Cash-flow problems are an issue for the whole charity, says consultant

At Third Sector's online Fundraising Conference, Leesa Harwood says chief executives should not pass responsibility for improving things to fundraisers alone

Leesa Harwood
Leesa Harwood

Too many charity chief executives are abdicating responsibility for cash-flow problems to fundraisers, delegates at Third Sector’s Fundraising Conference have been told. 

Speaking in a panel session at the online conference this week, the fundraising consultant Leesa Harwood said too many charity leaders failed to understand that financial issues caused by the coronavirus crisis were something the entire organisation needed to deal with. 

She said the attitudes of some leaders towards their fundraising departments that she had come across since the crisis began had made her “quite angry”.

She said: “I’ve seen, not everywhere, but too much of the chief executives and leadership in organisations standing back, putting their hands on their hips and saying to fundraising directors: ‘So how are you going to get us out of this then?’”

In such cases, she said, leaders had “abdicated responsibility” to fundraisers. 

She said she had been forced to tell numerous organisations that their current financial problems were not just fundraising issues, but organisational ones too.

“It's not just about shaking up the fundraising strategy," she said. "This is about fundamentally reviewing your organisational cash-flow model and your funding model."

Harwood said she had, however, witnessed “some incredibly brave fundraising directors” standing up to their boards and calling for integrated approaches to funding problems across their organisations.

She added that moves to diversify fundraising portfolios in response to the crisis had to “bet big or go home”, rather than simply “tinker around the outside”. 

Otherwise, she said, “what we end up doing is making marginal improvements to the status quo. That’s not diversity; it’s improving the status quo."

Diversification had to be outward looking, Harwood said: “Spend more time talking to people who don’t give to you, not those who do, and find out why.”

She said moves to widen diversity in any area of the sector should feel uncomfortable. 

“Those of us who are in a position to influence diversity have probably – not always, but probably – benefited quite nicely from the status quo, so we should be challenging systems that have served us,” she said. 

Meredith Niles, director of fundraising and engagement at Marie Curie, who spoke on the same panel, said one benefit of the coronavirus crisis was that it had helped to establish a different kind of relationship with donors. 

“People’s expectations of what good looks like have been reframed,” she said. 

“People are a lot more forgiving of things not being perfect, and you can just have a conversation.”

She said donors were also more willing to have meetings by video call, and fundraisers at Marie Curie had made more asks of high-value donors in the first six weeks of lockdown than they had in the year leading up to it.

“I’m hoping that putting the relationship with donors onto a different keel so that we can have more of a human dialogue, one that is spontaneous and honest, is something that can continue after the crisis,” said Niles.

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