A change of key in fundraising

I am putting this post in here – which is one I wrote on my old blog before setting up ozphilanthropy.com. It records my reactions to the changed scale of fundraising I encountered on starting work in Advancement in higher education (about 6 months ago).

Since starting in a new role I have been exposed to a very different face and focus of fundraising for not for profits in Australia.

Before this I was working with individual artists and very small arts organisations, some incorporated and some unincorporated. The gist of what we tried to instill in them was – if you don’t ask, no one will give – so get out there, get over it (being shy about asking) and just ask – develop your message, build relationships and explain why support will help you put on that play, frame the works for your exhibition, undertake a particular course of overseas study in music, ballet or theatre – and above all – explain how you can’t do it without your supporters.

In the bigger seemingly wider world of higher education fundraising, a much more evolved and professional mode of fundraising has been revealed to me. It has the luxury of resources in terms of people – researchers, database specialists, philanthropic relationship managers, a donor stewardship team, a dedicated donor events person, and even a dedicated communications unit – but essentially what I have found is that the process and the reason for being there at either end of the spectrum in seeking support is the same – and the core of this is building relationships with donors and being able to clearly articulate your case for support.

Where previously I worked a part of a two person team – database and donor relations, I now see nearly 30 people focussed on the same goals of raising a particular monetary target and really the only difference is scale.

How one approaches receiving, receipting and recording donations, and then thanking, informing and maintaining communication with donors is the same.

It is of course fabulous to have a dedicated team asking for funds, a team of people to research potential donors, a team to develop glossy and attractive solicitation documents and a whole back office of financial and corporate receivables processes behind the effort. Nevertheless, I keep being struck by the fact that the basics are identical.

I have learned some flashier terms such as prospect clearance and moves management, donor stewardship and recognition and of the need for business rules. But you can not reduce every donation transaction to a rule of thumb which initiates a particular response .

One thing I have been struck by in a larger environment is a resistance to personalisation and an apparent desire to keep all of the separate teams in silos. “It is not my job”, says one, “to thank every single donor with a personal note even if I recognise them as a repeat donor, because I don’t want to impede the relationship the donor might have with our philanthropic relationship manager who is their key contact with our organisation. My role is to send a tax deductible receipt, and a stewardship report (if their gift is of a size to warrant it) and to ensure that the appropriate letters are generated through our database”.

This goes against the grain for me – and what I have learned about thanking again and again and again – in every way possible. If it were up to me, I would be personalising a note and remarking on the donor’s continuing and generous contributions.

However, I am not in that role. I have been charged with writing and revising fundraising policy. I was given a framework around donor prospect clearance, rights of donors, privacy, and bequests, gift acceptance, sponsorship, endowed chairs and physical naming of buildings.

There has only been one policy publicly available for the last eight years. What that tells me is that you don’t need policies to do things – but policies can help articulate what you do and why you do it. It is not so hard to create policies and processes out of what has already been established as standard practice. What is more interesting is how to deal with the intricacies of things which create dilemmas and ambiguities.

This is where my other newly acquired phrase has come in – business rules and business procedures. These won’t necessarily be publicly available documents, but will help guide inhouse ways of dealing with particular situations – such as soft credit, matching gifts and acceptance of non-cash gifts.

Apparently the response to many of these issues is dictated by inhouse fundraising software. I am curious to learn from others’ experience about this – because I don’t feel that the database should be dictating policy, but should always remember its place as an information tool.

It would be awful to not be able to accept a gift “because we don’t know how to deal with it in the database”, or “because we don’t have any business rules about this”. I am trying to get my head around this kind of impediment and thinking about how to approach the organisational culture which to me feels stymied because it can’t solve what it perceives as a technical problem.

Surely this is a process question? and is there a reason we can’t make things up as we go along? Oh wait a moment, yes there is – I am dealing with a risk averse and cautious beast. I am learning that in a large organisation things move much more slowly than with a two person team.

I am sure that both approaches have their positives and negatives and that the reasons they work particular ways are historical and reflect corporate histories and experience. But it is a big change for me – and one I am still coming to terms with.

Let me know what you think about different scaled fundraising and how you manage your expectations within your financial/resource limitations. Have you ever encountered a massive change in culture between workplaces which has made you think twice about everything you did before?

I look forward to your responses.

NB – some of my impressions have no doubt changed by now, as I better understand the reasons why this gargantuan organisation works the way it does – I will be able to comment better in another six months).

About ozphilanthropy

#Philanthropy. #arts Posts by Sharon Nathani, PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne focussing on philanthropic funders of the arts. Sharon's study is supported through an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
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