The Most Powerful Fundraising Lesson from the US

March 30, 2016

As fundraising leaders, how do we raise our sights and those of our teams to raise more? Looking back on my career in fundraising, there were a few key moments that changed my entire perspective on what was possible.

It was too easy to read fundraising news and find reasons why we could not raise as much as organisation X or Y:

  • We were a younger institution, we were smaller, or we did not have the resources.
  • We needed to spend more time building relationships internally and externally before we could ask for support.
  • We needed some projects, or better projects.

I could go on and on. Some of these were important obstacles – hurdles to be leapt over or worked around. However, they were never enough to justify not aiming higher.

One of my favourite interview questions for fundraisers used to be, “Someone once told me that every fundraiser has a ceiling as to what they feel able to ask for. What’s your level?”

I longed to meet the fundraiser who said, “I think that’s rubbish. There is no ceiling. You can ask for any sum if you ask the right person at the right time, for the right project.” Sadly, no one ever did. Sometimes they might say something like, “Well, the biggest gift I have ever secured is £50,000, but I am comfortable asking for bigger gifts.” Ok, but instinctively, I often felt their fear of reaching higher. They had a ceiling in their mind somewhere. They needed to be enabled to challenge the status quo.

Part of the problem is that fundraising in UK education has been built on a ‘copy and paste’ model. We have lifted models from the US (e.g., ‘Annual Fund’), copied what has been done in other UK organisations, and taken it all as gospel. However, we need to look more at the culture and attitude of successful fundraising institutions.

These models work because they have energy and belief fuelling them. They might need adapting, changing, or destroying completely to work in a different institution. However, what matters most is that successful institutions raise the sights, tell a powerful story, and are willing to commit energy and resources into making their fundraising a success.

I felt this most powerfully on a CASE study tour to Chicago a few years ago. A group of us visited a number of higher education institutions, and met their fundraising teams. As we learnt of their successes and saw the impact their fundraising had on their organisations, it might have been all too easy to say, “Well, that was due to the different attitudes to philanthropy in the US,” or, “There are more tax breaks for giving in the US,” or, “Look at the size of their team,” or, “Look at the time spent by senior leaders fundraising.”

All of those things may be true to a lesser or greater extent. However, the belief that the teams we visited had in the power of philanthropy to achieve their institutions’ goals was powerful to see and feel. All of them could tell that story with passion. It was their belief in the power of philanthropy and the prominence it had within the institution – from names on buildings to the words spoken by their leaders – that was the true lesson for me.

With this in mind, I am proud to say that Graham-Pelton will be working in partnership with IDPE to facilitate a study tour for schools’ Development Directors and their Heads to visit US schools. I hope those that go will return super-charged with the power of belief in what their school can achieve. Great fundraising is needed in education, now more than ever, and we must retain our belief in the power of the possible, and not allow ourselves to be stuck in the mud of ‘it can’t work here.’

-Susie Hills, Managing Director

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