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March 29, 2017


Fundraising needs to evolve, but how do you go about it?


Carla Miller

The largest charities in the sector have had innovation teams for a few years now but for a lot of charities innovation is talked about but never becomes a priority. And yet, with existing methods of fundraising coming under increasing scrutiny and restriction, we are getting a clear message from the media, and some of the public, that fundraising needs to evolve. And of course we need to raise more money for our great causes.

Fundraising hasn't changed much in the 18 years that I've worked in the sector. Back then we already had face-to-face fundraisers and telephone upgrades and were piling money into those areas to create huge growth in income. All the other income streams looked very similar to how they look now and "relationship fundraising" was as talked about then as it is now.

As a sector I believe we look internally far too much. Our conferences are full of sector speakers with an occasional token corporate speaker and we aren't even very good at sharing learning between the arts, education and broader social sectors. Digital is transforming business models in the corporate world but charities in the UK are yet to use it to shake up how we relate to donors and connect them to our causes. And as soon as one charity introduces a fundraising concept everyone jumps on the bandwagon and duplicates it.

In short, we are ready for a change!


Innovation can be defined as either "to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products" or "to introduce something new".

Before you can innovate, you need make sure that you have a culture that can create, incubate and implement innovative ideas.

Embracing risk and failure is crucial but really hard for the charity sector to do because money is in short supply and has been entrusted to us by donors. It is difficult to innovate if the pressure is on for everything to work perfectly first time. It is key to get your manager on board so that you have the freedom to try things that might not work, within agreed boundaries of course.

One way to start innovating is to look for continuous improvements to the way you do things now. Dave Brailsford, former performance director of British Cycling and team manager at Team Sky has led two of the world's most successful teams to consistent success. He puts it down in part to always looking for the "marginal gains" - the small tweaks that the data tells you make a big difference.

Encourage your team to come up with ideas of how you could do things better and to actively seek feedback from donors about how you relate to them. Some of the best innovations come from getting better at listening to the cues you are being given.

As Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post puts it "Innovation is never seeing yourself as a finished product. It is understanding that you are always a work in progress. It is about disrupting your own operations and looking at how they can improve. You must be your own disruptor."

Then take a testing approach to improvements and innovations, testing new ideas before investing lots of time and money in them and iterate as you go along. You can't just change things - you need robust ways of finding out if your new solution is better.

Prioritise creativity by making time for it and giving yourself and your team the space to create new ideas. There are plenty of exercises you can do to think more creatively and you can reward people for ideas and innovations.

As important as your internal culture is looking outside of your organisation and the sector to spot trends. It is really hard to create a new market for a product but when you pick up on an existing trend then the wind is at your back. Creating a product or service that people are actually asking for, or which donors are experiencing in another sector has an increased likelihood of success. Make sure that you are reading market trend reports, following early adopters in fields that are relevant to your organisation's work and spotting new business models and marketing ideas by reading widely and then discuss with your team how some of the ideas might translate into your fundraising. Look backwards as well - trends go in cycles and retro is cool so look back to the 70's and 80s and see what inspiration lies there.

Then make sure you have a robust system for evaluating the potential of new ideas and how you test them and integrate them in your work.


Kath Abrahams of Diabetes UK talks about innovation.

"I think innovation is a bit of a buzzword. In the same breath I'd say it's one of the most important things that an organization can do. If we aren't constantly thinking about what we could do differently and better, then ultimately our existing sources of income will just dry up. I think you have to nurture innovation in an organisation.

When I was at Breakthrough we didn't have an innovation team but we developed innovation champions across teams. We did have somebody who was our innovation manager. Her role was to make sure that she was a catalyst, to help facilitate a process of innovation. I think in the case of Breakthrough we had lots and lots of good ideas but people didn't know where to channel them and how to get them off the ground.

Some of the process is around working out how you develop good ideas and how you make sure that people across the organization can feed into that. How you channel them. How you test and learn things. How you take a little thing and do it and think, "Oh that works!" How you'd grow it. What's the investment? All of that. The nuts and bolts around innovation. Systemising it almost in a way that doesn't destroy the creativity but actually enables the creativity to happen."

Jools Tait talks about how celebrity foundations evolved as a new concept at CRUK.

"I always thought there was mileage in something like the Bobby Moore Fund, a celebrity that was high profile, who was loved by the nation and was naturally associated with Cancer Research UK because he died of bowel cancer. You marry the celebrity, the cause and the output.

The Bobby Moore Fund had already been going for a number of years, and after working with Bobby's widow Stephanie I then took that model to Lawrence Dallaglio. As a team we helped set up Lawrence's foundation, which is still going today and the model was that we worked in partnership with him, but with no investment from CRUK, apart from our expertise and resource. He selected a project to fund and his commitment was initially £2million over two years. I think we worked with him over £4million pounds over the time period.

So the celebrity registers their own charity, we give them the model, the fundraising tools, the expertise and some resource, but no financial investment. We basically created a new product to go out to market with and we took that to celebrities such as Seve Ballesteros, Jenson Button, Gordon Ramsay and JLS."

Here's Jools again on where the next innovation in fundraising is coming from.

"When Movember first came and registered that was interesting, it was different, it was a movement. As was the ice bucket challenge and its use of technology but then everyone tried to get on the bandwagon and find an ice bucket challenge equivalent. What interests me is where the driver comes from. Do the drivers always have to come from the charities? Or actually should we be more aware of and supporting the population and individual and society drivers?"

Further reading.

There is an excellent book by Lucy Gower called "The Innovation Workout" that I highly recommend you read if you want your team to be more innovative.

Winners by Alastair Campbell has some really interesting chapters that cover how some of the most successful leaders and teams in the world innovate.

About the author

Carla Miller is a coach, consultant and facilitator, who works with charities and companies to create growth and develop happy, high-performing teams.


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