I’ve been consulting now for just over three years, on my own and now with Astarita Aldrich & Ward, and I’ve just finished my fiftieth project. It’s been quite a journey, I’ve worked with non-profits with incomes from £200,000 to £2bn across a dozen or more countries and covering a huge range of issues and causes from the very local to the truly global.
I thought that the half-century was a good point to reflect on what I’ve learned about the state of our sector over this period.
Of course the sector, just in the UK let alone internationally, is nothing if not diverse. The one rule about charities to which there are no exceptions is that there are exceptions for every rule. With that said, I think there are some general points that hold true for very many charities.
It is very hard out there. Fundraisers very often think that their cause is the hardest to fundraise for and that the market is worse than its ever been. Usually that’s simply not true. Fundraising is just hard for most people, most of the time. But times do seem particularly tough for many charities just now. There’s a real perfect storm of declining income from government sources and a tightening market for voluntary fundraising that is putting many charities under severe pressure.
The middle is a very uncomfortable place. I can think of very large and very small charities who are finding things very tough going at the moment. But the charities in the middle of the income range seem to be particularly suffering. And its the ones who are competing in the general fundraising market without clear communities of support to fall back on or very clear and strong donor propositions that are the most vulnerable.
Some charities are thriving. There are places where I’ve recently seen the sort of fundraising results that some of us were getting ten years ago. They are very specific niches, where there are causes with particular relevance to clearly defined constituencies or that are locally very resonant.
Fundraising is a window onto organisational health. Most of our projects start with some kind of review of fundraising and/or communications. But these usually highlight issues of organisational mission, strategy and leadership. Weak fundraising or ineffective communications may be the result of poor practice in those areas but they usually are at least partly reflective of problems at the heart of the organisation.
There are few easy solutions. I’ve no doubt that many of our clients when hiring us are really hoping that we’ll come up with the magic bullet that solves their funding problems. At the risk of destroying our business, I have to say that we’re very unlikely to do so. We do have projects where the answer to what the charity needs to do is pretty straightforward. But even if the solution can be identified readily, it isn’t necessarily simple and is unlikely to be cost-free to implement. To be honest if the answer’s easy, you don’t need us. And if we could magically solve your fundamental organisational problems, we probably wouldn’t be anything as mundane fundraising consultants.
But there is a way forward. For most charities. The answer isn’t maybe simple and certainly won’t be easy to do but there is a viable path forward. What it is will of course vary but it is likely to include the charity giving its fundraising and communications real priority. A strategy that joins up how the organisation delivers its mission with how it is funded. A focus on creating a culture of effective joint working across the charity. Leaders with courage and the ability to inspire and convince others to join them in the journey to transform the performance of the charity. Oh and some technical fundraising & comms bits..
So assuming that I haven’t put off all future clients, on to the next 50. It’s not going to be dull, that’s for sure.