In January 2018 a fundraising friend gave me the chance to host my first blog on their site, and a phenomenal year of opportunities followed. I wanted to do the same for fundraisers looking to take the next step in their career and asked fundraisers to submit their first ever blogs to be featured in a month-long celebration of new voices. In the first of these guest blogs, Andy King shares an honest look at fundraising failures. Andy is a bright star in the fundraising world and there’s big things to come; as Institute of Fundraising’s ‘Fundraiser of the Year 2018’, Vision Africa trustee and self-confessed bad dancer, he’s going to do amazing things in the sector.
Over to Andy…
“In the three years I’ve worked at East African Playgrounds, the team have delivered constant innovation, experimental approaches and an openness to new ideas. This has led to significant success – two new fundraising streams and a huge increase in income. But it’s also led to some notable failures. An abandoned marathon project, rejected ideas, and much more.
On recent reflection, I realised that the projects we left behind have taught me as much as the projects we’ve taken forwards. As a sector, we’re so focused on sharing our success that we often don’t mention our failures. As such, I thought I’d share the 3 key things I learnt from failing in 2018.
- Keep it simple
If you look like this explaining your new product, it’s better to start again.
This year, we attempted a project called ‘Festival Hitch’ – a combination of an existing hitchhike project and an existing festival volunteering product. We thought combining the best elements of both would allow us to create a truly unique product that would allow us to appeal to a wider range of students than either pre-existing programme. To be blunt, we were wrong.
What we failed to realise was that the best element of these products is their relative simplicity. Combining them created a complicated product that appealed only to the crossover in the Venn Diagram of the existing markets, leaving a very small selection of our database.
In our post event review, the over-complication seemed suddenly obvious. Even as I explain this now, I don’t know how we didn’t see it at the time. But it’s important to constantly ask yourself if the person on the street would understand what you’re asking of them.
It’s a similar concept to the fundraising advice of speak like an actual person rather than a fundraiser – speak to your ideas like a member of the public and see if you’re wrapped up in a product that excites everyone or just your fundraising team. Your supporters aren’t always like you.
- Really consider your capacity
A fundraiser’s strategic goal for 2019
As I’m sure is the case in all fundraising teams, there’s a huge amount we’re not yet doing – we’ve absolutely nailed certain elements, but there’s a lot we’ve still not scratched the surface on. To use a broad example, our events/community income stream has been steadily growing for the last 9 years, but we haven’t even scratched the surface of recruiting supporters from schools or churches.
In times of strategising and re-focusing, it can be tempting to bite off more than your team can chew – more projects, bigger targets, higher retention – than can be realistically expected. Fundraisers are never satisfied with repeating last year’s performance; the goal is always “more”.
Having attempted for six months to get several new products off the ground all in one go (ranging from a fledgling corporate partnerships programme to the above-mentioned festival hitch), all I’d achieved was burnout. We had several projects looking like they might go somewhere, but nothing to show for the backbreaking effort we’d put in. The old saying is true – less can be more. After shelving the products that were moving particularly slowly, we were able to deliver above and beyond the initial targets of the remaining products by some margin.
The lesson of making incremental changes and introducing new projects slowly in order to give each one the best chance to succeed is one I will carry forwards until I retire.
- Some things work better in the background.
Sometimes a product will surprise you
In the meeting in which we agreed that we were working on too many projects at once, we gave ourselves three options for each product – continue, abandon, and backbench. The products we put on the backbench were the ones we genuinely believed had potential. The ones that weren’t necessarily right for right now, but we weren’t ready to give up on. We kept them live on the website and decided to take a reactive approach with each of them, should we get anyone approach us organically.
To our pleasant surprise, both projects that we put on the shelf – a primary school fundraising pack and a new international event – have received a steady stream of attention since then. We’ve been able to follow up with the warmest of leads for these projects without putting the effort of prospecting in, growing their potential and credibility to be picked back up on in the future. Neither of them will revolutionise our fundraising team anytime soon but having the option there has allowed us to deliver our initial aims.
This is something I will bear in mind moving forwards – sometimes, it’s worth keeping something in the wings rather than binning it entirely. If you’ve already put the work into a project to get it on your website, for example, it may as well stay there. Even if you stop focusing on it entirely, you’ll be surprised what might come to you organically.
Overall, this year of fundraising has taught me a huge amount – how to spot potential, how to prospect and how to dream. But it’s also taught me to communicate doubt, share my failings and be honest about what I want for my team and myself in the future. In this sector it can often feel like you’re the only one struggling, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
So, let’s share: what have you failed in recently?”
Thank you to Andy for To learn more about Andy’s processes mentioned above and to share your failure learnings , catch him on Twitter, @AndrewEKing.