Successful Philanthropic Fundraising: it’s not rocket science, is it?


Magazine article

In his opening speech at Institute of Fundraising’s conference in London in July 2013 Mark Astarita, Director of Development British Red Cross, said that “whilst charity leaders [CEOs and Boards] are happy to take the cash raised by their fundraising teams, they are less than supportive of the fundraising effort overall”.  For those involved in philanthropic fundraising this raises several questions: is this situation unique to the UK, what issues does it raise and how can they be addressed?

The first question is relatively easy to answer as two recent reports indicate that this issue is not unique to the UK and both reports highlight similar issues, which addresses the second question. In the USA[i], study which involved more than 2,700 executive directors and development directors, the researchers found: inadequate attention to philanthropic fundraising among key board and senior leaders; the lack of a compelling story; inadequate fundraising systems;  an unwillingness to develop and build capacity within teams and understanding throughout the organisation; and, organisational cultures that do not support philanthropic fundraising success.  The report found that these factors significantly contributed to high levels of development (fundraising) staff turnover, lengthy job vacancies and a lack of qualified candidates for development director positions and that these were endemic throughout the nonprofit sector in the USA.  The report also found that this instability lead many nonprofits to become caught in a vicious cycle that ultimately threatened their ability to raise the resources required.  Quell suprise!

In the UK,[ii] the 2012 Review of Philanthropy in the Higher Education Sector found that successful philanthropic fundraising required not only an engaged institutional leadership, including governing bodies who understood their role in fundraising, but also an internal culture that encouraged and supported academic and other staff for their active participation in philanthropic activities.  The study also found that performance in philanthropic fundraising correlated closely with investment (in capacity building and other resources) and that skilled development professionals were in short supply and workforce development was weak.

For those working in this arena these findings are disheartening.  Fundraising, and philanthropic fundraising in particular, is not only a vital component to an organisation’s long-term financial sustainability, but also it brings the intellectual and emotional engagement of the donor.  Unfortunately some nonprofits treat fundraising as the poor relation to almost every other organisational activity and/or the ‘gap’ filler in the budget planning process.

The research clearly indicates that a lack of understanding and commitment from the top severely restricts what development professionals can achieve. Therefore, organisational leaders must lead the fundraising charge and Boards must be fully engaged in the fundraising activity. This is particularly pertinent: because in some organisations some Board members are likely to be in place longer than the CEO.  Board engagement is also essential as it is the Board which has a fiduciary duty to ensure the organisation is financially sustainable and the CEO is, usually, the only staff member that the Board manages.  

Experienced professionals and organisations that are really successful at philanthropic fundraising agree that ‘getting it right’ is not rocket science: it just takes time and dedicated effort.  I am also reminded of a Chinese proverb which states ‘a fish always rots from the head’. So, in order to break the cycle that is where change must start, which answers the third question, how can the issues be addressed.

It will come as no surprise that successful philanthropic fundraising organisations exhibit the following:

·         A deep understanding of and support for ‘a culture of philanthropic fundraising’.  But what does this mean (note, the following points are not in any order of priority)?

  • everyone in the organisation (across all positions) understands the role they play as ambassadors for the organisation and in relationship building. This is led from the top and embedded in an organisation’s DNA. It is ALL about relationship building;
  • the organisation has a distinctive and compelling case for support. Most staff can articulate a case for giving and talk about the organisation and its successes;
  • philanthropic fundraising is valued and mission-aligned by the organisation with systems established that support donors;
  • donor stewardship drives excellence and good practice across all activities especially communications; and,  
  • the organisation’s leadership (the Board and the CEO) is fully committed to and personally involved in philanthropic fundraising.  
  • the board, CEO and the fundraising team fully understand the mechanisms which donors can use to give, and have excellent financial literacy.

·         The development director position is fully integrated into the organisation and actively engaged in setting and agreeing the financial goals of the organisation.

·         The organisation understands that donors have choices and rights.  They tend to give to organisations that solve problems and/or demonstrate excellence in a particular activity or similar, rather than to those organisations that have problems.

·         That asking for gifts in a timely and appropriate way is fundamental  to success. Confidence is essential in this process as are the resources and mechanisms to support and monitor activity.

·         Training of staff involved is regular and appropriate to their needs.

·         The development function is appropriately resourced and supported.

Changing organisational cultures, systems and processes is never easy and not for the faint hearted, but if you can work towards creating a philanthropic fundraising culture the rewards will come.


[i] Compass Point and Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr Fund (2013). Underdeveloped: A national study of challenges facing the nonprofit fundraising.

[ii] More Partnership (2012) A Review of Philanthropy in UK Higher Education: 2012 status report and challenges for the next decade. For HEFCE