A Guide to Trust Fundraising Part One: The Deep Blue Sea

Trust fundraising is often the area in which charities take their first tentative steps; tiptoeing into the shallows of what they fear may be the shark-infested waters of fundraising. This close to the shore we feel safe; not only is there a sense of control of the environment, there is usually a confidence that if the case for support is strong and the work is of a high quality, then there is a good chance of success.  More than anything, there is a sense of security in the idea that we won’t have to engage with the terrifying unknown of donor relationships. And of course there are some trusts and foundations, which do operate in accordance with such ideas – organisations happy just to assess an application and send a cheque. However, when talking to charities trying to develop income in this area, I commonly encounter a frustration that as the waters becoming increasingly overcrowded, trust fundraising isn’t as safe a bet as they had hoped, neither is it as ‘fair’ as they had originally thought.

Charities tend to want trust fundraising to be meritocratic, when of course it isn’t. The idea that this kind of income generation is like a test that if you meet a certain standard in you will be rewarded with a grant; is increasingly commonly met with disappointment. Of course ‘trusts and foundations’ is a generic term for a wide and diverse set of charitable bodies whose motivations and ways of operating are as idiosyncratic as the individuals they represent.  This is the second key point; charities commonly begin with trust fundraising because they are nervous as to whether they have the skills needed, or indeed the desire, to deal with the interests and demands of actual ‘real’ donors, when many trusts are of course simply the tax efficient legal structures representing the interests of some of the most wealthy individuals in the country. In fundraising you have to face your fears to succeed and that usually starts with looking closely at yourself.

So how should you go about trust fundraising? A grant application is an invitation to support an organisation in delivering its aims, usually through a specific project. As with any such request, the first thing to do is to ensure that your own house is in order before seeking external support; the trust needs to have confidence that you can deliver both it’s aims and your own to a high standard, in order to consider investing in your work.

When I’m talking about maximising voluntary income with organisations of all kinds, I use a model I’ve developed called the ‘Organisational Value Chain’ (© Achates Philanthropy 2014), which very simply helps to review the scope of work:

     Work  – is your Mission & Vision clear, does the work reflect it and is that work excellent?

     Governance – are your Board and associated committees (if you have them) operating at an optimum level, are they opening doors for you, are your financial and other procedures in place?

     Audiences – are you communicating coherent messages about your work and fundraising to your audiences, both internal and external?

When all these are elements of your organisation are operating at an optimum level, you are in a position to further develop your income generation, whatever its existing scope or scale.

The next stage is to fully understand what you are seeking funds for and why. That may sound extremely simplistic, but when I recently interviewed a number of major trusts and foundations as part of the review of the ACE Catlayst programme, I found the lack of coherence between fundraising and programme departments a frequent frustration. Trust Directors didn’t observe any marked skills gap in fundraisers outside of major institutions, or in organisations based outside of London; in fact they noted that smaller organisations were frequently the most nimble and creative, but this absence of an understanding across departments of the motivations and aims of a piece of work in the context of the mission and vision of the organisation, was a common barrier to success in organisations of all sizes and locations.

Some fundraisers like to develop a ‘Case for Support’ for a project, which helps them to articulate the arguments and develop the language, which they can use in their proposals. Others prefer to do this through the actual bid writing process itself. Neither approach is necessarily correct, but being able understand and articulate the arguments for it and the outcomes of the work, in the context of the mission and vision of the organisation, is crucial. In articulating these arguments, cultural organisations increasingly need to consider the range of value systems in establishing what can be considered ‘assets’ in their work. The 2015 Warwick Report established a three-tier value system for cultural organisations covering: artistic value, social value and economic value. The Soho Theatre Infographic has been much lauded as a way of clearly presenting a range of different outcomes clearly. The more of these areas the case for the project can be made in, the more income sources will be available to you.

Next, having understood what the project means to you as a charity, the challenge is to consider what it might mean to your potential donors. The key point here is to understand that as a charity you are fulfilling a mission, which you must find a commonality of purpose in with the mission and motivations of the foundation (also a charity) or the individuals behind it, in order to reach an agreement to work together to address a common goal. Charities are fundamentally problem-solving organisations created to address an issue or goal.  The aims of some are finite, such as when a disease can be cured. Others, happily, address on-going challenges; such as the need for great art in the lives of the nation. Whatever that objective, there is a need to find a point of common interest with the potential donor. I experienced a transformational example of this when I was Development Director of the Natural History Museum Post held between 2000 and 2005 and led the development of the Darwin Centre, which was to house a number of the Museums’ national collections. At the Museum I was in the privileged position of being able to take a diversity of approaches to the motivations of donors: scientific, educational, even artistic. Lord Winston, who was a member of the Development Council I established, identified another when he pointed out to me the cultural significance for the Jewish community of the bread wheat specimen, which was included in one of the collections. In doing so he opened up another reason for people to give to the campaign and a new pool of prospective donors, by giving me another narrative to share.

There is a great deal of discussion regarding the story telling aspect of fundraising; but for me, fundraising is more like the role of a literary translator. The fundraiser doesn’t originate the story, you take an existing narrative and translate it and reimagine it to with an understanding of the mores and tastes of your audience. It should retain integrity, but be recreated with their ears in mind. Too frequently charities are simply focused on their own story; their issues and priorities to think about what I consider the single most important and interesting aspect of fundraising, what I call, ‘the reason to give.’ In short this is the motivation of the charity to give its’ money away to a cause. It is sometimes suggested that there are 15 underlying reasons to give and this can be a useful framework to use, but I like to think of people as much more variegated than that.  I try to understand how the trust was established and why; researching and learning about the history of the individual and how their wealth came about. I look at the charity accounts and what projects the charity has supported in recent years and try to understand why these causes have motivated the Board of Trustees to give and then to try and reflect some of those ideas in my translation of the project, into one which meets both our interests and motivations. That means not just analysing the potential donor through the lens of your charity, trying to see a fit, but understanding them for what they really are. In other words, not fearing them as individuals with whom you don’t want to have contact, let alone understanding who they are, but having the confidence in yourself to embrace the motivations of the unknown donor, speak their language, and plunge in.

Caroline McCormick  |  April 2015