Interview: Kath Abrahams

Breakthrough Breast Cancer's head of engagement says charities must be ready to celebrate failures as well as successes

Kath Abrahams
Kath Abrahams

Breakthrough Breast Cancer is on a mission to find its mojo. Kath Abrahams, its head of engagement and income generation, who is speaking at the convention this afternoon, says the charity is about halfway through developing new systems that will help it to become more innovative and to boost voluntary income.

The breast cancer research charity, founded in 1989 by Bill Freedman in memory of his wife, the actor Toby Robins, grew quickly in its first years and developed a reputation for innovation and pushing the boundaries of fundraising.

But in recent years its voluntary income has remained flat. Abrahams, who joined Breakthrough two years ago as fundraising director, says she realised that the charity was relying on campaigns that had succeeded in the past, but were becoming less successful.

No growth

"When I joined Breakthrough it was hugely dynamic and innovative," she says. "It had not been around very long and it was full of creative people. It was doing great fundraising, but I couldn't get my head round what was preventing us from growing further."

The process of transforming the charity's fortunes began with it being "searingly honest" about what was working and what was not, she says.

"I think the organisation had tried to grow up too quickly and had become a bit bureaucratic and 'siloed'," she says. As it grew from being a few people gathered round a dining room table with their sleeves rolled up, brainstorming ideas, it became much more structured, with people working in their own areas, she says.

Working with the consultancy Good Innovation, it began a project to uncover what was holding it back. This concluded that people did not know where to take an idea unless they knew the right person, and that the charity was risk-averse and worried about trying new things. When it did try new things, it was not testing them and learning from them, the project found.

Abrahams says that, although it was difficult to discover what was going wrong, the exercise was "fantastically useful".

She says the charity has set up an "innovation board"; everyone at Breakthrough is aware of it and knows who sits on it, and it provides a transparent way for ideas to be heard and tested.

"It is about celebrating failure as much as success," she says. "We're really good at saying 'hurrah' when something works, but not when it was a complete failure and we learned lots from it. We need to get together and celebrate failure as well as success so it gives people the courage to put forward ideas."

Review of products

The charity is reviewing its portfolio of fundraising products, considering whether they are engaging the right audiences, how much they raise and how much awareness they create.

One campaign that is being taken through the "innovation model" is the £1,000 challenge, which asks its supporters to raise £1,000 each for the charity. It began in 1990 and used to raise £1m, but now brings in only £500,000. After talking to supporters, Breakthrough has two models ready to be taken out and tested, Abrahams says.

"I think it is about being honest and being prepared to hold up a mirror to your organisation, even if what you see makes you feel a bit sad," she says. "It sends a strong signal to your teams that you are willing to do things differently."

CV:

2013: Director of engagement and income generation, Breakthrough Breast Cancer
2011: Director of fundraising, Breakthrough Breast Cancer
2007: Development director, NSPCC
2005: Director of fundraising, ChildLine
2002: Campaign manager, NSPCC Full Stop

- Read more on this year's IoF National Convention

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