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September 25, 2017

Emma Bolton interview

Emma Bolton, Director of Fundraising at International Rescue Committee. Following a decade working her way up through the ranks at the National Autistic Society, Emma has moved rapidly via VSO and Cancer Research UK, to her current role. She’s learned some valuable lessons along the way.

Emma Bolton - Director of Fundraising at International Rescue Committee

This is your first Director of Fundraising role - how different is it having total responsibility for the whole fundraising programme

It is a shift, and for me there are two key things:

One is how comfortable I am in not being the expert in every area of fundraising. Particularly if you have come, like I have, from the High Value space, with less experience of Individual Giving. That shift can actually be quite big. You need confidence in your own abilities and those of the experts in your team. I would say Corporate Fundraising is a great grounding - you get a strong breadth of experience - across marketing, perhaps campaigning too. There are a lot of transferrable skills that help you understand different areas. You just need to know how to ask the right questions, even if you don't know the subject matter inside out.

Secondly for candidates coming through the High Value route, where income is often largely restricted, the shift to being accountable to the Board for unrestricted targets can be huge. Both practically and psychologically there's a difference as you're dealing with the sustainable growth of the organisation as whole.

Everyone talks about the difference between leading and managing when you step up to Director level. What is your take on what that actually means? Has it been something you have been conscious of?

It is certainly different, though I think it depends on the size of the organisation and how operational you are within your role. Either way, it is important that you recognise that you have the overall expertise - you wouldn't have been hired if you didn't. You need to be able to demonstrate you can do your job but you also need to find opportunities to add value to teams outside of your immediate responsibility. When you are on the Senior Management Team you are going to be expected to be the expert in fundraising. But you will also need to add real value to the organisation in general - both strategically and operationally.

Additionally, in a leadership role, you are going to have to make some tough decisions - perhaps decisions that you wouldn't have made as a head of team, but decisions that are for the good of the wider organisation. You have to see the bigger picture in a Director level role, rather than just being so fundraising focussed - without forgetting that you are accountable for the income generation!

Do you have any tips for anyone looking to secure their first Head of/Director of Fundraising post?

You need to take opportunities throughout your career to get breadth of experience across a number of fundraising disciplines. Obviously at some point you will need to specialise in order to progress, but if you can broaden your experience before you do that, that is going to be of great benefit.

Find opportunities to work collaboratively with other teams and think about how you can add value to areas outside of your remit. You will need to demonstrate how you can work collaboratively and what impact that has had on your current or previous organisation.

Build up your networks across different income streams. I am very lucky to have great friends who are specialists in other areas that I can use as a sounding board. That helps me understand different perspectives and that peer network becomes increasingly important as you become more senior.

The other point I would make is to be ambitious when you are interviewing. Earlier in my career I perhaps was guilty of going to interviews and being quite pragmatic about what I could or couldn't achieve. But I think there has to be a balance of going to a new role, and being authentic to yourself but equally coming with a sense of ambition. Looking back to years ago on roles I didn't get, I perhaps didn't offer enough of a sense of where I could take that role and organisation for fear of over promising. But a lot of that comes with confidence.

Having previously focussed on Corporate Partnerships at CRUK what advice would you have for someone looking to broaden their experience and head up a whole fundraising function?

For me it is about thinking about what the different corporate partnerships you have worked on have offered and what that can give to a new organisation.

For example, stakeholder management is incredibly important in any leadership role and corporate fundraising gives a great platform for that. If you have worked on big brand partnerships, you will likely have worked with a variety of other teams. And the successful corporate fundraisers will be able to demonstrate great internal networking skills. Often you will have had to influence a wide variety of other departments - persuading them that this corporate partnership is a great idea.

For me, that ability to influence internally is the core element of what you do as a SMT member. So the best fundraising directors are likely to have, of course, come up through corporate partnerships (tongue firmly in cheek)!

How do you see fundraising evolving over the next few years? What are likely to be the key traits or experience you will seek from new hires for your team?

I certainly think the sector is getting tougher, largely due to the external environment. As a result, our sector has had to professionalise.

You have to be best-in-class to deliver the more interesting relationships and campaigns. And I look for people who have accepted and embedded that. I am certainly looking for resilience; a grittiness to remain focussed. And an ability to see different perspectives. They need to be solutions-focussed and to be proactive. And they need to work incredibly collaboratively supporting each other as one team.

I want to be comfortable that every team member is able to represent the whole team, both internally or externally. And that shared vision is particularly important during times when I am seeking investment in fundraising. So I need people who can walk the walk, but also they need to have fun. Fundraising is tough, so we need people who can have fun within a pressurised environment.

How do you ensure that you continue to grow personally when in an SMT level role?

Seek feedback. I can't stress how important it is to be comfortable in seeking feedback, and to give it. And be open to acting on it! That is critical, as is finding the time to act upon it.

For such a large charity, fundraised income has historically been relatively small - why is that and what are your plans for the future?

Our headquarters are in New York and although the London office was set up in 1997, it is really only relatively recently that private sector income has become important for us as an organisation.

I joined 20 months ago and in that time we have grown income from £2m to over £6m this year, so we have achieved substantial growth in a short time. Thanks to the team's great results, we're now a rapidly growing team. With investment in fundraising, we've grown from four or five fundraisers to a team of 15 with a few more to come over the coming months.

A lot of the success has been about demonstrating the potential here in the UK market. And then building a really strong team who are focussed on securing transformational gifts and delivering a strong ROI so that globally we continue to be a team that is worth investing in.

How big of an impact does the external environment have on your department on a day to day basis?

We are a global organisation working in the most dangerous places, where people are most at risk, so we are acutely aware of what is happening externally. Of course, events like Brexit and presidential elections can certainly provide some challenges. But the external environment is also a huge driver. The team I have are incredibly passionate and that is hugely driven by the issues that are affecting the world. 65 million displaced people is the issue of our time and that is a huge motivator for us as a team.

And of course the issue of refugees is quite polarising. However, for every person who is quite negative in their view of refugees, there is another person motivated to do something about it. As a team we like to focus on that.

What do you see as IRC's biggest opportunities in fundraising over the next 3-5 years?

There is a huge opportunity to build global partnerships. We recently launched our "Together for Refugees" campaign with Ben & Jerry's, which is our first Pan-European partnership. It is a co-created partnership and provides an opportunity to drive and support our policy and advocacy work as well as increasing the awareness within Europe of who we are and what we do. And there are so many exciting opportunities in that space.

For us as a team it's about being clear about what our strengths are and doubling down on those areas to achieve greater and sustained growth. And scaling our nascent digital fundraising programme, which we're really excited about.

What is it like working for David Miliband? What sort of leader is he?

Having someone like David at the helm brings with it a number of opportunities, not least through the added profile that he gives to our work, as well as the obvious doors that he can open through his previous roles.

It can be quite daunting working for someone who was once Foreign Secretary, but as an NGO that operates globally in hostile environments, we are lucky to have someone with the experience and understanding of just how complex it can be. We work quite closely together and I can honestly say that he is a real driving force behind our strategy at IRC. It makes a real difference to have someone like him, who not only understands what you are doing, but supports you all of the way too.

Who is the best boss you have worked for and why?

I think the answer to this question always depends on what you need and value in the moment that you're asked. So I'd say the best person who really helped me forge a path for my career, and who challenged me to change and then put me on the right path would be Steve Cheshire. I worked for Steve at the National Autistic Society were I spent 10 years in multiple roles. Steve very much helped me figure out where I wanted to go and how I should go about doing that. And in addition he pressed on me the importance of having a voice and the confidence to share my thoughts in meetings, even if it is about something that I'm not the expert in. That's advice that is still hugely relevant to my role as Director of Fundraising.

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