Fresh from our virtual immersion into Third Sector’s reformatted Fundraising Week conference we wanted to share some thoughts. Barring a rocky start as the event’s Covid-triggered digital transformation gathered pace, it was a great opportunity to hear directly from senior fundraisers in UK charities. What did we discover about their unique and shared challenges? And how are they tackling the realities of the pandemic?

Increased competition for ‘doing good’

In an insightful opening keynote, CAF’s Head of Policy Rhodri Davies talked about the growing competition for ‘doing good’ that’s emerging from the current crisis. More people are giving locally, or directly person-to-person, potentially reducing available cash for larger organisations. Mutual Aid groups and other decentralised networked movements have been established. People are keen to volunteer and support their community in their own way. Much of the private sector also wants to lay claim to a social purpose at this time. And all of this has implications for the charity sector as the space gets more crowded.

But rather than seeing this as a negative, many charities are taking advantage of the opportunities emerging from the situation. Several speakers mentioned seeing an increased  appetite from corporate partners to collaborate since the crisis began. Marie Curie’s Executive Director of Fundraising and Engagement, Meredith Niles, said corporate partners have been offering help in diverse ways – not just financial contributions, but also donations of media space or the promotion of emergency appeals to their audiences.

Keeping supporters engaged and connected

Another key challenge many speakers highlighted was keeping their warm audiences engaged, connected and – crucially – still giving at this time. For many charities, this has become significantly more important than bringing in new supporters. They’re focusing on close stewardship, finding creative ways to reach out and maintain these important relationships in order to foster a sense of commitment and loyalty.

Some are doing this by creating virtual spaces where donors can feel connected, running Q&A sessions or a chance to interact with the CEO. Others are reevaluating the types of content they’re sharing, and switching their focus to their closest supporters. For Prostate Cancer UK, for example, this has meant sharing more good news stories and uplifting, hopeful content.

Pivoting physical events

Another key topic at the conference was how to pivot physical fundraising events – no longer possible due to lockdown – to virtual, or introduce new products better adapted to our current restricted lifestyles. Macmillan Cancer Support estimated that they will lose out on around £100m in voluntary income this year, partly as a result of restrictions on physical fundraising.

Some talked about being adaptable, looking at their fundraising portfolio and bringing certain events forward whilst pushing others back. Davinia Batley, Director of Fundraising at children’s charity Become, accelerated plans originally intended for later in the year that happened to fit the profile of the lockdown environment. Others have been adapting products they already have in place, transforming their proposition to fit the new environment. Our own Director Martin Gill delivered a presentation on this specific subject at the conference

There were also some great examples of how this pivoting can be achieved – even in a short space of time. Caroline Appleton, Head of Supporter Engagement at WWF UK, spoke about how a dedicated team developed three new mass-participation virtual fundraising products in just five days using a rapid delivery approach (not quite a design sprint, but using some of the same methodology). 

Others talked about the effectiveness of giving the spotlight to those who want to run their own peer-to-peer fundraising events. Right now, many supporters want to participate beyond just a financial donation. They have the ideas, energy and time to raise money for the causes closest to their heart, so it’s important for charities to work with them and support their efforts by giving them the right tools and assets. This might mean taking manageable risks and giving away more control than usual – but many speakers said this approach is paying off. As part of this, a number of charities are tapping into current trends, for example the uplift in online gaming has led to a rise in fundraising through associated platforms.

Putting people first – not money

Consultant Leesa Harwood talked about the difficult conversations fundraisers should be having right now when it comes to prioritising their work. She advocated that causes with less direct involvement in combating Covid-19 should consider taking a step back in the current climate – and put people before making money. 

In a powerful closing talk, the founder of Bloody Good Period, Gabby Edlin, also supported this sentiment, emphasising the need for charities to maintain integrity and strive to achieve their missions across the work they do – even if this means a temporary loss of income. She called for an end to ‘poverty porn’, the objectification of women of colour in fundraising campaigns and misaligned corporate partnerships. 

Predicting the future

Many speakers also talked about the careful balancing act between short-term and longer-term work. There seems to have been a period where organisations were responding to immediate needs, pivoting their work and launching emergency appeals. But now they’re looking further ahead; trying to predict aspects of the future and what they will mean for fundraising. To support this planning, some teams have even been carrying out their own market research. 

Cat Alabaster, Head of Fundraising at The Brain Tumour Charity, looked at the potential for waves of Covid-19 infections which could shape our coming year. By researching public behaviour during the different phases of each wave she explored possible ways fundraising might adapt across this period. She then looked at their Twilight Walk challenge event in relation to these different stages, and outlined a possible approach for each. 

As a sector we have lost family, friends, colleagues, volunteers and key workers during the pandemic. Some key parts of our fundraising toolbox are on hold indefinitely (face to face for example). And organisations are reporting reductions in income of between 25% and 50% leading to significant pressures on their programmes. 

But there were many rays of hope to be found too. The speed of innovation, adoption of digital tools plus processes, a widespread desire to (finally) really focus on supporters. Many presenters also shared their plans to make 2021 bigger than ever, especially in terms of physical fundraising events, following this year’s restrictions. 

As Third Sector’s Andy Hillier said at the start of the conference:

“This period will come to an end – and when it does, fundraising will be needed more than ever. The need is huge and your organisations rely on you to bring in that money that does so much good.”

It was inspiring and motivating to see just how much of the sector is rising to the challenges and continuing to support their mission.