Lessons from the Annu­al Lec­tures: Kirsty Simpson’s view

Written by
Kirsty Simpson
February 11, 2015
The world-famous Faraday Theatre home of experiment and innovation is the perfect location for the Annual Lectures.

Today, I was one of those annoying individuals that you are sometimes unfortunate enough to sit next to on the train...the ones still wearing their lanyard (sorry, I’m sure I was supposed to hand that in)and brimming with enthusiasm. You know the type.

For some of you Londoners this may seem slightly foreign, but as soon as you hit the Midlands, your fellow passenger becomes your new best friend and today Terry from Crewe was in the hot seat. Having absorbed so much information throughout my day at the Annual Lectures and still a little giddy with excitement, I started my explanation with a jumble of worlds that probably didn't quite make sense. It went something a little like this;

‘Did you know that to change the world you need to take risks, charities need to invest and I also got told it is ok to swear... that shows passion. Best of all, I got told to break the law. Even though it's illegal, next time I'm stood on the street with a bucket in my hand, I'm going to bloody well give it a shake! It's easier to ask for forgiveness than request permission.’

When Terry from Crewe got off the train in Nuneaton, I realised that I needed to bring myself down from the ceiling and take some time to jot down the key things I learned from the day; my top nuggets of knowledge that need to be shared with everyone in the sector. So here goes.

Science really is amazing…

Phil Barden’s opening session was fascinating and made it clear that we can stop guessing about what works in fundraising and instead use science and research outside of our sector to make better decisions about our techniques and approaches. The smallest research-based tweaks could have massive impact, we just need to do the reading and make the changes.

In Phil’s session he discussed some work completed by BT (formerly British Telecom), who found that printing a friendly face on their mailing actually deterred from their offer; when they removed the face the response rate increased by 32 per cent. So next time you have a campaign design idea, do some reading on what has already been tested and utilise research that has been completed to make sure your campaign is as successful as it can be.

This little report does not cover a fraction of the insight that Phil brought to the day, so it is my recommendation that all fundraisers should add Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy (John Wiley & Sons, UK, 2013) to their list of books to read.

Stop playing it safe…

We have all heard rumblings that we need to be more risky in the world of philanthropy, but nobody really takes note and listens until we are told to take more risks by Professor Jen Shang!

Jen explained her five-step process for philanthropists approaching risk, which included; (1) Define risk. (2) Assess the degree of risk. (3) Recognise the pivotal points of shifting either their definition or their assessments. (4) Cope with negative emotions. (5) Optimise the value that their life experience offers their philanthropy. This process however, is not linear, it follows more of a cyclic pattern, repeating the steps continuously and entering the process at any step, not the first. Jen’s recommendations for bridging the risk gap are to be patient, ask hard questions and follow the pattern: learning, leading and returning. She now needs us to take this forward and make philanthropy more daring. 

Be bold, be positive, and be innovative…

Passion has always been associated with great fundraising and when you listen to Jeremy Hughes speak it is clear to see why and totally understandable that he has managed to integrate fundraising into his whole organisation. His message to the sector was to be ahead of the game, be bold, be positive and be innovative. He inspired the audience that great fundraising puts fundraisers in the driving seat, it puts fundraising at the front of the annual report, not the back, and it makes fundraisers the people that everyone wants to speak to. We need to change the message and persuade the world that fundraisers are the ‘intel’ (the process that drives most computers) inside charities and not the ‘evil’ inside. To spread this message we need super glue stickers – the ones just like you have on your laptop, the ones you couldn’t remove even if you tried.

We also need to join together as an industry and get rid of the words ‘goes directly to the cause’. We need to convince the world that we should spend more on raising money, not less. But we can only achieve this if we tackle it together; I’m game… are you?

Stop congratulating yourself…

How many of us have used anniversary celebrations to congratulate ourselves on what a fantastic job our cause has done, without thinking about how it may come across to our beneficiaries? Iain McAndrew, from Cystic Fibrosis Trust, told us how a beneficiary turned their celebrations upside down. When asked what she thought of the upcoing fiftieth birthday, her response was, ‘I’m jealous’. These two words injected anger into the team and reinvigorated the organisation to think about their purpose and concentrate on what still needs to be done. Something we can all learn from. Re-connecting with their beneficiaries also showed the power of storytelling and Iain updated traditional recruitment processes by advertising for a ‘master storyteller’ instead of a marketing director and requesting a storytelling video in lieu of an application form.

The difference a year makes…

It was fascinating to hear from people who had committed to change at the previous Annual Lectures and empowering to learn the difference that one person can make in a year. Louise McCathie from Birmingham Children’s Hospital showed us that a positive mental attitude, a commitment to change and being the person who takes action really can change the culture of an organisation. She highlighted the importance of building up small wins and little affirmatives. It is these that make the biggest impact and equate to big change.

In one year she managed to transform the number of fundraising enquiry visitors from 40 per year in their old office to 29,000 a year in their fundraising support hub within the hospital. She managed to get fundraising within the whole organisation’s objectives. She managed to get the director of fundraising invited to join the board for the first time and to have an equal footing in the organisation. She made the whole organisation realise that fundraising is not the 24 fundraisers, it is the thousands of hospital staff and hundreds of thousands of hospital visitors.

If you want to influence change on this level, you can – just commit to the small wins and little affirmatives.

Everyone wants to be like us…

Do you remember the days when everyone said that the ‘not-for-profit’ sector needed to be more like the corporate sector?! Oh how things have changed. Now the corporate sector is desperate to be more like us and we have recognised that ‘not for profit’ is the most inaccurate name for our sector. The session held by Alan Clayton and Pat Dade proposed that we rebrand as the ‘profit-with-purpose sector’, which is not only inspiring, it is also a truly accurate description of what we do.

We need to refocus the how, what and why of our charities. The ‘how’ gives us meetings, the ‘what’ causes arguments and the ‘why’ gives us purpose and meaning. At this point it was clear to see why the audience was filled with little ‘why’ pin badges. Every cause out there needs to spend less time talking about the ‘how’ and more time on the ‘why’. And the really good stuff happens when you match the charity’s ‘why’ with the donor’s ‘why’.

Stand out and stop copying…

Richard Taylor revealed the secrets to avoiding failure, encouraging the sector to grow the market and stop stealing market share from one another. He told us that we need to be innovative to succeed and that the organisations out there without an innovation project are setting themselves up for failure. He highlighted that we spent the last 12 months proving ourselves wrong. Twelve months ago we all agreed that social media was not the answer to raising funds, but this year has seen the no-make-up selfie, the ice bucket challenge and Steven Sutton taking over social networks and raising phenomenal sums of money for good causes, so anything really is possible. We just need to stop copying one another and stop going after the same market share. We need to reinvent ourselves, trial innovative ideas, think about the consumer and break into new markets.

One wish of the good fundraising fairy…

If all of the above is not enough to keep you going on making this your best year of fundraising yet, some top tips from Alan Clayton, Ken Burnett and Tony Elischer finished off the day nicely. And yes I think the three of them have proclaimed themselves as fundraising fairies!

Firstly, we need to recognise the benefit that donors get from giving. As fundraisers we need to start taking pleasure from giving our donors a warm glow and helping them feel fulfilled. Fundraising is not begging, it is fulfilling a need of our supporters.

Secondly, we need to be authentic and empathetic. We need to become expert storytellers, choosing our words with precision and telling the truth, and telling it well. We need to use power and passion that will move people to action.

Finally, we need to commit to customer service and enhancing the donor experience. We need to treat donors more individually and with a commitment to supporter care, then the profit will follow. Not immediately, but it will come. We also need to commit to growing talent in the sector and investing in people. The talent pool is getting smaller and so we need to stop poaching from one charity to another and think differently about how we move forward. Basically, if you want to win it is about people and it is about passion.  

About the author: Kirsty Simpson

Kirsty Simpson heads up the events and community fundraising team at Claire House Children’s Hospice. She is currently studying an MSc in Charity Marketing and Fundraising at Cass Business School and holds a First Class Undergraduate Degree in Events Management from The University of Birmingham. Kirsty is also a guest lecturer in the field of Event Management.

Kirsty started her career in corporate event management working for Events Unlimited, but realised her passion for the third sector when managing UK challenge events for a charity client of the company, Wooden Spoon. Kirsty subsequently worked at The Air Ambulance Service before joining Claire House Children’s Hospice in 2013, a cause that she is truly passionate about.

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