Underpinning all sustainable fundraising strategies are strong relationships. Charlotte Bray presents 9 brilliant tips for building and maintaining these foundations
Achieving sustainable funding is a huge challenge. If only there were some magic art to conjuring up a dripping tap of regular, unrestricted income. For small charities especially, funding uncertainties make it difficult not only to deliver activities, but also to plan and develop them ahead of time.
Over the last decade I’ve worked for causes ranging from wildlife to disability, and on a range of fundraising initiatives, from refreshing and rebooting a charity’s fundraising strategy to project funding to capital appeals. All of my successes can be pinned down to one thing: a strong focus on relationship building. Here are my top tips for success:
1. Build up your strengths (and root out skeletons)
No management course or seminar would be complete without mention of a SWOT analysis. The first thing I do in any role is to rifle through the past approaches and gifts, taking a good look at what we’ve done well. Who are our strongest supporters? What made them decide to help us?
It’s great to celebrate and build up these strengths, but the process of ‘truffling’ can also unearth skeletons (terrible mixed metaphor, unless your pig is in a closet). Even if it isn’t a new role or department, there can be hidden surprises that can do you an injury if they suddenly reappear. Acknowledge your mistakes, apologise for them and make sure you don’t repeat them.
2. Carry out a fundraising audit
In addition to your SWOT, consider a fundraising audit. Take a good look at the tools you’re using. How are you expressing your message to your donors? Do your thank-you letters still sound personal, or are they the same every year and identical for every donor? Could your leaflets do with re-designing? Is the case for support still fresh? This is a prime opportunity to involve external pairs of eyes, whether they are non-fundraisers, or even your existing donors, to give feedback.
3. Plan for the challenges ahead
Here’s where we spare a thought to environmental scanning. As part of my MBA I studied ‘scenario planning’, to see what challenges might be ahead and plan for them. This is something that as fundraisers, we should be doing daily. Look at the driving forces for change in the fundraising landscape: political, technical, social etc - because all of these will be having an impact on your supporters. Who would have predicted Brexit or the Ice Bucket Challenge? The minute things move, we need to be on it. How can we see the signs ahead of time, and plan for the both threats and opportunities?
4. Right person, right project
When faced with big targets, it can be tempting to chase the money and create a project to fit the funder, rather than seeking a prospect who will be a good match for your existing plans. The danger is you end up with money coming in, then going straight back out the door again. The project has to have genuine strategic value for your mission. Ok, it might help as a first step to bring a much-desired donor on board. But, the worst-case scenario is that you can’t deliver, and there’s another broken donor relationship.
Fundraisers are all keen to please and the hardest job we have is to say no to what sounds like a great project on paper. The reality is, we can’t fundraise for everything that’s ‘nice to do’. A carefully selected handful of projects where there is a genuine need will make a real difference to your integrity as a charity, and your relationship with your donors.
One further thing: don’t scatter gun! It can be tempting to try to approach as many funders as possible or to ‘wedge’ your application into an ill-fitting funder. Use the right approach at the right time for the right target. In the end, you’ll get better results than you would by trying to target everyone.
5. Make friends with your donors
This really is the basic premise of fundraising. Your donors should become your charity’s best friends. But the more we are pressured to meet increasing targets, the more we raise year-on-year, the more donors we add to our database, the easier it is for relationships to become overlooked or for reporting and stewardship to become formulaic.
A great tip I’ve learned from conferences and sites like SOFII is to involve your donors in their own thanking process. How often do they want to receive a newsletter, if at all? How do they like to be written to? Do they want to know about particular elements of your work? With changing EU legislation regarding ‘opt-in’ requirements, it is more important than ever that donors feel they have control over how and when we talk to them.
Furthermore, we need to ensure that every conversation with a donor, however simple, has the potential to be personal and memorable. Your aim is to help that one-off donation grow as easily as possible into a regular standing order, grant, company donation or even legacy. We’re building friends for life.
6. Take some time every day to bring a donor closer
I have a mantra which I’ve slightly adapted from the very brilliant Rob Woods (one of the best motivational speakers around). Every day I try to do at least three things that will bring a donor one step forward in their relationship with our charity. It might be a thank you letter, or an update, or a phone call. Do it at the time of the day when you are most full of creativity and energy. For me it’s first thing after my morning coffee. It’s surprising how quickly this can lead to a regular stream of support.
Keeping up the momentum can be really tough, but keep on looking at your ROI. Why did that one work? Why did that one fail? Can you get feedback? Keep on replacing; one in one out, so that you keep a steady ‘pool’ of funding pending decision to meet your target.
Also, don’t be afraid to give some funders a rest when they need it! Very few can give you funding every year forever. Think about taking breaks, or asking them whether they have a three/five year preference. Again, by involving them, you’re treating them properly.
7. Focus your energy in the right place
Using a tool like Ansoff’s matrix can helps you to focus your energies on the areas that will bring you the best results. Use it to think about how you might build donors’ relationships with your charity, keeping your approaches fresh year on year. Could you try a new approach with an existing audience (middling risk) or a new approach with a brand new audience (highest risk)?
8. ‘Automate’ some of your fundraising
I’ve found it very helpful to have some things that can be raising money ‘automatically’. This is where digital is especially good - managing automatic thank you emails to online donors, creating donor journeys etc. Even small things like cash boxes placed in local shops and organisations can help start a relationship off. Just make sure you’re in control of it; even a simple thank-you email for a digital donation must be carefully worded - because that donation could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
9. Weave fundraising throughout the charity
It can be difficult to get your colleagues interested in fundraising; everyone is busy and of course you feel embarrassed asking people to help you out. But the fact is, fundraising helps everyone in the charity, whether directly or indirectly - so make them feel involved.
We can all really benefit from our colleagues’ expertise. For example, volunteers and coalface staff will have a good understanding of the project. Marketing will have opinions about how to express the mission to potential beneficiaries. And everyone can have thoughts about how to generate income. So, make friends with your colleagues! You may need to rely on them for project information, or ask them to supply quotes and photos to bring your stories to life. Consider holding a monthly brainstorming meeting, where everyone can share their ideas and what they think might work.
I hope the above tips will be encouraging and helpful to you as you aim to build a sustainable fundraising strategy. Whatever the unique strengths or challenges for our cause, one thing remains true for us all: By focusing on consistency, clarity and transparency in all our fundraising relationships, we can form strong connections that last for many years.
Charlotte Bray is fundraising manager at the Scottish Seabird Centre