Tim Willett interview: How we're turning around fundraising at Action on Hearing Loss

The disability charity's latest accounts raised serious doubts about its financial sustainability. But, as its new fundraising director explains, it is confident it can transform its income generation

Tim Willett
Tim Willett

The most recent accounts for the disability charity Action on Hearing Loss make for grim reading.

In the year to March 2018, the charity’s income was £40.1m, but it spent £42.7m – the fifth time in six years that expenditure had outstripped income.

Even more alarmingly, a note from the charity’s auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, says that "material uncertainty" about fundraising income cast doubt on the charity’s ability to "continue as a going concern".

The charity embarked on a recovery plan, and in April it hired a new director of fundraising

Tim Willett took up the role as executive director of fundraising, marketing and communications after a frank conversation with Mark Atkinson, the chief executive, about the dire straits the charity was in.

So three months in, it is a bit of a surprise to find him grinning from ear to ear.

"I’m loving the job – it’s a great organisation and a huge opportunity," he says.

Most of the sector is facing challenges when it comes to fundraising, he says, and all charities are going to have to make major changes sooner or later. The growth of social enterprise, the rise of tech-driven business models such as Uber and Amazon and the increase in social consciousness among big corporations all mean charities need to re-evaluate their role in the world.

The fact that Action on Hearing Loss has to make changes because of its precarious financial position Willett actually considers advantageous: "We can genuinely look at what we’re doing, take more risks and be a little more creative where we haven’t got the money to invest in certain things.

"I think we have a great opportunity to be exciting and different, and really challenge the status quo."

But the first step, he says, is to create stability and sustainability. Getting there will rely on the traditional tools of fundraising, such as focusing on the donor journey, telling powerful stories and communicating with donors in a way they find relevant.

"Nobody’s too surprised by these ideas, but for where we are as an organisation they are critical," says Willett.

The key thing, he says, is to improve the charity’s retention of donors. He also believes the charity needs to work on its volunteering offer to attract younger supporters, who might not want to give financially but can offer time and energy for the charity’s cause.

"Hearing loss, deafness and tinnitus are actually very relevant to younger populations," he says. "We need to make that relevance clear to them, which we haven’t necessarily done in the past."

Achieving "sustainability" is the immediate goal, but what it means to be sustainable as an organisation is changing dramatically. "Historically, we’ve talked about sustainable organisations as those that can keep doing what they’ve always done in the way they’ve always done it," Willett says.

Increasingly, he says, charities need to be able to adapt to be sustainable, and that is not something at which they are necessarily very good.

For Action on Hearing Loss, adaptability also means knowing when to adjust or drop activities when it becomes clear they are not working.

"If we’re blunt, one of the challenges has been the charity trying to do everything," says Willet. 

Instead, he says, the charity needs to streamline the activities it is involved in. Since Willett became head of fundraising, the charity has put its DRTV and private-site face-to-face activity on hold, because they are both expensive and take time to deliver return on investment.

Instead, he wants the charity to be doing more in the digital space, both because it is what donors and beneficiaries expect and because it is possible to test and adjust digital campaigns at relatively low cost.

The test-and-correct-as-you-go model suits Willett, who says he is fascinated by systems, figuring out what’s wrong, then testing and improving solutions. He is also adopting a mantra of "fail fast, fail happy, learn from it and then move forward".

The charity, and the sector as a whole, needs to think more about funding than fundraising and consider how statutory funding, commercial funding and trading income could all play a part.

"Fundraising will always play a significant part in the charity sector," Willett says. "It’s a great way of engaging people and it’s key to what we do, but equally there are other forms of funding alongside it that are in some cases more valuable.

"Traditionally, charities have tended to segment that out, but there are emerging benefits to thinking of them in a unified way and making sure we understand what forms of funding are most appropriate to which forms of delivery."

Another dilemma for the charity is its name. Until 2010, it was known as the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, or RNID. Nine years on, it still includes the words "formerly RNID" in some of its communications.

Willett acknowledges the Action on Hearing Loss brand has not had the cut-through it would have liked. He is cautious about offering opinions as to why at this stage, but he says he thinks the organisation needs to be clearer about what it does.

"We’ve got an amazing heritage of doing amazing things," he says. "We’ve got digital hearing aids on the NHS, we’ve got improved services, we’ve done research, we’ve got changes in society and legislation across our history. All of those things scream to me that we have an amazing brand. Maybe it’s just a bit confused at the moment, so watch this space."

Willett’s forecast for the charity over next few years is cautiously optimistic.  "I think with the stability, we’ll see a positive change this year," he says.

"We’re bound to have a few hiccups between now and then, but I think it’s reasonably positive from where I’m sitting."

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