Episode 83: How to find opportunities for successful fundraising in tough times, with Rob Woods and Ben Swart

Episode Notes

Even major difficulties sometimes bring opportunities. This is the central theme of The Obstacle is the way, by Ryan Holiday, a book that Rob read in March 2020, and which he has found very helpful during the chaos since.

As fundraisers continue to face more challenges brought on by the pandemic, Rob and Ben explore ideas to help you succeed in your fundraising, in spite of your challenges.

They share examples of charities that have raised funds very successfully during the COVID crisis, precisely because they were able to search for and find opportunities, and they explain two practical things you can do to apply this concept in your own fundraising.

If you’d like to get in touch or share this episode with other charities, THANK YOU VERY MUCH! You can find us both on Linked In and on twitter Ben is @benswart and Rob is @woods_rob.

Further Resources

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‘I’ve noticed that a common habit in fundraisers who find these opportunities, is they cross-pollinate. By this I mean they regularly look outside their charity, by listening to podcasts or being part of group or in other ways, to be curious about what’s working elsewhere. They’re interested in those examples and lessons, which makes it far easier to get their own good ideas.’

Rob Woods

Transcript of Episode 83

Rob Woods:

Hey, there folks. This is Rob Woods and welcome to the Fundraising Bright Spots Podcast. This is the show for anyone who works in fundraising and who wants some ideas and maybe a little nudge of inspiration to help you raise more money and enjoy your job, especially during the pandemic. It’s going to be a slightly different episode this time because I’m joined by my longstanding friend and colleague, Ben Swart, and he’s going to be chatting to me and asking me some questions about one of my new favorite topics. Ben, how are you today?

Ben Swart:

Hello, Rob. Hi, everyone. I’m very good, thank you. Pleased to be here because it was only the other week that we were in a train station in Central London. And this particular content that we’re going to talk about I’m quite excited because, Rob, for hours and hours and hours, you were just going deeper and deeper with brilliant examples that could help a fundraiser and it just got us thinking, what if we recorded it and got some of that gold out of your head? So I’m pleased to be the nudger and the host today for that reason.

Rob Woods:

Thank you very much, Ben. Yes. Frankly, I wish we had just pressed record then rather than have to do this over Zoom, but we are where we are and thank you for those kind words. I really enjoyed our conversation the other day anyway. It is a topic that I have found inspiring and I would love to share a couple of these ideas in case they do help our listeners as well.


So the topic in particular, I call this theme The Obstacle Is The Way, which is slightly grand title maybe for things to chat about in a podcast. Ben, I was telling you about one of the books I read over the last two years, certainly early in the first lockdown of 2020. I read a book called The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday and not all of the chapters were brilliant for me, but I really enjoyed the overall message of the book, and several of the chapters were really fabulous for me and they did have a very definite impact on how some of my pandemic has gone.


I definitely am not going to say that all of my pandemic has been easy. I’ve had ups and downs, as has the rest of my family and many of my colleagues, but I do feel fortunate that a lot of it, certainly professionally, has gone quite well. I’ve stayed busy. I’ve enjoyed my work. I’ve felt I’ve still been making a difference and, in small part, that’s thanks to some of the ideas I got upon reading the book called The Obstacles The Way.

Ben Swart:

And Rob, I know that when we caught up you were talking about a strong theme of this, and I really want to explore more was how the things that we saw as adversities and weaknesses, you’d noticed from lots of the conversations, possibly guests on this podcast, people on our member site, people we’ve been training, people you’ve been coaching, you’ve noticed that there’s this theme of how they are viewing and using adversity and what we would see as weakness to actually get quite brilliant results.

Rob Woods:

Yeah, sure. So, maybe first of all, what do I take that title of the book to mean? Apparently, “the obstacle is the way” is a phrase that was coined first by Marcus Aurelius. And dear listener, if you’re not exactly sure who that is, I couldn’t have told you which century he was around either. But apparently, Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome many, many hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago, but he was also one of the earliest stoic philosophers who had a particular belief about how one should try to live one’s life, and he wrote down many of his ideas about that philosophy.


Those were picked up and re-used by other philosophers going down the centuries and this is in a time of huge crisis for him personally, including I think his brother openly plotting to overthrow him, wars, famines, and interestingly, even a plague which ravaged a large sway of the population, which clearly has parallels to what we’ve been looking at in our time. He wrote down in notes to himself, “If at all possibly you can do it, you have to see that the obstacle is the way.” What I take it to mean is don’t just have to suffer difficult adverse things and survive them. Very definitely in many obstacles, in and of itself, that provides some source of advantage.


Now, to be very clear, it’s not saying the pandemic’s been a good thing. Of course, there’s so many really horrible effects this crisis has had on lots of us, and some of us far more than others. It’s really been like lots of other things in life a not fair disease and there’s been unequal impact on diff different parts of society. So it’s not saying that the pandemic is all smiles. Of course, it’s horrible. What it is saying is in anything that’s difficult, it is also true that often you can find some advantage, often in another area of your life, in addition to the fact that, yes, it’s really hard, and just being able to embrace the duality of those two concepts and then both be true, rather than one or the other, I know it’s obvious in a way, Ben, but the book explained that well to me. And then, crucially, I think reading the stories in the book caused me to be more likely…


I had my down days during the pandemic, so when you’re stung and you’re struggling, this is not saying, “Cheer yourself up, for goodness’ sake. Look on the bright side.” But as and when you can get back to an even keel, the knowing of the book has caused me to be more likely to search for, “Yeah, but are there any advantages here?” Not to exploit anyone or take advantage of anyone, but to take advantage of how life is different now that might have some gifts within it.


Like you say, I’ve had a great fortune to interview some really successful fundraisers in the last two years. One of the stories that most sums it up for me… I’m trying to remember. I think it was Episode 53 of this very podcast when I talked to Paula Radley. So, if you’ve not heard that episode, is well worth a listen. Paula is the… and forgive me if I get the job title a bit wrong, but she’s head of the team at Greenpeace UK; goes out and does door-to-door and face-to-face campaigns to members of the public, and welcoming new ones to start supporting if they wish.


The story she tells in that episode is how in the first lockdowns in the spring of 2020, their team were not able to do anything, but as it became summer… and actually we were allowed to go about our business, albeit in a socially distanced way, and the government was even encouraging people to do that… her team still had the problem of, how do you do door-to-door fundraising at a time when fear is at an all time high and social distancing is in force? There were several things they did to try and solve that problem, but the most, to me, memorable is they ended up being able to get out the door after several pilots and tests and when they would ring the doorbell of… Oh, first of all, they do a door drop in advance, so that if you didn’t want someone knocking on your door, you could put a sticker of an orangutan on the handle of your door, “Go away.” So you could signal whether you wanted them to ring your doorbell at all.


But the key thing is when they actually went and rang the doorbells, they would unroll a two meter long mat on the doormat with a picture of this lovely orange orangutan in the green undergrowth with his arms open. Can you imagine being on the… the household opens the door and the first thing you see is that mat and the Greenpeace UK fundraising representative stood well more than two meters back respectfully asking if you’d like to talk about issues going on in the environment? And, “Are you concerned about those things? Would you like a conversation about it?”


Now, long story short, I can totally see, maybe some householders wouldn’t want to have that conversation, same as they always wouldn’t have wanted to do and, respectfully, “No, thank you today.” But if you did want to talk to Greenpeace that day, can you see how the act of having that mat would be more likely to make you smile and metaphorically lean into the conversation and want to have the chat because the mat in and of itself reinforces the values that you care about? I can totally see how it would work. And guess what, dear listener, it did work.


Not only did this ingenuity enable Paula to get her team out the door and to do it safely for the team, for the householders, for the reputation of the charity and so on, but also, just financially, the campaign was massively successful. In fact, they raised 20% more than they had the summer before in a non-COVID summer in 2019. So the reason I love this story is it absolutely sums up the idea of the obstacle is the way: the obstacle, fear, and social distancing, keeping… as far as I’m aware… every other face-to-face fundraising team non-operational that summer… maybe there’s one or two I’m not aware of… for Greenpeace UK and Paula. They used that very reasons why we couldn’t go out and why conversations would be impossible or harder to actually make conversations possible and easier. That… sorry… to me, sums up the notion of the obstacle is the way.

Ben Swart:

I love that, Rob. I know when we were talking it through and I was talking to my team about it, I think it’s the first time in my life that I’ve genuinely wanted someone who works in face-to-face door fundraising to come to my door because I wanted to experience it when, normally, that might not be what most people are thinking.


I think it’s the same. We’ve noticed it too, I think, in people that I’ve worked with. Really early on, I know we talked about this in one of our episodes, actually very early on, more people were at home, so if I wanted to call you… We talk about needing to use the phone more and actually, because people were at home and not in the office, they were more likely to answer the phone. I know in one of your calls, somebody saw their hit rate of likelihood to have their phone call answered just dramatically increase and therefore more likely to speak to their donor and eventually get more gifts.


We’ve seen the events that are virtual instead of being face-to-face. Not big glitzy fundraising events, not marathons, but a chance to meet a subject matter expert or a chairman of your charity, or an expert doctor or a clinician. Those types of events, attendances went up three, four, five times, and suddenly you could get a donor who you’ve been wanting to talk to in a virtual room for 50 minutes. You could get 40 of them in the room, where beforehand you’d really struggle to even get one. You’re absolutely right, we’ve seen example after example of where the thing that we thought was our adversity has begun to help us just get better results.

Rob Woods:

Absolutely. One of these podcast episodes was with Paul Courtney from Children’s Hospice South West and he said that their two flagship sponsored events… I think one’s called the Rainbow Run with colored paint and so on, and one’s called Santas On The Run. Those two sponsored events for their hospice raised more money, again, than in a non-COVID year.


Now, if you wanted to listen to how they did it, because I know that sounds crazy compared to many charities’ experiences, but was possible for virtual sponsored events, so do check out that podcast episode as well. But yes, some things about COVID have definitely made some bits of fundraising much harder. It is also true that it has brought some advantages and this is what fascinates me so much about this concept. I was making some notes after a conversation the other day, and it occurred to me, that were four key ideas. If someone, intellectually, wants this to be true and they want to take advantage of this concept more deliberately, I noticed three or four things across all of these conversations that I’ve been having where a fundraiser or a charity has found the advantage. I noticed four things they’ve done-

Ben Swart:

Rob, it’s unlike you to have a four step model that other people could use to help them with their fundraising! Tell me more.

Rob Woods:

Touche, Ben. Yes. You and I well know that our hearts sink if we hear a 10 top tips or a 22 best ways to do a thing. So if I can boil it down to just three or four chunks or hooks on in which to hang a seemingly complex aspiration or idea, we found through our training and coaching that often that increases the chances, that by chunking it down, people can remember it, share it, and take action.

Rob Woods:

Hi, it’s Rob. And I wanted to jump in quickly to let you know that if you are the manager of a team or if you belong to a fundraising team, at the time of publishing this episode, we’re still accepting team memberships to our learning and inspiration site, The Bright Spot Members Club. To give you a quick sense of the impact that ongoing access to these resources can have, here’s what one fundraising manager shared about how the club has helped his team’s results.

Dan McNally:

Hi, my name’s Dan McNally and I’ve been at Bright Spots Members Club for over a year now, and what I absolutely love about the club is the practical ability to translate Rob’s amazing sessions out into real life field fundraising results. When I was at the British Heart Foundation, we created a workshop based on Rob’s corporate fundraising bundles and, within six months, every single person who had gone on this workshop that we’d developed had managed to secure one of their dream ten corporate organizations.

Rob Woods:

To find out more about all the live workshops and training bundles that you get access to through the club, go to brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. Or to find out about the valuable discounts available for teams, send me a message at events@brightspotfundraising.co.uk. For now though, back to the interview as Ben and I explore two things you can do to help you find more opportunities in tough times.


So the first one, I know it sounds so obvious, but all of these fundraisers who’ve done this, they’ve been more willing to expect opportunity. So lots of us in hindsight can graduate or happily say, “Do you know what? Actually, in fairness, this thing about, ‘My life has got better because of the pandemic.'” To me, yes, that’s great because it’ll help you be more optimistic and likely to find opportunities, but even more powerful is when you’re struggling and suffering, don’t say, “Yeah, but where’s the upside?” When life is tough, be honest and real about the problem, but if and when you’re on an even keel, a key thing I think these fundraisers do is they expect to find an opportunity. They actively search for, “Is there any advantage in the changes that are happening to us?”


One of the examples I really like… Again, it’s in the podcast series and it’s Episode 61 with Laura Webb. For those of you who are avid fans of the podcast, you might remember she works for Leeds Hospitals charities, and she’s a corporate fundraiser. The autumn of 2020, she was thinking, “Oh, my goodness. What tends to happen at Christmas time is lots of well-meaning people leave presents for us to give to the patients and it’s lovely, but surprisingly often we can’t use them because they’re inappropriate in some way, and this year we can’t use them at all. Because of COVID regulations, we’re just not allowed to receive any of those.”


So, she was searching and searching for a way to solve that and to raise some money. And whilst she was hungry for a solution, one of the things that came to her attention was this brilliant campaign that the fundraisers at Sheffield Children’s Hospital have done for years and years, maybe a decade or more, which is a wonderful Snowflake Appeal, which is whereby companies, donors in Sheffield, can sponsor Christmas lights on the site of the hospital.


Laura saw that in September of 2020 and thought, “Why couldn’t we do that?” Incredibly quickly, and in a way, that’s the point of the story, she galvanized decision making within her charity in Leeds to do something really similar and Sponsor a Sparkle. Long story short, they did a switch-on of those lights in early December and in only a few weeks they managed to find more than 20 businesses in Leeds that wanted to get involved and sponsor a Christmas light. It raised £35,000 they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Fabulously, more than half of the 22 or so companies that came on board were brand new. They’d never donated to the charity before. So, A, it’s clearly new money and, B, now there’s a wonderful chance to build a relationship with those companies. You could call it a first test drive with them after they pay for this light.


Now, Laura was really clear in the interview. She said, “I couldn’t believe we got the decision made so quickly. I honestly think if it hadn’t been for the special nature of being in a pandemic, there would’ve been so many more meetings, people would’ve thought long and hard about…” Because she was having to liaise with not only her colleagues in the charity, but also the partner hospital, and these colleagues in estates in that hospital, and maybe the council, to get the lights fixed on the site. So many decisions and yet, literally, within a few days and weeks, the few days a decision was made and then they cracked on. So, I think COVID brought an advantage there, A, maybe to, “We’ve got to try something new,” and B, crucially, to take action more quickly.

Ben Swart:

So Rob, I love that example from Laura. One of the things about it is that it sounds like she’s really good at looking out and getting ideas elsewhere, not just from where she is, but broader from other places.

Rob Woods:

Yes, absolutely. There’s a phrase I once wrote down. I can’t remember who first coined it, but it’s this notion of swiping with glee. And it is true that there’s a few truly astonishing innovative thinkers in all walks of life who are the absolute first movers, the ones who invent something or really change a paradigm and come up with the very first new way of doing something.


I’m thinking of the way James Dyson changed the paradigm of, for instance, how vacuum cleaners work and that market and how it’s shaped. There’s a few people who do that, but what I also have noticed in fundraising in many other walks of life, you don’t have to be that astonishingly creative one, astonishingly brave one, to really make great benefit from innovating. You don’t have to be the most creative person to be a great innovator and it seems, to me, no disrespect to Laura and her colleagues, but what they did quite brilliantly was they paid attention to what was going on elsewhere. And crucially, Laura has the habit I’ve noticed of being open to and putting herself in opportunities where she can get ideas. I would sum up that whole habit as the idea of cross-pollination.


One thing I would say about it is it’s too late if you only start doing cross-pollination habits two days before a pitch, or when your director says, “We need some new ideas for a new appeal in this.” Of course, at that point, go out and do some research. You’d be a fool not to. But a thing I’ve noticed about some of the most successful fundraisers is just ongoingly, in their working week, they somehow make time to be drip, drip, drip, getting exposed to some different, interesting ways other experts, either fundraising or otherwise, are doing things.


I’m reminded of Max Newton when he was on the podcast and I asked him, “How on earth do you go from being able to run 10K to then run a marathon, to then be able to run for 200 miles nonstop through a dark tunnel in one of these ultra marathons? How on earth do you achieve that uplift in your ability to run and to have stamina?” He said, “Well, one of the key things is I get in amongst people who already have that skill set, that just are… There’s a recipe. There’s a set of solutions, waves of solving the problem of how to run for a long time and keep going. And rather than try and make them all up myself, for years I’ve been cross pollinating and finding ways online and offline to be able to find out how those masters, how those experts, do it. It’s just I follow that recipe.” So, that’s a really interesting example of a dramatic uplift in performance using cross-pollination, but I think a driving force…


I mean, you remember, Ben, two-and-a-half years ago, when I first got this idea I wanted to create a podcast, little did I know how much blood, sweat, and tears it would require to get the thing out most weeks. But right back from the start, and you said to me, “Well, what do you think it should be about?” Right from the start I said, “I’m determined that it shouldn’t just be theoretical advice because there’s loads of great advice out there. I want it to be driven as much as possible by real examples that contain some good advice but, even more importantly, help us believe that something is possible.” And I like to think that for most of our episodes, we’ve managed to stick to that first principle of how to create an episode for the Fundraising Bright Spots Show.


I just got a message today from a fundraiser called Emma Watts who shared a screenshot of her Spotify and it showed up what, what was the podcast she’s listened to more than any other this year? And I was humored and astonished to discover that she’s listened to my voice more than Michelle Obama’s podcast. So, forgive my vanity for just being a bit excited about that, but when I get those lovely messages, I like to think if our shows have helped, it’s because we’ve been determined to find stories, rather than primarily give advice and primarily give opinions and discuss things.


I’m particularly remembering Suzie Thompson, who was originally at Royal Northern College of Music saying that she and her team have listened to almost every episode of the show all the way through lockdown. Each time, they challenged themselves to find at least one idea they could implement from the podcast. When they had their astonishingly successful appeal for that charity in December of 2020, the target was 50,000. It raised six times that; it raised 300,000 pounds. When I asked Suzie to speak at our Breakfast Club for Fundraising Leaders and explain that journey, and some of the things she did, she said, “Well, one of the key things was lots of extra thanking, extra postcards and messages out to people during the early part of lockdown. And a key thing that above all we did is we made as many phone calls as we could to our existing supporters to thank them and to check they were okay during the first part of lockdown, and I got that straight, directly from your podcast.” In fact, I even think it was the episode that you kindly recorded for us, Ben, back whenever it was in April of 2020.


So, to me, huge congratulations to Suzie and her team doing that difficult thing. It’s easy to say that it’s hard to do it. Takes courage, it takes discipline, it takes time, but Suzie was kind enough to say, “It was easier to do it because of this habit of getting exposed to different ideas and success stories of what other people have been doing because then it helps you believe in the tactic and follow through and implement it.”


And just one last example that springs to mind on our Corporate Partnerships Mastery Program, again, the DNA that runs through what you and I teach on our programs is, again, to include these Bright Spot examples. Some people have heard my example of a brilliant fundraiser called Anna Pitching to Innocent Smoothie and putting the whole pitch for why she wanted to meet them for coffee on the label of an Innocent Smoothie bottle in their lovely, fun, playful language. I shared that in Corporate Partnerships Master Program last year and several months later, brilliant fundraiser called… Tommy came back working for a medical charity and said he’d done exactly the same thing when pitching to a bottled water company and there was a lovely, happy ending to that story because it was a three year partnership with more than £150,000 to that medical charity with that water company. So, one of the things that makes me most happy is when I see people cross-pollinating, getting ideas. It’s just far easier to be creative if you get a drip, drip, drip of good ideas that are working for other people.

Ben Swart:

Thank you very much, Rob. Do you know I’m really pleased that we decided to push record and let people in on the conversation that we had in that train station cafe today? I know that you had more ideas, at least three other tactics, that you wanted to share and so I’m excited that we will be able to share those in another episode coming up.

Rob Woods:

Yes, really keen to carry on from where we left off. First of all, we’ve talked about this, frankly, the most important thing somehow, in spite of all the difficulty, find a way to expect some opportunity somewhere. I’ve just started to touch on a thing that Laura did, which was cross-pollinate and put herself in opportunities where she would get ideas from outside her charity, and I’ll go into that in a little bit more depth next time.


But then, I’ve got two more key things that I’ve noticed: these very successful fundraisers who’ve managed to find the advantage, even in the obstacles. I want to share those two other things as well in the follow up episode. But for today, Ben, thank you ever so much for doing this chat with me. I really appreciate it and I’ll catch up with you very soon.


I hope you found these ideas and examples were helpful. If so, and you’ve not already subscribed, please remember to hit subscribe now, so that you can search for other episodes that take your fancy and so that you don’t miss any new episodes that we’re sharing soon.


As always, you can get a full transcript and a summary of the episode on the podcast section of our website, which is brightspotfundraising.co.uk. If you’re the leader of a fundraising team and you’d like your team to get access to a whole library of our best training films, our community, and our weekly workshops, then do check out brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. Although, at the time of publishing in December 2021, we’re not taking on new individual members, we are still able to accept new team memberships, and the various discounts for teams are better than half the price of solo memberships. So if you’d like to find out more about these options, drop me a line at events@brightspotfundraising.co.uk.

Just before I finish, thank you again to everyone who’s been getting in touch and sharing this podcast with colleagues and on social media. Ben and I would love to hear what you think about this episode. We’re both on LinkedIn and on Twitter. Ben is @Ben Swart. That’s B-E-N S-W-A-R-T. And I am @woods_rob. Thank you so much for listening today, stay safe, and best of luck with your fundraising in spite of the many challenges being thrown at you. Bye-bye.