Fundraising, is it just asking for the money?

I have the dubious honour of being the first ever professional fundraiser employed by a National Park. The Yorkshire Dales NPA had the foresight in 1995 to see that any organisation whose ambition was always going to be greater than government funding needed to professionalise and diversify its funding options.

Ingleborough (Picture courtesy of the Yorkshire Dales  National Park Authority)
Ingleborough (Picture courtesy of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority)

The impact was profound, with the establishment of the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust a separate but supportive charity, fundraising to support the Park objectives of conservation, and community development. A grant of £4m from the Millennium Commission kick started this charity which invested in a professional fundraising team that has now raised over £27m through lottery grants, support from the corporate sector, charitable trusts and is benefitting from having a well developed public fundraising programme and legacy campaign which will ensure the long term sustainability of this charity, independent of any statutory grants, impacts of Brexit or government whims.

Because of this experience I was asked to go and speak to over twenty different local authorities, National Park authorities, AONB and conservation charities in the next three years who wanted to look at how they could establish a fundraising operation. Interestingly despite traumatic cuts in funding that has been going on for nearly 10 years the number of protected areas and National Parks actually running a professional fundraising operation has hardly changed and is incredibly low. Despite the fundraising success of organisations like the Wildlife Trusts, and Canal and Rivers Trust and some of the national conservation organisations the statutory agencies and local authorities still struggle to grasp the concept despite the fact they may be conserving or protecting the country’s most popular and well loved and visited landscapes, wildlife, fauna, forests, fells, lakes, coasts and mountains.

Previously I ran the fundraising training courses at Losehill Hall, then owned by the Peak District National Park Authority before their lack of funding led to its closure.  I worked with Mandy Sims one of their lead trainers over a period of nearly ten years up to its closure in 2010.   Somewhere in the region of 200 fundraisers from environmental and conservation charities, local authorities and other organisations, spent 3 days learning the basic fundraising skills necessary to put together a Fundraising Strategy and deliver it successfully. The crucial elements of this were identifying the main aim of the organisation, the key areas that would ensure this aim was met, qualifying what funding was needed to do this and identifying the potential funding sources, building relationships and influencing the potential donors, and then finally actually asking for money.

The intention of this process was to ensure that delegates were aware that fundraising is a long term professional activity that requires investment of both money and staffing. Not something to be tacked on to someone else's job or just a matter of finding a few sources of money and sending off an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Limestone pavement (Picture courtesy of the Yorkshire Dales  National Park Authority)
Limestone pavement (Picture courtesy of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority)

Since those far off days a huge amount of change has happened. The lottery funds are still major sources of grants but austerity and Brexit have already had serious impacts on sources of funding.

The transformation of digital technology has had a major impact on fundraising models and techniques and also the concept of how to go about campaigning. Just look at organisations like 38 Degrees, generating hundreds of thousands of new supporters who they ask for money every week through email contacts at virtually zero cost. 

It was originally web sites that were thought to be the magic solution to fundraising. Just put up some great photos, some well written text and a button to click on and the money or new members would come rolling in.  Then it was Facebook and Twitter that the amateur fundraiser was convinced would enable them to bring in the money. No?  Well what about, text fundraising, crowdfunding?

The crucial missing factor here is that these are just different methods of asking and if you haven't done the preparation work before hand it makes no difference which method you use it is unlikely to be successful in providing long term sustainable funds or significant amounts for capital appeals.

What's more asking for the wrong amount of money from the wrong person at the wrong time for the wrong project in the wrong way can cause serious long term damage to the organisation.

Some conservation organisations have been dependent on membership fees to fund their operations, sending out paper newsletters three times a year providing membership cards, reminder letters for late payers, admin costs increasing with NMW, pension and postage costs. Dropping the paper newsletter for ten "mailchimp" e-news can save thousands but can alienate the older supporters who either don't use email or dislike reading newsletters online. It can also remove the opportunity to include well crafted traditional fundraising asks.

38 Degrees, the Labour Party, Government Petitions have shown the power of engaging younger people in various causes, a completely new method and new audience perhaps for your organisation?  But how to do this and would it work for you. Have you got a social media and on line marketing plan?  Have you got a comprehensive fundraising strategy that the senior leadership team have signed up to? Have you got someone working for, or with, you who is a professional that knows who to ask, when to ask, what to ask for?

If you are floundering with your fundraising, it may be time to get some advice from someone who can look at your organisation and put together a plan that can deliver long term sustainable funding. What you shouldn’t do is sit back and hope that the government is going to come over the hill with large amounts or money to rescue your organisation.  You know this isn’t going to happen!

Richard Witt

First published in CJS Focus on Fundraising & Promotion in association with the Environmental Funders Network on 22 May 2017

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