Secluded in a cavernous four-star hotel in the picturesque tulip-growing region of Duin-en Bollenstreek in the Netherlands, about half an hour from Amsterdam, fundraisers get to escape the daily grind and focus on the bigger picture at the annual International Fundraising Congress.
This year, 727 fundraisers from 52 countries travelled to the biggest event of its kind in Europe, looking for inspiration and the chance to network and share experiences. Over four days, delegates could choose from a masterclass programme, aimed at giving an in-depth look at best practice in key areas of fundraising, workshops offering an overview of different techniques, two plenaries, six 'big room' sessions exploring current thinking and ideas, an awards ceremony and a gala dinner and disco.
What makes the IFC stand out from the other fundraising conferences on the annual circuit is its diversity - delegates gather from Indonesia, Japan, Uganda, Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the US and all over Europe. One delegate from WWF Turkey tells Third Sector that attending the IFC shows you that fundraisers everywhere are facing the same problems and challenges.
Tony Elischer, managing director of Think Consulting Solutions, a keynote speaker and former chair of the IFC, points out that in this gathering you are guaranteed to get insights into other countries. "It's like group therapy," he says. "There is nothing more energising than being in a room full of fundraisers." The 2013 theme for the conference, now in its 33rd year, was impact.
But to what extent do all the ideas, innovations and insights end up being implemented when the fancy dress party costumes are packed away and fundraisers return to their day jobs? Bethan Holloway, client services director at the telephone agency Pell & Bales, who has been to the IFC for the past five years, says: "I'd suggest the conference is inspirational and thought-provoking, rather than practical or tactical. It's heavy on inspirational thinking, light on practical application."
For Elischer, conferences should inspire and motivate. "It should give you insights into what's happening so you can absorb what other charities are doing," he says.
"It should challenge you and give you ideas to take and use." He says it is an opportunity to reflect and refresh, rather than being about education. His own high-energy sessions on the future of fundraising bombarded the audience with ideas. "There's far too much information," he says. "I want people to pick up on what's good for them."
It was said in many sessions that the charity world is not the fastest moving of sectors, and Holloway says she is not surprised that few new ideas or thinking emerged from the conference. The 92-strong speaker line-up included people from outside the sector and two popular sessions explored behavioural economics and lessons from US political fundraising. "It is fresh eyes and approaches that our sector needs," Holloway says. "It's a shame there weren't more speakers from outside the sector. If we continue to simply navel-gaze, then change and innovation will surely remain slow."
Elischer's sessions were about getting fundraisers to try new things and be more imaginative. "A fundraiser's job is to push to the edge, to make sensibly informed decisions and, frankly, sometimes to test, fail and learn," he says. "If you are not constantly testing things, but insist on doing things the same old way, then you are doing a disservice to your charity and the sector because you are not helping us to move on."
Neelam Makhijani, chief executive of the Resource Alliance, which organises the IFC, says there was a focus this year on different ways of working together - how to be more effective and break down silos. "It is not necessarily about new ideas, but how we can do things differently and more effectively," she says.
She argues fundraisers do put into practice what they learn at the IFC, citing the example of a delegate from South Africa who attended a session on events fundraising, took the techniques back to her charity and went on to raise three times more money than before.
But Makhijani admits that change can be slow. "Sometimes you have to say the same thing many times for things to resonate before people make the leap and say 'I will do that in my organisation'," she says.
Makhijani says there has been a change in where fundraisers look for innovation. "There was a view that great fundraising happens only in the UK, Europe or North America, but there is now a recognition that innovation does happen in other parts of the world, where there is less money to play with," she says. "The trend is to do more with less."
Tailored local approach
One of the sessions, called Globarity - a portmanteau word for globalisation and solidarity - compared global campaigning with a more tailored local approach. Medecins Sans Frontieres is planning a transition from a national approach to a more global fundraising focus. Jordi Passola, international communication and fundraising coordinator at MSF, told the conference that 80 per cent of the charity's income came from Europe and North America. He said the charity wants to double its income of EUR1bn over the next decade.
"We need to expand our fundraising to emerging markets, such as the Middle East and Africa," he told delegates. "We need to open the door and allow them to contribute."