Brian Carlin: Innovate your fundraising model or die

In the latest in our Future of Fundraising series, the chief executive of the spinal-cord injury charity Aspire explains how thinking radically led it to create a different source of income

Brian Carlin
Brian Carlin

Strong, sustainable income is absolutely vital for most charities, especially those that deliver support services. However, income for many is often vulnerable and fluctuates from year to year. Unsolicited donations and legacies are completely unpredictable, yet can make all the difference between a good financial year and a bad one.

Just over seven years ago, a small group of senior staff and trustees were asked to explore possible commercial opportunities at Aspire, a national spinal cord injury charity. What they discovered was that numerous professional services used were used by most people with spinal-cord injuries. These included legal, case management, care, continence products and wealth management, to name but a few. After some discussion, we decided to focus on legal.

We know that some law firms pay the equity partners in their personal injury departments an annual dividend in excess of £1m, yet the amount donated back to the spinal cord injury sector is a tiny fraction of this . We were determined to find a way to make a small amount of this available to fund better support for the vast majority of people with spinal-cord injuries who will never benefit from compensation claims.

Rather than challenging the industry from the outside, we decided to show that things could be improved for clients and charities alike by creating a new legal firm. We found a law firm with the necessary expertise and national reach required, but which was still small enough to be attracted by the offer of entering into a partnership with a charity.  

The next couple of years were very challenging because we had to fully understand our responsibilities in owning 50 per cent of a law firm. But finally we had all the legal agreements in place, a very lean business operating plan and an overall strategy.  

The Legal Reform Bill 2014 meant that a non-legal professional could be registered as a partner of a law firm. I would become the very first. In November 2014, we were granted our licence by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and we launched the business.

We were uncertain about the future because no charity had ever become a 50 per cent owner of a law firm. Furthermore, we were representing only spinal-cord injury claims and entering a market dominated by well-established players. But momentum gathered and we signed more and more clients.  

Our business model focuses on the client – personal injury clients keep 100 per cent of their damages (other law firms take up to 25 per cent). We also pride ourselves on offering a holistic service. For example, equity partners are not paid because we all have day jobs and 50 per cent of the profits are donated to Aspire.

We have exceeded the original targets in our business plan by 200 per cent and we believe we’re now representing more clients with spinal-cord injuries than any other law firm in England and Wales. The business moved into an accounting profit last year and, in a few years’ time, will be donating in excess of £2m a year to Aspire thereafter.

There is no other corporate partnership like this. Aspire Law will soon become the biggest donating business in the UK, which will dramatically change the financial fortunes of Aspire, securing its future and enabling it to continue to develop and expand its services. Ultimately, it will ensure that the charity can support 100 per cent of newly injured people and increase its grant giving to help them purchase specialist equipment that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

Brian Carlin is chief executive of Aspire and a partner at Aspire Law LLP

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