The people who made relationship fundraising work

I’ve stayed out of the current relationship fundraising debate, a little unsure what to say that I haven’t said many times already in the past 20+ years. But I found myself wondering why hasn’t the world embraced relationship fundraising? The obvious answer is that no one has done a good enough job of making the case (something fundraisers should know all about). And then I tried to recall those people who really did make it work, and what they had in common.

Some brief context…back in the last century, I spent 14 years at Burnett Associates, nine of them as MD. It was a sensational agency – principled, creative, committed, with the best parties.

It was also a niche agency – the wider world of fundraising wasn’t really on our radar. We were all about trying to inspire individuals using direct marketing (at a time when the World Wide Web was a new-fangled irritant which we knew would never catch on…).

And it was an agency that owned a word, which is an immensely powerful marketing position. That word was, of course, ‘relationship’. Yet, much as we had a strong point of view on relationships, the successes we had were massively reliant on people outside of the agency.

So, while this is by no means an exhaustive list, let me introduce you to three people who made relationship fundraising work (and then I’ll tell you what I think they have in common):

Honestly, I don’t even remember the name of the first fundraiser. It was the early 90s. I was leading a team pitching to the RNLI (the UK’s volunteer lifeboat service). To help me understand what made RNLI tick, I went to visit a couple of community fundraisers. One of them turned up 30 minutes late, and said: ‘I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. The crew were out on a shout last night [a rescue]. So I’ve just been visiting a few donors to let them know that everyone got back safely.’

Obviously at this point I realised I had nothing to teach RNLI about donor-oriented fundraising. Even today, I suspect some of the best relationship fundraising is happening at community and major donor levels. Just people in conversation with people.

Second, not an individual but an organisation, Greenpeace UK. I’m looking at you: Charlotte Grimshaw, Annie Moreton, Jan Chisholm, Chris Williams. When talking to these great clients, my sentences often started thus: ‘I’m making this up as I go along, but why don’t we…’

Often they said ‘yes’. Which is how we came to send out a mailing with a £250k tick box (which worked), and sent postcards to middle donors to apologise for not being in touch for a while (read that again, we apologised for not being in touch for a while), and kept supporters up to date on what was happening behind the scenes by sending out interviews with the chief exec (posted to donors on, er, ‘tape cassette’ – younger folk may wish to google this).

Third, Adrian Burder at the National Canine Defence League (now the Dog’s Trust), for whom we developed the Sponsor A Dog ‘product’. Adrian was entirely at home with the idea of sponsored dogs writing letters, Valentines and Christmas cards to supporters. It taught me that charity supporters aren’t in any way allergic to marketing provided it connects with their own (sometimes zany) values.

So, an unknown community fundraiser, Greenpeace UK, Adrian Burder. What did they have in common?:

  1. Strong personal values aligned with strong and uncompromising organisational values. These weren’t values grafted on by a brand agency. This is about a deep-rooted alignment of personal and organisational DNA.
  2. They took responsibility. They didn’t seek permission from their superiors. They didn’t defer to guidelines, or a handbook, they just followed their instinct and intuition. Results followed. (I’m not saying they didn’t care about evidence or numbers, believe me they did. It’s just that the principles came first.)
  3. They took risks. They were unafraid. They didn’t do what they’d always done, so they didn’t get what they’d always got (and not once did we use the word ‘innovation’!). They invariably looked for opportunities to do new things rather than reasons not to do them.
  4. They laughed. We had fun. We shared a sense of the ridiculousness of some of what we did.
  5. They didn’t blame. Sometimes we let each other down. We never blamed each other (at least not for long!); we just got on with it.
  6. They got people. They never lost sight of the individuals who were receiving and interacting with their communications. The home visit to let you know the lifeboat crew are safe. The postcard to say sorry we’ve not been in touch for a while. The Valentine’s Card from the dog you sponsor. Each of these communications was simply about making the supporter feel better (and, no we never used the word ‘stewardship’ either!).

In a complicated world, if you want to make your (relationship) fundraising work better, why not start by checking that list and seeing how you and your cause measure up?

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