Tobin Aldrich: It's time for a rethink on fundraising and marketing

Charity leaders need to be courageous in order to put fundraising at the core of their organisations, writes the sector consultant in the second of his four-part series

Tobin Aldrich
Tobin Aldrich

From my earliest days in fundraising I have heard complaints from fundraisers that their organisations do not understand or value them. I dare say you could find that among any set of professionals in any industry at any time.

But there is something very curious about the the way very many non-profits approach fundraising. On the one hand there’s usually (not always) an acceptance by organisational leadership that fundraising is critically important. Often (but by no means invariably) considerable resources are spent in this area. The fundraisers are sometimes more highly paid than their equivalents in other parts of the business.

But when key organisational decisions are being made, the fundraisers are often notable by their absence. Boards discuss fundraising, usually only when there’s a problem. Fundraising is accepted as a key activity, but one that seems quite separate from the rest of the organisation. Too often it is viewed as a necessary evil.

Even now, few chief executives of UK charities have come up through fundraising and it is not uncommon for chiefs of even very large fundraising charities to have very little knowledge or experience of the activity that drives everything the organisation can do.

It’s not only fundraising that’s sidelined in this way, of course. The whole marketing aspect of a charity’s business is often treated in this way. The areas that make up a marketing function are often split up into separate activities so that "fundraising" and "communications" themselves are often divided and lack joined-up objectives and strategies.

What other industry would organise itself like this? It’s like a manufacturer being concerned only with the operation of the factory, not with the sales of the products it produces.

This mental disconnect then leads to some of the strange decisions charities make about fundraising. The organisations that are facing long-term decline because fundraising was not invested in properly for the long term – or, conversely, those charities that left junior fundraisers to make key investment decisions without adequate direction or oversight. Charities that do not understand what their supporters are actually interested in. The boards that have been shocked when they find out actually how the charity raises money through its direct marketing programme.

So what is needed is a fundamental rethink. We need: 

  • An understanding by charity leadership that fundraising and marketing drive everything the organisation does.
  • Joined-up organisational strategies that ensure every decision taken is informed by its funding implications and the impact on supporters – where the people involved in selling any strategy are involved from the outset in developing it.
  • Chief executives with strong fundraising and marketing backgrounds and informed boards where all members understand enough about these areas to provide leadership supported by board members with specialist expertise.
  • Joined-up senior leadership teams who understand the business as a whole, not just their specific remits.
  • Everybody in the organisation understanding fundraising and being prepared and equipped to advocate for it.
  • A ruthless dismantling of organisational siloes to create teams where all members understand both how the organisation mobilises support and how it delivers its mission.
  • An end to "fundraising" or "communications" or "services" departments, to be replaced by flexible work groups assembled to deliver specific projects within clear overall strategies.
  • A radically different approach to the use of data to ensure that all key organisational decisions are evidence-based and made in a consistent way.

This approach will take real engagement and courage from the people tasked with running charities. There will be considerable resistance from those for whom the current approach is familiar and comfortable. It will be a tough road and a long road. It will, in short, require real leadership.

But our causes and beneficiaries deserve no less.

Tobin Aldrich is a fundraising consultant and chief executive of the direct giving charity the Misfit Foundation

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