• Fi McPhee

The value of culture


Before I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was a salesperson. I sold shoes. I sold ski trip packages. I sold whitegoods.


I was good at it.


And I was good at it because I was working in a customer-centric culture.


I learnt the golden rule in sales, that is, to sell with the same honesty, integrity, understanding, empathy and thoughtfulness that you would like someone else to use in selling to you.


Finding the world of fundraising mid-career saw me move on from classic sales but not from the basic tenant of being customer centric.


In the fundraising world it means meeting the needs of donors.


It gets talked about a lot in our industry.


But if anything, the global pandemic has shown me how it is not actually a prioritised bedrock of many fundraising programs.


Culture crisis


When Covid-19 hit it became obvious that the decisions non-profits made at that moment would set the tone for their fundraising through, what has turned out to be, an enduring crisis.


Some organisations were able to act quickly and focus on the business of fundraising. Others either hoped that relying on the strategy in place, business as usual, would work or even worse withdrew, assumed donors wouldn’t or couldn’t help and in some cases stopped fundraising altogether.


The difference between the two?


Those whose fundraising is still thriving have a culture that supports a clear understanding of, and respect for, donors.


They knew the need to give is greater in a crisis, so they kept their donors involved and busy.


In times of crisis, when our strategy is no longer relevant or needs to adjust, quickly, those without a strong culture falter.


Led by fear

Fear permeated the sector.


Fear of the unknown. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear that donors were compromised and not in a position to help. Fear that our services could not be delivered. Fear that we may not be able to adapt to continue our good work.


Many charitable organisations shied away from communicating with their donors.


Those fundraisers who did communicate with their supporters got bogged down in internal sign-off procedures and endless amendments to messaging. A 12 day approval timeline for an email, once seen as acceptable, became obviously outdated practice and not useful.


So, we need to ask:


  • How were some organisations able to be confident about their fundraising and meet the needs of donors in the face of this crisis and others were not?

  • How were some organisation able to be more focused and energised in their fundraising than others?

  • How were some organisations able to turn the crisis into a growth opportunity?


The quality of the culture that supports fundraising was the great divide between the Great Fundraising organisations and the rest.


The culture of Great Fundraising


What was the difference their culture made, and still makes?


  1. Their leadership gets fundraising and they have the right people leading.


They know where they are heading, they have clear ambition. And they trust those they have employed to lead their fundraising.


For Aberlour, a Scottish Children’s charity, the Covid-19 pandemic could have been a real disaster for their fundraising. Fortunately, they had invested in fundraising training for the Senior Leadership team and had appointed an experienced fundraising leader.


In the face of the crisis they had an internal culture that trusted fundraising and facilitated one of the fastest crisis pivots we’ve seen – six hours from appeal inception to launch!


“Having trust gives you the ability to work at pace and that is what this process, starting with PFI, has helped achieve. It has given the team a sense of confidence and enhanced our credibility… It has raised our profile externally and, most importantly, enabled us to raise more funds…” Pippa Johnston, Director of Fundraising and Marketing, Aberlour.


Aberlour is a great example of the fundraisers position within the organisation, relative to other departments and roles being elevated to important. Their work is questioned less often, their professionalism, experience and expertise are respected. This sees them have increased motivation, confidence and productivity.


2. Their leadership gets fundraising and they take confident, decisive action.


Consensus seeking compromises plague our industry.


A lack of agility plagues our industry.


3. Their donors are seen as part of their organisations culture too.


All too often the concept, and power, of meeting donor needs often remains just that, a concept. But not for Great Fundraising leaders.


Approaching donors with honesty, integrity, understanding, empathy and thoughtfulness requires us to see them as important stakeholders. Listening, understanding and adapting to their needs reaps the rewards of loyalty as demonstrated by the Australia’s Flying Doctors;


“I just got off the phone today to some major (and not-so-major) donors, just asking them how they were, how is life through Covid-19 – not asking them for money – so they all feel like they are a part of us and are on the journey with us.”

Royal Flying Doctor Service


Those who could meet donor’s needs were in organisations where their culture meant donor’s needs were understood, seen as important (not more important than the needs of beneficiaries but equal) and time, effort and consideration were given to understanding and meeting them.


So, what is culture worth?


For organisations wanting to be truly great at fundraising, it’s gold.


When your whole organisation buys in to your fundraising ambition and understands the fundraising function and its importance to the mission, they will be able to build for the long-term.


And in times of crisis, they won’t lose this momentum.



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