How to keep major donors

Philanthropists say trustworthiness, honesty and clear strategies will help charities hold on to wealthy givers in hard times

John Studzinski
John Studzinski

With a global recession looming, fundraisers are looking to each other for ideas on how to maintain income during the lean times ahead. But what about asking the donors themselves?

In October, some of the world's leading philanthropists gathered in London to give fundraisers their views on what charities should be doing to secure their continued support in the downturn.

Many charities are heavily dependent on major donors, whose support might be vulnerable during tough times when they are more careful about distributing their wealth. So delegates at the Raising Funds from the Rich conference, organised by Action Planning, were keen to hear what the philanthropists had to say.

Michael Hintze, who has built up a hedge fund worth £250m, said major donors had historically maintained their giving through turbulent as well as good times and the present situation was unlikely to be any different.

"Those who give do so because they feel they have an obligation or a desire," said Hintze. "In times of crisis, neither obligation nor desire dissipates - yes, there will be a downturn in donations, but to assume there will be a meltdown is wrong."

However, he acknowledged that fundraisers might have to work harder on their relationships with wealthy supporters to show the value of the projects they want money for. He said the coming months would be a time to reflect, reappraise and re-engineer key themes and to reinforce fundraising strategies. "Now is the time to consider crafting careful messages to reflect the times," he said. "Don't become moribund; work harder."

Hintze said it was more important than ever to ensure all staff understood the charity's vision and communicated it with its supporters. He advised fundraisers to be open to the idea of mergers and be transparent about their balance sheets, even if times were tough. "Nobody wants to give to a black hole," he said. "The greater the clarity, the greater the trust."

John Studzinski, who led HSBC Investment Banking and is now an arts benefactor, echoed Hintze's advice. He said fundraisers should focus on getting closer to major donors in order to maintain fruitful relationships during the economic downturn.

"Your loyal people will become more loyal, more generous and more committed," he said. "Make sure you know who has known you the longest - they will help if they understand your situation."

Studzinski also stressed the value of honesty in a slump. Major donors, he said, would insist on it before committing their support. He said they would want to know more about governance, such as how trustees are chosen and exactly what purpose board members serve.

Studzinksi said he often asked boards to tell him the original ideas behind their charities. "Donors will want to see that you are sticking to your core business," he said. With this in mind, he urged fundraisers to remind themselves of the key aims of their organisations.

First, he said, fundraisers should ditch glamorous dinners in favour of basic fundraising techniques. Second, they should harness the value of outreach work by building networks and getting more ambassadors on board. Third, they should be advocates of their causes. Charities should stand for something, he said, and if they actively championed their beneficiaries, fundraising would come from 'real donors' who would stick around during the tough times.

Studzinski's overriding message to fundraisers was that they should be proactive and avoid sitting back and watching a recession unfold. "Use this time well and you will come through better equipped for the challenges ahead," he said.

Andrew Billington, chief executive of the Jack Petchey Foundation, which gives grants to young people's projects, said many rich people were prepared to give, but weren't confident about how to do it. It was vital, he said, to form bonds that would not only help them understand charities better, but also promote trust.

"Wealthy people are still human," he said. "They want recognition. Treat them as VIPs - they want to feel involved."

Like individual philanthropists, he said, foundations would be keener to get answers to difficult questions before committing funds. "We want to know how well our money will be used," he said. "Is the programme cost-effective?"

He warned fundraisers to avoid using words such as 'unique' and overplaying emotion or hardship when approaching potential donors. "Just give simple, honest presentations," he said.

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