To say Alzheimer’s Research UK had a good year in 2017 is something of an understatement. In the financial year to 31 August 2017, the charity’s income grew by 38 per cent – from £22m to £30.5m, with voluntary income up by 44 per cent.
And it isn’t just a one-off. The charity’s income has grown each year since the creation of its Defeating Dementia strategy in 2014. The strategy had the twin goals of developing a life-changing treatment for dementia by 2025 and raising £100m in the next five years, which was an ambitious goal for a charity that had an annual income of just £11m in 2013.
The charity exceeded the financial target in just three-and-a-half years.
Ian Wilson, director of fundraising, says the 38 per cent overall income growth in 2017 surpassed even his expectations – the charity had forecast a rise of "only" 25 per cent. "I think one of the main reasons the charity has grown as it has is that we’ve been very ambitious in terms of the plans that we have, mainly from a scientific perspective," he says.
Wilson says the charity started its growth by thinking not about fundraising goals but about its raison d’être – scientific research. "Then we asked how fundraising, communications and other aspects of the organisation could underpin that," he adds.
Hilary Evans, who joined the charity in 2014 from Age UK, initially as director of external affairs, before becoming chief executive in 2015, says: "What we did was look at what we wanted to achieve as an organisation.
"Dementia is the leading cause of death in the UK and, increasingly, across the world. There’s been chronic underfunding of dementia research and we haven’t really seen some of the success that has been seen in other, parallel diseases. So we’ve positioned our strategy towards trying to find a disease-modifying treatment."
In order to do this, the charity first decided to give out funding for research globally, not just in the UK, and to fund research projects aimed at drug discovery. The focus was on developing collaborations with the academic world, which does the research, and industry, which will ultimately develop and supply any resulting treatment.
Wilson says this change of focus meant the fundraising team had a new proposition to put to potential donors, which had a particular impact on giving from major donors. The growth of 2016/17 included the biggest single donation in the charity’s history – £3.8m from a medical research grant-maker, the Mike Gooley Trailfinders Charity.
Wilson says the new, targeted approach to funding research projects helped to improve the conversations he has with people, trusts and foundations, and corporate partners. Last year, it also became the first-ever medical research charity to be chosen for the Financial Times seasonal appeal.
"It comes back to having the right project for the right people at the right time," he says. "If we get that right, that’s when we become a recipient of major donations."
The charity has also invested in training its staff in legacy fundraising. This helped to grow legacy income by £1.7m to £9m in the 2016/17 financial year, including a single bequest of £1.2m.
But Evans says connecting with the wider public was a different challenge, partly because of the stigma surrounding dementia, but also because of the misconception that it is simply a natural part of ageing rather than a treatable disease. So the charity focused on raising awareness, which included running a campaign featuring Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston that urges viewers simply to share "the orange" – the knowledge that dementia is caused by physical deterioration that could be fixed.
The charity also ran a controversial Christmas advert in 2017 featuring a little girl who discovered Father Christmas had dementia. The Advertising Standards Authority received dozens of complaints about the potentially distressing effect on children, but the complaints body ruled in favour of the charity.
Evans stands by the campaign, saying it was a good way to get people talking about the issue of Alzheimer’s. "We knew there would be a bit of tension around it," she says. "But we’ve found that, for children who might have grandparents with Alzheimer’s, it was suddenly a nice way in which they could relate to what’s happened to grandma or granddad."
For other charities looking to emulate Alzheimer’s Research UK’s success, Wilson recommends considering the three "Ps".
"First, having the right people at every level is critical," he says. "Second, having the right proposition, in our case a really innovative and impactful research portfolio, is really important. Finally, having the right processes in place: with the General Data Protection Regulation, you’ve got to have the right data and good use of data."
But although the charity smashed its fundraising targets, Evans says this is only the start of where it wants to be. "Our success will not be calculated on what we can raise and spend," she says. "It will be when people start seeing new treatments coming through.
"That’s the first and only thing that anyone who has been affected by dementia wants to see from us."