The Fundraisers Book Club

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Purplegrass Consulting is delighted to announce the launch of the Fundraisers Book Club. We will be announcing details of the first book in the next few weeks along with a date for our first event.

Sign up to our mailing list or keep an eye on our Facebook page for more details.

The Fundraisers Book Club was the brainchild of Gaby Murphy (Purplegrass)  Colin Skehan (Merchants’ Quay) and Simon Scriver (ChangeFundraising). We are all members of Rogare, the Fundraising Think Tank based at the University of Plymouth’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy and we were looking for a way to share some of the critical thinking on fundraising that this group is producing.

We wanted to make sure that Irish fundraisers had a chance to share in that debate and so we came up with the idea of the Fundraisers Book Club.

The idea is to provide an informal networking and continuous learning club for fundraisers of all levels. The plan is to meet every 2 months and at each meeting we will review a publication, a piece of research or a book on a fundraising related topic.

It will be run like a book club, in that everyone will have the opportunity to input into the discussion, regardless of experience, level of seniority or discipline.

Discussions will focus on the practical application of fundraising theory or research and how we use evidence and best practice to inform how we fundraise.

Who can attend?

It is open to all fundraisers and communications professionals working in the sector or interested in getting into the sector. The only entry criteria is an open mind and a willingness to learn.

What is the aim of the Book Club?

Continuous learning,  self-improvement,  networking with colleagues, fun and lively discussion.

Will I be expected to prepare for the sessions?

Like any book club we will let people know in advance what the text is that we will be discussing so that people have a few months to read it.

Is there a charge?

The Club will be run on a cost neutral basis – most events will be free of charge and some may incur a small charge to cover venue hire costs, where needed.


A Virus that Kills Cancer is Waiting to Come in from the Cold

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Oncolytic virus


In the summer of 2012, Thomas Fredengren, Head of Fundraising and Alumni Relations at Uppsala University, got a message in his inbox from one of the University’s researchers:

Hi Thomas

An English journalist is writing an article about my research that will be published in the Telegraph and he would also like to have a fact box about donations, is there something special we should think about?

Best wishes


So Thomas sent him some information and next to the article appeared a little box that said

To donate money to Professor Magnus Essand’s research on viral treatments for neuroendocrine cancer, send contributions to Uppsala University, The Oncolytic Virus Fund, Box 256, SE-751 05 Uppsala, Sweden or visit  Contributions will be acknowledged in the scientific publications and in association with the clinical trial. A donation of £1 million will ensure the virus is named in your honour.

At the time Uppsala University had no online donation function and a Paypal account was hastily set up, on the off-chance that any donations might come in.

The article published in the Telegraph magazine by Alexander Masters was entitled “A virus that kills cancer is waiting to come in from the cold” and was a masterpiece of journalism.  The article went online on August 31st 2012 and in just days, it became one of the top 3 most shared articles on social media.


Oncolytic virus screen shot


Over the first few days after the article’s publication around 70,000 SEK (€7000) was paid into the PayPal account and the university received numerous offers to crowdfund for the research.

Within a week, several bogus crowdfunding sites were set up and the University realised it had to act quickly to regain control over the situation and meet the need that had been created by the huge  swell of public interest in Professor Essand’s research.

The University got in touch with its Friends of Uppsala University in the US who agreed to help via their 501c(3) and although no similar organisation was in existence in the UK, The Anglo Swedish Society agreed to help and acted as a channel for donations from UK donors.

Video messages were filmed of Professor Magnus Essand and put up on the university website as well as thank you videos, which were sent to every single donor (regardless of the size of their gift).



Throughout Autumn 2012, around 2 million SEK (€200,000) was raised in many small donations from over 2000 individuals.

In spring 2013, the University made contact with a potential major donor to the campaign and by June 15th 2013 (just eight and a half months after the Telegraph article was published) the University was able to announce that a donation of 14 million SEK (€1.4 million) had been made by Vince Hamilton which secured sufficient funding to commence the clinical trial.

In the summer of 2013 the crowdfunding continued, led by an initiative from one family in the US, resulting in a further US$200,000 to the campaign.

In July 2015, the Lancet reported that the campaign had raised US$3,113,000 (£2,000,000) and in March 2016 the Financial Times called the campaign “one of the most successful crowdfunding medical sites to date.”

Thomas Fredengren  shared his learnings from the whirlwind campaign. It was clear there was huge public interest in the research and that this could be harnessed, in the absence of any interest in the research from the pharmaceutical companies.  He also noted that there was great personal chemistry between Vince Hamilton (their major donor) and Professor Essand and his team, which drove the project on and gave it momentum.

Uppsala University got excellent media exposure and as a result of the campaign internal relationships were developed and a new focus on fundraising was institutionalised.

Crowdfunding however  requires a huge amount of back office resource, as each and every gift has to be documented and taken good care of.  There were inherent risks in how the university brand was used by external fundraisers and the university is now much more prepared to take advantage of bottom- up fundraising campaigns as and when they present themselves.

And Magnus Essand kept his promise to journalist Alexander Masters and threw him the biggest party in Uppsala to celebrate the start of the clinical trials.  And if this story is ever made into a movie, my money would be on Matt Damon to play Magnus Essand.


For more on this campaign go to



Fundraising in a Cold Climate

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Scandinavia might not be the first place you think of when you think of cutting edge fundraising campaigns, but fundraising and philanthropy has gained huge momentum in the Nordic countries in recent years, as I learnt on a recent trip to Stockholm to meet some of my Swedish associates in the Mira Partnership.

Much like elsewhere in Europe, major gift fundraising has been pioneered by the university sector and the first modern capital campaign was conducted in the 1990s by Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, following a change in Swedish education policy which freed up universities to set up their own independent foundations.  Chalmers raised 340 million SEK (€35.7 million)  from its first modern fundraising campaign which was targeted at alumni and broke new records in Sweden at the time.

Sweden is certainly no stranger to philanthropy. In 1912 its citizens raised 12 million Kronor (approx  650 SEK/€6.6 million in today’s equivalent) through a public fundraising campaign to purchase a new warship for the country.  Today Sweden has the 4th highest number of billionaires per capita, including Markus Persson (the founder of Minecraft), Ingvar Kamprad (the Ikea founder), Stefan Persson (H&M clothing retailer) and the Rausing family (founders of Tetrapak) to name just a few.


The Karolinska Institutet – €100 Million Breakthroughs for Life Campaign

During my trip, I met Harriet Wahlberg, a former President of the Karolinska Institutet (one of the world’s leading medical universities). As President, Harriet led one of the most successful fundraising campaigns in recent years in Scandinavia – a 1 billion SEK (€100 million) fundraising campaign called Breakthroughs for Life.  But unlike many university campaigns of this size, the campaign was not for capital development but to raise funds for ground-breaking medical research.


Karolinska Institutet


Harriet shared her reflections on the campaign and on why she felt it had been such a success.

  • The preparation period was crucial and Harriet met with all 22 department heads before the campaign was launched and insisted that she would not go ahead unless she had the support of every one of them.
  • The campaign was viewed as a strategic priority for the University and critically important from a brand building point of view, as well as for the fundraising itself.
  • Harriet, as President of the University, was a member of the Campaign committee which met twice a month. She personally spent about 9-10 hours a week on the campaign and 90% of that time she focused on the domestic fundraising market.
  • Much of her work was spent ”friendraising” which she cited as a key element of the campaign before any fundraising could begin.
  • Ultimately the Karolinska Institutet raised 76% of the campaign total from private individuals, including family foundations, 14% from companies and 10% from grant giving foundations.


Harriet Wahlberg has written a short book about the Breakthroughs for Life campaign and her experience is fascinating, above all for the openness of Harriet’s approach and her far-sightedness in understanding just how critical her personal involvement was to the success of the campaign.

”We listened to experts on fundraising, ” she said, ” because we realised we were amateurs at this.  We learnt from them and then adapted what we had learnt to our own needs”.


Breakthroughs for Life


The Karolinska Institutet worked with Brakeley Nordic Fundraising Consultants on the campaign. Purplegrass Consulting and Brakeley Nordic are members of the Mira Partnership, an international association of fundraising consultants.

Texting on the Loo and Other Stories from the 2016 IFC

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The theme of this year’s International Fundraising Congress was “Asking the Right Questions” and here are a few of our own questions and the best bits from what we learnt at this year’s event.


  1. Mobile Fundraising – how many people admit to reading their phones on the loo?

In the UK, 74% people admit to this according to recent research presented by Paul de Gregorio from Communications Agency, Open. Who’d have thought!

Paul talked about how mobile brings together content, communication and payment into one  snack-able chunk.  And as we look at our phones on average 150 times a day, there are ample opportunities for charities to get across their bite-size pieces of content.


  1. What is the most popular content on social media channels?

According to Cancer Research UK, video is the most viewed content on social media channels and Kathryn Toner from CRUK recommended putting subtitles on all video content as many people view it on public transport with the sound off.

Still on the subject of video, but in a different context, CRUK has also been testing responsive screens in their shop windows and 1 in 6 people engaged with the interactive screen.


CRUK shop

  1. How do we ask well?

Amanda Palmer’s inspiring plenary session focused on the art of asking. She spoke about how vital context is when we are asking someone for something, but the comment that struck me the most was a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden:

“Good asking fundamentally leaves space for no”.

  1. How do we measure what counts, not just count what we can measure?

Joe Jenkins talked about his experience of Impact Reporting at the Children’s Society.  According to Joe, for impact reporting to be in any way meaningful,  it must be driven by the whole organisation, not just by the fundraising team.  When dealing with the complex issues of childhood neglect, poverty and abuse, contribution is more important than attribution and finding a way to measure impact rather than just outcomes remains a challenge. He felt that where learning and continuous improvement were behind impact reporting, it could achieve far more.


  1. Can Working Class Heroes deliver more for us than Dorothy Donor?

Bluefrog’s donor research paper makes interesting reading. Working class heroes, Humble and Holy and Noblesse Oblige are 3 distinct categories of mid level donors their research came up with as a way of demonstrating why people chose to make more significant gifts to particular charities.   One tip, when trying to identify your next mid level donors or charity champions was to look for people who’ve given more than you’ve asked them for or who’ve called up to let you know about their change of address.


  1. What can Corporate Fundraisers learn from taxi drivers?

Always make sure you’ve booked the return fare. Rob Woods’ advice on managing the corporate meeting stressed the importance of agreeing the next steps before you leave the room.   Make sure you have agreed the next meeting, check what phone number to use when getting back to them and agree the next steps in the decision making process.

The start of the conversation is equally key. Whoever owns the frame, owns the conversation so make sure you set the frame for the conversation, before your contact can do so.  Relate to the person’s world first (eg our TV and DM campaigns have not been performing as well as they used to  – it’s probably been the same for you – so we are now looking at new types of partnership) and head off any misconceptions of company/charity partnerships before they can frame the conversation.

Rob based much of his approach on The Psychology of Influence by Robert Cialdini, still one of the leading experts on sales.  It’s worth checking out, as is his new book Pre-suasion (bound to turn up on the Fundraisers Book Club list – see below).


  1. How can you increase your legacy pledges by 15%?

Make sure that solicitors are asking potential legators in the  correct way. Research presented by Remember a Charity showed that if people are asked the question “is there a cause that you feel passionately about that you would like to remember in your will, after friends and family are taken care of?” there was a 15% increase in people signing up to leave a legacy, showing the vital role that solicitors can play in correctly positioning a legacy gift.

Stephen George from Remember a Charity stressed the importance of putting the legator at the centre of all communications. He showed a great Legacy TV advert from Unicef Italy which was filmed as if the donor or the legator were there in the film. It’s worth taking a look (even if your Italian is a little rusty).


  1. How can we raise more from our community fundraisers and peer to peer networks?

Many of us have people who are local champions for our charities, who do cake sales, who shake buckets, who run races. How can we encourage them to raise more? Jillian Stewart from Peerworks in the Netherlands had some great tips.  Film your fundraisers and put up clips on your website to inspire others – simple and cheap to do just on a mobile phone.  Encourage people to self-sponsor and donate to themselves first before asking others – whether with a sponsorship form or an online giving page.  Recognise those who are really active on social media for you and send them personalised video messages.  And include small, inexpensive incentives for fundraisers to aim that bit higher with their fundraising. She quoted a great example from Pieta House and the Darkness into Light Walk, which gave a flashing badge to all those people who raised over a certain threshold.


  1. What do I need to start a Crowdfunding initiative?

A number of sessions I attended touched on crowd-funding and most had a similar experience to share. The clue is in the name – it’s very hard to crowdfund without a crowd.  The pre-campaign is key and where the crowdfunding can be as personal as possible, success rates are higher. For example the Dutch Heart Society (DHS) ran a campaign but the ask came from the researcher and it was not branded as the DHS. All communication came personally from the researcher himself and DHF said they would match every donation.  They also secured a major donor to sponsor the pre-campaign and acknowledged that the lead-in time needed to be a lot longer than they had bargained for.  They had great feedback from donors who loved the rewards for each giving level – books, guided tours – and a personal update report from the researcher every 3 months.


10. And finally, not a question but a quote from Usha Menon, that I felt summed up the 2016 IFC for me. In a changing world, where new business models are coming in almost daily and revolutionising entire sectors (think AirBNB, Uber and Upwork), charities need to constantly challenge themselves.  We need to ask whether we are adding value or just maintaining the status quo.

“If charities do not add sufficient value, they will be cut out as the middle men.”  Usha Menon


The Resource Alliance have shared many of the slides from IFC 2016 on their website and it’s worth taking a look.

Highlights from the Purplegrass – Mira Partnership Study Trip, September 2015

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A £3 billion sterling campaign, an opera house that lost its Chairman, Chief Executive and Artistic Director in a matter of months and raising money for Assyriology and Numismatics. 

I was delighted to be joined last month by fundraisers from the Abbey Theatre, Blackrock College and Educate Together on a recent study trip to Oxford and London, organised by Purplegrass and colleagues from the Mira Partnership international association of fundraising consultants.

The trip was put together to explore some leading examples of fundraising within the education and cultural sectors in the UK and was attended by fundraisers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, the UK and Ireland.

We began our trip at the University of Oxford (now ranked second in the Times World University rankings), hearing first from Bill Conner who heads up fundraising at Wolfson College, Oxford.    From Bill we heard about his major donor strategy and his systematic approach to identifying potential major donors and really spending time with them to understand their interests and priorities when it comes to funding the college.  Given some of the highly specialised post-graduate courses available at Wolfson (eg Numismatics – the study or collection of coins, banknotes or medals) Bill worked with the academic departments to develop Research Clusters and has been successful in matching donors with specific research fields, within these clusters.

Wolfson has also developed some interesting, new approaches to alumni fundraising and donor acquisition, including a crowdfunding appeal and an alumni social media campaign on the Funderful platform, developed by an interesting team based in Riga.  (Check out ).

We also heard from Liesl Elder, the Director of Fundraising for the University of Oxford  – a challenging role given the collegiate nature of Oxford University and the fact that all 43 colleges are also fundraising for themselves. Liesl is leading the Oxford Thinking campaign, a monster campaign which she took on in 2011 when she joined.  Oxford Thinking was originally a £1.25 billion campaign, launched in 2008. By 2011, the campaign had already raised £1 billion and given its success, the campaign was relaunched with a new £3 billion target and a cleaner, simplified strategy (the campaign originally had 571 priorities!!).

Once you recover from the eye-watering targets, what really struck me about this campaign and about Liesl herself was the really clear thinking behind the strategy. She takes an extremely pragmatic approach to the “sharing out” of fundraising between colleges and the university, refusing to get sucked into the politics of who owns which donor, setting out clear guidelines and almost always conceding for the greater good of the campaign when there were disputes.  The development team have team targets, not individual targets, which, according to Liesl, works towards a more unified approach across the fundraising team (around 100 fundraisers in total).

You might say – well it’s Oxford University, so if they can’t raise money on that scale then no-one can. But until recently, no one in the UK was. Not even Oxford themselves.

In 2013/14 Oxford raised £204 million, £7 million more than Cambridge (the next highest fundraising university in the UK) and exponentially higher than the average of £14.4 million, raised by the other Russel Group universities (a group of the top 24 universities in the UK).

Eight years ago, the Oxford colleges were raising just 50% of what they are raising today.

And today 25% of all gifts come from non-Oxford alumni.

When asked about  why she felt the campaign had been so successful, Liesl stressed the importance of building a clear brand around the university and clearly valuing the power of this brand.  She also talked about building a track record of success in order to establish credibility within the university hierarchy.  The Development team at Oxford has succeeded in doing this and philanthropy has become  an integral part of the university’s overall strategy. Liesl has an hour a week with the Vice Chancellor of the University and he spends around 10% of his time on fundraising, clearly demonstrating the commitment that Liesl and her team have built up across the university towards fundraising.  No coincidence then that this new approach towards philanthropy has coincided with Oxford climbing up the University World Rankings to second place.

The second day of our study trip we headed into central London,  where we visited the wonderful English National Opera and the English National Ballet. For those not familiar with the ENO, it is the second national opera company in the UK (after the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) and performs all its operas in English. This is a hugely well regarded and well established company and its home, the Coliseum is close to the hearts of many Londoners, standing proudly at the edge of Trafalgar Square. The company has gone through a tumultuous  year,  losing its Chairman, Chief Executive and Artistic Director in quick succession, following internal squabbles and highly publicised clashes of opinion.  Their new Director of Development Chris Martin (not the frontman of Coldplay, but very impressive nonetheless) was sanguine about the situation, remarking that he saw this only as a new opportunity for donors to be able to play a part in the future of the ENO.  He stressed the importance of myth-busting quickly and clearly and even joked that a desire to hear the gossip from backstage at the ENO could sometimes even open doors and work in his favour!  The central tenant of his fundraising strategy, which was echoed by Alyssa Bonic, the Corporate Fundraising Manager with the English National Ballet, was to be true to what you are as an organisation. For the ENO, it was important for them to forge a clear brand strategy and not to try to be a second Royal Opera House.   Where Covent Garden is traditional, the ENO is new and edgy, and focused on nurturing new talent.  They are also using their home, the Coliseum theatre itself to support their fundraising more and more, capitalising on its huge appeal and also drawing on their large company of resident artists, to ensure that donors can meet the artists, see the sets and even have lunch on the vast stage itself!

The English National Ballet similarly has done a great job in using all of its assets to build donor support.  The dancers do workshops for company supporters, private performances and have even tested a new sports clothing range for leading sports and dance brand, Sweaty Betty.

Our tour ended at the Museum of London, which has offered a host of ideas for donor inspiration and donor recognition. You could buy a year of London’s history and a special plaque on the handrail running around the museum displayed the various donors within this programme. The Museum has also launched a new campaign to raise £4 million a year that will allow the Museum to reach out to every school child in London and consolidate their already impressive collection.

For me the trip was hugely valuable, sparking some new ideas and reminding myself of the importance of looking up and out to see what other fundraisers are doing out there, and how they are overcoming some of the challenges that are common to all of us as fundraisers.

Thank you to everyone who took part and to all those fundraisers who were so generous in sharing their own experiences with us.



Purplegrass Founder invited to join Think Tank, Rogare

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I was recently invited to join the Advisory Panel of Rogare, the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy’s fundraising think tank and the home of Critical Fundraising – the discipline of critically evaluating what fundraisers know, or think they know, about their profession.

“Rogare is the engine that turns academic ideas into actionable information for fundraisers.”

Ian MacQuillan, Director of Rogare

The aim of Rogare is to generate new practical ideas by pulling together the academic and practitioner branches of the fundraising profession. In a profession that is too often still driven by anecdotal information, Rogare draws on academic research and uses this evidence base to address practical solutions to the challenges faced by fundraisers on a daily basis.

In September, I attended my first meeting of the advisory group to hear about the current research projects underway at Rogare.   The team are currently focusing on four main challenges within fundraising today:

  1. How to improve stakeholder perception by understanding the exact nature of stakeholders’ objections to fundraising
  2. ‘Tomorrow’s Philanthropy’ – which is identifying how different types of philanthropic innovations develop and may be related to each other.
  3. A review of the theory behind relationship fundraising and stewardship – some interim results on this were published recently by Adrian Sargeant and Roger Lawson. See for results of a study of 14,000 UK donors.
  4. Helping fundraisers better understand what it means to ‘innovate’ in their profession.

If you’re interested in keeping up to date on the latest research in fundraising, see  and @RogareFTT. Likewise if there is any feedback you would like to pass onto the team at Plymouth, please don’t hesitate to contact me at

This is a fundraising office-page-001

Giving Patterns Research – what the figures tell us

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The recent Amarach Poll about the Irish Charities sector will not give a huge cause for celebration for many beleaguered fundraisers out there.

According to the February 2014 survey of 1000  people, 24% do not give at all to charity which compares to just 11% in 2005. This is depressing but probably in line with the economic climate.  After all, people give to charity from disposable income and significantly fewer households have any disposable income left at the end of the month.   But when you compare this to another piece of research carried out in the same month by Amarach on Economic Recovery, this found that 42% of people were not sure if they were financially stable enough to make it through the recession.   So in this context, the fact that 76% of people do still give to charity despite economic worries is a positive sign.  Or am I grasping at straws here….?

But there are more interesting findings in this piece of research.  When you dig a little deeper, the poll showed that around 67% do give regularly to charity (with 49% of these saying they gave to the Irish Cancer Society) but only very small numbers gave regularly by standing order (7% to Concern, 5% to ICS).

Unfortunately, 45% said they had reduced their giving in recent months  – something that is infinitely easier to do if you are NOT giving by standing order or direct debit.  More evidence again, if we needed it, of the importance of building donor loyalty and encouraging regular giving.

A similar survey carried out during the same time period by Behaviour and Attitudes (B&A) for Fundraising Ireland showed a slightly different response. From their sample of 1000 people, 52% claimed to have given to charity recently.  This survey recorded higher average giving levels  – €74 on average over the preceding 3 months (€24.71 a month on average compared to €10 a month in the Amarach survey)  – which could have been influenced by the fact that it included a traditionally high period of giving (Christmas) and 2 international emergency appeals (the Philippines and Syria).

The number giving to charities in the last few months is certainly down, but income figures showed a slight increase amongst the 76 charities surveyed by B&A.  They reported an average increase in annual income of 7% and 4% increase in giving over the Christmas period.

Ultimately we can crunch the numbers anyway we chose, but the overall conclusion must be that there are fewer people in Ireland able or willing to give money to charities than there were.  From the Christmas fundraising figures of the B&A survey, it would seem that those who are giving,  are giving higher amounts than last year but the 2 Emergency Appeals in November 2013 may have skewed these figures.   The results show it is harder to recruit new donors, which must send a strong message to Fundraising Managers that investing in donor retention and donor upgrade is crucial.

It also makes it harder for those smaller charities out there that don’t have a historical base of donors and are trying to recruit new supporters. They need to be more creative, more transparent and more nimble but they also have a great opportunity to position themselves cleverly to would-be donors as a more attractive proposition than the more established charities in the market.

Building trust and long term donor loyalty through effective donor management programmes are key.  Those donors who really believe in what you are doing and understand how their donation makes a difference will stay with charities through the challenging times. It’s up to us, as fundraisers, to make sure they do.

What has Fundraising Ireland ever done for you?

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On December 12th Fundraising Ireland will hold its Board elections and all members are entitled to vote (either by attending the AGM or by proxy). Apart from a great social occasion and the chance to have a few festive drinks with friends and colleagues, is there any other reason why you would attend?

I mean, what is Fundraising Ireland all about anyway? Why bother?

Cast your mind back to the fundraising world of 2007? The dark days when we had to get on a flight to London before we could do any fundraising training and even then it was always usually more relevant to the UK than to the Irish market. The days when there were no professional qualifications in fundraising in Ireland, when anyone thought they could do it if they had a nice personality and knew a bit about PR (oh, hang on, that still happens – thankfully less so now!). When there was no one lobbying government for funding for the sector, there was no Forum on Philanthropy and Fundraising, no national advertising campaigns encouraging people to give. When there was no forum for fundraisers to get together, share ideas, learn from each other and provide a bit of solidarity in what can often feel like a lonely and misunderstood profession. (One family member still describes me as a “professional beggar” so I think there is still work to be done!!!)

So if the Ghost of Fundraising Christmases Past gives you the shivers, please head along to the Alexander Hotel next Thursday 12th Dec and cast your vote. I’m standing for election, alongside 17 other experienced fundraisers because I really believe Fundraising Ireland has made a huge difference to the professional lives of hundreds of fundraisers and I want to make sure it can continue to do so. I also believe that my 20 years fundraising experience would be of huge benefit to the Board of Fundraising Ireland, so please do consider voting for me next week.

Fundraising Ireland – What’s New?

From the “Right People on the Bus” to the Cash Cows – some thoughts on developing a fundraising strategy

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I recently spent 3 days over in the UK at the Management Centre with Bernard Ross, studying some of the approaches that they have successfully used over the years to help not for profits develop, refine and implement workable strategies in service delivery and fundraising.

Strategy – or as I prefer to call it – “why do we exist, what do we want to achieve and how are we going to achieve it” (trips off the tongue nicely, don’t you think!) – can often come across as a series of baffling questions, interlaced with ridiculous jargon. If you can find your way through the BHAGS, hedgehog concepts and decaying dogs, strategy essentially boils down to making a series of clear decisions about where your organisation needs to go , sticking to those decisions and ensuring that you are realistic about the resourcing and skills you will need to deliver your chosen strategy. Easier said, than done, perhaps!

Yes, there are some great tools and models that can be extremely useful in developing strategies and I’ve mentioned some below. Yes, it often helps to have someone external to help challenge internal assumptions and recommend new approaches (which is why consultants like myself and Bernard are in business). But ultimately, the hardest thing in strategic development at whatever level is actually making the tough decisions about what your organisation is going to engage in and what it is NOT going to engage in, and being really clear about the evidence and rationale behind those decisions.

Fundraisers face the same issues when it comes to fundraising strategy. When you look around there are charities doing brilliantly in corporate fundraising, despite falling donation levels from companies or one that are recruiting thousands of new donors through face to face techniques. Watch and learn from best practice in the market but don’t get swept along without taking the time to decide on what is the right type of fundraising for your organisation. This will be dependent on all sorts of factors – your size, your current knowledge base, the profile of your donors, your infrastructure, your bank balance.

Below, I’ve set out a few pointers for things to consider when developing your fundraising strategy. I’ve compiled them based on my own experience of 20 years in the fundraising business . I’ve also thrown in a few of the best tools and tips from the Management’s Centre repertoire, which I hope you’ll find helpful. These only just scratch the surface of the important work involved in planning your fundraising strategy, but I hope they’ll provide some food for thought.

  1. Cash is King

How quickly do you need to bring in the money? This will all depend on your current cash position and cash flow requirements. Have you assessed what will bring in funds in the short, medium and long term and at what rate your income needs to physically appear in the bank?

Detailed forecasting can mean the difference between sinking or swimming for many organisations, particularly smaller organisations that don’t have a large cash buffer.   Being able to predict your payback period for each fundraising activity as accurately as possible is a core skill of all good fundraisers. 

  1. What are you great at?

Consider what you do really well, what has worked to attract new donors in the past, what would you consider your big fundraising successes. Drill down and really assess why these were so successful. Was it that you provided exactly the right fundraising mechanic to appeal to your donors? Was it your infrastructure that allowed a campaign to run really well? Was it the people who delivered the fundraising who made is such a resounding success and what skills did they have to make it happen? Developing a learning culture can help organisations embed their successes and replicate them again and again, as well as ensure they learn from their mistakes.

  1. Risk

Different organisations are comfortable with different levels of risk. As a sector, we are generally risk averse but it is worth challenging what is the right level of risk for your organisation’s fundraising strategy. Do you need to put aside a percentage of your budget to invest in new and more risky projects? High risk = potential for high reward or potential for failure, possibly quite publicly. Are you ready for both scenarios? How does your Board view risk and what is its approach to new initiatives in fundraising? 

  1. The Right People on the Bus

If you read only one book on strategy and management this year, read Jim Collins’ “Good to Great for the Social Sector”.  One of Collins’ core mantras is the importance of getting and keeping the best people for the job. Having the right people in the right roles is probably the most important strategic decision you will make. I read a brilliant blog recently written by Karen Osborne, the US fundraising expert, who advised charities to hire for competencies and train for skills ( )

Experience is important but qualities such as empathy, and grit and determination have been shown through many studies to be amongst the qualities shared by the most high performing sales people. Tough as it is in today’s climate in Ireland, where there is a real shortage of experienced fundraisers, try to find the people with the right approach, who can learn quickly and use a broad range of skills. Competencies are assets that actually grow in value, rather than depreciate. In reality we should put our people on our balance sheet! I wonder what the accountants would make of that.

  1. Discipline

Not a very fashionable concept these days, but one I strongly believe in. Fundraisers need to develop strategies that are disciplined, that are evidence based and ones that they stand by and stick to. I’m not suggesting cutting out any flexibility into your strategy, as organisations must be able to regularly monitor and update their plans. But stay on course. Be disciplined about planning and allocating resources. Be disciplined about implementation and delivering targets. And be disciplined about governance and reporting. Not very sexy, but wildly important.

  1. Replicate, adapt and improve

Ensure that you are really clear about what is the most profitable fundraising activity you currently engage in. And I mean truly profitable – net profit after costs, overheads and staff time. Can you increase this activity, adapt it or roll it out across the country? Can you improve it or open it up to a whole new group of potential donors. For those familiar with the Boston Matrix, these are your Cash Cows. Look after them first and then, only then, look to new ideas that need a greater level of development or innovate with something you’ve never tried before.

   7.  Be Practical
When considering fundraising options, be realistic about the infrastructure you will need to support it and if you’re not sure what you will need, ask someone who is already doing it. Does your database have the functionality you need to manage 5000 new donors and will it ensure you get the best value out of them over their lifetime? If not, can you hold off any new acquisition campaigns until your back office set up can handle them.  Any strategy is only as good as its implementation, and when deciding where to invest and in what direction to go, make sure that you know what you will need in place to be able to implement your strategy, otherwise there will be a huge disconnect between strategy and reality. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get swept away with creating a dynamic strategy, to set challenging targets and reach for the stars. Reach for the stars by all means, but keep your feet firmly on the ground in the everyday messy, nitty-gritty reality of actually bringing the money in.

  1. “Love-bomb” your Donors

Let’s face it, we all know it’s important to focus on retention and keeping our donors happy. We all know that it costs more to keep donors than to recruit donors. We all know this stuff. But sometimes it is so hard to stay focused on the back end infrastructure, systems and team behaviours that will ensure that we do actually retain as many donors as possible.


This is definitely an area that can benefit from innovation. Surprise and delight, as the marketers like to tell us. It will definitely pay off.

BITC report that 46 of its members donated over €21 million to charities in 2012

posted in: Purplegrass News | 0

Business in the Community Ireland reported today that 46 of its member companies donated €21.3 million to charities and community groups in 2012.  Reading more closely, you realize that just over half of this figure was in cash donations of €12 million.  The rest was in in kind donations, €6 million and  employee fundraising, €3 million.  Employees also volunteered over 139,000 hours to local groups or projects.

These figures reinforce the message to fundraisers of the importance of thinking beyond financial contributions from companies and looking at how a company can make available all of its expertise and resources to charities in a way that will have the greatest impact for the charity.  That last part is the most important – “have the greatest impact”.  How many of us have facilitated groups of company employees spending a lovely day planting flowers at one of our projects, investing hours of staff time organising how the day would run and being left with a lovely flowery garden, but little else of intrinsic value to the charity.

The best company charity partnerships are the ones that work well on both sides and deliver real impact and value to both the charity and the company. It can feel like walking a tightrope but as the figures from BITC today show, the rewards are rich if you get it right.

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