Andrew Taylor-Dawson: Challenge your fundraising assumptions

Don't throw away evidence or ignore experience, but do be open to fundraising approaches that fly in the face of conventional thinking

Andrew Taylor-Dawson
Andrew Taylor-Dawson

It’s easy in fundraising to get to a point where we think we know what "works" and stick to formulas and approaches that are tried and tested.

Over time, I’ve seen approaches to supporter recruitment and development that break the mould or fly in the face of conventional thinking – and work. Every time a hear about a convention-busting fundraising activity, it reminds me to be open to ideas that challenge received wisdom.

I’m not for a minute saying we should throw away evidence or ignore past experience, but that it’s essential to be open to fundraising approaches that challenge our assumptions. From long-form inserts structured like newspaper articles to warm appeals that use unconventional imagery or messaging approaches, sometimes it’s good to challenge ourselves. And sometimes it’s possible to discover that, for a very good reason, your organisation is an exception to a general rule.

It’s easy for me to say such things in the confines of an article, but as fundraisers we all have targets that we’re measured by and going out on a limb can be a scary prospect. I believe, however, that the greatest fundraising successes will be achieved in organisations where fundraisers are given the space to try out bold ideas. This also means, of course, having the space to fail.

Any test needs a rationale, but if it is a controlled test that’s setting out to interrogate a piece of received wisdom and potentially open new space for creative and dynamic fundraising, then it should be fought for and encouraged. If a test or a new approach has merit, then boards and other stakeholders can be convinced.

All of us as fundraisers will have been in the position of trying to win round key people within an organisation to a new approach or outlandish idea. Whether it’s a rethink of segmentation, a form of audience targeting you’ve never used before or an outlandish new creative angle, if your rationale stands up to scrutiny it’s worth testing. If it fails, then you have further lessons and you can move on from it.

It’s hard to break away from the norm when income is under pressure, and it’s not always the right time to do it. But it’s even trickier if you find yourself in a situation of declining income and stagnating supporter acquisition and you don’t have a culture of creativity, testing and thinking outside the box.

All of us can probably think back to projects that have failed and moments when we’ve wondered "what was I thinking?" Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I think back to my first real digital acquisition project many years ago, I cringe at the approach we took to the media we were using. But it was a small test, which meant that the failure did not have huge negative implications and we learnt from it. After that we moved on and more than tripled income from digital over the next three years.

Remaining fresh within a job, being able to see things from new angles and challenge how you think is essential whatever you do. The day-to-day grind of keeping up with targets and meeting expectations can dampen creativity, but as fundraisers we must find the space not only to challenge ourselves, but also to challenge our organisations, if we are to keep up with changing technology and a changing marketplace for fundraising.

Andrew Taylor-Dawson is development manager at the human rights organisation Liberty

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