Fundraising stripped naked: what matters in the end?

In this instalment of, 'My first weeks as a fundraiser', Jennifer Ruthe strips fundraising back to the bare basics (oo-er) with five things you'll want to get right from the get-go.

Written by
Jennifer Ruthe
November 28, 2019

I’ve been fundraising for almost ten years. I started in programme funding but soon found myself manning events, coordinating appeals and account managing corporates (as generally happens when you work for a small charity). I have seen it rain money. I have also worked through my fair share of dry spells. It can be hard, especially when you don’t have a big brand or ‘popular’ cause to help you through!  

I must admit, I used to look at the likes of UNICEF, the Red Cross and British Heart Foundation with a degree of envy. What must it be like to have that kind of budget, resource and profile at your disposal? But as I get older (and some might say, wiser), there is another question that has come to matter even more. What happens if you don’t? 80 per cent of UK charities have an income of less than one million pounds. So let’s take a moment to strip away the luxury budget and brand. What are you left with? Fundraising, in its barest form.

I’ve been there - and here is what I think matters most:  

1) Your board: Never a fun topic. But the fact is your board counts. Sadly, most are made up of white men aged 65+. If this meets your needs, great. If not, it might be time to re-think your mix. Your board shouldn’t manage your charity, but they do lead it – supporting strategy development, mitigating risks and opening doors. To do this, it needs to be manned by people that bring the understanding, diversity, skills and time your charity needs to drive its mission forward. Fundraising, finance, HR, business, marketing, governance… audit your current team and design a recruitment strategy that fills the gaps. Use your networks and don’t be afraid to advertise. You never know whose eye you might catch!

2) Networks: Not just for major donor fundraisers: if Microsoft is right, your charity is just 6.6 degrees from their next great connection. You still need to send out cold campaigns and approaches, but networks open doors that would otherwise stay shut. Whether it’s a foundation (has anyone else noticed the rise in solicited funding opportunities?) corporate, individual or ambassador, you need to start joining the dots. Your CEO can do it. Your board can do it. You can do it too – just look at your LinkedIn! Everybody has connections. Don’t be afraid to use them. You will be surprised by just how far you can reach.  

3) Relationships: You can’t discuss networks without also talking about relationships. I’ve always been a fan of Ken Burnett and his thoughts on ‘Relationship Fundraising’. Why? Because it makes sense. People give to people. It doesn’t matter if that person is administering a grant, the CEO of an international corporation, or running a marathon on your behalf. They are a human being and it is vital that you treat them as such. Be sincere. Be real. Be honest. If you need something (like core funding) – ask for it. If a project is off-track, be open about it. If you’re holding an event, send an invite. It is the trust you build that paves the way to success and will help you weather the storm if (when?) it comes your way. 

4) The ask: Let me preface this by saying I believe there is money out there for every good cause. But I would be lying if I said they’re all equally popular. Whether you’re fundraising for health, education, animal rights, social welfare or overseas work, you need to think carefully about your ask. What are the factors that work for and against you? Think like a funder and look at your case for support objectively. Ask the so-called stupid questions, find the holes and fill them. Whether you need core income or project funding, set your niche, identify your audience and build a case that sells your impact and puts beneficiaries at its heart. 

5) Professionalism: You might be a charity, but that’s no excuse for sloppiness. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to be professional. I don’t mean wear a suit to the office (hahaha), I mean projecting a brand and persona you believe in. It doesn’t have to cost the earth. Choose your staff and train them well. Develop a simple set of brand guidelines and use them. Proof your work, send donor reports on time and never underestimate the value of saying ‘thank you’. And if someone wants to donate, make sure your payment process is working and the Gift Aid form is ready! 

It might sound obvious, but when competition is hot it does no harm to remember the basics. I never cease to be amazed how much charities can achieve with so little. It isn’t always easy, but what job is? The point is that amidst all the glitzy technology, PR and marketing, fundraising is still all about people. Your board, your networks, your beneficiaries, your team. Get these right and you’ve got a solid foundation to build on. 

About the author: Jennifer Ruthe

Jennifer Ruthe

Jennifer Ruthe has almost 10 years’ experience as a fundraiser in health and international development. Starting out in Programme Funding, she has worked with some of the biggest foundations in the world. Expanding her experience outwards, roles have gone on to include broader fundraising and communications across all major income streams. She now freelances as a Charity Copywriter (Written by Jen) and loves to share the benefit of her skills and experience with others.

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