Episode 84: More ideas for successful fundraising in tough times, with Rob Woods and Ben Swart

Episode Notes

As the environment we raise funds in will continue to bring plenty of challenges in 2022, how can we nevertheless find opportunities for growth?

In this episode, which carries on from themes in Episode 83, Bright Spot fundraising trainers Rob and Ben share encouraging examples of fundraisers who have been especially bold and creative in spite of the difficulties they have faced…with fabulous RESULTS.

And they share a recipe of four things you can do to emulate their approach, to help you find and maximise opportunities in your own fundraising.

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

Further Resources

 Want to go deeper and get 24/7 access to LOTS more inspiring training content?

Our training and inspiration club for fundraisers, the Bright Spot Members Club, has an extensive library of Rob’s best training films, a supportive community, and access to live masterclasses and problem-solving sessions with Rob and other experienced fundraising / leadership trainers EVERY WEEK. To find out more about how to get access to all these resources, go to www.brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join/

Would you like training, inspiration and support to increase fundraising income? You can find out more about our flagship 6 month programmes: the Major Gifts Mastery Programme; the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme or the Individual Giving Mastery Programme by following these links.


‘I noticed that some fundraisers are especially good at taking action in spite of some level of uncertainty… So of course, we should do some research. But sooner or later, we need to get ourselves to take the plunge…to take action before we feel reassured that we know everything.’

Rob Woods

Transcript for Episode 84

Rob Woods:

Hey there, folks. Welcome to Episode 84 of the Fundraising Bright Spot’s podcast. My name’s Rob Woods, and this is the podcast for anyone who works in fundraising who wants ideas and maybe a nudge of encouragement to help you raise more money and enjoy your job, especially during the pandemic. And again, this week I’m joined by my friend, Ben Swart who’s my colleague at Bright Spot. He does lots of training and coaching in addition to other things, and he’s going to carry on from our previous episode where he was chatting to me about this idea I got excited about which is the obstacle is the way.

Ben Swart:

Absolutely, Rob. So, well done, listener. Either you have listened to that episode, and if you haven’t, I encourage you to listen to it. But if you have, welcome to the second half of it. Rob, you had just told us at least one of the tactics about how the challenges that have appeared at the moment and over the last few years, you’ve noticed examples of where people have used that to succeed and get outstanding results, and there was more tactics that you wanted to go deeper on today in this episode.

Rob Woods:

That’s right, Ben. The gist of the one last time was I read a book called The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday. And I’ve had a tough two years, definitely. I’m not going to lie and say haven’t, but one of the books that has helped me most is that book, The Obstacle Is the Way. The key point I took from it is helping me to really feel the truth of even in really difficult problems and disadvantages that life throws at us, even in big challenges, if you search for them, there usually are some positives in addition to the difficult things. And in the previous episode, I talked about some fundraisers who’ve done really well at following through on that idea, and I think it’s partly how they’ve been so proactive and they’ve managed to make the best of their fundraising.


I shared the story of Paula at Greenpeace UK, and the brilliant face-to-face campaign where a lot that success and the 20% increase in income compared to the previous year was because of a proactivity and a willingness to find opportunities even in the many difficulties that COVID threw at her. And then, I was just starting to move on to, in addition to that habit that I think we can have of expecting opportunity, this other useful habit of quite deliberately cross-pollinating, by which I mean putting ourselves in opportunities where we hear or read things that are going on in other charities and even other sectors outside of our charity and how powerful that is to help you find those opportunities.

Ben Swart:

I love that, and you’re absolutely right. Yesterday, I was delivering training to a charity, and we were talking through exactly the same sort of examples like you just described, and you’re watching the penny drop when they suddenly realized the version of the idea they could create themselves. My favorite thing is there’s just a huge difference, isn’t there, between thinking through I like that idea, here’s some I’ve come up with, and then being brave enough and determined enough to actually do it. And I love your examples because here’s two or three people that didn’t just come up with the idea, they actually did it, and we’ve got six times more income. They did it and they got a £150,000 partnership. I love that. How do you switch it from an idea to doing it?

Rob Woods:

So, in this idea of four habits I’ve noticed that some fundraisers have been getting success with in the last two years, the first one would be expect opportunity even in the dark times. Second would be quite deliberately have the habit of cross-pollinating via a podcast or joining our Bright Spot Members Club. There’s lots of other forums and podcasts and opportunities clearly by which… But above all find a way to regularly reach out to what’s going on in other charities out of your silo, out of the way your team does it and its paradigm and its beliefs and its modus operandi.


But yes, I agree. There’s a world of difference to doing that and spending time and effort getting those ideas and actually taking action and trying them out, and this is a whole big topic on its own. For instance, my episode with Craig Linton, he shared his process and his collective. He works with some smart fundraisers. They’ve got a quite deliberate process for how you can go from insight or idea to testing and prototyping and improving and so on, and then turning it into something that generates results. So, there’s a whole big topic. For now, I would just sum up a key principle as being find a way to take action, but do so intelligently. And what I mean by that is it’s definitely a pitfall that some of us have sometimes where we take action too quickly. We’re not prepared enough. I know how easy that can be, and there’s times when I’ve done that, but honestly, the far bigger risk for almost all of us, I suggest, especially in an age of uncertainty and especially if we’re doing things that are different to the straightest grove, the far bigger risk is that you wait too long before you get round to trying something.


A part of the human condition for most of us is that we have this need for certainty, and that’s valuable. It’s in many ways the first fundamental human need, survival need platform of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is we need to know things are going to be okay, that we can can survive. The risk though is if you overdo that, you never quite step out of what some would call your comfort zone by an extra millimeter or an extra centimeter. You stay locked in it. My advice to our listener would be beware the tendency to navel gaze on your own and/or have had this tendency in many organizations, cultures can be magnified the more people whose good opinion you might need before you can try something out, and find proactive ways to counteract this tendency.


One of my favorite examples was in the episode we did with Hannah from Ensemble Reza. I forget which episode it is now, but she told the brilliant story of the journey that her small music charity took in 2020, going from March 2020, where literally, as the chief executive of that charity, she wasn’t sure that their music charity would even survive this pandemic when no live events could happen, and that’s basically what they did, going through to end of 2020. They changed so much of how they operated that not only had they reached dramatically more larger audience, more people, and not just primarily in the south of England, but across the UK and across the world, they transformed their ability to reach people, and they ended up raising twice as much money as they did in 2019 in the non-COVID year.


So, that episode is worth listening to, but there’s a particular favorite story I’ve got where Hannah had a particular problem which was they’d set up a YouTube channel, and they were doing every week all this free, fabulous concerts to just keep getting their wonderful music out to their audience, especially to cheer of them up and help them keep going during lockdown because a lot of their audience were vulnerable and housebound and so on. So, the YouTube channel was fundamental to the success, but it did create a new problem for Hannah which was on the rare occasion in 2020 when she decided to do a paying concert, so there was ticketing, but still people would access it virtually, how on earth do you cause someone to want to pay for a ticket when all the other weeks it’s been free?


Initially, Hannah did not have an answer to that question, but the more she thought about it, I don’t know when it was, but she just got this good idea. She said, “I need to create some wow factor somehow, some sparkle. How enough can I do it?” And then she remembered having heard months before, maybe years before the actor, Steven Fry, saying in an interview to someone about music that one of his favorite pieces of music was basically, from Hannah’s point of view, the same piece of music as she was about to perform in the upcoming concert. And she put that memory together with her desire to create some celebrity sparkle, and apparently that particular music is often performed together with the reading of a tonal poem. They go together, and she thought, “If only I could reach out. I wonder if Stephen would be willing to help us out and read that poem?”


But, dear listener, really, this is a very small charity. They don’t have loads of celebrity friends as much larger charities do. So, she had no links whatsoever, but she was determined to take action, but she didn’t take action immediately and do it in a way less likely to work, and just fire off a tweet, which in the context of all the tweets he sees, he’d probably be unlike to respond to, but equally, she didn’t put it off. So, she wracked her brains, “How can I possibly get this request in front of Stephen in a format where he might say yes?” And the more she thought about it, she just realized she does have a friend who works in the publishing industry and is based in London, and she thought, “If there’s anyone I know who might have a clue how you could get this in front of Stephen Fry’s agent, it’ll be that friend.” She took action, did it intelligently, called up her contact, and the rest is history. That person got the ask in front of Stephen Fry’s agent phrased in a nice way. He was very happy to help, busy though he was. He recorded the tonal poem. Hannah’s event became massively easier to sell and get people to pay money for because of this wow factor.


So, this happy medium of she found a way to take action, but she also found a way to do it intelligently, but still, I want the listener to understand there was still risk. There was still uncertainty. It might never have worked, but she found a way to take action. And this former England rugby player, Will Greenwood, talks about the 40/70 rule which is you don’t implement or try something when you’ve done less than 40% of the research, but neither do you wait till you’ve got 80, 90, 100% of the research and you know everything. This golden period is to do your homework, but find a way to take action before you necessarily feel totally reassured about everything, and there might be some projects where you need to do even more research. My key advice to the listener is to beware the tendency in individuals and in organizations to wait too long.

Ben Swart:

I love that, Rob, and with the word Bright Spot in mind, I bet that the listener can think through times when they have managed to achieve things that they didn’t realize were possible or get that extraordinary result, and when they look back to the beginning of it, there was a conversation starter, an idea they acted on, and I bet that they were in that 40 to 70% range.

Rob Woods:

Hi, it’s Rob, and I want to jump in quickly to let you know about our Major Gifts Mastery Program which 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 major donor income. To give you a sense of the difference it can make, here’s what one fundraiser, Lynda, said about how it helped her.

Lynda Harwood:

Hi, I’m Lynda Harwood and I work for Animals Asia. I’ve just completed the Major Gifts Mastery Program. It has been invaluable. I was new to major gifts fundraising, and I recently just secured my very first £50,000 donation. So, call Rob.

Rob Woods:

If you’d like to find out more, go to brightspotfundraising.co.uk/services, and then click on Major Gifts Mastery Program. For now, back to the interview as Ben and I carry on talking about the power that comes from finding a way to deep breath and take a first step.

Ben Swart:

I love that three-second rule. There was something in those three seconds that just made them act or to move on it. I can certainly think of lots of examples and even some of the conversations from your podcast with Dan McNally and some of the way in which that grew and grew and grew and raised more than they ever expected it would do, and ended up with Warner Bros, Hollywood actors tweeting about their event, talking to them and donating, I think all probably based on let’s just give it a go. Let’s see where we go for a bit. I really like that.

Rob Woods:

Yeah, thank you. Yes, apparently in that episode, it really caught the imagination of Gal Gadot, the actress who’s the star of the Wonder Woman film, and yeah, because Dan took a risk and took a step, even though he didn’t know where it would lead, then this glorious, positive snowball effect happened that could never have been predicted when Dan and took that first brave and creative step.


And that really leads me on to the fourth point, and the last one I really wanted to talk about in today’s episode which is see it as a journey. Yes, expect opportunity. Yes, cross-pollinate. Yes, take action, but do so intelligently. But lastly, see it as a journey rather than as a single action, and this is a reason why I’ve not used the word pivot very often in the last two years. It’s true one reason I don’t use it is some people have a visceral dislike to it because it came along at one of the hardest times in their life when everyone kept telling them to pivot, and it was extremely difficult thing to do. But yes, the reason I tend not to have used the word pivot very often in the last 18 months is it has a connotation of a single big move, whereas actually, it’s so rare that a brilliant fundraising initiative was the result of one good idea, and then it’s a done deal.


Even if you look at something like the MacMillan World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, whenever it was first started, and forgive me, I don’t know the history, I’m sure it looked difference in some ways to its current format. But what’s crucial is whether it was 15 or 20 years ago, whenever it was, somebody got it started even if they didn’t know all the answers. They just dived in and had a go, and then they learned from it, I hope, and imagine it raised some money that year, but crucially, once they’ve done a first version, they had something to work on to make it better and keep testing and reiterating, and the rest is history. Whatever the listener’s charity’s favorite initiative or product or source of funding is, to state the obvious, it will have changed over the years how you do that.


So, the same is true of what I’ve noticed of people who found ways to find opportunities in spite of the obstacles this year. They cross-pollinated. They got good ideas. They got started, and then right from the start, they found a way to see it as a journey where they would keep improving things and learning rather than right from the start think that that first version was going to be the be-all and end-all. We talked about Laura and Leeds Hospitals Charity. I know for a fact, as soon as they’d finished the initiative this time last year, they were already learning and exploring ways to make it even better this year. That’s proved to be true. On her podcast episode with me, Paula from Greenpeace UK, again, she said, “There were so many small changes we made all through that spring and summer,” in terms of how they would make their face-to-face campaigns most likely to be doable and safe and most likely to be successful and raise funds as well.


So, all of these great stories that inspire us, there can be a risk that when you listen to a podcast or listen to a presentation at a conference that that journey element is not always fully really emphasized. Sometimes if you’re not careful, you can have the impression that it was always this perfect version of the idea. I know that’s never the speaker’s intention, but all of the boring ins and outs and iterations and wrong turns that were taken are rarely included in the conference talk because there isn’t time, and often, they don’t sound very interesting.


But to the listener, really, these last two points go together. Take action, get started, but it’s easier to do so if you know that whatever you’re doing is unlikely to be the finished article because right from the start, you see it as a journey. Again, even that wonderful success of Paul Courtney’s fabulous Bitesize Business Network Clubs, virtual events for companies that were supporting his hospice, even that, month in month out, there would be small changes to improve the way that was done, and I know this is really obvious stuff. Certainly tech startups, and tech millionaires, they have that idea called the minimum viable product, don’t they? I think the more as fundraisers we can take on the mindset of just get started and then improve it as we go along, I’ve noticed that being a key belief and habit in many of the fundraisers that I’ve been fortunate to interview in the last couple of years.

Ben Swart:

I love that, Rob, especially as I think it takes a bit of bravery, an action, like you’re saying, to do that, whether that’s to actually embark on something when you’re at the 40 to 70% point, but also immediately after its worked, it’s happened to go back to it and do it again, but to just tweak it a little bit because it is inevitably easier to do nothing. It is definitely easier to keep it as it was. It’s definitely easier to sit back and not do the action, and yet I love these little examples of when it’s been done, there’s just been this incremental little change and change in results. And you’re right, and perhaps not for this podcast, but I can think of the many times people have copied some of our networking session-type events, and you’re right because they’re every quarter, every few months, it’s been a wonderful chance to just tweak the way the speaker says something, tweak the email we send afterwards, tweak the way we frame it, tweak the title. Next month, let’s do it, and each time, it gets a different result. Yeah, I love it.

Rob Woods:

Yeah, and the other bit, I think anyway that was always smart because how can you possibly get it all right first time. It’s just not possible. You’d be the best inventor. Even Steve Jobs I imagine would have that same mindset and same approach. But the other reason is now especially when the rate of change is just faster than ever, even before COVID happened, the rate at which society, politics, economics, and so on, the environment in which we fundraise that was changing and speeding up massively even before COVID. But now, it’s just on turbo charge, hasn’t it? So, as long as the environment in which we are doing our fundraising continues to change so quickly, that’s the other reason. Even if your first version was really good, your first way of doing something was excellent, the chances are everything about the environment staying the same between your first time you do it and the next time you do it are really slim nowadays I think.

Ben Swart:

Thank you, Rob. I really, really have enjoyed hearing your take on this topic, and I’m very pleased that a few weeks ago, you picked up that book and have given us a chance to learn a bit more. I think that’s about it for today, isn’t it?

Rob Woods:

Yeah. I think that’s really plenty for this episode as well. Last thing I was just going to say, Ben, is thank you ever so much for making time to help me think through these things and tell you my four ideas. I really appreciate the questions you’ve asked me and the little examples you’ve shared as well. So, I look forward to catching up with you very soon, Ben, but for now, bye-bye.


So, I hope you found this episode helpful. If you did and you’ve not already subscribed, please do remember to do that today so that you never miss an episode. As always, you can get a summary and a transcript of the episode on the podcast section of our website which is brightspotfundraising.co.uk.


Now, if you’re the leader of a fundraising team and you’d like to get your team access to a whole library of our best training films, our community, and our weekly workshops, then do check out the Bright Spot Members Club which is our learning and inspiration site for fundraisers. You can find out more at brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. And although at the time of recording this in December 2021, we’re not taking on new individual members, we’re still taking on new team memberships, and the various discounts for teams are better than half the price of individual memberships. So, if you’d like to find out more about these options, do send me a quick message at event@brightspotfundraising.co.uk.


Thank you so much to everyone who’s been in touch and to everyone who’s been sharing our podcast. Ben and I would love to hear what you think about this episode. We’re both on LinkedIn and on Twitter. Ben is @benswart, and I am @woods_rob. Lastly, thank you for listening today, and if you’re listening in December 2021, I hope you have a wonderful and well-deserved break soon, and I look forward to sharing more Bright Spot episodes with you in the new year.