Austerity, uncertainty and competition bring challenges for all fundraisers, but for unpopular or niche causes there is an additional hurdle to overcome. So what is the right approach to take? Peter Gilheany shares his wisdom
If you fancy a challenge, how about fundraising for a bailiff benevolent fund...?
Fundraising has always been an important consideration for the majority of charities, but the competition for funds has probably never been so fierce. Austerity measures have made serious dents in the grant funding available from local and national government; trusts and foundations are being targeted from all sides; and recent changes in fundraising practice have made it even harder for charities to engage new potential donors or even continue to engage those who have given previously. Anyone engaged in fundraising has their work cut out, but none more than those trying to raise money for unpopular, niche or arcane causes, like the aforementioned imaginary bailiff welfare charity.
The money still needs to be raised, so how do you tackle the challenge of communicating a cause that sits at odds with the prevailing consensus, is a niche issue or is difficult to engage audiences on?
First things first: it is even more important to get the basics right. There are four simple questions you can ask of your charity that will act as a baseline indicator for how much of the building blocks you have in place for effective fundraising:
1. Is my organisation distinctive from others operating in the same market?You need to have evidence for this and insights into what matters for the audiences you are seeking to engage. Don't beat yourself up if you can't find a unique selling point; some simple selling points are a great place to start.
2. Are our audiences aware of what we are delivering on their behalf? You need proof points showing the impact the charity is making on behalf of its service users, beneficiaries or other stakeholders. Don't be tempted to over-claim, but always look for the proof points that will matter to the different audiences you are seeking to engage.
3. Do our audiences recognise us as relevant to them? You need to know what your target audiences are interested in, and the barriers and motivators to them supporting you. Spend time talking to the audiences you want to engage, rather than making assumptions about them. This doesn't have to be done through focus groups or surveys: simple one-to-one conversations can make a real difference.
4. Can our audiences trust us to make the best use of the money they give us? Alongside proof points of the impact you are making, you need to consider how you communicate the care and thought that goes into what you are doing, to maximise the value you generate. Lots of charities are developing theories of change for exactly this reason.
The questions are simple enough, but in the cases of individual charities, the answers may not be. Charities need to honestly answer these questions and consider if they are ready to start or kick-start their fundraising activity, or whether there are some more fundamental changes they need to make first.
Once you have satisfactory answers to these questions, here are specific areas to work on in relation to unpopular or niche causes:
• Focus, focus, focus – It’s no coincidence that three of the questions above relate to “our audiences”. The days of woolly propositions and generalist umbrella messages aimed at 'the public' should be long gone. You need to be ruthless about who you seek to fundraise from and why – efforts to engage with audiences that are not relevant are a waste of precious time and resources. If the consensus is at odds with the cause you are promoting, then it is likely that the distance between the middle ground where most people are and your organisation’s vision and mission will be considerable. However, between you and them will be audiences who are closer to you attitudinally. Your first priority must be to engage those who share values and beliefs with you.
• Dial up empathy and sympathy – Whatever your cause, there are likely to be touchpoints with your priority audiences. These may be through sympathy for the plight of others (human or otherwise), the empathy of common experience or passion or interest in the particular cause you are supporting. Having a strong emotional narrative that ticks boxes in these areas, supported by a human face or case study, will help to make your cause so much more engaging. And it is there – however technical, arcane or dry a cause might be, if you look hard enough there will be a human angle you can use to bring it more to life.
• Look for endorsement – If your cause isn't appealing to your audiences, you can communicate it through the voice of someone who does appeal. A celebrity or VIP with a connection or interest is a great way to take your cause or campaign to audiences who are normally beyond your reach.
• Focus on stakeholders – Institutional, political and policy audiences often have a more nuanced relationship with causes. Although it is always appealing to reach out to public audiences, you might be better off focusing your efforts on B2B communications, involving stakeholders and influencers.
Of course you can do all of the above, run an exemplary fundraising campaign and still only see a modest increase in fundraising income. That’s why the setting of realistic fundraising targets is paramount. While our imaginary trustees might be passionate about the work/life balance of bailiffs, it is not likely to be something many will share.
Peter Gilheany is PR director at Forster Communications