The challenges of joining a charity during a pandemic

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Posted in Interviews

The challenges of joining a charity during a pandemic

Virtual coffee


Suzanne Watts, Editor of The Fundraiser chats to Julie Milnes about her new role as Director of Fundraising at Centrepoint on the challenges of joining a charity during a pandemic, and what gets her up in the mornings.


1. What areas will you be focusing on during the first year of your role as director?

It’s an interesting time to be starting a job during a lockdown and a global pandemic! The Fundraising team has done a brilliant job of inspiring and engaging donors during the last year and we’ve raised more than we thought we would have done at the start of lockdown. As a result, some of the areas I’ll be focusing on during my first year is looking at that success, analysing and planning how we can integrate it into what the ‘new normal’ will look like for an informed 5-year strategy that best sets us up for even more amazing results. I’ll continue to work with the team to look at how we can connect with donors and help bring to life the impact of coronavirus on homeless young people, building tailored supporter journeys to ensure they have a brilliant experience. Even with restrictions lifting, it is unlikely that we’ll all go back to the office full time in the foreseeable future, if at all. Therefore, my other focus will be keeping morale and focus for the Fundraising team and looking at how we are working effectively together in what is likely to be a hybrid virtual and face-to-face working world.


2. Your organisation is receiving a lot of media attention right now. How are you managing to keep your charity message noticed in an era full of other crisis headlines?

All of us have been affected by the pandemic, but young people and in particular vulnerable young people have been the most impacted. As a result of coronavirus, there is an increasing number of homeless young people and climbing unemployment rates for under 25 year olds. At Centrepoint, we’re committed to making sure that they aren’t the generation that is left behind and raising awareness of the additional challenges this group of young people face. We’ve been making sure that this message continues to be front and centre of people’s minds and our supporters understand the difference they can make. It’s been a message that has really resonated with the public and when we speak to our supporters, they really understand these challenges and want to help – often despite the difficulties they have themselves faced during Covid-19.


3. What have been the key achievements of your charity so far? How has your charity had to adapt its strategy during the Covid19 crisis?

Centrepoint’s strategy hasn’t changed during Covid19 – we still aim for every young person to have a home and a job. We made a commitment at the very start of the pandemic that all 58 of our services would remain open and we’re proud that we’ve been able to achieve that. We’re also really proud of how the young people in our services have responded; for example not being able to have visitors has been so difficult for them. They’ve been brilliant at following guidelines and respecting the social distancing and protection measures we’ve put in place. As we all know, the recession has impacted the job market so many young people we work with have turned to our education and skills services. We’ve moved all our training on-line and have had brilliant take up and great results from the young people who’ve completed our courses. 

4. Do you have any exciting fundraising campaigns / new projects in the pipeline?

I’m delighted that we’re running our second STAY:UP campaign on 28th May. We piloted the fundraising campaign last October as a virtual alternative for our hugely successful annual Sleep Out and it raised an incredible £290k – not bad for a pilot! STAY:UP challenges people to stay awake from 8pm to 8am so that homeless young people don’t have to. Last year we had supporters bake, cycle and dance through the night – we even had one supporter spend all night carving wooden spoons! We’re planning a great programme of entertainment that supporters can join for the first few hours of the night. I’ll be joining them too and staying up until breakfast!


5. As a director with 17 years in the sector, what are your daily motivations for staying in fundraising?

It’s the people – those we support, our supporters and colleagues. Across all of my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing people, many of whom I now count as dear friends. It’s such a motivation and helps me raise my game to come to work every day and collaborate with exceptional fundraisers, colleagues, front line workers and peers. There are so many colleagues I admire and have learnt from in all of my roles. I also genuinely love working with donors – I think they’re brilliant! Talking to supporters about the difference they can make and working together to deliver change is the best and most rewarding part of my job. Ultimately, I’m most inspired by the people who our fundraising supports; their strength and courage are incredible. Here at Centrepoint, knowing that together we are helping to make a difference to young homeless people is my motivation for getting out of bed every day.

5. How is your charity reaching its donor base during this challenging time?

As I’m sure like many charities, we’ve had to adapt, pivot and do a lot more digital and online fundraising. The success of STAY:UP is a really good example of how we’ve managed to keep our donors who love Sleep Out engaged and fundraising for Centrepoint. We’ve also introduced our monthly Talking Point series where we’ve hosted a virtual lunchtime session spotlighting key areas of our work. It’s been a great way to bring some of our front-line workers into the homes of our supporters and have more people hear first-hand about the brilliant work they do. We continue to have 70 – 130 donors sign up each month and often get unsolicited donations from attendees. Our emergency appeal has been hugely successful and we produced a DR TV ad, which ran alongside a traditional mailing pack and online campaign. We saw a great response from the ad, both in terms of cash gifts as well as recruiting new regular givers. 


6.  What are the key skills you rely on in your fundraising team right now?

I think some of the key skills Centrepoint’s fundraising team are drawing on is creativity, adaptability and resilience. The fundraising, post-pandemic world is still really unclear, so we’re having to continue to adapt and think creatively about how we respond. In many ways, it’s a great time for fundraising because it can start to open up new avenues and force us to think differently about how we might approach and engage our donors. However, we all know that change can be exhausting and coupled with more than a year of being locked–down; I know it’s really testing everyone’s resilience. I’ve been talking really openly about mental health and ensuring that my team are managing their well-being so we can keep resilience up. It’s been tough though, and I have no doubt anyone reading this will have had their own good and bad days. We just need to make sure that we’re able to handle those bad days when they come around.


7. What has been your proudest achievement in your career to date?

I was working at the British Red Cross during the summer of 2017 when we had three of the UK’s biggest emergencies in recent years; the Manchester terror attack, the London Bridge terror attack and Grenfell – all in 3 weeks. Together the whole fundraising team did an incredible job, and I’m so proud of the role that I played in all of it, including helping to put on the One Love Concert in a week or setting up the respite centre for Grenfell residents in a matter of days. My team alone managed to raise £10m for people affected by these horrible events. Whilst it was incredibly stressful and intense that summer, the fundraising we did and what we achieved is absolutely the highlight of my career to date.


8. On a lighter note, it’s been a tough old year (!!) Where will your first proper holiday be when we’re all able to travel again?

I have a yoga retreat booked in Norfolk in July – I can’t wait! It’s with one of my favourite yoga teachers in a beautiful luxury retreat, out in the middle of nowhere with lots of places to walk and go wild swimming. I’m really looking forward to relaxing, rejuvenating and stretching after spending so much time at my desk. Depending on how restrictions lift, we’re hoping to look at a long haul trip in November – fingers crossed!

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