Are You Suffering from Lone Fundraiser Syndrome?

Fundraisers can inhabit a cold and lonely world at the best of times and that experience can be thrown into even sharper focus when they find themselves in a position of being the sole person within an organisation ‘responsible’ for fundraising.

The very nature of small to medium arts organisations – and even some fairly major cultural institutions – is that they tend to have, at most, a development team of one. We all know examples of organisations where either the CEO or Artistic Director is trying to juggle fundraising on a shoe-string along with their many other roles.

Often, even when an organisation has a dedicated fundraiser or Development Director, the problems can be compounded by the expectation that fundraising can operate as a discreet function within an organisation – distinct from programming, education and outreach departments.

Not only is this a recipe for a highly isolated and frustrating role, it is also not hard to see why it might have a significant impact on fundraising performance, capacity and capability.

Which lone fundraiser doesn’t recognise the scenario where you are handed the poison chalice that is development on your first day and expected to “ just start raising some money, oh, and this trust application needs to go out by Friday, and if you can just develop a cultivation strategy for donors (once you have found them) and then look after them all yourself that would be great – sorry, one other thing – we must do something about Legacies…

One only has to glance through the job descriptions of development and fundraising roles on The Guardian website and it is clear to see the unrealistic level of expectation that is often placed on one person – from taking total responsibility for achieving core and project funding for the organisation, to marketing and communications and the writing and delivery of a fundraising and donor development strategy.

And then there are the line managers.

It is not unusual (and actually quite understandable) for CEOs and Artistic Directors to be greatly relieved to hand over the fundraising mantle to a dedicated development person. The problems often come about, though, when senior staff themselves don’t have enough understanding of the fundraising role to be able to support or manage the development person. How do you set appropriate objectives and expectations when you don’t really understand how that role works? How can you begin to evaluate their success if you don’t know what success looks like (other than raising lots of money!)?

And then there is the rest of the organisation. Many people will recognise the situation in which they have worked really hard to cultivate and manage a relationship with a significant potential supporter, only to wince in horror as a member of the box office team handles them badly on their arrival in the building.

Let us not forget also the central issue of capacity and resourcing. How can any one person be expected to fulfil all the development roles single-handedly? One would think it was fairly basic common sense that ‘all hands to the pumps’ would be an immeasurably more efficient fundraising approach. But this doesn’t seem to play out in reality very often.  Having worked with countless organisations who struggle with this approach, it is clear that the reasons are complex.

A significant factor seems to be that few people actually like fundraising or feel they are very good at it. It is part of the British psyche to feel uncomfortable around asking for money and never more so than in the arts, where it is often perceived as a slightly grubby activity that distracts from and sullies high cultural ambitions. Therefore, isn’t it easier to hand it all over wholesale to a department of one?

All of this adds up to a problem that is nearly always anti-strategic. How can it ever be possible to be strategically focussed when the immediacy of the need to achieve funding for an organisation is placed firmly at the door of one person? Day to day operational pressures will always take precedence in terms of urgency.  Is it really the fault of the hard pressed fundraiser for not getting round to writing that fundraising strategy that was in their job description – or for not really doing it properly? I cannot begin to recall the number of people in arts organisations who have apologised to me as a consultant for their fundraising strategy not really being a fundraising strategy. Who can blame them when they are juggling that funding application that had to be done yesterday, with the time consuming task of courting donors?

Equally, the whole notion of a fundraising strategy that is written and executed in isolation, is a nonsense. Without fully evaluating the internal and external environment and embedding the planning process firmly across the rest of the organisation, it is not really worth the paper it is written on.

So, after reading this, if the ‘symptoms’ of ‘Lone Fundraiser Syndrome’ are sounding all too familiar, is there any hope?

If you are a lone fundraiser yourself the answer is simple. Speak loudly and clearly to your senior management team and Board about the need to fully embed fundraising throughout the organisation and make it a shared task. There is considerable evidence to show that arts organisations that are more successful at income generation have an organisation wide commitment to the responsibility for fundraising.

The CASE report (‘Fundraising activity in arts, culture, heritage and sports organisations: a qualitative study’), published by DCMS in 2011, highlighted the impact this has on success – ‘More empowered and confident organisations described trustees and leaders taking a highly active role in fundraising, where less confident organisations delegated fundraising entirely to a dedicated function’.

If you are senior manager or Board member yourself – don’t just pay lip service to making fundraising an organisation wide function, but work with your fundraiser to look at how to truly adopt a fundraising culture.

Not only does this address capacity issues, clearly, more people acting as advocates in fundraising terms, presents a more powerful and importantly, diverse voice for the organisation.

To make this work though presents a challenge and ensuring that the same clear messages are communicated across the organisation is vital. I have seen many organisations that have invested heavily in impressive CRM ticketing systems, but have failed to ensure that staff on the ground – from box office, to ushers – are clear what they are supposed to saying in fundraising terms.

Fundraising training from board level downwards is vital, along with clearly articulated messages about the organisation as a whole. People are scared of fundraising. Make it easy for them. Once you have trained Board members – give them a clear task or project to do rather than the amorphous mass of responsibility.

Address governance issues within your Board early on in the fundraising planning process. As consultants, we have worked with numerous organisations who have described their Board as ‘nice and supportive, but not very proactive’. Clearly there are broader issues about the strength of interrogative governance in these situations – but also from a fundraising perspective, a passive Board really isn’t going to cut it.

This is not the fault of the Board members – they were often recruited on to the Board as influential people in their own spheres, but without an understanding of what was expected from them in terms of fundraising. It is important and only fair to clarify this expectation – and if appropriate, bring new trustees on who are comfortable with a fundraising role in whatever form that takes – from advocacy or networking to more direct ‘ask’ making. We all know that peer to peer fundraising works best – so surely increasing the number of possible peers and in turn increasing the number of people that we connect with at the right level, would be an obvious step.

It is important not to stop at Board and Director Level though – every member of staff and all volunteers should know how to talk about the organisation’s fundraising needs.  The CASE report highlighted this as a significant factor in determining the fundraising success of arts organisations.

‘The importance of organisational buy-in across functions was highlighted, both in sharing the fundraising task beyond a dedicated fundraising function, and in ensuring that everyone presents a positive, enthusiastic and convincing public image to facilitate fundraising.’

Shout louder about the fact that the organisation is a charity, explain the mixed funding model better and that ticket income doesn’t cover costs – and articulate the organisation’s projects or fundraising priorities. Clear messages that can be distilled into half page crib sheets about the organisation and each of its priority areas are vital. I can still remember the embarrassment for a charity that held a highly impressive cultivation event – only to find it blighted by a significant philanthropist asking a trustee what their turnover was and them being unable to give an answer.

Having got your house in order – know what you don’t know and know when to bring in external help. Of course, by their very nature, the small to medium arts organisations that tend to have a development team of one (or none!) are highly unlikely to have the sort of budgets that can easily be stretched to bringing in consultants. This needn’t be a high cost exercise though – Achates Philanthropy has developed models such as Fundraising in a Box which enable us to  work on a low level retainer basis very successfully with a number of organisations, adding value through what could be classed as ‘ light touch consultancy’. These arrangements can be anything from regular mentoring, setting and reviewing objectives, giving direction to the people managing these strange beasts called ‘fundraisers’, or simply to giving feedback on funding applications and case for support documents.  

Don’t forget to use volunteers, but use them well. We are all aware of the highly laudable Equity run, ‘Professionally made, Professionally Paid’ campaign that has highlighted the issues around the sometimes exploitative unpaid working arrangements that are common in many art-forms. Volunteers are not cheap labour, but should be seen as a vital asset to any organisation and key players in their work-force. Ethical working with volunteers, ensures that they are supported, managed appropriately and offers clear development opportunities. Consider forming a Development Board or Development Committee – but in doing so consider carefully what your objectives are in doing so and give them a clear and action-based remit.

Finally, set realistic and achievable targets, ensure they are adequately resourced, but remember also that there are never any guarantees in fundraising. Hand in hand with this, and perhaps the most important treatment of all for ‘lone fundraiser syndrome’, don’t forget to celebrate success and celebrate it widely. And if there is no-one else there to celebrate with you – give yourself a pat on the back.

Lucy Taylor  |  May 2015