First day of school

Irn Bru is an essential.

Yesterday was my first day as a Masters student.

I was all kinds of nervous turning up at 9.30am to register on my programme, but luckily I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. After a couple of hours’ info assimilation (otherwise known as “do the work and don’t fart about and you’ll be fine”), we settled into a slightly awkward group at lunch and got to know one another a little.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out I’m the eldest student in the class. Somewhat more surprising though was the level of interest the other students had in my professional experience. Specifically, what does a fundraising job look like? What do you actually do?

I was more than happy to answer any questions and not-so-subtly plug fundraising as a career path. The reception of my waffling was warm and a few insightful questions were asked. One even told me she’s got some experience helping a consultant with small projects and is looking into becoming a fundraiser after she graduates this course.

It was a huge decision for me to leave a full-time job and become a full-time student. But I know I’ve made a good choice to pursue further study, and if the first day is anything to go by, fundraising isn’t too far away in my academic world already.

Just goes to show, you can take the fundraiser out of the workplace….



Learning and teaching (but mostly learning)

A while back I got to thinking about learning. Not a major surprise given that I work in a university, but I was specifically thinking about learning in the context of my own work.

See, I’m sort of a nerd. I like to know as much as possible, and as I’m winding down in my current role and getting ready to switch back into student mode,  I got to wondering. Am I an oddball who’s just curious for curiosity’s sake? How do other fundraisers learn?

I’ll admit that this was almost entirely inspired by Rogare’s Critical Fundraising and Theory of Change, which if you haven’t read yet, what are you doing on my silly blog?! GO READ IT!

Back now? Great!

At its most basic (and I don’t pretend to be half as knowledgeable as the folks at Rogare ), it’s about asking questions – challenging accepted wisdom, asking “well, why?”, and using more than just “it worked for the other guys” to back up what we do. That’s not to say that we might already be doing this, but in my experience a lot of our practices come from stuff we’ve found out ourselves. Conferences we’ve been to, colleagues we’ve talked to, presentations and articles we’ve read telling us the techniques, but not necessarily looking at what’s behind those techniques.

The other part of this is that there’s a wealth of research there from the academic side of our world, but that I didn’t know if anyone else was doing the same as me and going looking for it. Now, that may be down to a number of things; lack of access (universities are great places if you want to trawl academic journals), lack of time (“you’re waffling again Sophie!”), or simply lack of awareness that it’s there to be used (“who’s a what now?”). It could also be that the language of academia can be tremendously dense and if you’re not familiar with some of the terminology, reading it can be like swimming through caramel with 50kg toffees tied to your feet.

(Apparently I’m also thinking about sweets while I write this.)

So what I thought I’d do was ask fundraisers a few questions of my own. And here’s what I found out.

Self-directed learning infog

As the above infographic (that yes, I made myself) shows, fundraisers are inquisitive, keen to learn and for the most part look within the sector to find information. This is a great start, but we can do more. Among those who looked for sources from higher education institutions, for example, there was less certainty about the usefulness. This is probably due to access, more than any other factor, but shows that we fundraisers have a bit of a tendency to stay in our lane, and we’re perhaps not as adventurous in our learning as we could be.

I suspect the culture of your organisation plays a large role in this. If you’re encouraged to seek out new life and new civilisations (i.e. explore opportunities with agencies outside fundraising such as the DMA or IDM, both of which have valuable expertise to share), you’re probably going to feel pretty good about what you gain from it.

If however, you’re one of those fundraisers trying to ask questions and develop your knowledge beyond the “copy and steal everything” mantra that pervades higher ed fundraising, and you come across a pristine copy of a Ken Burnett book that’s clearly never been read, you might wonder if learning anything new is worth the bother.

(Spoiler alert – it is.)

The most encouraging thing that I discovered on doing this survey though, is that I’m not the only one who genuinely enjoys asking questions. Curiosity might’ve done for the cat, but reading about the Antecedents and Role of Commitment in the Context of Charity Giving (Sargeant & Woodliffe, 2007) brought him back.


*DISCLAIMER* I asked a very small sample of those fundraisers who either follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn to fill in a not-very-scientific survey I devised myself. Any and all conclusions drawn here are basically me going “huh, that’s interesting!”


For god’s sake, keep talking.

We fundraisers love communication. We’re passionate about telling stories, showing our donors what their gifts have achieved, encouraging others to get involved.

We’re fantastic at getting our message out. But what about getting our message in?

I’m sure many of us have been in meetings with our own teams, folks from Finance, a project lead, a senior manager, or pretty much anyone with our org’s logo on their payslip and discovered that they’ve no idea what our message is. Or what our latest campaign is about. Or when our last campaign finished. Frustrating isn’t a strong enough word.

What’s worse though, is when we find out that a donor or prospective donor contacted another department about a significant life change, and that information hasn’t been passed on. For whatever reason, it’s not made it onto the database. And we’ve only discovered it by upsetting the person so much they’ve needed to call us directly.

This is a fundraiser’s worst nightmare (or one of them, at least). You’ve just lost that person’s trust, possibly permanently. And while you could just think “meh, well it’s only one person”, what’s the cumulative effect of that attitude? How many “only one” instances does it take before you’ve got a major problem?

There’s no way to know everything. And there’s no way, realistically, to get every single person who works for your charity on exactly the same page 100% of the time. But examples like the one above, which happened to me just this morning, show that we have to keep trying. We have to keep working to break down internal silos (much as I hate that phrase), we have to keep talking to as many of our colleagues as will sit still long enough to listen.

But above all, we have to take responsibility. We have to own up when we get it wrong, and not just blame things on an admin or system error. Donors can see right through that. We can’t point fingers at other departments, that’s just counter-productive. What we can do though, is keep communicating.

You’d think that we’d be excellent at that, right?


An announcement

I’m leaving fundraising. I’m going back to university, to study for my Masters and, fingers crossed, my PhD.

While I’m naturally super excited about this major life decision, I’m a bit nervous too. After all, I’m walking away from a stable job in a fantastic university, to go and be on the other side of the fence – eating beans on toast and cramming in the library at 2am.

Well ok, it’s perhaps not quite like that. But it is a massive change and will cause considerable upheaval for me. So why am I doing it?

The reasons behind it are complicated, more than a little personal, and frankly quite boring for anyone who isn’t me. One of the main factors however, is that I’m no longer content to just keep repeating the same patterns over and over, as I seem to be doing. That doesn’t make me an effective fundraiser, and it doesn’t make me a happy one either.

As I mentioned in a previous post, inertia is the common enemy of anyone working in charities today. We have to continually strive to overcome inertia in our supporters, our colleagues and ourselves. It’s far too easy to simply tweak last year’s version. And because of this, we make the same or similar mistakes repeatedly. We try not to; we try to be innovative and fresh with each new academic or fiscal year, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

So I’m making a big change. I’m hoping that, if the stars align for me, I’ll still be contributing to the fundraising profession in future (albeit as an academic, rather than a practitioner). And who knows, perhaps I’ll be back writing appeals and thank you letters before long! I do love writing…

I’m going to try and stay active on Twitter and this blog. I’m still passionate about fundraising, and I plan to stay that way. I want to keep myself informed and connected, and keep up the relationships I’ve made in the past few years. So although I’ll not be in an office anymore, I’ll continue yelling into the blog-void when an issue or event catches my attention.

I’ll say a huge thank you to everyone who’s read this blog so far, tweeted to me, or chatted to me at CASE conferences. The biggest thank you of all goes to Kurstin Finch Gnehm, my fundraising mentor and an all-around amazing individual. You rock, my friend.

So I guess all that’s left is to ask that you remember me when I’m desperately looking for fundraisers to take part in my thesis research. 🙂

See you soon…?




I am a fundraiser – AMA

Following unhelpful and misleading comments in the Telegraph today, I would like to let my friends, family, and anyone who’s interested know that if they want any advice on fundraising or giving, they can absolutely ask me.

Although the likes of the FR Chair may question my integrity, I will always do my best for whoever asks for my help.

I am not here to coerce anyone. I am here to let people who want to change the world know that they can.

I represent those who need help, giving voice to the silenced and marginalised.

Increasingly, I am taking on responsibilities beyond my charity’s remit or capacity due to austerity and government cuts.

I speak for supporters and beneficiaries, even when their needs and expectations don’t align.

I am proud to be a fundraiser. And I will help anyone I can. Even you, Lord Grade.

I’m an Earth Green Ravenclaw bison. What are you?


Personality quizzes are loads of fun. Everybody likes to talk about themselves and as human beings we like to know there are others out there like us.

I’ve just taken Charity Connect’s brilliant “What fundraising animal are you?” quiz (which is where the bison in the title comes from). I lead with my Earth Green energy most often according to my most recent Insights profile. Buzzfeed says I’m 41% Ravenclaw, 24% Hufflepuff, 22% Gryffindor and 13% Slytherin, which probably reveals more than I think it does.

All of this is interesting to know. But what’s the point of it? I sometimes wonder.

It’s all very well knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are in a professional or even personal context. That knowledge alone however does absolutely nothing. As Mary Calahane points out in this fantastic article about confidence, that post-it of an inspiring phrase might look pretty stuck to your pinboard, but are you actually following that advice?

The trouble with this sort of thing, in my not-very-informed opinion, is that in a lot of cases the learnings from personality tests or work profile quizzes often fall by the wayside. You feel invigorated and full of fresh energy when you discuss the results with your colleagues, but too soon you’re back to the routine of day-to-day work in the office. All that enthusiasm is absorbed and diluted by your next campaign, your monthly reporting, your appeal targets.

It’s hard to remember what the quizzes told you about how you work when you’re so focused on just doing your work and, oftentimes, just keeping your inbox under control!

But all is not lost! I’m a big believer in small change. And I don’t mean shiny new £1 coins (although I like those too, if you fancy sending me some).

What I mean is making little adjustments here and there. For example, I know I can be very process-driven. So when I can sense in a meeting that I’m getting too bogged down in the details, I try to raise my head a bit. I find it difficult to socialise with colleagues beyond my own close-knit group, but I still make an effort to talk to people in other teams because I know that they have something interesting to contribute too.

I’m sure we all know, small changes add up. Before you know it, that little change has made you more confident and a happier fundraiser – and it’s made the people around you take notice.

The point of personality quizzes and such like isn’t to give you everything you need to know to achieve your goals. It’s to help guide you in improving how you work on your own and with others. It’s to help you figure out what you might benefit from working on, because maybe you’re not so good at that part. It’s to help you see how you fit into a team, and how other team members fit in around you. It gets you talking to your colleagues about all these things.

And occasionally, it gives you the chance to ask the office if anyone is a turtle.



Bad marketing, bad fundraising, or just human nature?

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of articles about ethics in marketing and fundraising, and how perceptions, language and use of images affect rates of giving. Two articles in particular inspired me to write this post; this SOFII one, commissioned for the Commission on Donor Experience’s emotion project; and this NY Times one about why people don’t give to Syrian refugees.

Both articles ask an interesting question: why do we give more to help those affected by natural disasters than those affected by man-made ones?

The SOFII authors identify the difference as an empathy gap: “While donors find it easy to empathise with victims of natural disaster, it is much more difficult for them to empathise with victims of conflict.”

The NY Times author argues that it’s down to bad marketing, stating: “…It’s not entirely your fault you aren’t giving to Syrian refugees. You just haven’t been manipulated properly.”  They then go on to describe the approach taken by Charity: Water, the apparent paragon of all things good in fundraising. (Note: I think Charity: Water are absolutely fantastic, so imagine I’m winking and smiling as you read that last part.)

I’m not going to go into detail on how Charity: Water operates and what’s different about what they do; many others have done this far better already. What I think is especially interesting about these two pieces is that however you think about fundraising or marketing, the inherent difficulty is always the same.


A body at rest tends to remain at rest, as Sir Isaac Newton put it. No matter if you’re selling an item or asking someone to donate to a cause, the natural inclination of human beings is to not do the thing. That’s what we’re all up against.

So how do we tackle this? Well, I happen to agree with both articles. Emotion is how!

Hope inspires, says the NY Times article. Yup, great. That’s true. But where I think the SOFII authors have hit the nail on the head is that we also need to address the more uncomfortable feelings that fundraisers and donors have.

Asking for money is either a noble calling or a dishonourable disgrace, depending on what you read. We try to inspire our donors, make them feel connected to our beneficiaries, bring them into the very centre of what we do. But we also challenge their assumptions, make them rethink their opinions, realise that the issue they thought was simple has complex roots and marked effects. This can be very difficult to do; nobody wants to challenge a potential donor to the extent that they’re completely put off giving! At the same time, donors give to effect change – we need them to feel uncomfortable with the current state of things to motivate making that change. Making clear the world is not the happy, peaceful place we might wish it were in a way that doesn’t shock people just for the sake of it, degrade those in need as less capable or inferior, or perpetuate the ‘donor as saviour’ ideal should be our aim.

Sometimes it’s easier not to. Sometimes, it’s easier to reach for the same language that’s worked before, to reuse what we’ve already done, even if we know it’s going to suffer diminishing returns. That’s inertia again; it’s hard work for fundraisers to keep pushing and refreshing our cases for support!

But we can’t expect to overcome anyone else’s inertia if we don’t address our own. It’s not about bad marketing, or manipulating people in the right way to make them reach into their pockets. It’s recognising where there’s an emotional gap in our messaging and addressing it, whether it’s comfortable or not. And it’s about identifying our own discomfort with what we do, and working to redress that balance too.

Emotionally honest and intelligent fundraising is our goal – and our challenge.