My 30 years as a fundraiser

Fundrais­ers often say they fell into’ fundrais­ing – not intend­ing on mak­ing it a career. But once Michelle Cham­bers had her first taste of fundrais­ing, she was cap­ti­vat­ed. In a use­ful addi­tion to our My first weeks as a fundrais­er’ show­case, SOFII encour­ages new fundrais­ers to take inspi­ra­tion from Michelle’s 30-year jour­ney. You’ll see how reward­ing a career in fundrais­ing can be, while also learn­ing about some impor­tant themes and changes that have influ­enced our pro­fes­sion over the past three decades

Written by
Michelle Chambers
April 01, 2023

I have been a fundraiser for 30 years. Or perhaps more accurately, I should say I have been a professional fundraiser for 30 years. As when I think about it, I’ve actually been a fundraiser for almost all my life. 

My Mum and Dad were very active in what was then called the Parents’ Association during my primary and secondary school years. I have fond memories of manning stalls at jumble sales and Christmas bazaars, as well as distributing and collecting raffle tickets to households where fellow pupils lived – no GDPR or data rules then! I took part in various sponsored activities when I was a Brownie and Guide – spelling, singing, being silent, never anything too physical (though silence was always a challenge for me!) – and I put plenty of pennies in Lent saving boxes for Sunday School.

I guess many people fundraise alongside their parents during their childhood and teenage years. When I look back, the point at which fundraising became an ‘owned passion’ rather than a partly imposed activity was when I cut a coupon out of a newspaper in my first year at University of York. I used that coupon to send a donation to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund – in memory of a favourite junior schoolteacher who had died.  

Rag (student society) collections and raising funds for our college common room were a feature of my time in York. Perhaps to an outsider, a career in charity might have been an obvious choice when I stepped out into the world of work… but not quite yet. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) turned down my application to join them as a community fundraiser in 1987... that gives me a little smile now!

Being a volunteer fundraiser took a much more serious turn after my Dad had a heart attack in 1990. What followed was my first real experience of fundraising as a profession, as my family engaged with our local British Heart Foundation (BHF) volunteer committee. I always felt sorry for the community fundraiser when she ran the gauntlet of an often grumbling set of committee members. But I was secretly envious of her having a job with a car, little knowing how many miles and late nights she endured behind the wheel.  

By now I was working in the fast-moving fashion industry, in Topshop’s buying office. And whilst I owe so much of my commercial acumen and love of numbers to those years, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with an industry which seemed to care little about the wellbeing and development of their staff. It felt like they were only focused on lining the pockets of unseen shareholders.  

So, I applied for and got a role in the retail and trading team at British Red Cross. The rest, as they say, is history.

In my role at THINK I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about trends that are impacting fundraising practice – both in the immediate, medium and long term. So, as I mark this professional anniversary, I’ve been looking back as well as forward. I’ve been thinking about how much – and how little – fundraising and the wider sector has changed over the last three decades. 

Below I’ve picked out seven themes which immediately sprang to mind as I started writing this piece. There are undoubtedly more.

1. Reliance on legacy income

The sector has always been and remains heavily reliant on gifts pledged in wills. And with the baby boomer generation in its twilight years, this shows no sign of abating anytime soon. It’s a topic that has puzzled and concerned executive teams, fundraisers and trustees across the years. But really, should it?  

Given the still low incidence of pledges to charity in wills, shouldn’t the focus of attention for legacies be on investment in marketing and stewardship to sustain legacy income levels, rather than on moving investment elsewhere to diversify? After all, death is the only certainty we all have in life – so maybe the time has come to stop fretting and keep investing in legacy growth.  

Of course, income diversity is desirable and helps to buffer the lumpy nature of legacy receipts. Investing in other fundraising streams can ultimately feed the legacy pipeline too.  Shouldn’t the driver be equally to maintain/grow high levels of legacy income and grow streams around it? This may mean the overall percentages of contributions that legacies make does reduce, but it will still be a major contributor.

2. Technology has changed every aspect of how we can fundraise

By far the greatest gamechanger in the last 30 years has been the advance and acceleration of technological solutions to many of the everyday challenges we face in delivering fundraising. Imagine being a prospect researcher before the internet existed or trying to communicate with and galvanise supporters during the pandemic if postal mail was the only communication channel available. Let alone actually managing to work during a national lockdown. 

When I joined the British Red Cross, one of the first ever charity direct response television (DRTV) campaigns for the conflict in the former Yugoslavia had been launched. Fast forward to 2023 and the changing way we consume programming – plus the proliferation of channels – has mainstreamed this acquisition technique. It’s another example of how technology has impacted fundraising.  

Technology allows us to move faster, more effectively and to drive inefficiencies out of our working practices to reach almost anyone, almost anywhere. However, in my opinion, the fundraising sector has only scratched the surface of what is possible. The sector remains largely inhibited by protracted approval processes, risk adverse attitudes and above all woefully insufficient investment in technology.  

In the vast majority of cases, we remain on the back foot in terms of data collection, analysis and insight. In 1993, Tesco Clubcard didn’t exist. Now the loyalty scheme boasts over 17 million members and is regarded as a best-in-class retail scheme, using vast amounts of data collection, manipulation and analysis to drive customer relationships.  

In stark contrast, many charities remain bogged down in trying to make the best of years of underinvestment in databases and data. Whilst the data revolution has theoretically put a multitude of insights at our fingertips, we remain largely unable to use and sweat data assets.

Of course, adding to this is the increasingly widespread application of artificial intelligence (AI) – the advent of the metaverse and the case for investment becomes imperative. It really is now or never for many fundraising operations.

3. Income generation beyond fundraising – still a fractious relationship

I started my fundraising career in the retail and trading team at the British Red Cross. Whilst we were part of a supporter engagement directorate, it wasn’t always the happiest of relationships with our fundraising team siblings – or indeed with some of the organisational function teams. The finance system couldn’t give us the information we needed in a format or timescale that made sense.  Our lower return of investment (ROI) meant investment in new activities was grudgingly accepted by our fellow fundraisers, and there was a sense that no one really got us! 

Fast forward to recent years, where the THINK team has worked on a number of projects which look beyond long-standing fundraising streams – and the same tensions and issues remain. Plus, in charities where fundraising is a smaller part of the total income pie, the misunderstandings and frustrations proliferate even further.  

So perhaps we need to accept that this is just how it is, embrace the creative tension created and use it to surface better ideas and outcomes, rather than fighting it? Because without a doubt we need the audiences and income that lie beyond fundraising, as well as our core fundraising activity to enable our causes to survive and thrive. 

4. Navigating legislation and regulation

The charity sector is no different to any other sector in having to continually adapt to and navigate changing legislation and regulation – think financial services for example. Back in 1993, the 1992 Charities Act was casting a shadow over what charities did and how they had operated. 

Since then, we have seen successively faster waves of legislation, not to mention the shift in fundraising regulation caused by the events of 2015 plus the advent of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).  We have approached all of these with trepidation and concern as they have changed the way we can and should deliver our fundraising and wider charitable aims and activities. We rely on sector bodies to advocate and challenge as bills pass through the process of becoming law. And like all sectors, we adapt and continue within a new framework.  

What’s key is keeping on the front foot with what’s coming down the tracks and what the impact is likely to be – ‘forewarned, forearmed’ as the saying goes.  My advice is to engage but not worry when inevitably the next wave comes towards us.

5. Recession – rarely the beginning of the end

Although it’s now looking like the UK will avoid a technical recession during 2023, the economic outlook remains challenging and many charities are having to make tough decisions in light of accelerating costs. Looking back over the available statistics relating to previous periods of economic hardship, during the 2008 recession, fundraised income fell by less than GDP but took longer to recover to pre-recession levels. In 2020 we saw high value supporters – trusts, philanthropists and corporates – step up to help charities meet the challenge of recession in a way never seen before. The sector has survived but not without casualties, job losses and freezes.  

In a period of economic downturn, we should change the narrative and be looking for cost efficiencies as much as cost savings. We should try to slow down rather than stop completely new initiatives, aiming to keep existing supporters and donors close and giving what they can. We need to remain bold but sensitive in our asking and accept that for peer to peer fundraising, the ask for support from personal networks becomes harder. Therefore, we should lower our expectations of average gifts in that area, whilst using data and giving patterns to understand who can be asked more frequently and for more.  

6. Fundraising - a profession of choice

When I joined the British Red Cross, almost everybody had worked in a different sector and had fallen into fundraising rather than setting out from education to join the profession.  Fast forward 30 years and whilst the fundraising sector is still a second career stop for many, I do see increasing numbers of individuals who have chosen to pursue a career in fundraising from the get-go.  

There are now a number of graduate and post graduate qualifications in fundraising, as well as the clear qualifications path provided by the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CIOF).  This gladdens my heart as it is one of the best and most rewarding professions in my opinion. I’m excited to see what comes next as the Institute matures into its chartered status and moves on from the choppy waters it has sailed in over recent years.  

But for me, the real turning point for me will be when my great nieces and nephews are able to talk to me about their fundraising lessons at school and are excited to choose fundraising as a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or A level (or whatever they are called by then). That is the moment that fundraising will truly become a profession of choice.

7. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) – moving the dial painfully slowly

Sadly for me, this is the area in which I see the least progress in the last 30 years.  When I look at the composition of fundraising teams across the sector, I see a similar set of faces to those who greeted me in 1993. 

For a sector that seeks to make the world a better and a more equal place for minorities of all kinds, we have failed to properly reflect that in our workforces and working practices. EDI is now firmly front and central for many organisations, and it is everyone’s responsibility to understand and embed EDI thinking in all that we do.  

So there you have my reflections on 30 years a fundraiser. 

Whilst so much has changed, so much remains the same. Fundamentally, whatever tools, techniques and technologies we have at our disposal, successful fundraising boils down to just this: 

Tell a compelling story about your work to people who have a connection to your cause, motivate them to give money, voice and time and then work hard to make them a lifetime friend. And your work will be done!

About the author: Michelle Chambers

Michelle Chambers (she/her) has held roles at a range of charity and heritage organisations – including the British Red Cross and the Museum of London. Before joining the sector, Michelle worked for a UK fashion retailer.  

She has been responsible for most major fundraising activity streams throughout her career and is adept at developing fundraising strategy at overall and stream specific level. A consultant since 2005, Michelle has been Managing Director of THINK Consulting Solutions since 2015 – working with a range of clients around the world. 

Michelle combines strategic thinking skills with operational delivery, applying practical implementation to the creative idea. She is passionate about the importance of creating long lasting relationships between charities and their supporters and keeping the donor at the heart of fundraising thinking and practice.

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