The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

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Fundraisers: failure is not an option - but it should be!

I have just finished reading Dave Eggers novel ‘The Circle’ which chronicles the story of a technology worker joining a powerful internet company. Upon reading, I was struck by the company’s (Circle’s) business motto – ‘Secrets are Lies, Sharing is Caring, Privacy is Theft’ and how this could have relevance to the charity sector. Just how transparent do we as fundraisers need to be, particularly around issues of failure, and what can be gained by this?

Learning from failure

It may be a cliché to say we learn more from one failure than any number of successes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Being able to openly appraise a fundraising activity that hasn’t met its objectives can provide information crucial to identifying the changes needed to improve — asking ‘why’ something failed as a way to find the ‘how’ it can be done better in the future.

The key to Mind’s innovation approach is ensuring an open evaluation after every new product pilot, emphasising what didn’t work well, even more so than what did. For example, following our student challenge, TwentySeven27, weaknesses were identified in the handover process between development and delivery which have been rectified and are in in place as for future innovation sprints – for example having a fully detailed RACI in place at the start of development which identified where the delivery team would be taking over work and the potential scale of this so they could plan this into existing workplans as early as possible. Using the Egger’s analogy, keeping our failure private would have been a theft from our ability to improve.

Failure is our friend

To be able to truly learn from failure, there has to be space allowed for failure. The constant pressure on fundraisers to hit (or exceed) targets doesn’t leave much room to take a step back and ensure the critical ‘friend feedback’ is given, that is required to be able to learn. Where shame is attached to failure, staff can often lack the confidence or safe feeling to be able talk openly about failure.

At Mind, by putting in place a continual cycle of normalising feedback and embracing failure, feedback is almost a daily part of how the team works together, with staff at all levels receiving training in how to give and receive feedback, as well as regular formal and informal opportunities to put this into practice at 1-2-1s, when projects are delivered or presentations given. Our weekly MIND (Motivational & Inspirational Notice Board of Delight) board was originally set up to celebrate successes across the team and is now co-opted at least once a month to celebrate our failures, which are then on display in our office for everyone to see.

Internal transparency and acceptance of failure as a learning opportunity will increase staff confidence to take (calculated) risks and build trust within and across teams, as staff come to understand that the focus is on ‘how can we do better’ instead of only ‘why didn’t this go well?’.

Friends are a great source of failures

I have hugely valued being part of peer support networks, in particular the THINK Forums as well as building relationships with individuals, where the degree of honesty and willingness to share ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ is refreshing. However, one of the reasons these networks are supportive is because they operate in a safe space, with confidentiality a core foundation to people being able to be transparent.

More spaces need to be created across the fundraising sector where best practice, and more importantly the failures alongside the successes, are regularly shared. This is happening outside the sector, particularly among the entrepreneur community, with a number of events that encourage this open discussion of failure – the F*ck Up Club being the most memorably named.

There will always be competition between charities as we generally vie for the attention of (and donations from) similar audiences. However, there is greater power in understanding someone else’s mistakes so as not to repeat them ourselves and we can all learn and improve to get the ultimate benefit for our causes; sharing is caring.

With the Fundraising Convention 2020 speaker application process open, now would be a perfect opportunity for us all to embrace greater transparency and be willing to submit sessions based on our greatest failure, not just our biggest successes.

And how interesting would it be to see a ‘Bottom 25’ mirroring the Massive Top 25 report, highlighting where events have under-performed and exploring the reasons why; this could be useful in highlighting that high failure rates are a key part of success, especially when having ‘those’ conversations with trustees and senior managers about why you haven’t created the next Macmillan Coffee Morning yet.

Public trust through transparency

While we may feel able to be transparent within our own organisations and then willing to share this with peers across the sector; stepping out into the public space with our failures takes us on a different level of transparency. Public trust in charities has been impacted recently; can we, as a sector, be more honest about the true costs of fundraising or where calculated risks have been taken on a fundraising activity, because the ultimate outcome will be of benefit to our service users? Being ‘secretive’ may be telling the public a ‘lie’ about what is actually takes to raise the many millions needed to support our causes…although tackling that is probably a whole article in itself!

Written by Karen Bolton, Head of Community & Events Fundraising Marketing & Innovation and Alexa Hawkins-Bell, Fundraising Development Manager, Mind

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