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June 6, 2018

Desiree D'Souza Interview

In our latest expert interview, Desiree D'Souza, one of the panelists at our June fundraising forum, shares her experience.

Desiree heads up SeeAbility’s fundraising team that raises voluntary income for their specialist support work and innovative eye care programmes, targeting people with learning disabilities and autism.

She is an experienced fundraising leader with a speciality in building long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with companies, trusts and foundations. Over nearly 15 years, many of these have been transformational in creating new opportunities and skills for people with disabilities and building inclusive communities in the UK and around the world.

Many people may not have heard of SeeAbility. Tell us a little bit about its mission and the current key areas of focus for the charity.

Registered as The Royal School for the Blind, SeeAbility is actually one of the oldest disability charities in the UK and has pioneered specialist support for people with complex disabilities for nearly 220 years. Our support has evolved over time and I feel really privileged to work for an organisation whose starting point is not underestimating people. At work, I have colleagues from different specialisms from behaviour analysts to speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, optometrists and vision rehabilitation workers who all share the same goal; to encourage the people we support to challenge what they expect from life, from themselves and from wider society.

SeeAbility has always had a brave and pioneering spirit about it and most recently, we see this through our work to champion better eye care for people with learning disabilities and autism, many of whom have sight loss.

Not many people know that a child with learning disabilities is 28 times more likely to have a serious sight problem and yet least likely to receive the eye care they need. One of the things we're passionate about at SeeAbility is ensuring that everyone has an equal right to sight and we've just completed a 4 year research study that shows an estimated 40,000 children in special schools will have never received any eye care. As a parent of a young child, I think this is truly shocking! It means thousands of children who desperately need glasses are going without and as a result, this impacts on their ability to learn, play and socialise. We're committed to working with policy makers to end this major health inequality.

What is the key to developing successful corporate partnerships? Which do you think have been the best?

There really are many ways to approach corporate partnerships but at the heart of most successful ones is a shared and equally-valued desire to tackle difficult social issues. In my experience, when this is truly the case, partnerships tend to fall into place because both sides are motivated to do what it takes to make the goal a reality.

I've spent over a decade working at charities supporting people with disabilities and it's been amazing to see the change in attitudes over that time. When we first started talking about partnerships that might create meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities, there was a huge awareness piece that went alongside these conversations. Even finding the right person to talk to at companies was a mission. But then you find partners who are truly committed to creating diverse and inclusive workplaces and this sits at the heart of their Corporate Social Responsibility, follows through into their People policies and is echoed at the most senior levels of leadership. And this makes all the difference.

I really enjoy working on these type of strategic partnerships. Being on the charity side means you have to do your research and understand as much as you can about your prospective partners and what is important to them and their stakeholders. As part of this, it's important to network widely and have lots of conversations to share ideas, plans and strategies. And never be afraid to share your big idea or present the big picture of what life will be like as a result of your partnership. It's a crowded market place so its important to demonstrate how your partnership will be game- changing for everyone involved!

This is your first Director of Fundraising and Marketing role - how different is it having total responsibility for a whole fundraising programme? How does that feel?

I feel honoured, a little scared but mostly excited to take on my first role as Director. At SeeAbility, we have a cause I feel passionately about, a senior leadership team that is diverse and ambitious for our beneficiaries, colleagues that I enjoy working with and an environment where I can be my authentic self. These were all really important factors that made me want to take the next step in my career.

As a Director, you need to be looking across your team and out across the whole organisation at all times. This feels different as you need to leave the comfort of familiar territory and relationships and make the effort to understand all aspects of your Charity. You will be expected to contribute to conversations about all parts of the organisation and the more you can learn about how it all works, the better you will be placed for these.

Within fundraising, you will also find your time is stretched, so you'll need to make decisions about how best to use it. It's important to trust the experts around you and work with them to pre-empt challenges/risks, as much as you can before they occur. It can be full-on but hugely rewarding to see the bigger picture.

A point on diversity: our sector sometimes feels pretty good compared to others on the issue of diversity but I feel we need more representation, especially at the top of fundraising. I know the barriers are complex, but if you're thinking about stepping up and worried about the time commitment or your breath of experience, just do it. Be honest about your shortcomings, reflect on them and discuss them up front and then think of all the ways you can work on these in your role. We need diverse voices to have diverse conversations to come up with new ideas and solutions. If you're in a leadership role, it could be YOU who does just that!

Given your background in predominantly corporate fundraising, what have you learned from how other teams work?

Actually, along the way I've had responsibility for delivering a growing range of income streams across my career. I started as a corporate fundraiser and then managed a Trusts and Foundations team. I then found myself responsible for those teams and Challenge and Special Events. Recently I took a year to learn about Major Gifts which remains invaluable experience. And now I have the opportunity to work with my really experienced colleagues to understand our individual giving stream and the drivers for this.

In some ways, what I've seen across fundraising are the commonalities more than the differences. Of course corporate partnerships decision-making can be different from that of trusts and foundations and this will be different again for individuals making their personal giving choices - but in the end, it all comes down to articulating the purpose of your charity and offering lots of ways for people to connect and offer their support.

This feels particularly important if you work at a less well known charity and so it's really important to get right. No matter which part of fundraising you work in, spending the time getting to know the people who support you and valuing their support, whether it's in the form of advice, financial support or their voice, is what really what counts.

What makes a great leader?

The people I consider good leaders are really diverse have inspired me at different points in my life. Working at different charities across my career I've had the privilege of meeting many young people who have grown up in really challenging circumstances and who have used their experiences to challenge the status quo and rise up as leaders and role models for the next generation. It's brilliant to be around their fantastic energy and as a fundraiser it really fuels my work!

The quality I most value in good leaders is their ability to envisage a better future and to support the people around them to get there. They often make it look effortless but I admire so many wonderful leaders who I have met and worked with, who do this through a lot of hard work, an openness to explore new ideas and careful consideration for how to get a job done. It's a powerful mix when you see that all in one person!

What next for SeeAbility and your team?

It's a hugely exciting time to be part of our charity! With the leadership of our Chief Executive, Lisa Hopkins and our Council, we recently co- produced and launched SeeAbility's new strategic vision together with people supported by SeeAbility, their families, our colleagues, commissioners, donors, and volunteers. We're really excited about the opportunity this creates for long-term partnerships with companies, trusts and foundations - and with individuals who share our goal of building inclusive communities where everyone can participate as equal citizens.

While we're ambitious for change, we are a relatively small and hugely passionate team. So right now, we're prioritising our areas of focus. We're developing our messages and offerings so that many more people understand our unique work and investing the time it takes to build strong relationships with our supporters and influencers. In this way, I hope that everyone in the team can feel the impact of their work and ultimately, this brings us closer to a society where people with learning disabilities, autism and sight loss are valued and included in all walks of life.

Desiree was an expert panellist at our June Fundraising Forum.
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