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Fundraising in a crisis: making the most of a challenging situation


Kerry-Jane Kingsmill started fundraising at International Medical Corps UK armed with nothing but an impenetrable database and a gut feeling. Here she sets out how, in the midst of the ebola crisis, she found a way to worked around this and turn challenges into opportunities.


International Medical Corps UK (IMC UK) is part of the global charity International Medical Corps in the US. Until this time last year, the UK office was focused almost entirely on government funding. They’d been doing well with that, but there was a need for more flexibility in the form of unrestricted funds, and to also grow the brand in the UK and Europe. There had been little pockets of private fundraising over the years, but it was very ad hoc and reactive.

At the same time, I was looking for a new role. I’d seen a little of IMC UK’s work during my time at Christian Aid, so when I saw the role being advertised I was curious to find out more. I interviewed for the position, and it was sold to me as a complete startup on the private fundraising side - and it was. There was nothing here. No policies or procedures, no infrastructure on the private fundraising or the communications side. There was a database, but it took me three months to find it, and even longer to get my head around it.

It was a stark contrast to my previous job. As head of centre fundraising at Maggie’s, I’d had a full team and a mature database and there was a pipeline of donations. Now I was entering an environment where I was the only fundraiser, I had no idea why people had donated to the charity before or where I was going to start with raising money, and there were no systems set up to support private fundraising. So on the one hand I felt quite anxious. On the other hand, it was also really exciting: who gets the opportunity to go into a charity and be given a complete blank slate? There was none of the politics, none of the meetings for the sake of meetings, and so all the frustrations I’d experienced in other organisations weren’t there.

Just six months into my new role, the ebola crisis hit. This was my first experience of how IMC deals with an emergency response. But ebola was a unique type of crisis, being more of a slow trickle than a mad rush, and so it was also a very new type of emergency response for the charity. Within my team at IMC UK, we had to figure out how we were going to deal with it, how we were going to generate income to help those affected, and also how we could use this opportunity to build our brand awareness in the UK.

We did a lot of work initially around the comms side, getting some stories out there about the work we were doing and how we were doing it, and this was very successful. It also gave rise to some unexpected opportunities - for example, I had this database of past donors, but all I really knew was that they’d given to us before, and that the amounts they’d given as first-time donors were much higher than you’d expect. This suggested we were dealing with wealthy donors; but as to why they’d given, I only had my gut feeling to go on. The ebola crisis gave me an opportunity to test this, and to see whether these donors would give to us again. In this way, I was able to clean our data.

Furthermore, it gave us the opportunity to test some of the basic infrastructure I’d managed to get up and running in the first few months of my role. For example, I’d changed the donation platform on the website. Did it work? Yes. Was it easy for people to actually find to make a donation? Yes. We’d had an achievement!

If the crisis hadn’t struck at that time, the way my role developed would probably have been slower. It would have taken me longer to get to the stage I’m at and the team I’m at. It enabled me to speed up on certain areas, and to redefine the team in response to a real situation. At the time I only had a comms team, and they were basically doing everything from the fundraising to the website to the marketing to the press and PR. I think that having to push my team so hard and in such a short amount of time enabled me to get a really clear idea of what their skillsets were, what was missing, and how was I going to move that forward. The main priority for me was to get in another fundraiser, because the opportunities that were presented to me were just too much for one person.

I was adamant that I didn’t want to create silos in my teams. In some of the charities I'd worked in previously, the various fundraising teams were very disjointed. So to avoid this happening in my new job, I decided to focus all of our fundraising, marketing and communications around relationships. I needed to recruit someone who was comfortable not just working with higher-value donors, but also across individual giving, corporate giving and trusts and foundations as well. Today at IMC UK, every individual who gives is assigned a key worker, and if Mr Smith has personal wealth but also heads up a company, is chair of a foundation, and has extensive networks we can tap into, his key worker can maximise all of the opportunities the relationship presents.

It was a lot of hard work to recruit the right people. The thing my interviewees struggled with most was the fact that there was nothing here, no pipeline or infrastructure or support. Some, in their responses to my interview questions, would say: ‘Oh, well I’d go to your research team...’ We don’t have a research team. It was very difficult to get people on the same page from that perspective, people found it all very daunting, and so even though I’d worked out quite early on what I needed in a team, it did take quite a long time for me to put that team together.

In most other respects, the challenges I expected to encounter haven’t come about. I was expecting more of an internal challenge here within the office - people not understanding why you’re here, why you need fundraisers or why you need to put out that message - the kind of questions I’d had to deal with a lot in my previous jobs. It surprised me to discover how on board everyone is here. But my CEO has been very supportive, trusting and willing to let me try things. And fundamentally, in every step of this journey, I’ve made sure that every single member of this office has been brought along. They have been given the opportunity to contribute, to attend workshops, to sit with me and to ask me anything - my door is always open. I knew I couldn’t do this unless I brought everyone on board.

We recognise that we can’t compete with the likes of Save the Children or Oxfam, because we’re just not big enough. With this in mind, we’ve put a lot of work into figuring out where we want to position ourselves, and I think we’re pretty much there now. We know we want to be that organisation that is about personalisation, and that in-depth relationship that you, as a donor, will have with us. We’re really going for those higher-value relationships too, which we can develop into longer-term support.

We’ve been calling this last year our ‘private phase’, and have used it to get all our ducks lined up. We’re now at the stage now where we’ve got our team and our infrastructure in place, and we’re ready to really ‘go public’ with our work.

It’s only when I talk about it that I suddenly realise, wow, look at what we have achieved! I do really think we’ve come a long way, and for me the proof of the pudding was the recent Nepal earthquake response - we raised £40k, an amount previously unheard of for this organisation. The press are now ringing us, and asking for stories, which is fantastic. We’ve nearly finished developing our new website, which launches on 1 July, and I’m really excited to see what we can achieve with everything in place. Watch this space!

Kerry-Jane Kingsmill is director of resource development and communications at International Medical Corps UK

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