The Six Secrets to Being a Successful Fundraiser

Every manager is looking for the next great team member, and each of us is looking for the next opportunity. But what are the elusive qualities that make for success. Paul Farthing and Jo Swinhoe get to grips with the conundrum.

At the International Fundraising Congress last October we ‘revealed’ the six secrets to being a successful fundraiser. Based on a project conducted through the UK’s Institute of Fundraising we surveyed a selection of people across the globe. Aggregating their responses we identified six key themes, our ‘secrets’.

In examining these there might be no surprises, they may not even really be secrets, but that was not our aim. We wanted to challenge our audiences, and now you, to assess yourself against the findings, and ask could I do better. Do I demonstrate these behaviours as much as I could? Do I lead my team in this way? Is my organisation set up to encourage these behaviours?

Secret one – keep it simple

There is an old acronym called KISS meaning ‘keep it simple stupid’, yet too often we are slow to heed its advice. In our fast moving and complex world we create structures and processes. We build complicated communication programmes, with multiple segments. Or we develop many different messages and offers for our different audiences. The impact can be that we get bogged down in detail, lose sight of what is important and spend time and money on needless complexity.

Perhaps there are also simple ways to raise more money. Perhaps the most straightforward approach is to ask more people and each time you ask, do so for more money. It sounds obvious, but too many chief executives, trustees, even fundraisers hold back from asking. They may defer the face-to-face question, or they could hold back from sending out the extra mailing. Either way the impact could be the same – less money and donors left querying why we have failed to ask when the need was clearly there and the moment was right.

Keeping it simple also means stripping out the unnecessary process, finding ways to get things done faster, delegating more tasks and including fewer voices in every decision. Too many opportunities are missed because our organisations are wrapped in procedure.

Secret two  – do it with confidence!

When we do our jobs as fundraisers, we are speaking for all those people and causes who need a voice and haven’t found one. We must take the time to really know our cause inside out and communicate the difference the money we are asking for will make. Do you really know what a difference £10 would make? Can you explain that in one sentence in the ‘elevator’ test? Can you get your message across in 15 seconds or less?

Confidence comes with knowing enough to speak clearly and simply about your cause and being able to look your donors straight in the eye when you make that ask.

When we begin our careers, we have small successes and quite a lot of learning points. When things go well for you, think about what you have done in preparing for that meeting, or writing that letter. Take notes of your successful habits, and refer back to them.

And when things haven’t gone well, learn from that too. Knowing what didn’t go so well will make it less likely to happen again. Learn from peers and people in the sector whose style and delivery you admire.

There is no shame in writing notes to yourself which remind you of your key messages. Stick them around your workspace, place them on your meeting notes, memorise them on the way to work and your meetings.

All this preparation is the key to showing confidence, and having confidence takes you one step along the way to being successful. Confidence inspires donors that you will look after their money, and that you will look after them. The secret about confidence is that it can be learnt.

Secret three – have a ‘can do’ attitude

There is nothing worse for a manager than someone who always brings you problems, but never any solutions. The solutions offered might not include the best, but the notion that they have been proactive is welcome in itself. And they offer a starting point and show that the person is engaged in solving the dilemma, and not just passing the buck.

Organisations quickly recognise and reward those who are prepared to take things on. You should be the one who is ready to lead, to tackle the projects and to volunteer, to get involved, with things outside the normal day job. You will find it opens up fresh experiences, new challenges and opportunities.

Bosses also value those who demonstrate that they are prepared to be flexible in their approach. Try to be willing to adapt, even embrace new thinking, rather than be someone who tries to resist the inevitable flow of change that is all round us.

Secret four – have empathy

When we join a new charity as an employee, or start supporting a cause as a donor, we spend a lot of time getting to know the ins and outs of the business. We want to know what work is done by the charity, what the outcomes are for the beneficiaries, how much money is spent on administration and whether my donation, time or money is going to be well looked after.

But as the months roll by, do we still have that same understanding that we had when we joined? Do we truly walk in the steps of our cause?

If you were a donor what would you want from your charity? Answer that question and you begin to develop the empathy which will help you make your cause stand out from the crowded market we operate in.

As a fundraiser we want to give our donors the very best experience of giving to our charity. Do you know what it feels like to donate to your cause? Become a donor and test the experience – always look at ways in which the giving experience can be improved and steward your donors to maximise their life time value and their joy of giving, becomes second nature to you in your work.

Volunteer at a local project for the day and get under the skin of the work which is done. If your cause is not local, or something which you can’t visit, then speak to the people who are directly in involved in the work.

Empathy, or understanding, gives you the personal knowledge that will help you deliver great results.

Secret five – focus on the money

We talk a lot about putting the Fun into Fundraising, about inspiring donors and passion, but we must remember first and foremost that fundraising is about money – it is a serious business. Fundraisers, teams and organisations need to think and talk about money in a way a corporate does. It is more than just asking for money, it is about recognising value and knowing how to drive improvements. It is about making sure that money stays front of mind and on every agenda.

As fundraisers, it is vital that we appreciate the real cost and the true value of what we do. Focusing on the money is not just about being careful or watchful; it is also about being prepared to take bold risks, about making the right decisions on where to invest in new things and as importantly identify what things to stop when necessary. This means that you have to understand your numbers, appreciate those that are the key drivers to your business and recognise the ratios; those things where by making just a small tweak, you can dramatically improve performance.

Your organisation needs a culture that reinforces a focus on money. Your staff need to be trained in financial management. Your financial success should be celebrated. And when your team or your boss is getting excited by the latest great idea you should be the one asking question, where is the income coming from?

‘Secret’ six – be passionate

The single most important reason for working in the voluntary sector is because we want to change the world for the better. Is that something we should be proud of or something which should be hidden away?

The last secret is simply this – if you are excited about your cause, show it. If you are personally committed to the work which your charity does, show it. If you know that the donation you are seeking can make a real difference – then say so.

Be passionate about your cause. Enthuse others. The research showed that this quality, the most elusive perhaps, could move mountains. And isn’t that what we all want to do for the causes we work for?

So six secrets! None surprising, but all challenging. In our competitive world perhaps they hold the key to how you can be successful and stand out from the crowd. Bosses are looking for people that can lead, make a difference. Follow the advice of the six secrets and you can be that person!

Paul Farthing is high value relationships director at Cancer Research UK; Jo Swinhoe is director of fundraising and marketing at The Alzheimer’s Society.

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