How to… develop a fundraising strategy

How to… develop a fundraising strategy

By Michelle Wright


What would the ideal fundraising strategy look like? Michelle Wright (Programme Director of Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy and CEO, Cause 4) discusses the key elements - from inspiring donors with creative content, to keeping tactics simple.

At Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy we often see fundraising strategies that are the opposite of ideal: impossible targets on constrained resources, the misconceived aim to diversify income at all costs, or plans that centre on one or two individuals without involving the wider team and trustees. These can lead to burnout, poor motivation and fundraisers jumping ship all too quickly.

More practically, if we start to interrogate targets, often a fundraising strategy is constructed simply to meet an arts organisation’s budget deficits. This is important, but not very inspiring. Which donor ever gave money to merely meet a budget gap? It’s artistic endeavour that drives fundraising and not a hole in organisational finances.

I’m finding that the savvy fundraising organisation with a bit of creative skill and imagination will structure a fundraising strategy around four key elements, as outlined below.

Artistic content and statement of need

All too often our fundraising targets are undefined. I met a CEO of a large arts organisation recently who had the central ambition to raise an additional £1m. When I asked him why the organisation needed that uplift his response was “erm…a bit more education type stuff”. This sort of amorphous ambition is never going to stimulate donors to take action. Content plays the primary role in whether or not a fundraising campaign or project chimes with donors. What stories are you telling? Why are you telling them? How are you telling them? And why should people care?

Often even the word ‘fundraising’ can cause creative people and organisations to throw the baby out with the bath water. We forget that as artistic organisations we have brilliant stories to tell in imaginative and creative settings. A fundraising strategy should always start from the central premise of what you’re raising money for and why it’s urgent – as opposed to a figure that offsets the budget deficit in the business plan. Fortune favours the bold – artists and creatives need to be confident in the stories they have to tell.

Benchmarking for credibility

Fundraising strategies can look credible in isolation, but what happens when we compare them with our peers? The basis to test credibility in a fundraising plan surely has to be data – how targets are set, how achievable they are and where they sit within overall trends in fundraising. In my experience, most organisations don’t start from this origin. Fundraising targets are either set according to the size of the deficit or they are loosely based on what was achieved last year with a bit of uplift. After all, we’re expected to be able to achieve more, aren’t we, with a bit of a wing and a prayer?

Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy will soon launch a new ‘Fundraising Culture dashboard’ in partnership with data specialist MyCake. This takes the Arts Council England data set and draws out fundraising information from almost 1,000 submissions from funded arts organisations. In one simple dashboard, organisations will be able to compare their fundraising performance against their peers, and by artform, turnover and region.

Benchmarking is only one part of determining whether a fundraising plan is credible or not, but it’s a vital part. We estimate that arts organisations are over-egging by up to five times where growth is going to come from in certain areas, such as trusts and foundations. We need some realism. What’s the point of including income targets for funding that doesn’t even exist?

Fundraising tactics

We hear over and over again from funders the need to diversify fundraising strategies, and of course it’s important. A diversified fundraising portfolio is key to sustainability, but this message often leads organisations to over-diversify. I see arts organisations all over the country feeling that they are failing if they are not constructing a fundraising strategy that takes in trusts, individuals, corporates, crowdfunding, digital and the like.

This over-stretching on tiny resources is never going to reap rewards. In my experience, even the most eminent organisations have just two or three main sources of private sector fundraising that are likely to return. It’s much better to add depth rather than stretch. And beware of the well-meaning trustee who off the cuff suggests you run a crowdfunding campaign or similar. It’s fine if you can resource it and if it’s part of the strategy, but all too often these sorts of initiatives create bottlenecks in teams and don’t yield results. We need to hold our nerve and add strength to a couple of areas. Diversifying at all costs can be a costly mistake.

Culture and people

Finally, there’s the people. Involving the whole organisation in fundraising is an obvious ideal, but it’s rare to find. The very best fundraising strategies will be both creative and practical about what they can expect from staff and trustees. Small steps in encouraging everyone to advocate for the organisation, to give a small amount or to engage with funders and to say thank you can all transform an organisation’s culture. There’s no dark art to effective fundraising, but the simple steps need to be done well.

Michelle Wright, Programme Director, Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy and CEO, Cause 4. 

First published on 18th October, 2018 on Arts Professional 

Resource type: Guide/tools | Published: 2019