Louise Mitchell: Lessons from a fundraising challenge

Raising money in these cash-strapped times requires determination, cooperation and a willingness to face the skeletons in your closet

Louise Mitchell
Louise Mitchell

How do you raise more than £43m in less than three years to transform a tired concert hall outside London against a backdrop of a cash-strapped local authorities and government spending cuts?

The answer is with difficulty and determination. The doors of Colston Hall, Bristol’s central music venue, have just closed and performances are going "outside" until 2020 so the people in hard hats can move in. The past three years have taught us a huge amount about local and national politics, the power of history and the labyrinth of government funding. We have emerged not unscathed, but definitely wiser.

The first lesson was to make sure you have the full and undivided support of your trustees. This isn’t always a given. We got off to a poor start when our first bids to the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund were turned down. At that point our trustees could have wobbled at the thought of a long, hard battle ahead. But they didn’t, and that first board meeting after the depressing news was one of the most energised and focused we have ever had.

We live in austere times, but I say this by way of encouragement. Actually, everyone is feeling the pressure and I’ve had fantastic personal support from peers, even when we’re competing for the same pot of money. 

You also have to gain support from across the political spectrum if the project is to span a number of years. As the figures at the head of local government and national departments change, you have to retell your story so many times that it is easy to fall into the trap of sounding like a parrot asking for money. So keep your message fresh and relevant.

Be prepared for skeletons not just to fall out of the closet but to come back to life. The hall’s name became a much more highly charged issue than we could ever have imagined. We are named after (but never funded by) the 17th-century Bristolian businessman and philanthropist Edward Colston, whose business, basically, was the slave trade.  

It’s not that we did not know the name was controversial. It had long been on the agenda to examine its appropriateness for the new venue. But we weren’t prepared for the media interest that put us at the heart of the whole debate on the legacy of Colston and the slave trade.

In hindsight, we could have been more proactive in dealing with the issue head on and engaging more with the communities and local leaders about our desire to change.

It’s also important not to lean too hard on your team on the ground. My team were not just running a major fundraising campaign, but they also had a "business-as-usual" day job to manage. Keeping the team motivated is one of the key challenges, even if that means being economical with the truth for fear of demotivating them – difficult as that might be.

Sometimes the best option is to get external help and objective advice from people who aren’t bogged down in the weeds of the issues. Despite some reservations, we engaged experts who knew a lot more than us about how to persuade government departments to part with their cash. You have only 24 hours in a day, so use them on what you do best.

Finally, always say thank you. You never know who your friends could be, so it’s important to make every conversation count and to remember how they’ve helped once you have their support. The pledges we’ve had, large and small, are a commitment to us over a lengthy project. On that point, special thanks to my team and our good friend and former politician Simon Cook for the way he kept the flame alight even when it felt like the lights had gone out.

Now the next exciting challenge lies ahead – delivering what we’ve promised.

Louise Mitchell is chief executive of the Bristol Music Trust, which runs Colston Hall

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