Interview with Kath Abrahams
Our former MD, Carla Miller, has written a new book aimed at aspiring fundraising leaders, which we're delighted to be able to share with you. The first section comprises interviews with some of the UK's leading fundraisers- scroll to the foot of this article to download all the interviews.
Kath has held a number of high profile fundraising roles including Development Director at NSPCC, Director of Engagement & Income Generation at Breakthrough Breast Cancer and now Director of Engagement & Fundraising at Diabetes UK. I interviewed Kath in early 2016 when she was 6 weeks into her role at Diabetes UK.
Why did you choose this role and Diabetes UK?
The cause attracted me. And the nature of the role. Diabetes impacts awfully on people's lives. Yet there is a really limited willingness to support financially and there's a limited understanding of the seriousness of the cause.
On the one hand there are 700 people being diagnosed every day with diabetes in the UK and it can have terrible health consequences if it's not managed properly. On the other hand, only 1% of the public see it as their most serious health concern. There's a disconnect there and we have the chance to help people understand the urgency and the seriousness of the cause. I also want us to give supporters an experience that makes them happy to be part of our family, and want to support us more. And for them to feel that we treat them in a way that they trust and is relevant to them and their experience.
I'm also working with a CEO I've worked with before so I knew that would be a relationship that would work, and that he wants to build a culture that I want to be part of. Which is about empowering people, giving people responsibility for their areas, making sure people feel trusted. Safe to experiment. Free to get on with their jobs.
What's the structure with your team?
I've got 9 direct reports. The roles I inherited were 4 in fundraising and 5 who were in communications - the two departments are now one. I've got a Head of Major Supporters, Head of Community and Events, Head of Direct Marketing that covers legacies as well, Head of Fundraising Strategy and Resources, Head of Digital, Head of Media, Head of Marketing and Communications Planning, Head of Creative Services and Head of Brand. I'm very lucky. I've got a team of really experienced people who've got rich, diverse experience that they can bring to the table.
What is your approach to the first 100 days in a Director role?
I suppose I've had the old 100 days piece in my head. That your first 100 days is the opportunity when you've still got fresh eyes. I think I start by learning and listening. Just asking lots of questions, but also making it really clear to my team from the start that I'm not interested in doing their job.
I develop my ideas through talking to other people. Building a sense of what I think about the situation, rather than coming in with a very fixed view. I've got some principles that I'd like to work. There's something also about making sure I don't wait too long and that I send some signals early.
I am now 6 weeks in and I've just shared my early thoughts about where I think we need to try and get to, both with our executive team, my fellow directors, and then my senior management team yesterday. I positioned it to the team very much as "Based on the conversations we've had over the last 6 weeks, this is what I think we need to be trying to do. . Is this in the right ballpark?" It seemed to get a good read at first meeting. We're now co-creating the plan for well if that's right, then what are the big steps that we need to take to get there?
Part of what I'm hoping to do here is empower my team as I firmly believe people are able to step up and take responsibility. That's generally what they want to do, and I know from my own personal experience, that I've performed best when I've worked for people who trusted me, rather than people who've controlled and questioned and limited what I'm able to do.
Donor care is a hot topic right now - how do you make that feel personal in a large organisation?
I think some of it is about getting the basics of human interaction right. Everybody we're dealing with, however they support us, are all individual human beings. In the current environment that is rightly focused on compliance, let's also make sure that the relationships that people have with us feel authentic and that they can trust us. Many of our supporters either have diabetes themselves or it has impacted one of their loved ones. We absolutely have a responsibility to make sure their experience is one that feels congruent and relevant.
What sort of culture works best for fundraising in your opinion?
I'm quite a gut feel, instinctive person. I get a sense of culture by talking to people. By hearing the words they use. I like environments where people talk to each other and work together as a matter of course. When I first started at Breakthrough, I noticed people were sometimes emailing colleagues who sat opposite each other. That's the little stuff that I try and change.
Very early on I set up a fortnightly session here for just a half an hour where the team comes and just talks about what's going on. I knew the first couple would be a bit "tumbleweedy! The first one was people very politely being quiet, but all the other meetings since then have been people jumping and up and saying, "Oh yeah! Can I tell you about this thing that I'm doing?"
I love being surrounded by people who've chosen to do this because they want to make a difference in the world. I think it's brilliant that you have so many talented people who make that choice. Who are as professional and as brilliant and effective as anyone in the commercial sector. I also like the fact that generally, in the fundraising and communications world, people are hungry for success. I'm quite target and success driven actually, although I feel really strongly that there's one target rather than lots of little ones.
As a Fundraising Director do you feel the pressure to increase income?
Sometimes it is a pressure. I won't pretend that isn't the case. But I think there is also is a very good understanding that we are in changing times. It's the same with lots of fellow directors, I've spoken to.
It's the right thing for the sector to take a long, hard look at itself and think about how we raise money from the public. It's not knowing the impact that makes life challenging. You can do a certain amount of scenario planning, but ultimately we don't know what impact change will have on our income.
As an organisation, we absolutely need to look at how we grow our income. And it's clearly my role to lead on that, whilst recognising that without the support of the whole organisation, it's not possible to deliver it. We need to articulate better what it is we're trying to achieve. Prioritise clearly what we want to do and what we would do if we had more funding, so that we provide the environment for the public to get behind us and understand what we're seeking to do. All of which allows our fundraisers to go out there and inspire people. And we need to build great relationships that make people more likely to support us.
How do you keep your team motivated and engaged in an organisation this size? The larger you get obviously the harder it is to have a connection with the cause sometimes.
The first thing I'd say is I think that people here are already very engaged in the cause. We have a lot of people with diabetes who work for us. We also have a helpline and we have a lot of contact with people with diabetes. Having said that, I think there's always more we can do to help some people lift their heads up from the desk and think about the impact we can have and see the world from our supporters' point of view.
How important are purpose and vision for fundraising?
We're just developing a vision and mission for the charity. We see this as an absolutely critical thing to do. We want to articulate very clearly - this is our overall purpose and this is where we're headed.
Then we can take another look at our strategy in the context of the overall purpose and direction of travel, and the fact that diabetes is so relevant right now. We can look at how we maximise the opportunity we have to make the greatest possible difference to people affected by the cause.
What about innovation? You increasingly see now organisations having innovation teams, for example. What are your thoughts on that?
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 organisation 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 organisation 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.
You've been doing this for quite a long time. How do you keep learning and challenging yourself?
I am still really interested in how things work. What makes people tick. How the world works. I like learning new things. I suppose part of it's a mindset. I find it fun. I'd get bored if it was always the same. I always know that I am going to learn from the people around me. I don't think I've ever gone into a new role and not had those moments where you go, "Oh! How interesting! I had no idea." I don't find it difficult to keep myself interested and engaged at all.
What is the best thing about being a Director?
I love the breadth of being a Director. I love the fact that I'm in a role where I can link people up together. Linking colleagues up with our supporters and thinking outside-in rather than inside-out. I think you have to be comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity. You have to like it, I think. If you want to live in a certain world, it might not be the role for you, particularly in the current environment.
I often have to give people the comfort and the confidence that it will be okay. Even though I don't know exactly how it will be okay, I do know it will be. It's navigating people through when actually everything around you is uncertain. People look at you to be the one that is upbeat, energetic, whether that's within the team or outside in the rest of the organisation. People want their Engagement Director to be inspired and inspiring. You need to bring that. You need to like that.
What is one thing you've learned about leadership along your journey?
My first thought on that is there is obviously no single blueprint for being a leader. I think the most important thing is to be who you are. To be comfortable in your own skin, with all the shortcomings that that involves. To be comfortable in that space of thinking "I bring some things. I don't bring everything. Sometimes that will be the right thing for an organisation. Sometimes it won't be the right thing. That's fine". I think that helps me to be comfortable in a role that is full of ambiguity, and that has good days and bad days. That is full of successes and failures. To be able to say, this is the way that I'm going to lead people through that. That's the best I can do.
If you've enjoyed this article, then why not download our free book- 'Experience- Interviews with Fundraising Leaders'.
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.
Carla's previous roles include leading fundraising teams at Samaritans and Rainbow Trust Children's Charity before becoming an Interim Fundraising Director for charities including School-Home Support and Youth Music. She went on to become Interim CEO at Tiny Tickers, the charity for babies with heart problems, and Managing Director of Charity People. Carla has also held Trustee roles at Read International and Hatch Enterprise. Carla is available for coaching leaders, coaching teams and facilitating away days and strategy days. She also gives keynote speeches on leadership and purpose.