Tony Elischer, THINK Consulting Solutions

Posted in Interviews

Tony Elischer, THINK Consulting Solutions

Tony Elischer opens up about his relationship with the International Fundraising Congress and explains why leadership giving is the future of fundraising


How long have you been attending the International Fundraising Congress (IFC)?

I’ve been attending for 25 years and a speaker for about 20. I was in community fundraising at Help the Aged and working my way up through the ranks when I saw the opportunity to write a feasibility paper to start a corporate fundraising initiative at the charity. As a result, I started to get speaking engagements and one of my early ones was at the IFC.


What keeps you coming back?

The whole spirit of the IFC is that it’s had a core of some very dedicated volunteers who’ve made it what it is. You go right back to people like George Smith and Harold Sumption, who were the founders of it, and I think some of that spirit still lives there today.


You were upset by the Resource Alliance (RA) changing its policy towards volunteers at the event last year. Is it water under the bridge?

Yes, we’ve moved on. They decided to make the event more staff driven so they had more control of it and wanted to change the terms of some of their volunteers.. After such a long commitment to the event, and the RA generally, and in light of the changes I thought it was a good time to change my role and relationship and to step back on the volunteer front but still to continue as a key speaker and over all supporter. I had served on the main RA board for six years previously and as well as being the first dedicated chair of the IFC, I had supported numerous volunteer boards over many years, contributing to making IFC one of the most successful gatherings in the world.


What makes the IFC unique?

Primarily it’s the quality of the sessions, the creativity of the programme and the professionalism of the organisation. It’s very special because everybody is on site for three or four days and there’s a real community feel. If you go there thinking you’re going to have a wild night out in Amsterdam you’ve got another thing coming – it’s at least 100 euros taxi fare each way.


Can you remember your first session?

I gave workshops looking at different access points and ways of working creatively with companies.


Was corporate fundraising still quite new at that stage?

It started in the late 70s in the UK. The dominant players were predominantly Save the Children and WWF, they had the whole thing stitched up because they had realised themselves as brands and leveraged celebrities.

I never forget going along to Save the Children’s offices as a young fundraiser and Princess Anne had a desk there. She would ring up companies and say: ‘I want to speak to the managing director’. When they asked who was speaking she would answer: ‘it’s Princess Anne’. It was a different world.


What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in fundraising?

I was very lucky to have become a fundraiser when I did because what I didn’t realise in the early 80s was that I was joining before fundraising was truly a profession. When I became a fundraiser the idea of creating an Institute of Fundraising was only just beginning. There were very few people who were training and trying to make it a profession. I’ve seen this incredible shift to professionalisation and now people can use mixes of skills and experience to come up with their own unique balance for being a successful fundraiser.


What do you think sparked the professionalisation of fundraisers?

There were a lot of media driven events and charities had to professionalise. By the time we got to the late 80s, we had an Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, the ‘ICFM’ as it was then, and there were pretty much two schools of fundraising. One was direct marketing fundraising – where fundamentally we were using skills from the commercial sector – and we were also using community fundraising, which was the grassroots.

Community fundraising is one of the most fascinating ones for me. That’s where we came from – volunteering and communities mobilising to do things. And yet it fell out of favour in the 90s, and even up to very recently, because we were using all these other, very sexy, techniques that were driven more by technology, commercial thinking and marketing.


Was that because community fundraising couldn’t attract the same level of media attention?

No. Community fundraising was becoming more intensive; you needed more energy and creativity for it. We went through a period where we thought it was going to be easier to use direct marketing, corporate fundraising and major gift fundraising.

The ironic thing is that community fundraising is now seriously back on the cards because charities have realised how critical it is to have that grassroots connection. You have to look at the whole thing holistically, your community fundraisers can integrate with your direct marketing teams and your direct marketing teams can integrate with corporate teams.


So multi-channel fundraising is going to become increasingly important?

Totally. I’d go further and say, if you develop a campaign or fundraising initiative that is not multi-channel then you are on a road to failure.

We’re still struggling to work out multi-channel but companies have been doing it for five years now. The non-profit sector is always about five years behind whatever trends they follow. When they were talking about branding, we were still trying to get corporate identities, and then we started to talk about branding. Now we talk about mergers and acquisitions as if they’re brand new things, but the corporate sector’s been doing it for 20 years.


Is there anything else we can learn for the corporate sector?

One of the fascinating things about fundraising at the moment is that if you’re in an international organisation, an INGO, you can look at individual markets, build up a market portfolio and decide where you should be investing your resource. It’s a little bit closer to thinking and operating like a company would when they’re looking at their portfolio.


Which techniques can transcend those individual markets?

There are three techniques that come under the heading of ‘leadership giving’. The first is securing support from high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs), the second is foundations and the third is corporate. Imagine a Venn diagram with an individual sat in the middle and three circles around them – one is personal wealth, one is corporate wealth and one is foundations wealth. You don’t know where they might draw support from so you develop a program to target HNWIs, the people in the middle. I’m going to call the ‘global citizen’.


Who exactly is this ‘global citizen’?

Although the world is in a pretty dire state economically, the richer are getting richer – no surprises there. A large amount of wealth is holding up. Look how quickly the banks have recovered in terms of bonuses and rewarding individuals. They’re in the media every day saying, ‘we have to reward these people otherwise they’ll walk’. So the one strand which has held up is HNWIs, and they operate across multiple countries.

I’m working with at least four clients to try to embrace these global citizens in campaigns which appeal to their social investment criteria


What if a charity doesn’t operate across international borders?

Domestic UK charities can use the same thinking. We have to move away from thinking in terms of major gift strategies and focus on the people who have the potential to participate in these programs. I think we should see more leadership giving teams emerging in charities. They should integrate the three functions – if you’ve got a cause which appeals to a corporate fundraising agenda then of course you need rock solid corporate fundraising executives. But if you look at some of the big partnerships, there’s a huge amount of cultivation that’s gone on behind the scenes. People networking and getting the right introductions – sometimes I think we deny these things.


How does social investment fit into leadership giving?

HNWIs have an investment mindset. I always work on the premise that they want to see returns in terms of impact and output and they’re not looking for financial returns. Our fundraising outlook for the future should be that we will report and justify ourselves and our activities as if we were reporting to investors. But always in terms of the impacts and outputs and the measures we can bring to them.


Tony Elischer is managing director at THINK Consulting Solutions

This interview first appeared in The Fundraiser, Issue 10, October 2011

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