What’s the secret of a successful fundraising strategy?


As a (part-time*) member of the Honourable Society of Fundraising Consultants, Soothsayers and Allied Trades, I do quite a lot of fundraising  strategies.  And before my fall into darkness when I was an honest fundraising director, strategy was something I spent a lot of time on.

So not really having got the hang of this consultancy lark, I thought the time has come for me to impart my accumulated wisdom on the subject of developing strategies. (Specifically for fundraising but much of what I have learned is generally applicable I think). As I said, I have seen a lot of strategies and participated in a lot of strategy processes. And seen organisations get this very wrong.

It’d be unfair to name the charities** where strategy development has got out of control. Suffice it to say,  I recall situations where the strategy process becomes a monster, insatiably sucking up time and resources, relentlessly gathering complexity and producing a final document which then sits on a shelf gathering dust. At the other end of the spectrum, charities where there essentially isn’t any fundraising strategy at all and where fundraisers are headless chickens running around without priorities or direction.

Getting the right strategy couldn’t be more important but it’s not an easy thing to get right. However, following these rules should help to avoid the worse pitfalls.

1. Keep it simple.

The most common strategy mistake is to over-complicate. Successful strategies are simple. Think about Britain’s war strategy in 1940 after the fall of France (I know, another history lecture, sorry). It could be summed up as keep on fighting while doing everything possible to get the US and USSR into the war. It worked. So why should a fundraising strategy for a little nonprofit be much more complicated? Your strategy should be capable of being summed up in one slide or it isn’t a strategy but a to do list.

2. Don’t over analyse.

Similarly, there is a tendency for strategy processes to involve enormous amounts of analysis to support the outcome.  You of course need to understand where you are at. But don’t sweat the small stuff.  Strategy is all about the big picture so understanding just why there was a minor variation on one part of the programme three years ago is just adding noise.

3. Accept uncertainty.

One of the odder aspects of the strategy process is that organisations mostly produce five year plans. Why? We all remember who came up with the 5 Year Plan, right? That’s our role model? Well it might be a good basis for building a steel works, or collectivizing agriculture but five years is an awfully long time in fundraising. That’s not to say we don’t need to think about those types of time horizons but  it is important to be realistic about our ability to forecast events. In fundraising, all your donors could stop giving you money tomorrow. They won’t probably, but could. So don’t get so fixated on your strategy goals to lose the ability to react really quickly to major changes in the landscape (on the other hand, make sure you don’t mistake small shifts for tectonic change).

4. Look outside the organisation

It’s very easy for any human organisation to become self-obsessed and it’s awfully common in our sector. A strategy process always needs to start with the external environment. (This is something consultants can help with, but see below). Again, this shouldn’t be an exhaustive exercise. It’s the big trends not the minutiae that’s important.

5. Measure success but measure the right things

As with the strategy itself, you don’t want too many success measures. What gets measured gets valued in most organisations and a plethora of what are usually completely inappropriately called key performance indicators can just result in management distraction. You want a handful of things, that you can meaningfully influence, measured consistently.

6. Have clear, short-term milestones.

And you need to know that you are making progress quickly. So the milestones are very important, again not too many and the right ones. And it’s not enough to have them, you have to use them, changing tack if targets aren’t being reached on time.

7. Use consultants judiciously.  I might be reinforcing the impression that I can’t sell for toffee but I have too often seen consultants misused in strategy processes. This is expensive resource and using it to either, tell you things you know but want an outsider to say for political reasons or allowing the consultants to take over the process and impose their view of what should happen are both equally wrong.  The outside view is important, consultants can provide this or they can bring specific skills and experience you don’t have.  But they need to be used for a specific purpose and not as a substitute for internal management responsibility.

So another seven rules.There’s a pattern here. But following them could save quite ab it of time, money and organisational pain.

And I hope my consultancy union comrades won’t expel me for revealing trade secrets. otherwise I might have to get a proper job.

* the other part is setting up the Misfit Foundation and hanging around in trendy coffee bars with folks with interesting facial hair  but that’s another story

**I can of course always be bribed. Drink works.

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