• Alan Clayton

Sometimes you win

Fundraising can feel like a battle. That’s because it is. I do not mean ‘battle’ as in some macho, populist faux-war-leader sense, but in the sense of ‘keep battling on’ … the relentless grind of solving problem after problem and overcoming fear and criticism in the expectation of getting a big result at the end of our labours.


The battles of my fundraising career have been long. Apartheid, AIDS, famine, disease and even politics (which is never ending.) And, yes, COVID-19.


When I, and the people I have been privileged to work with over the years, occasionally take the time to reflect, we realise that some of these long battles have been won or at least that massive progress has been made. Cancer survival rates are hyperbolically better than in the 1980s, apartheid is over and they have almost closed the last of those desperate orphanages in Romania. McDonald’s banned cruelly sourced meat. Much work was needed to win the ‘wars’ in all those cases, but sometimes the fundraiser does get to win a battle.


Fundraising is founded in crisis and it flourishes in crisis. This is what we are for. The money we raise may fund organisation overheads and budget deficits, but the only reason we exist at all is to solve problems. Big problems. As quickly as possible. Culturally, we are battlers and our biggest responsibility is …


… to help donors to win.


It is clear how Great Fundraising leaders do this:


In his seminal book on leadership, ‘A First-Rate Madness’, Nassir Ghaemi identified that the cool, rational leader excels in times of stability, predictability – or ‘peace-time’ if you allow the analogy. He also identified that the crisis leader excels at empathy, direct pragmatism and the ability to make quick, seemingly unreasonable decisions. Let’s call it emotional leadership.


It’s no surprise therefore that professor Adrian Sargeant identified in the original Great Fundraising Report that emotional leadership is the key starting point for growth in fundraising revenue.


So it was a given that when Professor Sargeant undertook a deep dive on branding and communications he found that donors respond to emotional leadership, too.

Over the last six months or so I have seen the best and worst of emotional leadership. I have seen CEOs procrastinate and boards bottle it. I have also seen organisations across the globe such as:

  • RNLI Lifeboats in the UK, show the most authentic and inspiring empathy with their donors on a national scale. The feel good and determination across the country was palpable and income rocketed.

  • Lutheran World Relief in the USA accelerate a fundraising re-launch into the crisis rather than back off. They have increased their revenue by 40% in just six months.

  • Trócaire in Ireland recover then increase their income through dramatic, fast, decisive leadership decisions from the fundraising team.

  • Børns Vilkår in Denmark take the opportunity to re-focus, re-fresh and re-launch an already awesome fundraising programme – with the CEO leading the charge.

  • Royal Flying Doctors Service in Melbourne, Australia, persevere and drive income ever upwards through the strictest of lock-downs.

There are too many success stories to give credit to every fundraising leader here, but they all have one thing in common: emotional leadership. They are analytical, data-driven, financially astute, structurally aware and morally deep. But they also have intuition for people – what do staff, volunteers, board and donors need? The need to overcome fears and uncertainties. These are emotions. One cannot fight an emotional problem with a rational solution. Only confident, assertive and inspiring leadership keeps people going through the fear and drives momentum and results.


If your leadership team have all come from the rational parts of the organisation, perhaps it’s time for fundraising to add that emotional excellence to the leadership team. If it’s already there, just keep battling on.


Sometimes you win. It’s important, it’s hard and it feels great afterwards. Briefly. Until the next battle starts.


We will win against COVID-19. Then we will take on whatever 2021 and beyond has to throw at us.


Keep battling on, and occasionally help our donors win. That’s what fundraisers do.

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