The new year brings a chance to reflect, plan ahead, and make changes. For many charities, 2023 is likely to be another tough one, trying to meet rising social needs. As we strive to meet all the challenges, the top focus of course has to be serving beneficiaries – but it’s important that charity leaders and trustees don’t lose sight of the folks who make much of that work possible – fundraisers.
I hope it’s not representative, but I’ve come across too many conversations and anecdotes recently about the position of fundraisers within charities which concern me. I’ve noticed there can be a disturbing attitude in some charities, or amongst some folks in charities, that their fundraisers are separate from the rest of the organisation, or sidelined from decision-making, or not doing the ‘real work’, or even a necessary evil – something ‘icky’ that needs to be tolerated for the greater good. And some of the latter attitudes come from people who really should know better!
I just don’t get it. If this is true, for me it’s not just bad leadership it’s bad strategy. Every conversation or communication with a donor is a chance to motivate someone to learn about and support your cause or issue, financially or not. If we don’t support and listen to those doing the asking, how can we expect the best results?
People providing services on ‘the front line’ should of course be listened to, valued, and respected like anybody in the organisation. But the same is true for fundraisers – they’re equally important. Often there would be no other ‘front line’ provision without them. The services charities are rightly so proud of providing, often at a high standard and in difficult conditions, wouldn’t exist or couldn’t be provided at the same scale without fundraisers!
Can you imagine a manufacturing company where the sales team was treated as a necessary evil, left to do all that icky salesy-type-stuff, with the real credit and respect reserved for the engineers and assembly line workers? Or a restaurant where the front of house and table servers were treated as expendable and of lower importance than the chefs? There probably are plenty of such businesses, but I bet they don’t provide excellence for their customers or a great work environment. They would lack a collective sense of team effort, responsibility, high morale and shared success, and hence I doubt a quality product or experience.
Fundraising isn’t an easy job, and it takes a special kind of person who not only loves doing it but is skilled at doing it. Moreover, fundraisers are often the charity’s public face for dealing with one of its most important constituencies – the donating public. Charity managers and trustees should think hard about that – if the fundraising team isn’t respected, listened to, and brought into the decision-making of the charity about what the organisation’s circumstances are and how they are changing, the charity could be missing critical intel about the operating environment, which can lead to terrible decision-making.
Especially now, fundraisers are I think under huge pressures. We’ve been in a 6-7 year ‘perma-crisis’ where charity finances have been shredded and financial resilience has been hollowed out. Managers and CEOs are also hugely stressed, trying to plug lots of holes in balance sheets, and the numbers aren’t adding up. But history has shown that when charities treat their fundraisers and their donors as cash machines, this can have negative consequences.
The entire charity sector is facing workforce pressures too, and fundraising roles are no exception. Inflation and low or no salary increases are eroding the incomes of charity staff and the perma-crisis could lead many to burnout. If leaders are transparent, open and honest with staff this can help morale, but lack of engagement and opacity about decision-making often has the opposite effect. Empowering fundraisers with more responsibility within the organisation may not just make good business sense, it should help them feel valued and contribute to their personal development, boosting retention.
If the economic forecasts are correct, we’re facing the sharpest decline in living standards in any of our lifetimes. We don’t yet know what the impact will be on the public’s ability to donate, but it’s likely to become even more challenging. The good news is that the available evidence shows the public do still strongly support charities continuing to ask, and to advocate for important social causes, especially related to the cost-of-living crisis. Leaders need to be realistic about what their fundraisers can do and be open to creative approaches to donors during this cost-of-living crisis.
It’s possible that we could see more churn in the number of regular donors, or supporters may not be able to give the same amounts or as frequently and may need to be communicated with differently or persuaded by different types of approaches. Fundraisers should be sensitive to those nuances and charity leaders need to seek out their expertise and creative insights. For example, if donors aren’t able to give or give as much, they may still be able to join campaigns or engage in other activity that benefits the charity.
So charity trustees and leaders, how about a New Year’s Resolution: Please listen to your fundraisers. Activate their passion for the cause, keep them involved in your strategic planning, and seek out their ideas. You never know what solutions they might come up with!