Andrew Barton

Dec 8, 2021, 10:00 AM

Fuelling the engine – End-of-year fundraising questions for CEOs

In late September we had a lovely week on holiday in Falmouth. But a couple of days before leaving home in Milton Keynes, I couldn’t be sure we were going. I was still desperately looking for fuel to be sure that I could make the journey without fear of running dry.

Funding is the fuel for our charity engines: the finances to make sure we can deliver the mission of our organisations. And looking back on my first five years as a freelance fundraising consultant, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that so many of my clients have been charity CEOs. Fundraising is a key responsibility for the CEO but how many truly feel self-assured when it comes to this crucial aspect of their charity?

Sometimes they’ve come to me feeling uneasy, recognising that they don’t know what they don’t know. Other times they’ve had a gut feeling that the fundraising engine is misfiring and in need of a service. And sometimes they’ve known that the organisation needs a step change in income to achieve the kind of impact that the mission demands.

As a charity CEO, maybe commissioning a fundraising audit will be one of your new year resolutions. This has often proven useful for setting the top priorities for change, to get the fundraising engine running more effectively. But before you do that, here are some of the tell-tale signs that such a stocktake is needed.


What gets measured gets managed

That’s an old saying that has stuck with me right from my days working in the commercial sector. So, what is your fundraising team measuring?

Too often, I see a fundraising report that looks like a cut and paste version of the management accounts. Income versus budget. Expenditure versus budget. That should be a flashing warning light for you.

Are there really no lead indicators for future income? No pipeline activity for your philanthropy income streams? No metrics on lapsing rates among regular givers? No metrics on second gifts from new first-time givers? If that’s the case, it’s definitely an opportunity to probe a bit more at your next one-to-one with your senior fundraiser.


Is there a demand for investment?

On multiple occasions I’ve been in organisations where income is only growing because a declining number of supporters are giving more. There are more people who have stopped giving than there are new donors. Often, the acquisition engine is completely stalled and there’s no investment at any scale to find new donors.

Is your senior fundraiser coming to you to make the case for investment in fundraising? Or do they seem content with the way things are?… The way things have always been?… With an excessive focus on a yearly budget?

Is there anyone on the Board of Trustees making the case for fundraising investment? Or anyone with actual experience of fundraising? If everyone is too comfortable with the way things are, that should be a cause for concern.


Whose voice are you hearing?

It’s all too easy for teams – even fundraising teams – to get overly focused on the organisation and not be listening to the donors enough.

Just pick up the newsletter or the last fundraising appeal and that will give you a good sense of how things are. BOY (Because of You) is one of the best acronyms in the fundraiser manual. So if you read a donor communication that is stuffed with “us” and “we” rather than “you”, then the emergency lights should be flashing.

Similarly, if you read the Case for Support and it’s all about “us”, be watchful. And if there’s no section that covers “Why me?” as a donor, then be very concerned. It’s definitely time to ask a few probing questions.

Ask your senior fundraiser how the voice of the donor is getting heard. Are there any systematic supporter surveys being done? When new donors sign up online, do we ask a couple of basic questions to get a better handle on their personas?


If I was a donor…

It may not be possible to make judgements on the technical skills of the fundraising team but when you sit down and think about it, how well are they using your time?

Has the senior fundraiser sat down and had a strategic conversation about the percentage of your time that you can dedicate to fundraising? And did you get a sense that they had some clear objectives in mind that would show a return on that effort?

When you see the team interacting with major donors or with trusts and foundations, are you struck by their curiosity? Do they seem to be wanting to really understand what makes their donors tick, or do they seem more intent on selling the organisation? How much listening is really going on?

And if you were in the donor’s shoes, would it feel like a good experience?


Just for starters…

These are the questions you should be asking to begin with. There are others, of course; not least the state of the organisation’s fundraising enablers: the CRM system, the website, the state of supporter insight including prospect research, whether data protection is fit for purpose. But those can wait for a fundraising audit if too many warning lights came on when answering the initial questions.

Funding is the fuel for our charity engines. Is your tank full or is the organisation running on fumes?

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Barton is a fundraising consultant part of the Action Planning network. Andrew specialises in fundraising strategy and loves nothing better than a fundraising audit to get stuck into.