On 10 September last year, a fire ripped through the main play centre of Challengers, a Guildford-based charity that provides leisure facilities for disabled children and young people.
No one was hurt, but the blaze gutted the centre’s play hall, cut off the power supply and left the charity’s offices in the eaves of the building badly smoke-damaged. A tumble dryer, plugged in but not in use, was later identified as the cause of the fire.
"A fire is a visceral experience – it smashes you in every possible way throughout your senses," says Duncan Wilbur, head of fundraising at Challengers.
The year started badly for the charity when the local authority reduced its funding as part of its spending cuts. Yet by the end of 2017 the charity still managed to hit its fundraising target of £1.4m, a 28 per cent increase on the amount it raised in the previous year.
So how did the fundraising team turn the situation around? The most import thing, Wilbur says, was to act quickly. The fundraising team met the day after the fire to work out its next move and was back in the offices within three days.
"You have to try to get ahead of any support you expect to receive," says Wilbur. "It sounds cynical, but you need to sit down and work out what you actually need so that supporters can rally round it and you can make the most from that goodwill."
Wilbur feared that he would turn up to the office and find bags and bags of donated toys. "It would have been very kind and well-intentioned but completely misdirected," he says.
What Challengers needed most was money. The building was insured, but the charity wasn’t sure how long it would take to get it up and running again or whether the insurance would cover the entire cost of revamping the centre.
Communication became key to the charity’s strategy, particularly via social media but also through email and word of mouth.
The charity was "part proactive, part reactive in our approach to trying to engage our existing supporters", says Wilbur.
"There were those existing supporters who were proactively coming forward, and we were also reaching out to those who we’d identified might be in a position to support us."
The charity had split its fundraising team from the communications team in recent years, a move that happily worked in its hour of need.
Wilbur says having a dedicated communications team meant being able to develop strong links with the local press. It also left the fundraising team free to focus on supporter care and recruitment.
"The fire was of real local interest and the local press initially started to cover it from a news perspective," Wilbur says. "But we were able to have conversations with them about how we could turn it into more of a community engagement opportunity."
The Surrey Advertiser ran several front-page stories and a campaign highlighting the charity’s plight. The coverage brought in £25,000, including an anonymous donation of £10,000.
The fire also provided the charity with an unexpected marketing opportunity for its fire-walk fundraising event. The walk, which requires participants to walk across hot coals, was planned long before the disaster, but was due to take place two weeks later.
The event was billed as "fighting fire with fire" and was a major success.
"We had a bar and barbecue, and it was fantastic – just a really positive atmosphere," Wilbur says.
Remaining upbeat about the future was crucial to delivering success. "We really focused on the positives," says Wilbur.
"We were down but not out. It was about staying positive, working as a team and treating it as a springboard to get you on to the next thing, not the end."
The refurbished centre reopened in February this year and the costs were fully covered by the insurer.
The team’s efforts won it the Fundraising Team of the Year prize at the Third Sector Awards in September, but it won’t be resting on its laurels. Its target for 2018 is to raise £1.6m to meet its rising costs and an expected fall in local authority funding.
The charity is currently in the process of writing its fundraising strategy for the next three years.
"The strategy is really about playing to the organisation’s strengths, focusing on the fact that we’re a regional charity and trying not to compete on a national basis, and building relationships locally is key to that," says Wilbur.
"It’s also about really making sure that we’re working in a way that brings the best value back to the organisation."