Are we ready for the change that is coming?

It’s the easiest thing in the world to assume that things are going to carry on as they are. Major, cataclysmic change is a thing of the past.

I think that anyone who was under that impression has been put right by the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and various governments’ responses to both. It turns out that we can completely reconfigure our economies and our ways of living if we decide to, although this particular set of circumstances is probably not much fun for most people at the moment.

The great irony is, though, that we could have seen these things coming if we had looked carefully enough. Scientists were issuing warnings about pandemic risk well in advance of 2020. The fury and grief felt by black people was in full evidence for anyone who bothered to listen. And we all know climate change is under way, along with a mass extinction event, although many of us probably have our heads in the sand about how bad these could get.

This isn’t a new or original observation, by any means. George Eliot acknowledged the  risk of complacency back in 1861 when she wrote Silas Marner:

The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is… constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink.

What interests me is how the charity sector will respond to all of the above. Most of us are aware that climate change is likely to cause suffering to many of the communities that we serve. Not only that: how will it affect investments and mortgages on properties that may be at risk from, for example, flooding and wildfires? What will be the knock-on effects to our donors? How may they choose to prioritise their giving in future? And how can we think about all of this when we are dealing with today’s challenges?

I’m afraid I don’t have any definite answers for you, but I do believe that we can’t deal with each challenge separately. Although bad things can happen and compound in their severity very quickly, the same is also true of positive action. More black representation on the boards of charitable trusts may help to prevent small, black-led charities shutting down in the face of Covid-19 pressures. Listening to communities that are most vulnerable to climate change will lead to better prevention and mitigation. Finally, charities that live their values fully by divesting from fossil fuels will not only safeguard the planet, but probably also see a better return in the long term.

The path to “doing the right thing” can be fraught with difficulty, however. It was heartening, in many ways, to see Action on Hearing Loss announce that they are closing their head office and embracing home working. This will be welcome news to many, but will perhaps cause problems to those who do not have the space or facilities for home working (a problem that the charity has acknowledged and has said they are actively examining). The move to increasing accessibility can create accessibility problems for other groups.

In some ways this reminded me of RNLI’s move to a fully “opted-in” marketing policy when GDPR came in – a decision that they had to reverse. The desire to do the right thing is admirable, but hasty implementation can lead to a host of negative side-effects.

As Myles Bremner writes at the Institute of Fundraising, charities need to be agile and bold in order to adapt to the challenges we face. He highlights the importance of “clear, honest and transparent communications with stakeholders” – to which I’d add: make sure you know who all of your stakeholders are, include all of them, and remember that listening is a critical part of communication.

Enormous, epoch-defining change is happening right now, and I think that more is on the horizon. We can’t know what the future holds, or how to meet the challenges it brings. Or maybe we can, if we ask the right people.

Festive post! Bad films, bad sex and diversity in the charity sector.

I don’t watch as many films as I’d like to. I love good films, but I find it hard to find something I’ll genuinely enjoy, and by the time I realise I’m watching a clanger, I’m annoyed at the time and money I’ve wasted when I could have been reading a book instead.

Sadly I find it hard to avoid bad films and, unfortunately, I’ve learned that I can’t trust most film critics.

Before you dismiss me as a curmudgeon, let me present an example: the 2006 festive film The Holiday, starring Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and Jack Black.

A combination of being a new parent and feeling Christmassy led me to want to watch something gooey and escapist. The Telegraph describes The Holiday as “a treat that will tickle your romantic fancy”.

But I had to stop watching this film. It made me too angry.

Reason 1: A joke about suicide

Kate Winslet’s character, feeling sad about a romantic rejection, puts her head in the oven before changing her mind. How hilarious!

Reason 2: Dreadful attitudes to sex

Cameron Diaz’s character tells Jude Law’s character that she thinks foreplay is overrated. He replies (paraphrase), “You are fast becoming one of the most interesting women I have ever met.”

His evident delight at the prospect of minimal-effort sex made it clear that he’s a repellent human being and not the kind of dream man that the film is trying to present him as.

Reason 3: Unintentionally hilarious lack of diversity

Later in the film (about halfway through, just before I lost patience and switched off) Law (the implausibly wealthy book editor) says to Diaz (the slightly more plausibly wealthy film trailer editor): “We’re from such different worlds“.

That says it all, really.

The world has moved on, but Hollywood hasn’t

Since 2006, my own understanding of diversity issues has improved significantly. Moreover, many industries, communities and sectors are making great efforts, but sadly, not enough is happening in Hollywood.

As the linked article makes clear, The Holiday isn’t an outlier in terms of representation. My film knowledge is far from encyclopaedic, but other examples include:

  • The Change-Up (2011) – it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything so horrendously sexist. One of the “jokes” involves a man waiting to meet a woman who he’s been told is incredibly attractive. Punchline: she’s heavily pregnant and therefore repulsive! Given I was also heavily pregnant at the time of viewing, I didn’t laugh.
  • Paterson (2016) – a critically acclaimed film focusing on a male bus driver/poet and his girlfriend. While watching it I became steadily more irate about the fact that the man’s art was portrayed as deep and meaningful, but his girlfriend’s art was shown to be frivolous and wasteful.

Maybe I would have enjoyed The Holiday back in 2006, before awareness of feminism and other diversity issues ruined most mainstream popular culture for me. However, I wouldn’t call myself humourless. I simply expect more effort from comedy writers than jokes which punch down at easy targets.

This is important because if we don’t see diversity, we don’t learn that those who don’t conform to the white, slim, conventionally attractive Hollywood model have interesting stories to tell. We get writers writing boring stories about other writers because they’re the only people they know about. We get crass jokes about suicide and pregnancy that hurt people. And, in a world where we generally don’t discuss sex openly and honestly, women don’t learn that it’s okay to seek their own pleasure and fulfilment, and that a decent partner would want to support this.

Worst of all, films like The Holiday get described as “a treat” by reviewers who don’t seem to care about these types of issues. (This excellent blog post describes many more of the film’s problems in a blow-by-blow account.)

I do like some films

In evidence to prove I’m not an utterly joyless sceptic, I’d like to list some films I’ve enjoyed:

  • Sorry To Bother You: funny and clever social commentary
  • Miss Sloane: intelligent thriller about a female poker player
  • Another Year: charming but quietly devastating family drama
  • Magic Mike XXL: funny and surprisingly feminist

None of these films are perfect; I’m not on an impossible search for perfection in the media I consume. But I do look for an effort to get away from the lazy sexist, racist and otherwise offensive tropes and tell a good story.

A lack of diversity in the fundraising profession also causes harm

It leads to the same ideas being recycled over and over again. It leads to a public increasingly feeling alienated by, and willing to criticise, the charity sector. And it means that we miss out on talented people who don’t think they can be fundraisers because they don’t see anyone who looks like them in the profession.

Things aren’t nearly as bad in fundraising as they are in Hollywood, thank goodness. And I’ve been proud to be part of the movement for change. But I hope this post serves to remind you just why representation matters so much. And maybe I’ll find another half-decent film to watch one day.

Podcast fame

I wrote in to the Reasons To Be Cheerful podcast following their episode on paternity leave last week, and Ed Miliband read out my email in this week’s episode. He also generously promoted this blog – which was particularly welcome following my decision to leave social media (and thus have fewer easy avenues for promotion).

The podcast is really interesting and makes many similar points to my blog post on the subject. I recommend it!

How can charities help new mothers? Increase paternity leave.

I gave birth to my daughter a couple of months ago (hence the hiatus in blogging). I received a generous amount of paid maternity leave, well over the statutory minimum, from my employer (a pregnancy charity). My husband also received six weeks of paid paternity leave from his private sector employer, which is extremely generous in the context of UK statutory provision (two weeks’ leave at statutory pay – approx £145 per week – or at 90% of salary, whichever is lower).

Throughout my pregnancy we had both been looking forward to this extended time together. Now we’re out the other end and he’s returned to work, I’m glad to say that we did enjoy this time immensely. I’d also argue that a long paternity leave provides an essential way to support mothers, fathers, and children, but I haven’t seen this discussed at length within our sector.

My experience

My birth plan went out of the window pretty quickly due to various complications, and I ended up having an emergency c-section. I was well cared for in the hospital (where I stayed for three days), but a c-section is full-on surgery and recovering women are advised to rest for six weeks, avoiding lifting anything heavier than the baby.

I also lost nearly a litre of blood, so felt very tired and couldn’t move or do much at all. Having my husband around for the full recovery period meant that I had someone to keep the household running and I could focus entirely on my recovery and looking after our daughter.

Why six weeks of paternity leave is good for the mother

These are some of the benefits I gained from my husband’s paternity leave:

  • Practical help with cooking, grocery shopping and cleaning, as explained above. Many women have c-sections, and those who don’t may still have recovery periods from a range of complications. Being able to fully rest is vital. We don’t have any other children, but I can also see how the partner’s presence would make a huge difference in making childcare manageable in these first weeks.
  • Support in building my confidence – I was able to go on short walks after about five weeks, and my husband was with me for the milestones of first bus ride, first train ride, first trip to the shops with the pram etc. By the time he returned to work I felt confident in getting around. Although I would have managed, I would definitely have felt anxious about being alone after two weeks.
  • Accompaniment to medical appointments – as most new parents do, we had a few concerns in the early weeks, and having company at appointments helped to provide a different perspective and someone to talk things over with. There was so much going on that at times it would have been difficult for me to remember all the details and maintain a sense of proportion about the challenges we were facing. My husband’s presence made that a lot easier.
  • Maintaining good mental health – I was lucky enough not to experience any of the severe mental health problems that can follow childbirth, but it is an emotionally vulnerable time. My husband’s presence meant that I had someone to talk things through with. Combined with all of the above, this definitely bolstered my resilience and helped me feel good about myself and more confident about my abilities as a mother.

What do charities generally offer in terms of paternity leave?

My cursory survey of other charities’ paternity leave policies indicated that two weeks at full pay tends to be the most generous offer (one fundraiser told me about a charity that provides four weeks at 90% pay, but this appeared to be an outlier).

I don’t think this is enough. I think it’s a shame that our sector lags behind the more enlightened parts of the private sector on this issue.

However, charities can currently be market leaders by providing two weeks of fully paid paternity leave, and additional provision would be costly, so why should they do any more?

In my view, it’s a continuation of outdated social norms that have led to an acceptance that fathers should receive so much less. There does seem to be consensus within the charity sector that mothers deserve better than statutory; many charities offer generous maternity leave packages.

Surely charities (or at least those with sufficient resources) should be leading the way in improving benefits for fathers, as we ought to be (but yet are lagging) with the diversity argument?

Why should charities do more for fathers?

There are many compelling reasons, in my view, why charities should have more generous paternity leave provision:

  • To benefit the wellbeing of the mother, as explained above.
  • To benefit the wellbeing of the father, including bonding and building confidence with the baby. Moreover, when he returns to work after an extended leave, he is likely to be more comfortable with the new routine, and a better employee as a result.
  • To benefit the wellbeing of the baby; extra time is more likely to lead to a calm, peaceful household which can only improve the baby’s start in life.
  • To benefit family cohesion overall. A household which is given plenty of time for all family members (including other children) to adjust to the new arrival surely has a better chance of maintaining strong relationships and good mental health all round. This has a host of knock-on positive effects for society, which charities should surely support.
  • If more fathers are as likely to take several weeks’ leave as mothers, this will reduce the likelihood of discrimination against women.
  • It may help us attract more men to a largely female-dominated fundraising workforce, improving our sector’s diversity.

Obviously, many mothers have partners who do not identify as male, or don’t have a partner at all. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t extend these same paternity leave rights to a nominated secondary carer.

Many fathers would love to have more time with their new children, and new mothers would benefit hugely from this vital additional support in the early weeks. I hope that those charities that can afford it will consider going significantly beyond what is normally offered to fathers.

How can we bring face-to-face fundraisers into the fold?

In my last post I explored some of the career barriers experienced by face-to-face fundraisers. I argued that more attention on this group could help the sector overcome some of the difficulties it faces – particularly related to diversity, talent and negative perceptions. This post examines potential solutions, drawing on suggestions from a number of senior fundraisers who began their careers in face-to-face. 

Helping face-to-face fundraisers view fundraising as a long-term career option

Many of the senior fundraisers I spoke to recognised that F2F fundraisers are frequently unaware of the opportunities available in charities – let alone the broader challenges and concerns the sector is facing. One reflected that they may not even know about jobs websites, such as Charity Job, that are familiar to the rest of us.

I heard ideas for straightforward solutions including:

  • Subsidised attendance at Institute of Fundraising events such as the annual F2F Conference, and Convention – a nominal fee of around £20 might be appropriate, especially given that a F2F fundraiser may need to take annual leave or unpaid leave to attend.
  • Subsidised IoF membership rates – again this could help to connect F2F fundraisers with peers and enthuse them about the possibilities within the broader sector.

Identifying and retaining talented face-to-face fundraisers

The turnover rate of F2F fundraisers is so high that identifying and developing talent is challenging. One individual observed that the demographic of F2F fundraisers is changing: many are school leavers without degrees, and may have been referred by the Job Centre. How can we nurture and retain the most talented?

Suggestions included:

  • Proactive outreach and development schemes. I spoke to some senior fundraisers who are making admirable efforts to improve internal progression at their own charities (where the face-to-face teams are in-house). It was also clear that many agencies are excellent at promoting from within, but a sector-led initiative may have more impact than relying on these individuals and teams.
  • Outreach efforts should not only focus on fundraising: other roles within the charity sector may be attractive and make relevant use of transferable skills. We should also offer pathways into campaigning, or roles where they are directly supporting beneficiaries. This is especially relevant to F2F fundraisers who would prefer not to be desk-based.

Addressing the problem of perception

My last blog post explored some of the perception problems that still affect F2F fundraising as a profession – both internally within charities, and in the public eye. Suggestions for improvement included:

  • The need for F2F fundraisers – both the individuals and the teams – to be recognised in sector awards.
  • There could be a role for more rigorous training and accreditation.
  • Charities need to be more proactive in defending F2F fundraising, although they probably need to get better at defending themselves in general. Hopefully we are seeing a move in the right direction, given the robust responses of RNLI and Dogs Trust following recent media attacks.

Working with agencies

When working with agencies, there was a feeling among those I spoke to that charities tend to keep the agencies at arm’s length. If we, as charities, are benefiting from the income and donors brought in by F2F, we need to own this relationship and the responsibilities that come with it.

Many senior fundraisers working in the sector today developed their F2F skills within these agencies, rather than charities. Closer working with agencies could therefore encourage more movement of talented individuals into charity roles.

There is obviously a tension here, as the agencies will understandably want to keep their best staff. However, closer working with the charity sector would offer more career options outside of F2F and may encourage those who may have otherwise left fundraising to consider progression.

It’s worth adding that more movement of F2F staff into non-F2F charity roles will provide more internal cheerleaders for the discipline, which can only improve the problems of perception among charity staff. This in turn could benefit the agencies by improving working relationships.

Innovation

Much of the current negative attitude within charities towards F2F appears to be based on the fact that the market is challenging and is delivering a decreasing return on investment.

However, one individual highlighted the lack of innovation in F2F fundraising, which has generally focused on a regular giving request i.e. signing up for a monthly gift. Why not explore other options, such as awareness campaigns or charity lotteries? More creative, dynamic uses of F2F could broaden fundraisers’ skills and reduce the prevalence of some of the unfair and negative attitudes. Who knows? They could even surprise and delight the public.

What next?

Exploring the question of whether F2F fundraisers face a “glass ceiling” has opened up many, many more questions and potential routes for investigation. It’s a complex and fascinating area which I hope others will also be interested in investigating .

F2F fundraisers are the public face of our profession and are representing us every single day; we really ought to make sure they feel valued and can themselves be represented throughout the charity sector.

Do street fundraisers face a “glass ceiling”?

This is the first of two posts investigating issues related to the career progression of face-to-face fundraisers. In this post, I’ll focus on identifying some of the challenges; the second post will explore potential solutions.

I began my career as a face-to-face fundraiser (in a charity in-house team in 2006-07), and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done work-wise. At the time I was young, idealistic, and determined to make a career for myself in charities. As I’ve written about before, however, there was no straightforward way for me to develop my fundraising career from this entry point.

I was curious to know whether other fundraisers had similar experiences and whether the situation has improved over the decade since my time as a street fundraiser. As a member of the IoF’s Expert Diversity Panel, I was also keen to explore whether helping street fundraisers to develop could be a way of addressing some of the diversity issues faced by our industry.

I discussed my thoughts with several senior fundraisers who began their careers within face-to-face fundraising (street or door-to-door, working in-house at a charity or for an external agency). There were no straightforward answers to my questions, but these conversations have helped identify some themes that the fundraising community could certainly explore further.

How did other former face-to-face fundraisers develop their careers?

Several of those I spoke to started out working for an agency, and worked their way up within the company. Some made the sideways move to a charity, but others preferred to stay agency side. One found his way into face-to-face after seeking a career change. Following that, he got a “break” into an office-based charity role thanks to an open-minded recruiter who was intrigued by his CV.

My sample is by no means scientific, but it appears that moving up the ladder may often be easier within an agency than at a charity. Otherwise an ambitious face-to-face fundraiser may be relying on meeting the right person at a job interview who is willing to give them the chance.

Face-to-face fundraising undoubtedly develops relevant skills

Everyone I spoke to was a passionate advocate for the skills and potential of their face-to-face colleagues. They agreed that the work on the “coalface” of fundraising develops skills that could kick-start a long-term fundraising career. It doesn’t teach you everything you need to know about fundraising, but it’s a great starting point.

Flow Caritas’ report in 2014 made a similar argument, setting out a strong case for investing in and supporting street fundraisers as the future of our profession. Rory White, Flow Caritas Founder and Director, wrote that [street fundraising] “can no longer be dismissed as an adjunct to the fundraising profession. It’s actually the source of some of the best and brightest young fundraisers in the sector.”

He was acknowledging a need to defend street fundraisers. Why was there a need to defend them in 2014? And is this need still there?

Barriers to progression

Everyone I spoke to agreed that face-to-face fundraisers face barriers to long-term career development within charities. These included:

  • Face-to-face fundraisers are looked down upon by many people within charities. “I think people see it as an undesirable job, and therefore assume only people who are unskilled or uneducated do it.”
  • Face-to-face fundraising as a discipline is often looked down upon – if not by other fundraisers themselves, then by other charity staff. More than one person described it to me as “the sector’s dirty secret“. There was also a general feeling that charities did not do enough to defend face-to-face fundraising when it was attacked in the press – although one respondent acknowledged that charities’ lack of self-defence is a broader problem, which is perhaps accentuated by the public nature of face-to-face.
  • Face-to-face fundraisers do not see charities as a viable career prospect and are likely to be unaware of the wider sector’s activities, and the opportunities within it.
  • Most face-to-face fundraisers are only in the job for a short amount of time, which makes identifying and developing talent a challenge.

The fundraisers I spoke to also shared examples of excellent practice in helping face-to-face fundraisers progress in their careers. However, these examples mainly appeared to be due to the admirable work of passionate individuals, and therefore, presumably, if these people move on, their good work may well leave with them. I could not find evidence of systemic charity sector initiatives to help develop face-to-face fundraisers.

Has the situation changed in recent years?

I heard a range of opinions about how attitudes towards face-to-face fundraisers, and the discipline, have changed.

There was a general feeling that face-to-face is more recognised as a career path than it used to be. The increased focus on regulation and compliance in recent years has probably helped, through making it a more professional and accountable channel.

However, many charities appear to be more sceptical about the financial viability of face-to-face. The market has shrunk, with insufficient agencies to meet demand, and ROI has decreased. Agencies operating on tight margins are also less able to invest in staff development or innovation.

I was not able to gain a broad picture of the demographics of face-to-face, but one respondent made an interesting comment. He has observed that face-to-face fundraisers were initially middle-class – often university students or recent graduates (like me) – but this has changed in recent years. Now, the people on the street or knocking on doors are often school leavers, and may have been referred by the job centre. There is undoubtedly talent within this pool of people, but there may be additional challenges involved in helping them stay within fundraising, or the broader charity sector.

Why is this a problem?

“So many ideas that come out of London-based charity offices simply fail – because they exist in a London bubble. The lack of diversity (and diversity of thought) can be overwhelming… If you’re a street fundraiser who knows what will work in Oxford Street, what will work in Skegness, and what will work in Mansfield…you’re far more likely to understand how ‘the person on the street’ thinks, rather than if you’ve only ever relied on consumer insight or creative agencies.” 

We already know that there’s a diversity problem in fundraising, and that this affects our ability to do the best job possible. The fundraisers I spoke to generally agreed that more attention on face-to-face fundraisers could help the situation, although it won’t be easy as the issue links to many broader and complex challenges faced by the sector. To me, however, it appears that we’re missing opportunities to do things better.

In my next blog post I will explore potential solutions to these challenges.

Fundraisers, stop saying you’re bad at maths

I hear it from fundraisers more frequently than I’d like:

I’m terrible at maths!

Maths really isn’t my strong point.

For some reason, it’s socially acceptable to claim to be bad at maths. However, this is particularly worrying when it comes to fundraising, given that we deal with numbers every day.

Dyscalculia is a real problem for some people; however, if you have ever made the above statements yourself, the more likely scenario is a lack of confidence working with numbers.

Stop it!

Do you hear your colleagues in Finance say things like “oh, I’m terrible with words. I can barely read”? No. (I hope not, anyway.)

It would make it difficult for anyone to take them seriously. Similarly, statements such as “I’m bad at maths” will damage your credibility. And if you have any position of authority within your organisation, those looking to you as a role model will also adopt this attitude.

We can’t ignore the gendered aspect of this problem

When considering the above, it seems to me no coincidence that fundraisers are predominantly female. If they have a degree, based on my observations it usually appears to be in an arts subject as opposed to STEM.

Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a male fundraiser state that they’re bad at maths.

There’s a potent cocktail at play here, comprising anxiety, lack of confidence, eagerness to please by participating in supposedly harmless banter, and gendered expectations. The good news is that I don’t think this is a difficult problem to overcome.

Fundraisers don’t need to know high-level maths

Luckily, you don’t have to be a maths genius to do well in fundraising. All you need is some basics. Here is a list of some maths skills / maths-related pointers that I think all fundraisers need to know:

  • The really simple stuff: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. You’re probably fine with this.
  • How to calculate a percentage.
  • How to calculate percentage increases and decreases. And make sure you understand the difference between a percentage change and a percentage point change.
  • Basic understanding of balance sheets.
  • Ability to work with budgets, and, if you write proposals of any sort, remember to check that the budget adds up. It’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this neglected.
  • How to calculate ROI (return on investment).
  • Confidence using the basic features of Microsoft Excel.
  • When hiring a fundraiser, make sure you test their numeracy at some point during the interview process.
  • Stop saying you’re bad at maths! Instead, try doing the sums yourself and ask someone else to double-check them if you’re unsure.

This has broader implications

This is not a problem confined to fundraising, or to charities. Others have written about these attitudes have a negative impact on business and, worryingly, how they can affect our children.

After all, our female-dominated, often feminist-identifying workforce would rail against T-shirts like these, wouldn’t it? Let’s not perpetuate these harmful stereotypes through our own actions and attitudes.

 

 

 

What should fundraisers reasonably expect from grantmakers?

Two articles caught my eye recently:

The results of a survey run by nfpSynergy, which asked charity staff (mainly fundraisers) how they would like grantmakers to change their practices – in short, they want more unrestricted funding.

A blog post by Vu Le arguing that funders who avoid paying overheads are perpetuating inequality and making it harder for charities to be effective.

The issues at the heart of both of these articles

There are severe challenges facing charities – particularly small charities, and particularly those serving under-represented groups:

  • Charities struggle with securing unrestricted income (which is crucial for funding internal functions); the smaller the charity, the more difficult this is.
  • Charities may lack the skillset for trust fundraising, and waste resources by taking a “scattergun” approach to applications, rather than targeting funders appropriately.
  • The demands of some major funders put pressure on small charities, which many feel to be excessive and may lead to structural inequality.

I acknowledge these to be real concerns. I must also acknowledge that I’m writing from a place of privilege, having only ever worked for charities with income over £5 million, all of which had well-established donor portfolios. However, I think all charities, big and small, would benefit from exploring some of the above attitudes.

Which rules do we want to play by, and be judged by?

Dan Pallotta’s seminal TED talk explains that charities are not permitted to participate in society in the same way as corporations, which hinders their ability to do good. Corporations can take risks with their money; the same behaviour in charities is often perceived as wasteful. And as far as I’m aware, corporations don’t have to deal with restricted funding in the same way that charities do.

However, if we want to play by the same rules as corporations, we need to accept the need to be judged by these rules, too.

It all comes down to fundraising

What’s the first thing a budding entrepreneur has to do, once they’ve got their groundbreaking idea? Raise funds, whether from investors or customers. We’re all familiar with Dragon’s Den. The day-to-day reality is probably not as dramatic for most entrepreneurs, but to be successful, they do have to grind away, searching for and pitching to the funders who are most likely to be interested in their product.

And the pressure doesn’t disappear after the first tranche of funding; far from it. The role of a startup CEO is all about securing funds, and customers.

It’s no different for charities. They can’t exist without funding. But is the hunt for cash as deeply embedded within all charities – from tiny, volunteer-led outfits to established multi-million pound organisations? Probably not, otherwise respected commentators such as Veritus Group wouldn’t be so emphatic about the need for change. Fundraising, in many quarters, is still viewed with distaste.

We’re all competing for funds

There are thousands of charities seeking funding. They exist because there’s an important need to be met, whether that’s mentoring disadvantaged people, protecting the environment or researching cures for a rare medical condition.

Just because the mission is important, however, doesn’t mean they’ll get the funding they need. They may feel they have the right to exist but sadly, the real world doesn’t always agree. That’s why having skilled fundraisers and a culture of philanthropy is absolutely vital.

It might not be fair, but it’s the reality. The CEO of a startup company faces the same challenge. He or she might have created the best, most exciting product in the world – but without excellent sales and customer care functions, it’s unlikely to succeed.

Wishful thinking won’t get us there. We need to adapt.

nfpSynergy’s survey found that most fundraisers would prefer “shorter periods between applications, easier reporting, and to be able to submit multiple applications.”

No sh*t, Sherlock.

It also identified that many fundraisers, particularly those from smaller charities, would happily trade a large restricted grant for a smaller, unrestricted gift. This worried me for a number of reasons:

  • The question made no sense to me. It was not clear whether the restricted gift would be for budgeted or additional work – this is a crucial difference.
  • It also made no sense to ask fundraisers. Of course we all want an easier life, and unrestricted grants are generally simpler to manage, but this type of decision should not be made solely by fundraisers. It’s one for the management team.
  • It worried me that small charities would – in theory – give up the prospect of significant funding because they lack the internal processes or expertise to manage it.

Is there a trust issue?

In his latest article for Civil Society, nfpSynergy founder Joe Saxton suggests that “many restricted grants simply demonstrate a lack of trust in the recipient charity.”

There would be value in exploring the reasons for this perceived lack of trust. Luckily we don’t need to look far to find a clue: one of the comments on the nfpSynergy article is from a grantmaker who explains that many of their grantees fail to send them a grant report.

Securing funding comes with responsibility. We cannot expect grantmakers to make our lives easier if we don’t also meet their basic requirements.

Grantmakers are not “the other side”; they’re part of the charity sector too

Vu’s blog highlights the plight of tiny charities that struggle with the conditions imposed by grant funders. He argues for relaxed funding restrictions to give these charities a break.

We should carry this argument through to its logical conclusion. As most trust funders are also small organisations with their own charitable objectives, we need to be sympathetic to the challenges they face, and treat them with respect. This means not submitting speculative applications which we know, deep down, won’t interest them and will suck up more of their time. The commenter on the nfpSynergy article emphasises the fact that most grantmakers have very few resources and are mostly volunteer-led. Restricted funding represents a simple way of ensuring their grantees have some accountability.

I don’t deny that there are challenges and injustices within our sector. And some of the large grantmakers – which can afford paid staff – have excellent, inclusive processes and listen to their grantees. We should continue discussions where they are welcome and advocate for the charities which struggle. But we also need to accept and adapt to the reality.

What should charities do?

  • Get really, really good at impact measurement and reporting. This isn’t easy. But if we can show donors that their money makes a real difference, wherever it goes within the charity, it may relax the emphasis on restrictions.
  • Have excellent internal processes for budgeting and priority-setting. This will enable quick and wise decisions when opportunities for restricted funding arise.
  • Seek to fulfil your charity’s mission while also recognising the need to adapt to what funders want. Yes, the mission is important, but if you can’t sell the cause, you don’t have a charity.
  • Take a strategic approach to trust fundraising. Don’t fire off applications at any vaguely likely opportunity. Target your approaches carefully. Seek to upskill your fundraisers.

I’ve hear the complaint more than once, from donors and charities alike, that the charities with the best fundraisers are the ones that get the money. Well, maybe the better question to ask is why aren’t the other charities prioritising investment in fundraising?

Simply complaining about injustice isn’t going to secure funding – nor will it give us any credibility as a sector. We need the right skills and mindset to adapt to the reality we find ourselves in. And we need more excellent fundraisers.

Feminism and fundraising targets

As the new financial year approaches, many of us will have been involved in target-setting. If you’re lucky, you’ll have had a say in the final figures. If you’re not, they’ll have been imposed with minimal discussion.

I’ve noticed a concerning tendency among some of my fellow – and mostly female – fundraisers. Online and during casual chats at conferences, I encounter negativity about targets. They’re seen as impossible, idealistic, unreachable goals. GIFs are circulated depicting variations on a theme of ostriches hiding their heads in the sand.

This, to me, points to a worrying sense of helplessness. Complaining perpetuates this negative cycle and changes nothing.

Why are targets so often unrealistic?

Many others have written excellent pieces outlining the reasons why unrealistic targets are imposed on fundraisers:

  • Budgets are based on what’s needed, rather than what the portfolio can realistically deliver;
  • Excellent performance in one year is “punished”, resulting in a demand to improve by 10% or 20%, regardless of the circumstances;
  • The ignorance of non-fundraising senior management plays a significant role.

I would add one more reason which I haven’t seen addressed in any fundraising articles/blog posts: middle management which fails to challenge unrealistic goals, instead unreasonably pushing the pressure down to their team.

Harvard Business Review published a very incisive piece on this issue last year, highlighting that “Too few managers have the courage or the wherewithal to do anything but roll over when their boss hands them an astronomically high number.” That’s harsh, but based on experiences earlier in my career, and accounts I’ve heard from others, it’s as equally applicable to the charity sector as it is to the industries that HBR usually covers.

What has this got to do with feminism?

Women are socially conditioned, far more than men, to be acquiescent. Given the over-representation of women in the fundraising workforce, it seems inevitable that this conditioning has affected our organisational cultures.

Fundraising departments often have a culture of “niceness” which generally means that people are pleasant and friendly. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, the flip-side can be an aversion to conflict and healthy debate, which means that issues fester beneath the surface and avoidable problems aren’t anticipated.

It’s therefore probably unfair to place so much of the blame on the middle managers. In order to resist unrealistic goals, they have to fight against their own social conditioning (if they are women), and an organisational culture that’s hostile to open challenge and debate. I know how awkward that feels because I’ve done it. I’ve felt in the past as if sometimes this type of behaviour means I’ve been perceived as a “troublemaker” whereas in other cultures it would be seen as perfectly healthy.

I’d rather take that label, however, than let my team down by giving them goals that I know are impossible. The other benefit of having these experiences, and speaking openly and frankly about them when job-seeking, is that it’s enabled me to find an employer with a healthy and sensible attitude to target-setting.

Fundraisers, we need to resist the culture of bad targets

There are many, many reasons why this culture of unrealistic targets needs to stop:

  • It’s bad for your own career. Failing to negotiate a realistic number means you’ll never achieve the track record of achieving targets that appears as a requirement on virtually every fundraising job ad that I’ve ever seen.
  • If you’re a manager, it erodes your authority. A formal job title as “manager” isn’t enough to run a successful team. You need to ensure your employees trust you and believe you have their best interests at heart, as well as the organisation’s – especially if you want to keep your best staff.
  • Impossible targets encourage unethical behaviour. The aforementioned HBR article explains how these unhealthy cultures led to scandals such as Wells Fargo. We’ve got plenty of our own scandals in the charity sector that are probably caused, at least in part, by a relentless push towards unrealistic income targets. As our sector continues to experience intense (and justified) scrutiny, we need to consider and avoid the unintended consequences of our internal cultures.
  • It stymies genuine relationship fundraising. Most of us know how fundraising should be done: it’s based on long-term relationships built through trust. It can take many, many years to secure a transformational gift. However, pressure to achieve the big money “now” leads to a desperate scrabbling around for “quick wins” and the long-term important but non-urgent work to build these vital relationships never gets off the ground.

How should we move forward?

I hope that other fundraisers – those who might be drawn towards complaining, and especially the women among us – will be motivated to make a real change.

  • If you’re a junior fundraiser, scrutinise your target. Think about how you are going to meet it and make a plan. If you are unsure about any part of it, have a discussion with your manager. They should be able to help you understand how you have a reasonable chance of meeting it.
  • If you are a department manager, make sure you can give your team this confidence. If you can’t, have this same discussion with your manager. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge your team if you think their proposed figures are too low, but you need to be able to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable pressure.
  • When job seeking, ask how targets are set, and whether staff have a say in them. When going for interviews myself, I found this question to be extremely illuminating. One charity avoided answering the question directly. If more fundraisers ask this question, more employers will see that they need to give a good answer in order to compete for talent.

It should be possible to have these discussions while maintaining a high standard of professionalism. After all, reasonable targets are in the best interests of your organisation.

I don’t mean this to give the impression that I think targets are inherently a bad thing. I love having a target! When used correctly, it’s a brilliant motivational tool that can also help a fundraiser track their progress and impact. But there is an important difference between the budgeted figure which finance relies on in order to allocate expenditure, and the “dream” stretch target. Don’t confuse the latter with the former.