As a fundraising consultant you see a lot of strategies as well as frequently being involved in developing new ones for charities.
It’s a sad truth that very many of the strategy documents that I see describe strategies that were either mostly unsuccessful or never implemented in the first place. It’s depressing to think how much time, energy and money was spent in developing these stillborn plans, not to mention the impact on charities of having failed to achieve the income levels they expected.
So why do fundraising strategies fail? And what are the essential ingredients of a strategy that will be successful?
The failure of strategies we at Aldrich & Ward have seen can be put down to a handful of key issues. There were issues of realism, leadership, organisational buy in that drove the failure of the majority of these strategies.
- Realism. A fundraising strategy ought to be ambitious. After all we are trying to change the world here. But that ambition needs to be grounded in a realistic assessment of where you are starting from and of the opportunities and challenges to be faced. Too many strategies simply set arbitrary targets that sound impressive but are not based on anything more than hope. Fundraisers quickly see through such empty goals and as a result no one has any confidence in achieving them.
- Leadership. It’s almost impossible to separate strategy from leadership. The best founded strategy will fail if it is not driven forward by leaders who can convince others to believe in it. It’s critical that leaders own their strategies. Often we see that strategies are actually well founded fail in their execution because of leadership changes.
- Organisational buy-in. No fundraising strategy can succeed in isolation from the rest of the organisation. We’ve seen really good strategies lead by excellent fundraising directors stumble because the rest of the charity isn’t lined up to support them.
So how can we ensure that a fundraising strategy is realistic, driven by strong leadership and gains the buy in both of the people implementing it and the wider organisation?
The strategies we’ve seen that have been successful have all had these common characteristics;
- They were based on thorough analysis. This analysis was sufficient to allow decisions to be well informed without being bogged down in redundant detail.
- They proposed clear choices. Strategy is all about making choices and these can invariably be boiled down to a handful of the most critical choices. Identifying which these are is crucial.
- They kept it simple. We’ve seen strategy documents that are hundreds of pages long. But the best strategies can be summarised on one page. And if you want people to understand and remember what they are supposed to achieve that’s really important.
- They were sold in. We’ve seen successful strategies that were one person’s vision and other which were co-created with the entire team. But in all cases they were effectively and continuously sold in to the team and the wider organisation to ensure that everyone understood them and was committed to supporting them.
- In short, all successful strategies were driven by leaders who not only believed in the vision but had the courage and determination to inspire and motivate the whole organisation to turn vision into exceptional results.
It’s very easy to over-complicate strategy. It’s important to do the spadework to ensure that any new approach is realistically founded. But then what’s needed is a simple and clear road map that everyone understands and believes in. And as, always, really good leadership to drive it through.