CDE project 17 sec­tion 1: the approach

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 30, 2017

We were clear from the start that this project was not just about leadership and not just about donor-centred fundraising. (We found many people who wanted to give us their opinions on one or the other of these topics!) Critically, we were keen to find the sweet spot where the two intersected. We were seeking to answer the question: ‘What kind of leadership have you found increases the chances that a charity will operate in a donor-centred way?’

Most people in fundraising leadership positions have already shown themselves to be competent at fundraising. The major challenge is that as a leader, the problems you need to solve are less about creating great relationships with your own donors and more about increasing the chances that others will also do create those relationships.

Whatever the size or type of your organisation, the challenge of creating an environment in which other people do more of the right thing is fairly simple in theory, but is often not easy in practice. Furthermore, many of the challenges that feel like barriers to donor-centred fundraising are so common that some people genuinely believe that’s just the way things are. 

We are talking about exasperating things like missed opportunities for your project because your colleague was not aware of something relevant to a particular donor, arguments about whose target should receive credit or slow-moving sign-off processes in larger charities. If you have suffered these issues in every role you have had before becoming a leader, it is understandable that you might not quite believe it is possible to solve them. 

When life is stressful, it is not surprising that you might be drawn to spend more time where you are comfortable, thinking and acting like a fundraiser, and less time in unfamiliar territory, thinking and acting like a leader.

The exciting news, though, is that donor-focussed leadership is a skill like any other. The more you focus on it and work at it, the better you will become. Even if you are determined to overcome the other challenges and build this skill, there still remains a challenge. What should you focus on doing better? There are thousands of leadership and fundraising books out there and plenty of people who want to give you their advice. Without a clear sense of some key principles to focus on, it is even less likely that aspiring leaders will follow through and improve.

The three people involved in this project (Rob Woods, Charlotte White and Kim van Niekerk) are all former fundraisers based in the UK who have worked in the charity sector for more than ten years. They all now operate as consultants; this work includes both training groups and one to one coaching with fundraisers and leaders. Every year, they each work with leaders from dozens of different charities, of every size and type.

To answer our key question, we each tried to think of anyone we had ever heard of who had a strong reputation as a fundraising leader and who worked or had worked in an organisation that had been donor-centred in its approach to fundraising. We also each asked other experienced fundraisers if they could think of anyone who met both criteria.

We conducted interviews with 15 leaders, asking them questions based around the starting question: ‘What kind of leadership have you found increases the chances that a charity will operate in a donor-centred way?’ Three different people recommended Joe Jenkins, who had been the Director of Fundraising and Supporter Engagement at Friends of the Earth, and was now at Children’s Society as worth interviewing. We invited him to share his experiences on the subject of leadership, culture and mindset at a breakfast event we held for 36 Directors of Fundraising in September 2016.

Based on what the 16 leaders said, the project lead searched for the key leadership themes that seemed most credibly to have helped charities to operate in a donor-centred way. He also searched other books and training courses, including those that explored ideas about successful leadership in other contexts, which faced issues which donor-focussed fundraising leaders would recognise. He used this information to create a model of three key principles that help people succeed in this kind of leadership. 

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About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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