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January 13, 2017

Mark Astarita Interview

Interview with Mark Astarita, Director of Fundraising at British Red Cross

New for 2017

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.

Mark Astarita interview

It’s not often that you get to pick the brains of one of the most successful Fundraising Directors in the UK. I first met Mark 15 years ago when he was leading the fundraising team at NDCS and I’ve watched him create impressive income growth and hugely successful and loyal teams at both NDCS and British Red Cross.

Mark’s team at British Red Cross is 220 strong, excluding retail, and raised over £160m in the last financial year. With a stint as Chair of the Institute of Fundraising under his belt and never one to shy away from bold opinions I was eager to hear what Mark had learnt about fundraising leadership in his years in the sector.

You've been in fundraising a long time and achieved a great deal. Did you have a master plan for your career?

I've never been personally ambitious for myself. But I absolutely am ambitious for the organisations I work for or volunteer for. I get terribly passionate about them and really engaged in the organisational output and impact. It is never about the money for me. The money is just a mechanism for doing it, for creating change. And I think that's an important feature of great fundraisers - it is always about the difference we can make.

How important is it for a Fundraising Director to have a clear vision?

I think one of the things that great Fundraising Directors are able to do is to see a different future. Often they can see it before other people. It may not be well constructed and it doesn't have to be completely resolved but they are able to quickly adapt their thinking and their behaviour in order to shape their world and to be able to reach new goals. Some people let the world shape them, personally I could never be content with that. I think if you want to be successful it is fundamentally about mapping a wonderful future and then pointing people in the direction of how to get there. Not with every point on the map thought through, because you need other people to help you do that. It is a collaboration of talent. I don't see myself as queen bee or the conductor of an orchestra where all do my bidding, more of a football manager constantly adjusting to the run of play.

I think great fundraisers operate in the future tense. The past is the past, this year is in progress and what we are going to raise next year and in future years is where I focus my attention.

Does being so focused on the future create tension with other departments?

Many of my colleagues are rightly focusing on the present. Fundraisers are, by and large, planning, spending and operating in the future tense. What folk will give tomorrow was probably raised many moons ago. So I think we live in slightly different universes to some other parts of our organisations and because almost all our engagement is with the outside world whilst others maybe be more internally focused we may see things from a different perspective.

I think at a organisational level, people can sometimes get a little bit annoyed with high performing fundraising teams, because they tend to all sing from the same song sheet. It doesn't matter which of my managers you speak to, they're all going to share the same vision and plan for the future. We swim as a shoal and that's quite a force actually.

We, and I suspect in many successful fundraising teams, see very high levels of organisational engagement in our people surveys. 90 plus per cent engagement levels is not unusual because fundraisers understand the mission and strategy and interact with it every day. They can feel the way they can contribute and frankly they commit their all to the high goal. They tend to see things more from a collective point of view where every pound adds up to a greater organisational goal.

So do you refer back to your fundraising strategy all the time?

I know some people refer to their strategy all the time, but it's not the way I operate. I almost always know where we are going, but I need to make sure everyone else knows where we are going too. So yes our strategy is highly visible but we tend to live and breathe it rather than use it as a totem pole.

People like to think it's all about the strategy and it's all written down like the gospel. I believe it's about having people who adjust daily, respond to the insight they gather and adjust to their environment. I'm surrounded by hundreds of years of fundraising experience. All my senior managers have been with me for nigh on ten years, and just get it. They don't make the mistakes that they did when they were a lot younger because like me they've already been there, done that and made mistakes in the past.

None of our great successes at The Red Cross were delivered by one big decision. It was more about the decisions being taken everyday that myself, and my managers in particular, knew were the right decision to take that day and next week and next month. Cumulatively they add up to a big thing. So this idea it is one big thing bothers me I think it is a product of our cumulative actions. Many of the things that have made the biggest difference grew from tiny shoots and featured strategically for example growing regular giving might be the big goal but the path to that goal had many variations and products and not all were apparent at the outset.

Do you think that as a large organisation with an established fundraising team that there's a danger of resting on your laurels?

I hope we never do that. Needs evolve and for us human tragedy is forever unfolding. Being restful is certainly not part of mine of my colleagues' DNA. In our fundraising team we are always very aware that donors have got plenty of other choices for their giving. It's my colleague Richard Verden who always says, "We need to be perpetually petrified that people decide not to give to us."

There is something about that very forceful statement that no one has to give to us. Therefore we're always on duty, always in a sales mode. We've always got to be positive and we've got to believe in what we're selling to our very core. I hate the idea we are selling - it feels so tacky in some way because what we are promoting feels far more profound. I hope you know what I mean. I and my colleagues are ambassadors for our cause. So when people ask what I do they are always interested in a way they would not be if I made widgets. Quite rightly people expect the best of us all the time and we therefore have no excuse but to be 110% whenever we discuss our cause. Might be unfair after a long day but for me that is my reality. 24/7 always on duty.

The belief stuff is important to me too. If we don't believe wholeheartedly in what we're promoting, why should anyone else give to it? In fact why some fundraisers don't give to the causes they work for is beyond me. You've landed in a place where you passionately believe you can make a difference. As a fundraiser your beliefs, and why you're here are just as important as the aid worker or anyone else. You want to change the world, it's just that you've landed on the thing that you can do really well to do that. I'm not sure that is always as respected by people who aren't fundraisers.

How important is it to have the right people on your team?

Our fundraising people strategy is that we are aiming to be the best fundraising shop in the sector. Known to be the best fundraising shop, where people want to come and work for us so that the fundraising brand is really powerful. We give people exceptional development opportunities, we grow exceptional talent and you know what? We know they will go, in time. Even after they've gone we hope, they'll always tell others that they loved their time at The Red Cross. The fundraising brand grows as a consequence and we continue to attract talent.

Almost twenty of my former fundraisers have gone on to be directors of fundraising. That's the thing I'm very proud about. It's lovely that they think I was important in that because I don't always see it that way. I think they're all exceptional.

What really good leaders do is they do surround themselves with talented people. Talented teams are what create outstanding organisations. It is about creating exceptional teams and exceptional teams are built around a dream or ambition. They're built around a leadership style, a culture and that they all are sharing the successes. You don't nick all their success for your own. You celebrate their achievements and if you are lucky it rubs off on you!

How do you get the best out of the people in your fundraising team?

I think that ultimately the most important ingredient in running a successful team is about managing exceptional people and getting the most out of them by giving them extraordinary opportunities to stretch, hopefully in a supportive environment that never feels unsafe and that matters. People excel when they're in a space where it's exciting, interesting, fun and they're at the edge of the possible. We challenge people to be their best and we look to help them get there. There is not a lot of room for the mediocre in the teams I manage. heck it stands out a mile!

We've pretty much home grown most of our first, second and third tier managers. Part of that is because there's nowhere else where you can do it as this scale or volume if you haven't done it in one of our four or five competitors.

In terms of team structure at British Red Cross we have quite a steep pyramid. I have five or six people directly reporting to me, with steep pyramids underneath them. Second tier managers are my next level of talent. I'm always thinking about if someone gets run over by the bus, have I got someone there to replace that person? In the nicest possible way of course! I think I have five people who can replace me easily.

Another thing I think is really important is never to be fearful of your position. If you live in fear of your position, if you live in fear of your staff going to do you in or take your role then you're paralyzed.

Personally I am an open book emotionally. I give of myself, am very loyal to my people and trust massively. I have in the last 25 years rarely been disappointed. I think I only do one thing really well and that is find great people to work with. Makes work great and rarely a chore.

Any tips on keeping fundraisers motivated?

Celebrate success. I know it's a very egalitarian sector. People say "Oh I don't know if I want to celebrate anyone over and above everyone else, everyone's contribution is important." I think we thrive on a bit of a pat on the back. As a workforce, I think, we're clearly not motivated by personal gain otherwise we wouldn't be working in the sector. That doesn't mean we don't love it when people applaud us for what we do and give us a pat on the back. Small amounts of effort going into that can be hugely valuable.

More interviews

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.


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