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What is the toughest fundraising question you’ve ever been asked?


Five experts share the most taxing fundraising questions they've had to wrangle with

Jo Lamb, regional fundraising development manager at The Children’s Society:

I was in a retirement home visiting my grandmother when The Question arose. Richard seemed like a sweet and gentle man, and I trusted my grandmother's choice of friends impeccably. But when I told him what I do, his response was quite surprising:

"Charity workers”, he scoffed. "How can you justify earning our donations? You people should work for free."

I swallowed hard; counted to 20 in my head. This man personified the acquisition prospects we are all desperately trying to reach.

"Well Richard", I smiled. "I'd far sooner spend my talents transforming society than selling cans of hairspray. Someone has to tell the stories of broken lives changed by the organisations you so faithfully support."

The idea that 'overhead' is somehow an enemy of our cause is one of the biggest challenges we face as fundraisers. And as Dan Pallotta eloquently put it: our response to Richard should be, "Instead of scrutinising the size of a charity's overheads, why not ask the scale of its dreams?"

Esther Preston, director of fundraising and marketing at Ashgate Hospicecare:

"I want to support you but I also want to support two other local charities – I hate having to choose. Is there are way that you could join together to fundraise?"

This was a question from a potential corporate supporter who was looking to give upwards of £20k a year to charity. He wanted to help us (Ashgate Hospicecare), Blythe House Hospice and Helen’s Trust – but worried that choosing one would upset the other two. He suggested we would receive more support if we offered people the opportunity to donate to all three charities.

It was a difficult question, because I couldn’t think of a good reason why we couldn’t fundraise together. The truth is that a lot of people living in North Derbyshire would know someone who had received care and support from all three charities, and a collaborative approach could attract new supporters.

I met with the other two charities and discussed how we could fundraise together. We set up a joint bank account and organised our first event under the umbrella name #ChallengeDerbyshire, using the fundraising platform Everyday Hero. The event is to walk the Derbyshire Three Peaks (11 miles) in September 2015 – and it was chosen as it represents the three local charities working together, and the challenge our patients face following a serious or life-threatening diagnosis.

We started off thinking this would be a one-year venture, but we now see it as a long-term collaboration that has already helped us reach new supporters, and will ultimately raise more money for each charity.

Lyndall Stein, interim marketing director at Care International UK:

The hardest question for me was not about a technical issue or about budgets or income – it was a moral and ethical problem: How does a fundraiser, particularly one working with major donors, maintain good boundaries?

A talented young member of my team told me he had been asked out to dinner by a key figure who was leading our first ever major donor campaign – this donor was committed, passionate and friends with many sympathetic, rich and famous prospects; he was a top ambassador at a critical time.

I had to think hard. On the one hand, we had a desperate need for income, so we could not risk offending him; on the other, I could not risk compromising a valuable member of my team.

I found a solution and suggested he accept a lunch instead, then he would have to come back to work – and the right boundaries would fall into place – a win-win.

Lucy Gower, director at

“How can you ask people for money to end cruelty to children Full Stop when we all know that can never happen?”

First I just listened; this person was passionate about the cause and fundamentally angry that despite a bold ambition to end cruelty to children, the NSPCC were simply not doing enough. They felt strongly that Full Stop was lip service, or an exercise in branding.

We spoke about how setting a zero tolerance ambition for child abuse and falling short had the potential to make a bigger impact than setting an ‘achievable’ target that was met.

This lead onto an even more sensitive conversation about how the only way to end child abuse was to stop it happening in the first place. They believed that the NSPCC should be raising funds to help potential paedophiles before they committed abuse.

I had to agree that this approach would have the potential to make the biggest impact on generations to come, and that had to be balanced with the immediate need to support people who are coping with their experience of abuse that sadly had already occurred.

Stephen George, freelance fundraising and management contributor to the not-for-profit sector:

“How do you know it works?” is a common question. I have found that to answer this adequately, you need a mix of solutions – and many are dependent on the type of person asking the question. Some require hard data and certainty. Some are satisfied with a ‘good enough’ answer. Some believe in faith. The simple answer is to find a balance between them all.

So, find ways to illustrate your response from these three viewpoints: thinking, feeling and knowing. From the ‘thinking’ viewpoint, you need to talk about facts, assumptions, and models. From the ‘feeling’ angle, you must give a sense of what works, the risk, and the room for failure. And from the ‘knowing’ viewpoint, if you can’t show hard evidence then belief, faith, and expressions of certainty are the next best thing.

Use this mix to build a picture of something that has happened before; using test results where possible but also making intelligent assumptions, drawing a good model, giving a wider view from a team rather than one person and providing some response to managing risk.

The bottom line is that we rarely are certain; so it’s about reducing doubt, but being comfortable with the management of expectation, and an ability to live with – and learn from – failure.

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