out there, where they might have some senior colleagues who don’t totally get it. But there may be some things that they could do to influence, and better make a case, and gradually build relationships and help some of their colleagues see things differently and in a more donor-friendly way, more fundraising friendly way. And probably, I hope a lot of today’s conversation can help us if we’re in that boat.

That said, is there anything you’ve learned over the years, to do with building that interest? Not just across, but also up, with leadership of a school.

Mel: Yes. Sometimes, there might be somebody around who isn’t directly the person that you most need to influence, but they might have a bit more of an in than you have. This is something that has happened a bit, actually, with our governing body. I was able to identify reasonably early on which governors were more interested or had a little bit more understanding of development. So it was a matter of spending some time with them and then, talking to the next one, so talking to one person at a time. Obviously, that sounds a lot more military that it was.

Yeah, finding your first ally and taking it from there, really. And then working out, okay who’s the next softest towards what you’re trying to do and working on it like that. Yeah, it’s a lot about personal relationships. It takes time to gain someone’s respect, so you just have to go through that process. And then once you’ve got it, then you can start making more of an impact.

Rob: Yes, Mel. I remember in a previous conversation, you said just how fortunate you feel that your head of your school really does understand development and fundraising.

Mel: Yes, I do feel very fortunate. She’s a relatively new head and I think it is something that’s happening more with people who are in their first headships, people realizing the importance of having an interest in development. We’ve made great strides forwards over the last three years.

In terms of strategy, and making sure the school strategy and the fundraising strategy are all of a piece. And also, in terms of getting the governing body sometimes to think more strategically, so that’s something I had been trying to do without success. But obviously, the head of the school has a lot better chance of doing that.

It’s been brilliant, really. We’ve taken lots of steps forwards, and we’ve got a plan for things going ahead and so on. I’m very grateful that I have a head who really gets it. My heart really goes out to some of the people I know in other schools, who aren’t so blessed.

But going on from that, personal relationships and how you operate with the people in your school is really, really key because you can never do everything all on your own as the development team. It always works best as a team effort.

One of the first people that I really felt the benefit of getting on side with development was our school archivist. Because I thought, we’re inviting back alumni who that have been here years ago. How do I make this rich to them? It could look a very different school now. It’s gone co-ed, we’ve got new facilities and all that kind of stuff. How do we make them connect with it? He’s brilliant, the archivist, he’s absolutely brilliant.

Every time we’ve got someone coming in, I get in touch with him a couple of weeks in advance and say, “Can you see what you can find on Mr. X? I think he was at the school on these years, because he’s coming in on this day.” John is the archivist, and he’s always ridiculously modest and he always says, “Don’t promise them anything,” which I never do anyway. Or, “I haven’t found very much.” And then, I come visit the table laden with photographs. Occasionally, there won’t be very much. But even if all we’ve got is their handwritten admissions card from 1965 with their home address at that time, written in fountain pen, when someone is presented with that, of course they’re not remotely thinking that their old school has still got stuff like that. It has a massive, massive impact on people.

That’s one of the things about being in the school. People talk about their school days as a very personal and emotional thing. It’s a massive privilege to be a part of it. But, the work that John does really assists me in that.

We had this one example, we had this guy coming in who left the school in 1968 and had never been back since. In terms of my kind of dream prospect, he’s absolutely at the very top. He came to the school when it was a traditional grammar school and his place was for free, he did really well, he went on to Oxford and he’s done amazingly well in the city. I knew that, in terms of capacity, he could really make a difference for our pupils. But, I’d never met him before and he was coming in, so I got in touch with John. It was one of those occasions where he’d found a million things. It was things like the school magazine, and the donor had been the editor of the magazine one year. He’d also done a lot of cross country running. In the archive we still had, from the 1960s, the red exercise books with handwritten records of all the races that were taken place.

I had all that stuff in my office when the donor came in. It just took him right back. Well, it was just brilliant fun. We both really, really enjoyed it, I enjoyed seeing his reactions to stuff. Like I said, he had totally forgotten that he had edited the school magazine, he had totally forgotten that he was a prefect. Well, it was just fantastic. We went from literally his first visit back to the school in over 50 years, to within a couple of weeks, him making this commitment to a five year ongoing gift, which was actually going to be worth £300,000 and was going to fund four pupils, which was just amazing.

Rob: Hi, it’s Rob and I just wanted to jump in really quickly to let you know about our Major Gifts Mastery Program, which is our flagship training program, and is a combination of master classes and one-to-one coaching to help fundraising professionals from education and other charities to grow their confidence and their income.

To give you a sense of the difference it makes, here’s what one fundraiser, Sara Davies, who’s an experienced higher education fundraiser, said about how it helped her.

Sara Davies: I’ve just finished Rob Wood’s Major Gift Master Program and it’s been amazing. The last six months of doing this course, I’ve had the most successful time in my job to date. I’ve had three or four major breakthroughs, my confidence has increased and it’s no coincidence. I know this course has helped massively. Also, my colleague who works with me has been doing this course as well, and she’s had the best six months in her career as well. Again, major breakthroughs. I really encourage you, if you can find the budget within your organization, to apply for this.

Rob: If you’d like to find out more, go to brightspotfundraising.co.uk/services and then click on Major Gifts Mastery Program. For now let’s get back to the interview, as I ask Mel to explain a bit more about how she builds relationships with her colleagues at the school.

Whenever I have these conversations with you, Mel, I get a strong sense that your school’s been achieving some fabulous fundraising results. But, in none of those stories was it just you on your own. Of course, it’s obvious, isn’t it? One just has to have positive relationships with one’s colleagues if one’s able to build a great experience for our supporters. It seems you pay attention to detail and you work harder than most fundraisers I know, building up those relationships with your colleagues in the school.

And of course, the truth is we need relationships with all kinds of people in the context of a school. Pupils, parents, archivist, leadership, teachers. In terms of working relationships with teachers, is there anything you’ve learned, anything you’ve tried especially hard to do?

Mel: Yeah. It’s really interesting working with teachers, because I’ve never worked in a school before. This is going to sound really obvious, but schools operate very much on the term time basis. Teachers are basically either working at 100 miles an hour during term, or they’re not there during the holidays where most people like me will still be working during the holidays. So really bearing that in mind whenever you are trying to get a favor from a teacher I think is really, really important. And, looking at every way that you can to make it easier for them to do what you’re asking them to do.

Something else we did, we had, again, a major prospect we’d brought in. He was one of these people who set up an internet business in his bedroom when he was 16, and made the fortune and he’s diversified massively. There were quite a few things in the school’s plans for the next few years that we thought he might be interested in, so we managed to get a half a day in his diary and put together a program where he was going to see the pupils who were doing the entrepreneurship program, look at our plans for the preschool. His children joined when they were that kind of age. And, he’s in tech so we had some tech stuff.

First of all, we had the ideas as to the kinds of things that we want him to do, but obviously we needed the teachers who were doing those things to put on their best face for the day, and cope with having me and a donor come rambling, wandering into their classroom in the middle of the day. And actually, from the work I did around that, I’ve got some real allies in different parts of the school that I would have had before. Just in explaining why we think this donor will be interesting, what they’re doing, what they really want to achieve in their department and how this donor might be able to help that is obviously a really key part of it, especially when it actually works.

The tech side of that, the head of junior school tech really wanted more class sets of iPads. By the end of the visit, the donor had already agreed to do that.

Rob: Yes, Mel. It seems to me, that in many universities and schools, development office can be over here, and then the overall organization’s strategy and communication can be coming from a different place. It seems one thing you’ve managed to do is to genuinely make that more integrated and holistic, so that there can be development related messages coming from wherever, rather than just from your regular communication. Is that true? And if so, what could you tell me about how you’ve improved that?

Mel: Yes. Yeah, it is true. We have a situation where yeah, like you say, the marketing department’s on one side and they’re really focused on parents, and prospective parents and that kind of thing. I’m communicating with alumni.

And actually what I’ve found, in schools anyway, is it’s almost like the development office can be on an island almost, because you are the only people … I’m thinking about our 7000 alumni most of the time and everybody else is thinking about the pupils in the school. When we first started doing our bursary fundraising, we’d spent about, I don’t know, a year or two just dropping tiny little bits about bursaries into our alumni magazine. Not any kind of ask, but just mentioning that this was what we wanted to start fundraising for.

And then we did that first telephone campaign, and we phoned alumni and parents, and we did reasonably well across the board. But, it was very noticeable that we did far better with the alumni fundraising than we did with the parental fundraising. When we thought about it afterwards, we realized that actually, the parents hadn’t gone through the same kind of softening up process and preparatory bit that the alumni had, because the marketing department, I hadn’t really involved them.

So we made a conscious effort to then start making sure that messages about bursaries, and fundraising and just the very fact that fundraising was a part of school life, was also going out in all the stuff that the marketing team were doing, things that the head was doing when she did her, well it was him at the time, end of term and beginning of term letters to parents, just making sure there was always something about fundraising in there. That’s definitely a journey we’ve been on. When we actually had our giving day, that was probably when we worked the closest with the marketing team, because of having all the different social media accounts and making sure we had the same messaging going out on all of them. That’s definitely made a big difference.

Rob: Yes, that makes sense. This other theme I pick up from our conversations, Melanie, to do with thoroughness, and attention to detail and having a process for doing the things that you need to do, which seems to me helps your colleagues in the school trust that you know what you’re doing, put simply. Is that true? And if so, do you have any tips for the listener for improving that efficiency?

Mel: Yeah, I think it is very true and it’s not at all glamorous. When someone says, “Oh, I’d love to be a development director,” and you say, “Well, it’s a weird combination of the strategic and the tactical.” And getting the not very exciting stuff, not glamorous stuff like spelling people’s names right, responding to emails within a decent amount of time, sending thank you letters for gifts, whatever the size of the gift, in a timely manner. I think it’s really important to get some policies and procedures, and stuff like that, it’s really not very exciting.

Another thing that we previously, it was all a bit ad hoc in terms of doing the recognition, whereas now we have a grid. “Donors have given between this level and this level will get a Christmas card from me. Those who have given at this level will get one from the head.” Just getting that stuff in place, so you’re not reinventing the wheel any time anything unusual happens.

I suppose, I’m helped in that I have got an eye for detail. It’s a very unexciting and unglamorous skill to have, but I’m a born proofreader and stuff like that. But, representing an educational institution, you need to get things right. Just spending another five minutes to reread something, or getting someone with fresh eyes to reread something, just stuff like that, will make all the difference because it’s so easy to let things slip by. The last thing you want to do is to make the school look inefficient, or just not on top of its game. That’s definitely something that’s worth spending a bit of time doing, I’m sorry to say.

Rob: Yes, that makes absolute sense. Combined with that thoroughness, I really like the little examples of flare as well. Strategically placed flare. Listeners to my podcast might know that this concept of creating wow moments for supporters really pays you back, if you can be thoughtful about it. Obviously, in the context of major gift fundraising, being high touch and bespoke, there are opportunities to do that. But, I really like it when you can apply a level of process to making people feel great and give them a little pleasant surprise.

I think I remember, at one point, you showing me one of the birthday cards that you send to people who’ve given over a certain level. And, to alumni at a certain point in their life. Could you just tell me briefly about what that tactic is?

Mel: Yeah. For a few years now, we’ve been sending birthday cards to alumni aged over 70 and donors who’ve given over a certain level. What we have got into the habit of doing is creating a new card every year. I liaise with the art department, and we have art scholars, and asking if there’s been any particularly striking pieces of art that have been done in the last few months that might make a nice card. We do the same, actually, with the Christmas cards. But, they set a particular project to design Christmas cards. But the birthday cards, usually the art department sends me a few examples.

But what we’ve had for the last year is one of our bursary recipients, who’s actually just left this summer, she’s also an art scholar. She had done this amazing, it was massive, it was two meters by one meter painting of the interior of Portsmouth Cathedral, which is just down the road from the school. We have a very close relationship with the Cathedral. We have choral scholars, we have our whole school assemblies there because there’s nowhere big enough in the school to have them, so we have a very close relationship and always have done. She’d done this amazing painting of the inside, so we’d made that into the birthday cards this year.

The image means something to everyone who has … People who are in their 70s, or 80s, 90s, who attended school years and years ago, it’s still the same Cathedral. And, the very fact that the artist was a bursary recipient as well is absolute brilliant, when it comes to fundraising.

So we’ve done the flare bit, and then we’ve also got the processes. Like at the beginning of every month, somebody sits down and writes loads of birthday cards and away they go. But yeah, it’s been very well received, that card. I haven’t quite worked out what we’re going to send next year, yet.

Rob:Yeah. One of the things I really like is that you’re not content to send last year’s lovely card. It’s a mindset that, “Let’s keep creating these lovely things so that we’ve got a consistency, but we’re forever reinventing and freshening things up with new great things that are still consistent with the overall way we like to do things.” I think it’s a beautiful example.

Mel: I’d just quickly throw in that we do … We have relatively standard donor acknowledgment letters and we’ve also got into the habit of putting a story about a bursary recipient in those. That changes every year. I find a different person to put the story into their thank you email or thank you letter.

Rob: Yes. It all plays back to one of the things in this conversation, which is about having a vision of how well you want to do things. But, it’s not enough to just have the vision and try hard, you need a level of organization and an organized process, which enables you to execute consistently, month after month, year after year, achieving this high standard of lovely messaging, which adds up to a bigger difference for the supporter. And hopefully, for many people in the school who are part of creating that effect as well.

Mel, thank you so much for sharing all your ideas. I’ve learned so much, again, in this conversation. I’d like to send my best wishes to all your colleagues in the school who worked so hard alongside you, to make this great fundraising happen. Clearly, it’s working really well, and enabling more and more bursaries to be used by children in Portsmouth. So really well done, and I look forward to catching up with you very soon.

Mel: Thank you very much.

Rob: I hope you enjoyed listening to Mel’s ideas and examples. If you did, I’m pleased to tell you that we’ve got lots more juicy sessions coming up soon, so please remember to subscribe to the podcast today so that you never miss an episode.

For a full transcript and a brief summary of the episode, go to the podcast section of our website, which is brightspotfundraising.co.uk. If you’re interested in improving your skills, and confidence and results in major donor fundraising, individual giving or corporate fundraising, then I’d really encourage you to check out the information about our three mastery programs on our website. To find out more, go to brightspotfundraising.co.uk/services and then click on the page for Major Gifts Mastery, or Corporate Mastery or the Individual Giving Mastery Program.

And if you enjoyed the episode today, I’d be very grateful if you could take a moment to share it on with your colleagues or on social media, so that we can get these ideas out to help as many people as possible. Thank you for your help. We’d love to hear what you think about the episode. We’re both on LinkedIn. And on Twitter, Mel is @melaniebowran and I am @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.