Interview: Beth Upton, fundraising practitioner and CEO of Money Tree Consulting, explains why some charities are failing to increase giving and shares her top tips for applying for grants…
What do you think is the biggest issue facing charities today?
Reputation. In some cases, I think the criticism is well-founded: I know organisations where the fundraisers are treated like cash machines and I see this leading to donors being squeezed for every penny; there are senior leaders within organisations who will not invest in fundraising, are resistant to openness, are suspicious of two-way relationships, fail to see the value of measuring results and being accountable. I see these things every day in my work and it makes me sad because even one of these behaviours reduces an organisation’s ability to deliver its charitable activity – now and in the long term.
But it is not just individual reputation; it is the cumulative effect that risks the whole sector’s reputation. This cumulative effect gives fuel to the media’s fire that burns against ‘begging charities’ with other commentators able to stoke the fires with new stories as they continue to come to light. Someone said to me recently ‘everyone has a story in their back pocket of a charity scandal be it fraud, misuse of funds or similar.’
An IPSOS Mori poll by New Philanthropy Capital back in 2013 showed that even existing donors would increase their giving by a whopping £665 million per annum if charities could better address questions of use of funds and providing evidence of impact. That is before we consider the huge proportion of the population who do not give at all for these reasons.
In light of government cuts to its charity grants, how can charities begin to grow their funds from trusts and other major donors?
Government grants have, by now, largely disappeared from the landscape. In the early days of the cuts I witnessed some organisations turn to contracts in lieu of grants; others turned to the charitable sector but without any knowledge of how to engage grant-makers and yet others cast about for other ways to fill the gaps. What is key to remember is that all fundraising requires an investment and then some patience before the money arrives. This investment might be your time, or it might be financial – but you cannot get away without the investment. You cannot speed up the decision-making of donors.
Grant fundraising is not a panacea for all ills and will not suit all organisations. Not all cause areas are well-represented by grant-making bodies; not all organisations are ready for the rigours of grant-maker requirements.
A mailout of the same letter to many trusts is not only never going to work but is also going to kill your chances of then building a strong grant programme for the next few years – many trusts will not consider a second application for at least 12 months, some do talk to one another and notice those undertaking the blanket mailing approach. Although it might appear to cost more to invest in research and planning, the grant sizes will go up, the success rate will go up and income will hit a healthy level within a year or two of making those investments.
Major donor fundraising is suitable for any charity of any size and cause area but it is not an overnight success and will never get a charity out of a financial hole. You cannot buy a list or simply write compelling letters to those on the rich list, appealing to their better nature. Nor is the ask for overheads, repayment of loans or gap-filling in this year’s budget a compelling reason for a donor to give.
A major donor programme can have just one donor in it. The secrets to success are: developing a genuine relationship with your donor, giving them a compelling reason to support your work, having the patience to let the programme develop over years. It is perfectly normal not to receive a major gift for more than one year after starting a programme and if there is a lot of relationship-building to be done then expect to wait three years. This is not a quick fix.
What are some of the common mistakes charities make when applying for grants?
Often I see a lack of clarity around the difference a project will make. At least one, maybe two of the following will be missed out of an application: activities, outputs, outcomes, impact. The strongest proposals include all four, with very distinct answers to each of the questions.
1. Activities – what will happen (e.g. we will organise a formal mentoring programme for fundraisers)
2. Outputs – what will come out of the activities – usually measurable (e.g. 45 fundraisers, each from a small charity, will be mentored over the course of the year, matched with their mentor in a formal process. 45 mentors will receive formal mentor training. Each fundraiser will receive approximately 12 hours of support during the year. Each mentor will receive 4 hours of support during the year.)
3. Outcomes – what is the direct result (e.g. the fundraisers will have more skills and be better at their jobs. The mentors will have training that will support them back in their organisations as managers).
4. Impact – what is the wider result (e.g. small charities’ income will increase, and they will be both more sustainable and be able to deliver more services. Larger organisations will develop better managers.)
Get these right and your applications will be stronger, giving you a better chance of success.
What do small and medium-sized charities need to work on to attract more large-scale funding?
Raise their sights beyond the daily activity and short-term needs of the organisation. Major donors generally want to invest in something visionary and exciting that is not about balancing the budget for this year or next. It really is an investment and they want to know what their return will be. This may not be a traditional financial return but nonetheless they want something back for their money. Think about the impact a large gift will enable.
Grant-makers want to fund something that is going to happen, not something that has already happened, so you can’t look there for budget-balancing either. Go to a grant-maker with a project that will not start for the next year. Be great at explaining why this is life changing. Be robust in checking that you really are the only people doing this and that there really aren’t any other charities you could partner with.
Is high value fundraising sustainable?
There are three key areas that must all be working well in order that high-value giving will thrive in your organisation:
• Who – You are treating your donors and prospective donors as partners, not as cash cows
• What – you have developed a compelling proposition that has donors excited to be part of your success
• How – you are a committed donor-centric organisation from the top all the way through the organisation
and you are committing what it takes in order to let your high-value programme bloom
With all three of these elements embedded into an organisation then yes, this can be a sustainable route to fundraising.
How did you first get into fundraising and what do you love most about it?
I was doing a law degree at university and became really disillusioned with my choice: I had wanted to get into the law to change the system and right injustice from the inside out. I quickly realised that only the top 1% of law students get the cool jobs like that and I wasn’t clever enough to be that 1%. I was more likely to end up with the majority of law graduates, working for a company, writing contracts for mergers and acquisitions… the opposite of my ambitions. So I quit!
My godfather was a fundraiser for Age Concern Scotland at the time and I remember asking him what fundraising meant on one of our long conversations about how my life was now ruined because I didn’t have a degree. He told me it was boring, just a lot of writing… (he still is a great grant writer). I became more intrigued the more he pushed me away, so I applied for a lot of administration jobs inside charities and landed the most brilliant of starts: PA to the Head of Corporate Fundraising at Macmillan. I could not have asked for a better start in terms of grounding, skills, support, teaching, setting and friends.
Being a fundraiser definitely scratches my itch to leave the world better than I found it, while simultaneously indulging my passion for getting to know people. As a consultant, I focus on three aspects of the work that tick these boxes: I speak to donors and listen to their feedback about the charities they support; I mentor and coach fundraisers so that they can be even better at their jobs; I advise senior management and trustee boards on the stuff that will transform their high value fundraising.
What’s the most out of the ordinary thing you’ve ever done?
I volunteered to work at an elephant sanctuary in North Eastern Cambodia a couple of years ago, over Christmas and New Year. It was a three-week placement living off-grid and working my socks off every single day in the heat, humidity and dirt. There was electricity for an hour or so each day and only six plug sockets for the whole camp to use for charging cameras etc. There was no running water, no hot water and no phone signal/wifi. There were a lot of spiders, monkeys throwing things from the trees, random mammals visiting my hut, breath-taking views and sunsets never to be rivalled.
We farmed fruit and vegetables for the elephants, cared for the pigs, built a series of compost bins, dug a fire pit for a local school. We also built a picnic table for the camp using fallen hardwoods from the forest. Each day we got to spend about three hours in the company of the elephants – observing their behaviour, undertaking (supervised) health checks and generally not getting bored of how cool it is to be so close to an elephant that is roaming in its natural habitat.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Decide and then focus! I was very lucky that Tony Elischer decided to mentor me for a year or so, until he became too ill to carry on. When Tony approached me, I was running my company alongside holding down a full-time interim Head of Fundraising post.
Tony asked me what I really wanted – did I want to become one of the leading Fundraising Directors of my time or did I want to develop an agency that would transform the fundraising fortunes of hundreds of charities over the years? He was confused as I appeared to be trying to do both and wasn’t thriving in either role!
At the time I was focused on trying to get a mortgage, which is really hard as a self-employed person; I wasn’t thinking strategically about my future at all and hadn’t considered that I might be hampering my efforts by not making sensible decisions.
It was Tony’s cajoling that led me to focus on the business, rebrand it Money Tree Fundraising and go on to increase turnover by 170% in about two years! There is now a team of over 20 people working with us to deliver trust, major donor, corporate and capital appeal fundraising to charities of all sizes, across the UK.