Fundraising for difficult causes: a starting point for small charities

In 2009 I heard Mark Astarita launch the Gill Astarita Fundraiser of the Year Award at the Institute of Fundraising National Convention. In addition to that burning feeling in the throat when you’re trying to keep yourself together, I vividly remember him talking about Gill fundraising for truly difficult causes, including drug and alcohol charity Addaction: “Gill never had much truk with any fundraiser who said their cause was hard to fundraise for”. That speech has stuck with me.

Roll on a few years and I’m going for an interview at a large children’s charity. At the time I was working for an environmental charity and a colleague and friend asked if I had applied because “it’s easier to fundraise for kids”. Of course some causes are easier for people to understand and empathise with, though I imagine that their fundraisers aren’t there for an easy life.

These two separate incidents made me think that perhaps some people simply accept that some causes are difficult to fundraise for. I feel that this is rather defeatist and a barrier to testing new fundraising ideas. Combine this attitude with some of the challenges many small charities face – limited time and resource to divert from front-line services to fundraising – and you’re in a bit of a pickle.

So what can we do to raise income for smaller, more niche charities?

I’m going to talk through what I think is a sensible starting point, giving examples of two different causes. Ideally this approach would be complemented with other work (e.g. external environment and competitor analysis), but if you’re pushed for time and want a starting point, I’d recommend this.

The first charity provides palliative care services. It is based in a deprived area and while there is huge goodwill towards it across the community, nobody has any spare cash. The second is a theatre organisation which aims to democratise the arts. It genuinely transforms the careers of the people it works with, but some perceive the arts to be a rather elitist, particularly given the current climate.

While these organisations are dissimilar in pretty much every way, the approach to their funding strategies is similar. Because whatever the cause, someone will fund it.

What it’s important to understand is:

  1. Which organisations need this service to continue; and/ or
  2. Who cares enough to fund it?

Here’s a suggestion for how you might go about this:

Firstly, consider all your potential funders.

Working through the income spectrum, from donations, grants, contracts to trading, who are the organisations or people that need or care enough to fund your work?

For example: Is it in the interests of business to support you? Is your cause emotive enough to appeal to a large number of individuals? Might your services save the NHS money? Have you got stuff, space or skills you could sell?

This isn’t about chasing the money, it’s just an initial way to start prioritising which income stream(s) to consider pursuing. Remember to consider your organisational strengths too – e.g. if you don’t know any rich people and you’re a niche cause, major donor giving might not be your best trick.

Secondly, determine what the motivations of those potential funders are.

For example, the palliative care organisation is not currently receiving any statutory funding.

Marie Curie estimate the cost for a day of community care at the end of life is £145 compared with £425 for specialist palliative in-patient care in hospital. This represents a saving of £280 a day per person.

“If additional community services were developed to enable even 30,000 patients to reduce their hospital stay by just four days, there would be a potential saving of £34 million.” Alternatively, a compelling message to statutory funders could be the increased cost to the NHS of not funding the service and the organisation ceasing to exist.

Now let’s think about the theatre organisation. Let’s face it: some people have done alright for themselves. Be it through the arts, business or simply through being born. And despite the recession their lives remain pretty much the same. Major donor giving looks like a strong option for this organisation. But why would wealthy people want to give? Because they love the theatre? Because they want to support young people? Because when they were younger, someone gave them the break that they really needed?

Building a sustainable funding strategy is dependent on many factors but I’d argue that taking the time to identify the potential funders with the greatest motivation and ability to give is right up there on the to-do list.

Reflecting back on Mark’s speech which made such an impact on me when I was new to the sector, I wonder if Gill had started out with the mindset that the causes she worked for were difficult and that’s just how it was, she would have pioneered new fundraising techniques such as door-to-door. Would she have raised such significant income? Would she have been considered a leader in the sector? I doubt it.

So let’s leave any defeatism at home, put some strategic thinking behind our fundraising programmes and make the most of what is working in our favour – our cause and our potential funders.


Congratulations! It’s gin time!

The 1873

This is the house cocktail at The Gilbert Scott – the bar adjoining The Renaissance St Pancras. It is, quite simply, delicious.

Acquire these:
250ml Bombay Sapphire gin
200ml cranberry juice
300ml apple juice
10ml rhubarb bitters
7.5ml egg whites, preferably pasteurized

Do this:
Chill the ingredients over night (never in a freezer – how crude!).
Combine the gin, cranberry and apple juices, rhubarb bitters, and egg whites into the siphon.
Serve in a chilled champagne coupe.

I have removed the bit involving a CO2 canister as I don’t feel it’s necessary. I imagine The Gilbert Scott would disagree.

5 thoughts on “Fundraising for difficult causes: a starting point for small charities

  1. A thought provoking blog post Mrs Crackles.
    You’re absolutely right about charities going back to basics and identifying those who are personally affected by their cause. And being able to evidence the impact of donations or other support is vital – particularly where you’re trying to convince statutory commissioners to fund your work.
    I’d like to add that as well as targeting their ‘ask’, charities should also give thought to what they have to offer – giving or volunteering for a cause can be hugely fulfilling. How well you communicate with your supporters is vital to building your income stream.
    There may also be untapped potential to partner with businesses looking to build their brand or develop corporate social responsibility partnerships. That’s where having clearly defined goals and values, ideally with inspiring leadership, will set you in good stead when making those all important introductions.
    Looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. Hi Beth. Great content and writing. I’m a trustee of an autism charity where the CEO keeps telling us it’s too difficult a cause to fundraise for. I’m going to share your blog to provoke more discussion. Thanks for the inspiration. Carole

  3. I have nothing clever or witty to add, just that I loved your blog – and as someone who works for a cause that is considered ‘easy’; we all have our fundraising hurdles, which is why working in such a diverse and vibrant sector with enthusiastic peeps, like yourself, is so much fun.

    Can I have a mojito recipe on the next one?

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