The new fundraising organisation


We all know I think that fundraising as we have known it has changed profoundly. That fundamental changes in the market, in technology, in supporter expectations have radically altered and are continuing to alter the environment in which nonprofits seek to raise funds. You can gather any group of industry stalwarts at any of our many gatherings and conferences and very quickly reach a consensus that the world as we knew it has gone, for ever.

So why has so little actually changed in fundraising practice?

At AAW we work and consult with many dozens of nonprofits of all sizes and types and we have looked at lots of fundraising programmes and organisational structures. We have lots of clients who completely understand the need for change and are working hard to make it happen. But most of them look very much like they did ten or even twenty years ago. The basics of their fundraising activity are still essentially the same, give or take a few “innovation” units and some more money spent on digital. The organisational structures sometimes have different names but are largely unchanged. Even the systems, databases and processes are often largely the same.

Not much sign of a revolution there.

Without a change in the ways we organise fundraising there won’t be real transformation in how we actually conduct it.

So what does the new fundraising organisation of the future look like?

To address this we have first to understand that most current fundraising departments (and most charities) are constructed along extremely traditional lines. We have hierarchies and organisational matrices that are essentially copied from the industry of the 1950s. These structures work well for very formalised, process driven functions, such as a factory assembly line for example. They deal badly with environments of dynamic change and very complex, interrelated activities.

This isn’t an organisational model that seems well suited to the rapidly changing world of nonprofit marketing. It’s becoming less and less possible to approach fundraising, communications, advocacy and digital as separate activities in discrete compartments.

What we need is to move from a hierarchical approach to something more like a networked organisation. This is where stuff gets done through a dynamic series of informal networks that constantly develop and morph in response to different challenges. Individuals will be part of multiple teams and networks and these will continually evolve. Resources will thus be deployed to where there is greatest need or most impact and re-assigned as needs change.

This is a lot easier to describe than to implement. But how might it look for a non-profit income generating team?

The first step is to get rid of unhelpful distinctions. If the purpose is to build and sustain support for an organisation’s mission, I would argue that the terms “fundraising”, “communications”. “marketing” and “campaigning” are at best redundant.  The activity is “building support”.

Support is built through engaging individuals in the mission of the organisation and developing that engagement into long term relationships founded on mutual trust that deliver shared goals.

To build support for an organisational mission, we need:

  • Leaders who can motivate and inspire self-organising teams (“Leader”)
  • People who understand how to develop strategies that build support (“Strategist”)
  • People who can develop and deliver activities that build relationships with individuals at an audience level (“Audience Manager”).
  • People who can build one to one relationships (“Relationship Manager”).
  • People who can develop, curate and deploy content that builds engagement, trust and commitment (“Content Specialist”).
  • Technical specialists including channel specialists, audience specialists, specialists in specific techniques, methodologies and tools (“Technical Specialist”).
  • Project managers

Individuals will need to perform multiple functions. So an Audience Manager might also be a Technical Specialist, leading on a specific channel or technique for example. They may lead on individual projects

These people will be organised in teams that deliver specific outcomes, a strategy, campaign or project. Individuals will be part of multiple teams and the teams will form and dissolve as needed. These teams will be cross-organisational. A major campaign should have representation across all relevant areas.

Of course the approach only works if the rest of the organisation is structured in the same way. Mission delivery and support services need to be similarly built around flexible, self-organising teams.

In a networked organisation, people management is a specialism amongst others with managers assigned to staff based on their expertise in management rather than technical functions.

The ways pay and rewards are handled will also need to change with both expertise and accountability rewarded flexibly.

So how might it look?

It’s hard to draw an organogram of an organisation without a traditional hierarchy. But a biggish “Build Support” organisation might look like something as follows:


The main point is that this groups together people in one way, but they will simultaneously be part of multiple, different groups. The basic workgroup is the project team.

We are seeing lots of nonprofits thinking about this sort of an approach and, a few, are taking steps in this direction.

A degree of caution is perfectly reasonable. There’s a ton of stuff to get right to make this work. Changing a structure on its own is probably worse than useless. This needs a massive change management programme. Strategy needs to lead and this needs to drive cultural change.

It probably makes sense to road-test such an approach first. Set up some cross-organisational groups and empower them to make change happen on key projects. Show the impact and then spread across the whole nonprofit.

We expect to be working on many more of these sorts of change programmes over the next few months and years. We’ll let you know how it works out.


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