Interview: Neelam Makhijani

Resource Alliance chief executive says UK fundraisers need more heart and innovation

Neelam Makhijani
Neelam Makhijani

Delegates to the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands, one of the sector's most important annual events, are likely to notice plenty of changes to its structure and content in October this year.

The changes have been brought in by Neelam Makhijani, who has for the past year been chief executive of the Resource Alliance, which runs the IFC. Since she took over the job, Makhijani has embarked on a programme of reform and has not been afraid of controversy.

Changes include a new management team and the appointment of two heavyweight fundraising names: Geoffrey Peters, president of the US agency CDR Fundraising, and Paul Farthing, fundraising director of Age UK, are respectively chair and vice-chair of the IFC Advisory Panel.

Her most contentious move has been to implement a decision to rely less upon established volunteer advisers and speakers, the practical effect of which has been to curtail the influence of Tony Elischer, director of Think Consulting Solutions, who for many years has been the event's most noticeable influence.

When details of the changes emerged this year, Elischer wrote an open letter to other IFC speakers and volunteers. "I find this incomprehensible and personally unacceptable, as frankly this whole 'policy' can only be targeted at one person - me," he wrote.

But Makhijani responded that the congress could not be "a one-man show" and stood by the decision. "Depending on one person is ridiculously high-risk, and some parts of it had become totally dependent on him," she told Third Sector at the time.

Improving skills

Another change in the congress will allow fundraisers to focus on improving particular skills, such as negotiating. Great emphasis has also been made in the marketing materials on how the event will feature "the world's best international speakers". Forty per cent of them will be new to the event.

This strong international presence reflects both Makhijani's career history - which includes three years as international fundraising manager at Help the Aged UK in India - and her belief that fundraisers in any country can learn a lot from overseas contemporaries.

She has been at the Resource Alliance since 2003, initially as its director of programme and consulting services. As well as running the IFC, the Resource Alliance offers services such as consultancy, fundraising workshops and awards for fundraising best practice.

Makhijani believes charities in the UK can learn from elsewhere how to put more passion into their fundraising and focus less on systems and strategies. She gives examples of organisations in countries such as Thailand, where she says small charities on budgets of $100,000 can make a huge impact.

"There's amazing innovation," she says. "People do big things with less resources by innovating. Elsewhere, there is more heart in fundraising. Here, we do it in a more organised fashion. There's more of a balance to be found with this."

Risk-averse

She says charities in the UK should learn to become less risk-averse when opportunities present themselves suddenly, such as the chance to adopt a new fundraising method. "By the time you bring in consultants and put together long strategies, someone else is using the technique and you've fallen behind," she says.

Increased passion and creativity, she argues, can not only help charities make the most of new opportunities, but also help to connect donors more effectively to the cause and engage them in longer-term giving. "When you give to charity, it's not about money - it's about what we want to see happening differently because of the gift," she says.

Yet Makhijani is positive about fundraising in the UK. She says an international survey the Resource Alliance has been carrying out over the past three years shows giving is holding up, despite global economic problems. "In the UK, giving has gone down a bit, but not drastically," she says. "Some major gifts have dropped and some family foundations might be giving less because there has been less interest in endowments, but not massively."

She says companies are still giving, but they have become more cautious. "Corporations give for business reasons," she says. "It's about visibility and profile to them. It's become more important to make clear what the return on investment will be - that's why they give."

Even when organisations are losing income, Makhijani sees a positive side to it. "It's been a wake-up call for them to think outside their comfort zone," she says. "Unless we get a bit of a kick, we always work in our comfort zones."

CV

2010: Chief executive, Resource Alliance
2003: Director of programme and consulting services, Resource Alliance
2003: Fundraising consultant, Oxfam GB, Sightsavers
2000: International fundraising manager (India), Help the Aged UK
1998: Regional director, HelpAge India
1994: Managing editor, Asia Observer, New York

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