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9 things I’ve learned working for over 300 charities

Robin Fisk, co-founder of Donorfy, the fundraising database and donor management CRM, gives us his 9 key lessons from working with over 300 charities.

I love working with charities, large and small. It’s not for everyone and can occasionally be as frustrating as it is rewarding, but I must love it because I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and in that time I have worked with over 300 causes of all shapes and sizes.

Naturally, there have been quite a few changes in the sector in 25 years. Charities have come and gone, some have grown into very large organisations, and recently we have seen the trust and reputation of charities under the spotlight like never before.

There have been huge changes in my field - fundraising and technology. I’m not on the payroll of any charity, I’m one of a small army of suppliers who specialise in serving the sector with various products and services. Other suppliers come and go but working with charities requires patience and an appreciation of what makes them tick, which is not just money.

These are some of the main things I’ve learned over the past quarter of a century.

1. The Internet Changed Fundraising Forever

25 years ago only the bravest charities had a website and email was considered progressive. We were told that donors would not warm to the internet because they’re from the older generation. True, some charities still depend on cheques for most of their income, but maybe more quickly than anyone anticipated the internet has turned what was a one-way postal communication from charity to donor, to a two-way conversation online. And the silver-surfers were some of the earliest adopters.

Early websites were just shop windows, but now they are the shops themselves - a place where the donors can interact with their favourite causes and make their donations, but also tell the charity what they think of them and set the rules for how they like to be kept informed.

2. Charities Have Had To Accept Losing Control

Charities have had to become accustomed to trusting their supporters with their brands because with social media (and the advent of what we called web 2.0), the conversation became peer-to-peer among the donor and their friends. Donors could now post online about their favourite charity, without their blessing, and even do fundraising in their name. Sometimes using old logos and dodgy messaging. So rather than trying to put the genie back in the bottle, charities had to learn how to engage with a much wider audience, not just their database of donors, but the likers, followers, activists, slacktivists, lurkers and even trolls.

In my experience most modern charities are now comfortable with this perceived lack of control, choosing to empower their supporters to share their stories, with the correct branding. Those that have struggled to adopt this mindset have slipped behind.

3. Charities Are Good At Identifying Trends

… but struggle with execution. One thing I’ve learned is that most charities are aware of the digital trends that are occurring, and are keen to jump onto the bandwagon to help them with their fundraising but they struggle with applying that to their own situations. Virality is the holy grail, but rather than trying to come up with “ice-bucket challenge 2.0”, they need to come up with their own innovative and creative solutions, not mimic someone else’s.

4. Small Charities Bring Energy

With a small charity you get guaranteed energy and passion, which makes it easier for me to do my job, despite the lower budgets. Working with a reluctant middle-manager in a large charity can be like pushing water uphill. Most small charities are a delight, because they are more entrepreneurial and ambitious, and usually prepared to work in a more agile way.

5. Founders Can Get In The Way

However, they are also subject to founders’ syndrome, where the founder who did a great job to set up the charity in the first place starts to get in the way and can’t help meddling with everything. It’s tough for a founder to find their place in a growing organisation, but it works best when they build and delegate to a fresh, perhaps more experienced team.

6. As Charities Grow, They Get More Complex

When we encounter a growing, medium sized charity looking for a donor database system, sometimes their requirements are far more complex than a larger, more established charity who have learnt that they need to streamline their operations and keep things simple. For example, most small charities wouldn’t dream of running their own merchandising operation - they’d outsource it. And so do most large charities. It’s the ones in the middle that decide to bring it all in-house. Everything’s harder when that happens - people, systems, space.

7. A Good Reputation Is Vital

Perhaps more than any other sector, to be a successful supplier to charities you need a good reputation. Maybe that’s because a charity’s reputation is one of their key assets, and they expect that of their suppliers too.

My advice to anyone who fancies working with charities is to be patient (very patient), credible, show respect and be transparent in your dealings. Some well-known service companies have dabbled in the charity sector and then retreated, having found that a slick sales pitch is not enough.

A charity’s reputation with its donors is equally important. A growing charity will eventually need to automate what was once done manually - such as sending out thank-you letters for donations. And without exception they fear losing the personal touch, which needn’t happen if they get the technology right.

8. IT Can Hinder As Well As Help

Working with technology, I often see that charity IT departments can help or hinder their mission. IT can be a wonderful enabler. People who understand IT are valuable, but people who understand IT and the needs of the business are priceless, and accordingly rare. And sadly there are some who just act as gatekeepers, effectively holding the organisation back with their reluctance to change.

But role of charity IT is changing. With the advent of the cloud, IT as an internal discipline at the charity is becoming less important as the complexities of IT are handled by the cloud provider. For example, with the Donorfy donor database, it takes just a few clicks to set up the CRM system and integrate with charity tools such as JustGiving, Eventbrite and Mailchimp.

9. The Next Generation

We already seeing that people coming into the job market are more comfortable with cloud technology and social media, so it’s becoming an integral part of their role, rather than being something that they an IT department has to do for them.

Their mindset as digital natives and their understanding of how the internet works means that they’ll bring renewed innovation across a whole range of areas to the charities they work with.

That’s why I’m confident for the future of the sector. With a range of new digital services helping charities make the most of the brilliant work they do, doing good has definitely got better over the course of my career. I’m looking forward to seeing where the sector heads next.

Donorfy is donor management as it should be. Automated. Effortless. Enjoyable. Connected. Nothing to install. No complicated upgrades. Just smart donor management that works beautifully in the cloud – straight from the word go.

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Want to learn more? Read about our 2016 Civil Society win, where Donorfy was voted BEST Charity CRM for cost, functionality, integration and more.