My Top 5 Takeaways From the International Fundraising Congress

This year in Holland, fundraisers from around the world gathered to learn, connect, share and grow at the International Fundraising Conference (IFC).

It was my first time at IFC.  After years of hearing how it was the best fundraising conference in the world, I had pretty high expectations. I can honestly say that all of them were exceeded.

The sessions were amazing. All of the speakers were excellent, knowledgeable and engaging. But beyond the great sessions I attended, I got the chance to meet and learn from the best fundraising minds from around the world in-between sessions over coffees and meals. I even got to meet some of my long time fundraising heroes. The IFC was easily the five most rewarding days of my professional career.

For everyone who wasn’t able to make this amazing conference, here are my top five takeaways from the conference:

  1. Risk & Innovation

At the IFC, fundraisers from around the world presented their bold and new campaigns. These ranged from new innovations in online giving, to interactive subway advertisements, and more.

A major theme of the conference was the need for non-profits to be OK with failure. We cannot innovate without taking risks. Taking a risk means you might fail.  Failure offers us a chance to learn what doesn’t work – and make smart decisions based on that knowledge. Don’t be afraid to try big ideas, even if you are a small charity.

  1. Test, test and test again!

We’ve known the importance of testing in direct mail for ages. Now, with the rise of face-to-face, telephone and online giving, we have new opportunities to test ideas and programs. Don’t rest on your laurels, don’t assume anything – measure your results, tweak your programs, build on success and repeat what works.

  1. Leadership


There were at least three sessions on fundraising leadership and how to attract, retain and lead fundraising. Dr. Sargeant’s research looked into the common factors of great fundraising, and showed that successful fundraising leaders:

  • are slow to take credit and quick to give it.
  • spend time managing relationships up the organization (with the board and CEO) and across the organization with their peers.
  • do not micromanage their teams.

Tony Elsicher also offered these 7 key characteristics of leaders: Enthusiasm, Integrity, Toughness, Fairness, Warmth, Humility and Confidence. It was clear that focusing on the leadership of an non-profit is as important as making sure you have good fundraising programs in place.

  1. It’s (still) all about retention and donor loyalty

I know, I know, you’ve heard it before – thank donors, show them the impact they are having, focus on growing the donors you have before finding new ones. Sound familiar? Of course it does! People like Roger Craver have been preaching this gospel for decades.  And yet – it is still a message fundraisers need to hear. In fact, Charlie Hulme remarked to me – “we’ve been talking about the importance of retention for ages – but the audience was taking notes like it was the first time they’d heard it”. It’s true, as much as we have been told to focus on retaining donors for ages, it still isn’t happening. Retention is the Holy Grail of fundraising, and the charities that retention right have these things in common:

  • they make the donor the hero
  • they say thank you
  • they show the donor the impact of their gift
  • they tell emotional stories
  • they think about donor experience across different channels and break down internal silos
  • they aren’t afraid or ashamed to keep asking for more

Until the day comes when retention rates are high, and donor fatigue is gone – people like Charlie and Roger will keep banging this drum, and banging it loud. Which leads me to my final point:

  1. There is still work to be done

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the conference was watching Simon Scriver calling real life charity and make a donation. In my session the donation went through successfully, but Simon remarked that in about half of his mystery shopper calls, his donation attempt is unsuccessful. Watching him make that call made me reflect on my own charity and wonder if we would pass his test. Now that IFC is over, take the time to really critically examine your own organization – and get to work on improving what could be better. None of us are perfect – and we owe it to our cause, our beneficiaries and our donors to keep improving.

So, fundraisers – did you go to IFC? If so, what did you learn? Comment below and share your top takeaways!

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