Episode 8 Tony Gaston (Part 2): Using smart phone films to increase high value income

Episode Notes

Over a five year period, high value income at EMMS International built steadily from nothing to £2m / year. In this episode of the Fundraising Bright Spots Podcast, we share the second half of Rob Woods’ interview with Tony Gaston who managed major donor fundraising during this period of fabulous growth.

As in the previous episode, this interview gives you a sense of how Tony approaches the many challenges and opportunities of high value fundraising for a small charity. Using examples, he brings to life some key lessons he has had to learn, sometimes the hard way, including, how to be more confident when talking to supporters; how he often uses simple films made with a smart phone instead of sending lengthy proposals and the book he regularly re-reads to help him continue to manage his time so productively.

For more principles that Tony used to increase major donor income so dramatically, check out the first half of Rob’s interview with Tony, in Episode 7.


  • Giving is good for people! Tony has found that donors find it very rewarding to give to a cause they care about. So always remember, you are not asking for something to help you or your charity. You’re offering an amazing opportunity that will enrich their life.
  • Feel and convey conviction to supporters. Tony describes his charities’ work as ‘exceptional’ rather than ‘good’ or ‘effective’. Get off the fence in how you talk and write about your charity’s work. Connect to why your charities’ projects are so amazing and allow yourself to use strong words when appropriate.
  • To make this possible, to grow this conviction or passion, get out from behind your desk and find a way to understand and get under the skin of the projects or research that your organisation does.
  • Consider making a donation to your charity. This is clearly not mandatory, but it’s worth thinking about. Even if you can only afford to give a little, it can help you a) be more authentic if you’re to ask others to do so, and b) help you understand and improve the way your charity communicates with supporters.
  • Think about how people like to consume information now. Tony has found that some supporters respond far better to rough and ready films made with a smart phone, to go with a very short proposal, than to long, verbose written proposals.
  • When making films for supporters, still apply good fundraising sense. Where possible, make it personal, use every day language, show stories that bring to life what problems your charity solves.
  • Be a sponge. A key quality that has served Tony’s progress is that he continues to nurture a curiosity to learn as much as he can about fundraising.
  • Tony has found his membership of the Bright Spot Club very helpful, to continually top up his learning, especially as it enables him to access the techniques and strategies whenever he likes, when they are most relevant, which is so different from going to a one-off conference where the learning / inspiration usually fade all too quickly.
  • Tony recommends the classic book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It has helped him in a number of ways, including how to be most productive with limited time.


‘If you’re sitting behind your desk all day every day and you’re just looking at your emails…it’s going to be hard to have that passion.’ Tony Gaston

‘If you provide the opportunity for someone give to something they care about, they are going to be emotionally up on the deal. Knowing this increases your confidence to make this offer.’ Rob Woods

About making films with your phone:

‘Don’t forget that the same rules apply as do in other fundraising work…if you’re interviewing somebody, you want them to tell a story, not just talk to the camera.’ Tony Gaston

Do you want access to the strategies and support that have helped Tony?

In Episodes 7 and 8 Tony talks about some of the training resources from the Bright Spot Members Club that have helped his fundraising progress. If you’d like to find out more about the training films, coaching and events that club members receive, follow this link.

Transcript of Episode 8

Hello, this is Rob Woods and welcome to Episode 8 of the Fundraising Bright Spots Podcast. This is the show for anyone who works in charity fundraising wants ideas and inspiration for how to really enjoy their job, raise more money and make a bigger difference.

And in this episode, we’re talking all about the skills and mindset it takes to grow your major gift income. And we’re talking to someone who really knows what they’re talking about. Because over a five year period, Tony Gaston grew major donor income at EMMS International from pretty much scratch to over £200,000 in his first year to gift totalling £2m last year. And just to place it in context, this is actually the second half of my recent interview with Tony. The reason being I always try to keep each episode to half an hour or less, so that most people can fit that into their commute or to their lunch hour. But Tony had so much wise advice that I couldn’t bear to stop recording. So basically today’s episode is the second half of my conversation with Tony. But if you liked this one, I really recommend you go back and check out Episode 7 as well, because he shares some really inspiring examples to help bring to life certain distinctions about his job that have made all the difference.

For now I’d like to introduce you to today’s episode, which took place the day before Tony was due to fly out to see one of his current charities projects in Uganda. We pick up the conversation at the point where we’ve been exploring how the beliefs you have about fundraising make a huge difference to your confidence when talking about large gifts. Tony has just been describing how thrilled and grateful his charity supporters are to make donations to the charity. And it’s fairly clear to me that knowing this makes him feel all the more confident making future approaches to future donors because he’s seen how great this process is for them, as well as for the beneficiaries.

This episode of the fundraising bright spots podcast is brought to you by the bright spot members club, as an alternative to the one off conferences and courses whose impact can fade or so quickly. The members club is an online resource that gives you ongoing access to a whole library of video training courses, monthly coaching webinars and live training events. It’s all designed to help you learn, enjoy your job and raise more money. To join the 300 fundraisers already in the club, go to brightspotfundraising.co.uk.

‘…one of the challenges of this is early in your career, you may not yet have met many people who are that unequivocably glowing about it. So going to make your early asks, an extra thing that makes it harder is that if your experience of life is that if someone’s giving away £50,000 of their money, they’re probably feeling poorer, literally and emotionally poorer… Whereas once you’ve been doing this a while you notice how truly it satisfies their human needs to contribute and how great that feels.

And that also has a side benefit that all your future relationships with donors and asks and offers to donors are easier because you know, you’re offering them something great, rather than taking something away from them. So certainly on our course we help people get over those emotional hang ups about the ask, by just tuning into the examples in their own life that giving is good for people, giving is good for you. And it’s also good for someone who’s who’s quite a lot richer than us. So focusing on the fact that the act of giving a tool makes the giver happier, not sadder usually helps with that. But I don’t know what other tips you would have to help someone speed up that confidence to make this kind of offer.

Yeah, yeah. I do wonder sometimes if we sometimes feel like we’re asking for the money. And, you know that really complicates things. If you think I’m asking you to get a 50,000 for me then absolutely, you know, I’d have a lot of problems with that. And, but you’re not and I think if you genuinely have the integrity where you’re saying, actually, I believe in this organisation, and I wish I had 100 grand that I could give to this because it is amazing. And having that kind of passion and integrity that this is something that I if I had the money, I would do this as well.

And I think it’s just saying, okay, you’re here, and you know, there’s organisations over here, you should have a look at what this organisation is doing, because it’s truly exceptional and I guess, moving towards yeah, it’s definitely something that helps.

Yeah. And there’s so many elements to this and the first big strong one, I think is true, and just understand the fundamental truth that giving is good for people. So if you help someone give to something they care about, they are going to be emotionally up on the deal rather than down on it. And I think that is a big first bit of it. But another bit of it is the confidence in the amazing difference your project makes. And that helps you be off the fence. It helps you be more bold and confident in the way you talk about it. And you know, I just noticed the language you use there about something being ‘truly exceptional’.

And choice of language, the bolder words which you can justify, and your tone of voice. All of that comes from what you believe about whether donors gain or not, and what you believe about whether this project makes a big difference and obviously that’s one of the reasons your organisation is smart, to allow you to fly out (to see the projects) and fill up with that conviction.

I said, you know, you have to work on your passion. And I think, and if you’re sitting behind your desk all day, every day and you’re just looking at your emails, and you’re not actually embedding yourself in the organisation that you’re working in, I think it’s going to be hard to really believe that and have that passion. And I think that what I mean by working that passion is, you know, take the time to go out. It’s not it’s not wasted time, you know, it’s very valuable just to go out and, and see the projects to meet the people that are being impacted and see the difference.

Even if it’s a university where you’re seeing what research projects are going making a difference in the world; or environmental projects, whatever it might be, whatever the cause of the charity is, and there will be things in there that are that are good and bring passion about it. And on this too, it’s just really locking into those and even giving what you can towards it as well and experiencing from a donors perspective is also I think, quite key.

Yeah, that’s a really interesting idea. So given that the listeners salary may be considerably less than that what they might earn in a commercial sector for some equivalent type of skills you’re observing, even if they could just give a one off donation or five pounds a month to their charity, in addition to the difference that makes you’re saying that can have a knock on effect on your own, feelings and confidence as a fundraiser to stand by your product. Is that what you’re saying?

Definitely, I would never ever advise a director to say to their staff, you know, you must give to your organisation, but just having that sense of okay, well, I’m also giving to this. It gives me the confidence that I believe in this enough. So if I’m going to ask you Rob to give and I’m not hypocrite, but am I being true to myself if I’m not willing to also give? And if not, why not? That could be a fair question that you could ask me.

Yeah. And apart from anything else, if you do that, give that one off gift or have tried for three months giving to £2 or £5 or £10 / month.

It can be a really interesting experiment to see what kind of thank you you get, yeah, as some level of mystery shopper to experience, what is the service like? Probably it’s going to be fascinating, isn’t it?

What can be really interesting as well as if you’re married and you can put it in your partner’s name or yeah, you can always just try and see what it’s like from their point of view and ask them how did you feel when you received that and get their feedback because sometimes being so close to the organisation, it’s really hard to move yourself away. But your partner has the ability to see that and also probably knows you well enough that they can maybe speak a few truths that the everyday person may not be willing to tell you. So that can be quite useful trick as well.

Wise words, certainly with someone having to think about whether they might like to try that. I’ve got another question because I’ve got a memory of on Day 2 or day 3 of that very first programme you came on with me. Each training day people have a chance to share something they’ve done differently or some victory. I remember you telling a really interesting story, and please fill in the details. But the gist of it was meeting a donor who was potentially curious, to invest say £50,000 or £75,000 pounds. Yeah, and they asked you to put together two or three proposals and for whatever reason you chose not to send them a 17 page word document, but you thought it would be better if you could send them some really short crudely put together smartphone films.

Could you remind us of the story because nowadays more fundraisers are getting with it and doing films instead of proposals, but a reminder of that story and tell us, nowadays, do you still make use of film in your fundraising practice?

So, yes, that that was a lot of fun. And again, I think it will come back to your donor so it’s knowing your donor, but that particular donor was not one who wanted to read very lengthy documents. And so I felt that okay, what if I just give them a two pager a picture of what the project is a description at  very high level – this is what this project is. And then I reached out to staff overseas, and so I had one project in Malawi one, one project in India, and one project in Nepal. And I reached out to our partners over there in the countries we’re working and asked them to put together a 30 second video of what they’re doing what it’s all about. And ‘thank you for your interest’. And what came back and from one of them was just like, wow, that was unbelievably inspiring. One of them came back was not so so, and I had to go back and say maybe not just you talking at the camera, maybe show us somewhere where you’re working with the hospitals. And but that for him was really good.

And actually what I loved about it was because it wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t glamorous, someone just picked up a phone, but they’re able to personalise that. So they’re able to say, hey, Rob, and you know, thanks so much for showing of interest. What we’re doing, and here’s a director of a hospital taking the time to speak to this individual, about who they are and what they’re about. That was quite exciting. And he then in turn said, Okay, look, I’d like to give a £50,000 donation between these two these two projects; and yes for the second part of your question, I use it all the time now, so I love to try and have videos and I don’t like the polished fancy videos I really prefer the more personalised, rough and ready type videos.

Yeah, and literally when you go out fly out tomorrow, you’re going to take a smartphone with you, you’re not going to take a fancy expensive camera, your tool of choice is smartphone, and then some cheap or free editing software and then sometimes you might get a professional to do some things, but the key thing is you’re not doing it with a big budget?

Nope. And that, you know, working for small organisation or medium sized organisation as I have done in the past with EMMS International, you don’t have the massive budgets for big fancy films. And so, and from that perspective, I think, it actually is better as well, because as I said, it’s got that more rough and ready and real feel it, for the donors, but this is genuine, this is real, and they probably don’t want me to spend hours working on a fancy video for them, they might feel that’s a bit unnecessary use of public charity money.

It doesn’t cost us a lot of money. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it just adds so much more.

So, Tony, a couple of minutes ago, you said obviously, Step 1 is to understand the donor and some trusts and donors and companies are going to want lots of stuff written down and in more detail. But I sense that in the last few years, more much more often if your supporter asks you to put together a proposal, the amount of written words you send them has got shorter, and it’s more like one two or three pages than it would have been six years ago. And the number of times you include a supporting smartphone to bring it to life has increased.

Have I guessed that correctly? Obviously on our Bright Spot Members Club, we’ve got a little training module that Nikki Bell put together for us because she’s great at this stuff where she offers some tips, but from your own practice, if someone’s thinking, ‘oh, I really must do more of that, but I don’t know where to start’ or ‘I’m bit nervous about X or Y’, top of your head, can you share a couple of tips that might help someone get going and do this more successfully?

And I guess it’s to keep it light-hearted if you’re going to do a film like that, and it’s to keep it, keep it personalised, and address the person by name. And, or if you want to do multiple people, you know, you can do different things and but keeping it personal that’s really key. And also just making it more storytelling as well. And don’t forget that the same rules apply as do in in other fundraising work. And if you’re interviewing somebody, you want them to tell a story, not to just talk at the camera. And, and for me, it’s trying to take away the cringe value a little bit can sometimes creep in there. You know, just making it probably a little bit more matter of fact and say, look, this is what we’re doing. This is what we’re all about. Thank you so much for showing interest, kind of keeping it that high level, so for the more detailed things, it’s probably best to keep them to a document. And then they can read them if they choose to.

Yes, fantastic. Top tips and from learning from Nicky Bel, it seems to be the skills themselves really are not that hard. And lots of people are using similar skills, the way they use their phone in their home life. It’s as much about a belief that it’s appropriate to use your smartphone in this way.

I’ve a slightly different kind of question now, Tony because as you know, the last couple of years we’ve had an online portal where people can learn fundraising skills, get inspired to get stories like these, and it’s called Bright Spot Members Club and you’ve been a member since pretty early on.

Yeah, I mean, I, I find it really interesting and really, really encouraging. For me, I guess the main thing that I really enjoyed about having a portal is, is that sometimes when you go to these fundraising conferences, you get given some really good nuggets of information, maybe some really amazing stuff. But for you at that moment that just wasn’t relevant. And, so for me, that’s, you know, quite a key thing for me that I like things that are relevant to me right now. So just recently, my chief executive asked me to have a look at the kind of thank you letters that were going out from the organisation. And so I jumped on the Bright Spot Members Club and I saw some really great interviews (with Craig Linton) about thanking, both the process and the creativity.

And it’s just cool to have it at the time I needed it, rather than waiting to go to a conference where I might have had that information, but I wasn’t using it right then and then so it wasn’t useful to me.

Also from a cost point of view, up in Glasgow, there are some great events that are happening more and more I guess, but often they’re in London so for me to then travel into London, then to go to a conference where some things may be useful and some things may not be, that can really add up in terms of amounts of money so just being able to jump on my computer and look up a video.

And it’s probably similar to the coaching with Kim that I’ve done, it’s from me, and having things that are relevant to me right now I have been able to look at videos of that or been able to speak to somebody about a particular issue. That for me, is much better than going along to the bigger conferences.

Yes, and certainly a lot of the driving force for why I set it up is that success in fundraising, as success in life, is more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s not about what you do on one given day or after one particular inspiring course. To get these kinds of uplift in numbers, it’s a long old haul. We wanted to create something that would support you across that journey, rather than hope that you’d remember where your notes were from seven months ago.

And Tony, just before we finish, and I often ask people more rapid-fire style questions.

And some of your answers might be similar to what you’ve said before, or maybe a bit different, whenever comes into your head.

In the last five years, Tony has there been a new belief or habit or behaviour that has most helped you in your job?

And I would say the habit of stopping and pausing and really thinking about what I need to do to hit the budgets that I need to hit and to work smart, not hard, although preferably work both. But figuring out what is it that I need to do that will increase income rather than just, you know, keeping my diary very busy. So yeah, just that stopping and reflecting and pausing.

If metaphorically speaking, you could have a giant billboard, which all fundraisers or charities would see, what might it say and why?

That’s a great question. And I think for me, it would be failure is your friend. The reason I say that is because I think so often we think failure is the opposite to success. But for me, success needs failure. And once you have that little mind-shift as to why failure is needed. It makes you less afraid to make mistakes, and it may be it makes you afraid to try new things, or put yourself out there in a way that you haven’t before, so, for me, probably failure is your friend.

Does there happen to be a book that you found especially interesting or helpful to your thinking in your career over the last six or seven years?

It was a book I read many years ago, but I keep picking it back up, which is the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People on one particular area, which is on time management, and I’m just I’ve got four kids, have got a busy, busy job, and I just finished an MBA, it has just been busy, busy, busy, but that’s really helped me keep my focus on the things that matter most to me, which are my family, and my friends and you know, keeping my sanity. That book is really amazing book that is very values-based and gets you back to what is important to what’s important in life.

Yeah, I remember that the later chapters really bring home that values piece. And I notice also there’s a pattern developing. I’m understanding much of your success Tony can be attributed to this theme you’ve been talking about which is to do the important stuff not just the urgent stuff which is in Chapter Three of that Seven Habits book. When we read that book it really helps you tune into not just being busy, not do what is screaming loudest, but to work out and be thoughtful as to what is most important to help get me to where I want to go.

Next question, what failure or seeming failure in a way help set you up for later success?

And there’s probably too many. But no, I imagine the biggest for me was, I mentioned before that I had had a brief stint as a recruitment consultant. And it didn’t go as well as I hoped. So it was at a time in my life, my daughter was born that year. And life just got the better of me and I didn’t quite do the business development piece. And I didn’t do it well enough, and six months down the line from that I really suffered and didn’t have the pipeline there. And ended up you know, having a mutual agreement to leave that organisation but it was a kind of a humbling moment for me and since then it has set in stone for me that if my pipeline is at the early stages starting to dwindle at all, I get that fear with me, but like a healthy fear, where I’m like I need to work I need to get out, there I need to meet more people. My meetings every week have to be at a certain level, I just don’t allow myself to let that drop now. That for me that that was a big failure and but also such such gold for the success that I’ve had since then.

So wise words, if the listeners in high value fundraising need an extra impetus to think about in terms of ‘how can I somehow solve the problems to get some more of our potential supporters or additional supporters to come to our event? Or just for a quick informal cup of coffee. ‘How can I creatively sometimes bravely solve that next question?’

Next question, ‘What advice would you give to a smart, determined person who’s just entered the fundraising profession?’

Oh, and I think for someone who just answered the fundraising profession, it’s to be that sponge, to listen to others who have made the mistakes before you and to have that very humble way of approaching things and say what can I learn? Always have that kind of learnable approachable, teachable character.

Fantastic. And there are various bits of advice, which are often broadly right, but they can be misinterpreted, I think, so, is there a piece of advice that you sometimes hear people saying, which they should ignore or they should be careful about following, because it can be misunderstood?

Yes, quite often I hear negative things said about the state of affairs which are true. For example, people just don’t want to hear what I have to say, you’re annoying people, you’re pestering people. And what I’ve learned over the years, and Kim has very wisely led me to question these assumptions. And we need to be clear that those are just assumptions. And yes, Brexit will be really affecting some people, but will it be affecting everybody? And then yes, you know, in the past someone may have felt pestered, but you might be adding value to somebody else. And so just to clear your assumptions, and not believe a lot of the lies that everything’s doom and gloom, really challenge those assumptions within yourself.

And finally, I’ve always seen you as a positive person who brings a certain energy to training days and to fundraising. But assuming that you’re just as mortal as the rest of us, and you sometimes have tough days and what do you tend to do to handle stress, to become more resilient, to bounce back?

Yeah, I mean, look, you can’t do fundraising without having a lot of rejection. And there are a lot of days where things just don’t go your way. And so, you know, for me, personally, it’s exercise. So for me, it’s getting out and having a run, bike ride.

So I’ll take all my anger and frustration on my bike, and which is probably good for the kids when I get home as well. It’s just that sense of, just having that outlet, and having that place to put my frustration and that stress and an all so just to remember that big picture, just remember that. Yeah, that failure is your friend and that (whatever happened) it’s not the end of the world.

So, Tony, so many helpful stories, bits of wise advice. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to bring some of these lessons you’ve learned to live for us in this way. And so we need to finish fairly soon but if people want to get in touch are you on Linked In? Are you on Twitter? How can people get in touch?

LinkedIn, you can get in contact there. Yeah, I’m always happy to hear from anybody. And I hope it has been helpful for some people. There’s definitely things that I’ve learned and that it’s always good to be able to pass on.

Tony thank you for some really interesting lessons you’ve learned and eloquently brought to life with your examples. So thank you so much.

And also that the last thing I’m left with is a sense in you that we’re all just on a journey. And that applies to you as much as anyone else, in spite of the fact that the numbers really are showing that you’re more successful and skillful than you used to be. So I love that humble attitude to carry on learning that comes across really clearly. And thank you so much for making time. Just to share those ideas, and I look forward to catching up with you another time soon and hear the latest instalment of how you’re getting on in your new role. But until that time, Tony, thank you so much for appearing on the podcast.

Thank you, Rob. And thank you for thinking of me and thank you for having me.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this second part of the interview I did with Tony Gaston. If you liked it, do check out the first half in Episode 7, as there are some really good tips and stories there too. If you’d like to see a summary of both episodes, you can find those in the episode notes in the Blog and Podcast section of our website, www.brightspotfundraising.co.uk.

And if you found today’s episode helpful, I’d be incredibly grateful if you could leave a review or share it with other people so that these sessions can help more and more fundraisers. And in case you’re curious about the Bright Spot Members Club, or the coaching or the Major Gifts Mastery Programme that Tony refers to these episodes, all that information is on www.brightspotfundraising.co.uk. Finally, and most importantly, thank you so much for making time for your own professional development by tuning in to listen to this podcast. I look forward to the next episode, when we’ll be sharing more bright spots stories to help you raise more money, enjoy your job and make a bigger difference.