How to... Cope with the number-crunching

Fundraising is not just about writing sparkling copy or schmoozing.

Working with numbers, from financial figures to beneficiary statistics, forms a substantial part of a fundraiser's day. Many fundraisers, however, lack confidence in this area of their work. Such diffidence is known as maths anxiety. In the US, psychologists at Cleveland State University reported that maths anxiety is associated with decreased working memory capacity. So if you are struggling to get the maths right, you have less brainpower available to actually do the calculations you need to.

Here are some insider tips on how to gain more confidence in the number-crunching side of your work.

1. Practice makes perfect

It is worth bearing in mind that it's fear that stops most people, not a lack of mathematical skill. Advice for anyone with maths anxiety is to practise, practise, practise. The more maths you do, the better you will get, according to fundraising consultant Brian O'Hagan. "Fundraising has actually made me good at maths," he says. "I'm constantly dealing with budgets, forecasts, outputs and so forth. So I'm now very used to working with numbers."

2. Ask for help or get training

Sarah Hind, fundraising manager at poverty-relief charity Quaker Social Action, says if maths is a problem, try not to worry about it too much.

"Just be ready to admit you're not perfect, find someone who can explain awkward questions for you and check over your budgets and funding applications," she says. "Even the best finance manager in the world - who works in our office - makes mistakes, so it shouldn't be something to be ashamed about."

Plenty of relevant training is available on subjects ranging from full cost recovery to working out your returns on investment. Contact the Institute of Fundraising or the Directory of Social Change for more information. Alternatively, Hind suggests, you could tap into the free courses provided by local voluntary sector consortia.

3. Don't sell your charity short

Gavin Shelton, founder of Sector Three Consulting, previously worked as a grants officer for the Big Lottery Fund. One common mistake that he saw was applicants underestimating the cost of their work. For example, some applicants didn't add national insurance, tax or pensions to salary costs. His advice is: don't sell your charity short.

"Recruitment costs are another area people often underestimate," he adds. "Doing your homework about how much these things are actually going to cost will not only give funders greater confidence in your project planning and management skills; it will also militate against nasty shocks when the project starts."

4. Get familiar with your accounts

Bob Cornell, director of Carus Consultants, works for the grant-giving trusts the Abel Charitable Trust and the St James's Place Foundation. He advises fundraisers to get comfortable with their annual accounts.

"This is the biggest insider tip I can give," he says. "Some fundraisers aren't comfortable talking about their finances. They need to be."

After checking whether charities' applications fit trust guidelines, Cornell takes a good look at their annual accounts. "Figures are a good window on the type of charity you are dealing with," he says.

Funders will notice unusual levels of reserves as well as significant under or overspends. Although there may be good reasons for peaks and troughs, such as an expected legacy coming in late, they can set off alarm bells. Cornell recommends that you should be honest and provide explanations of any unusual aspects in your accounts. "We want to fund good, well-run charities. So make it easy for us to say yes to you."

5. Use real numbers in your applications

A grant officer at a major grant-giving charity advises applicants to avoid rounding up numbers in their applications. That applies to projected costs as well as beneficiary statistics. "It makes it look as if numbers have been plucked from the air. You start thinking 'what else have they made up?'"

6. Look on the bright side

You could follow Ben Crowley, fundraiser for the London Cycling Campaign, and try to change the way you view the maths part of your job. "I find that maths is the counterweight to everything else I do: a welcome break or escape from the topsy-turvy world of people and chat that is the rest of my working life."

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