Stella Smith: Think past the funding

Our guest columnist questions whether charities are too reliant on their fundraising teams

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

Are you facing a fundraising shortfall? Struggling to meet core costs? If so, the news that the UK economy shrank at the end of last year is probably no great surprise to you. We all know it’s a harsh funding environment – so, with government cutbacks and supporters feeling the pinch, how do you get the money in? 

The obvious solution is to work harder at fundraising. More than ever, we’re spending inordinate amounts of time on complex funding applications for little if any return. We have our sparky street fundraisers bravely enlisting direct debit donations while business development managers and fundraising experts all dutifully toil away, pushing to hit those targets.

There are some brilliant fundraisers out there and I take my hat off to them for their perseverance. But is this continued push on fundraising really a tenable long-term solution? Is there not a danger that we’re pinning all our hopes on the fundraising team and, in doing so, brushing some uncomfortable realities under the carpet ?   

The problem with getting fixated on the funding is that we lose sight of the bigger picture: the real work of the charity, whether supporting vulnerable people or campaigning for change. Instead, fundraising and income take centre stage in meetings, discussions and workplans. In a recession this is understandable, but funding is only a means to an end – it is not an end in itself. And if an organisation’s expenditure is higher than its income, that is not necessarily a problem with the fundraising.

In this tough economic climate, charities need to keep their eyes on the strategy and review what the charity really needs to do and how it is operating. This can be painful, of course: it can lead to big changes, and nobody likes restructuring, moving offices, changing jobs, mergers or even closing down. Faced with such difficult decisions, of course, we return our focus to fundraising: a few late nights looking for organisations that might provide funding must be preferable to dealing with all that upheaval. Apart from that, we don’t want to appear weak in front of our colleagues, as if by acknowledging that we probably won’t hit the fundraising target, we’re admitting failure.

But the sooner we look objectively and critically at our situation, have those necessary frank conversations, explore the alternative options and manage the resistance, the sooner we can address the issues and get on a firmer footing. 

If you think your organisation might be getting overly fixated on the funding and hoping against all the evidence that a new business development manager will turn around your fortunes, it might be time for a reality check. Here are a few ideas to get you started:  

1. Step back now

The sooner you make some space and look objectively at the situation, the easier it will be to deal with. The worst thing you can do is ignore the writing on the wall. Those organisations that tend to weather the storms are those that have a strong thread of realism running through their discussions and decisions. If you are facing a tough funding situation, think about the worst-case scenarios now. Think creatively about options early on. Decide at what point you will start to actively pursue those options.

2. Identify your ‘holy cows’

Every organisation has them – those individuals, services, routines, teams and buildings that are widely acknowledged as critical to the operation. They may well have been critical at some point in the organisation’s history, but are they really indispensable today? If you really believe they are vital, why? What is it that they do or provide that is so essential?  Don’t be afraid to challenge the holy cows. Too many organisations go under protecting something they believed to be indispensable.    

3. Check your decision-making

In the rush of work it can be easier to agree with a strong-minded individual than to have a necessary discussion. Beware of being influenced into poor decisions so as to avoid difficult conversations.

4. Go back to basics

Revisit your vision, mission and strategy. Remember why the charity was set up in the first place. If you were starting this organisation today, what would you have and not have? What would you do and not do?

Put your beneficiary, campaign or cause at the forefront of your thinking and work out how you could make a difference with the resources you have.   

Stella Smith is a strategy consultant working with not-for-profit organisations in the areas of governance, strategy and change management

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