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CII BLOG > Blogs > On being an old-fogey in fundraising

On being an old-fogey in fundraising

Navigating the Terrain of Experienced Fundraising: Reflections on the Journey. Embracing the wisdom of the past while staying open to the innovations of the future
5 Dec 2023

It has come to my attention that I appear to be getting on a bit.

The signs are there.

Sure, there’s the obvious ones, like the gradually increasing clusters of grey hair and the fact that I now have children who are taller than me.

But it’s when I look around a meeting and everyone appears to be half my age that it really hits home. Or having to explain my pop culture references when I’m doing presentations because most of the audience weren’t even born when Stock Aitken and Waterman were in their pomp.

And like it or not, I’m not alone in this. Lots of you are in the same boat. Or the one just behind – but we’re heading in the same direction.

So I thought I’d share some thoughts about becoming a… “more experienced fundraiser” - let’s use that phrase, why don’t we.

1. You know stuff now

The obvious advantage of having been around for a bit, is that you’ve been around for a bit. You’ve been there, seen that and done that. You’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t, and hopefully developed an understanding as to why.

At this stage I’ve fundraised through recessions, cost of living crises, wars, natural disasters and a global pandemic. I’ve run countless campaigns for tons of different charities across multiple channels.

I have a good sense of what will work, and what won’t. I know the tricks. I’ve done the tests. I’ve read the books and the case studies.

This knowledge is important, and in a sector where many practitioners have little or no formal fundraising training or qualifications, it’s especially so.

We have a responsibility to pass our knowledge on, to build up the skills, understanding and wisdom of the sector as a whole.

2. But you don’t know everything

The downside of experience is that it can close you off from new discoveries. It can be all too easy for those of us who’ve been around forever to be dismissive of new ideas and the people who champion them.

It’s important that we guard against our experience hardening into an unthinking mantra of This Is What Works or That Will Never Work.

I’m old enough to have tested lots of things in fundraising. I’m also old enough to have seen test results change, or indeed flip, over time.

Past results are no guarantee of future performance, as they say.

Times change. Technology changes, people change, context changes. We need to be open to change too, no matter how grey and old and experienced we are.

As John Maynard Keynes reportedly said, “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do sir?”

3. It’s not enough to know what works, you need to know why it works.

I think the dogmatic belief in The Right Way To Do Things stems from a misguided focus on what works, when we should be focused on why it works.

Let’s take an example from direct mail. Everyone knows that all things being equal, long letters (generally) work better than short letters. This has been tested to death across decades of direct marketing in many different sectors and countries.

Hopefully I’m stating the obvious here, but long letters don’t work better because they’re long letters. God knows I’ve read some awful long fundraising letters in my time.

Long letters work better because they address specific donor needs, and perform specific functions.

For instance:

  • They allow you to address and deal with any concerns or questions that may occur to the donor while reading it.
  • They give you enough room to include important persuasive content such as recognising previous support, expressing gratitude, highlighting elements of donor identity, repeating and reinforcing need, and demonstrating the difference the donor can make.
  • They make it possible to use larger typefaces so older donors can more easily read it.
  • And they convey a sense of importance and weight to the donor.

It is these things, rather than the fact that it’s simply ‘long’ that make it successful.

Keeping the why in mind, as technology, costs, customs and context change, allow us to adapt our wisdom to the challenges at hand.

4. Retain your old wisdom, while being open to new ideas

It’s so important that we don’t allow our thinking to calcify. There is huge potential in bringing together the wisdom and learning from decades of successful professional fundraising with the energy, drive, radicalism and new ideas of those who haven’t been burdened by our trials, tribulations and failures.

Take an example form outside fundraising – the Repeal referendum of 2018. Together for Yes brought together experienced campaigners who had learned often painful lessons from decades of hard work, along with fired up new activists filled with passion, drive, new ideas and approaches. The result, as we know, was a huge success.

We need to do the same in our work.

Which is why the theme for The Fundraising Summer School in 2024 is:

How do we bring together fresh ideas for the future and old wisdom from the past to meet the fundraising challenges of today and tomorrow

Over two days in Dublin next May we’ll be discussing and debating this, and hopefully inspiring hundreds of fundraisers with the ideas, examples, learnings and wisdom to raise more money for the amazing causes they represent. Hopefully I’ll see you there.

Damian O’Broin
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