Welcome to the seventh of our “Nonprofit heroes” series on the Donorfy blog, where our team interviews industry experts, successful proven fundraisers, and nonprofit heroes with stories and tips to inspire your charity to use technology to your advantage and do good, better. Enjoy!
The seventh interviewee in our series is Howard Lake, a journalist and publisher of UK Fundraising. We asked Howard a few questions about his career and what challenges he sees currently facing charity fundraisers.
Let’s start with some background information – who are you, and what do you do?
I'm Howard Lake and I publish UK Fundraising (fundraising.co.uk), a news and community resource to help professional fundraisers raise more funds more effectively. I also advise and train fundraisers in using digital tools to support their fundraising, and I run Fundraising Camp, a series of one-day informal but intensive learning and sharing days for fundraisers.
What was your first job?
I worked for Oxfam at regional level, supporting community fundraising across three counties. Organising street collections, partnering with local companies, making local trust applications, going on payroll giving canvasses of local businesses, getting involved in Comic Relief and Radio 1 DJ's Simon Bates' Around the World campaign, and helping organise major events like The Sealed Knot's 2nd Battle of Newbury, and a concert in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre by Evelyn Glennie.
There were also disaster appeals, Oxfam's national appeals, and meeting the large family that is Oxfam - volunteers, donors, the campaigners in our office, the District Organisers who managed the Oxfam shops, and my remarkable, entrepreneurial boss.
Vera showed me how to ask: she had the courage to ask and the conviction that it would make a difference. A lifetime of social action, including driving a caravan with her husband across Europe to help Hungarian refugees, made her a very convincing asker. "No" tended not to stop her: she created the first Oxfam bookshop in Oxford just before I started, with books sourced from academic publishers and volunteers from the commercial book trade. It soon started raising over £1 million a year, and spawned a network of Oxfam bookshops across the country.
I learned a huge amount about fundraising in just over a year, not least because, although we worked at regional level, we were based just a couple of miles away from Oxfam House in Oxford, so we often met with colleagues there, in fundraising, the print room or the designers.
Vera, it seemed, knew everyone in Oxford, a valuable characteristic for a fundraiser. At one point we went to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin where, knowing my love of history, she even got me to refresh the gold paint on the lettering of the plaque that marks the first meeting of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. So I got to touch Oxfam history.
And, with a nod to my future direction in fundraising, whilst at Oxfam I first got access to a word processor (Volkswriter Deluxe II!) and email access to other Oxfam offices, including its offices around the world. That got me thinking...
How did you end up starting and running UK Fundraising?
I studied for a Masters in Information Science at City University, London, while I was working as a fundraiser at Amnesty International. I knew I needed a further degree, and one focusing on electronic information ('digital' wasn't the term in 1992) would be practical.
Whilst there I got access to the World Wide Web and indeed its information search retrieval precursors of Gopher, WAIS, Jughead, Archie etc. With access to NCSA Mosaic, the first popular Web browser, I knew that this would transform everything, including charity communications and fundraising. But I had no idea, of course, to what extent.
I took advantage of my access to find information on fundraising and other fundraisers, and started gathering it for my dissertation but also for a web page that tracked my work in progress. I taught myself HTML and created the first page of what would become UK Fundraising, listing online resources for charity fundraisers.
That grew into an ever expanding resource and was limited only by my physical access to the Sun workstations at City to add to and edit it.
I was determined to turn the site into a digital publishing business so, after being turned down for new business funding, funded it myself with help from a friend and a relative. I set up Fundraising UK Ltd in 1996 through which I'd run the site and moved it from City to a commercial host.
From the outset it was commercial but I also set myself the challenge of publishing the information at no charge, knowing that the majority of fundraisers would never have the budget to pay for a news resource, and certainly not for a digital news resource.
What are the biggest challenges of being a journalist in this sector?
Although I still see myself as a fundraiser rather than as a journalist, the biggest challenges are probably:
- keeping up with the changing regulatory environment, especially in the last couple of years
- being concise and useful: teasing out the key lessons so that fundraisers can take action
- dealing with the volume of content, especially the growing number of good quality discussion fora that continue to expand
What makes a good charity story?
Given our audience is primarily professional fundraisers rather than the general public, we focus on stories that share fundraising experience and expertise. I think our readers want to know
- who has raised funds, and how much?
- how did they do it, and with whose help?
- how much will it cost?
- how can I do it (better)?
In practical terms, I look for a compelling story with a news hook (you know it when you see it), data (numbers, trends, amounts), a quote or two, background to the fundraising initiative, and pictures (please, no giant cheque handovers - so 1980s) and a video. If I could include relevant video content on every page, I would.
Astonishingly, in 2017, well over half of the news releases I receive are text only. The last image-free newspapers I can think of were published in the 1800s.
What's the most exciting fundraising initiative you've seen recently?
I enjoy watching and reporting on fundraising initiatives at both ends of the scale. So I feature the very latest technology and its application to fundraising, such as the expansion of contactless giving, from The Blue Cross and its dogs to Cancer Research UK's London smartbenches.
At the simple is best end of the spectrum, I delight in sharing stories of charities getting better at saying thank you to donors, and involving as much of the organisation's staff and volunteers as possible in the process. The Sick Kids Friends Foundation for example spent a day in January doing just that - and learning a lot about their donors and why they give to them.
And the most overused?
Apart from illustrating a fundraising success with a giant cardboard cheque? I don't think fundraising methods can be overused, unless in terms of a charity getting stuck in a rut. There are so many channels, so many different types of donors, so many new and old methods, that fundraisers have a wonderful range of tools and approaches to choose from.
You also run regular training sessions. What knowledge gaps do you most commonly see for fundraisers when it comes to digital?
The disparity between very large and very small charities is evident in digital skills and experience. Some charities, after 20+ years of digital experience, are far ahead of the majority of smaller charities who lack resources and access to expertise. So you have charities working on the application of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to some of their fundraising and communications activities, and others who have still not started collecting and using email addresses of supporters.
I don't feel good acknowledging that, since I've been training fundraisers in digital fundraising since 1995. But equally, the charity sector is so diverse that it will always have leviathans and minnows, so the fact that this applies to digital skills is not unexpected.
To chose one big knowledge gap (and one that I share), I would focus on the need to train every fundraiser in understanding data. There is a rush to teach children to code: I'd welcome a similar rush to teach all fundraisers to understand and use data as effectively as they can.
Many fundraisers know this of course and, like I did when setting up UK Fundraising, they know that there are fundraisers out there who can help them or point them in the right direction. So I suspect you'll see many more training events and conferences that look and feel a little more like Fundraising Camp, the series of informal but intensive events in which fundraisers spend a day talking with and learning from other fundraisers. I look forward to a time when fundraisers can choose from a wider range of learning methods that work best for them.
Here at Donorfy we’re all about making fundraising easier for charities. If you got your wish, what would you make easier than it is today?
From a fundraiser's point of view, perhaps a plug-and-play fundraising app store that would let them use the tech they know they need to (for data analysis, crafting personalised messages etc) which then saves them time which they can spend talking to donors and meeting with them.
From a donor's point of view, a renewed awareness that, in a complicated world, charities are the organisations that are making remarkable and positive change and that it's an exciting opportunity to be part of that. A sense of being part of a movement and of joint purpose would make fundraising a whole lot easier.
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
The ability to introduce full education for girls and women around the world. If you want rapid and transformative change in the world, that (plus countering the violence they experience) will do it.
From a fundraising point of view, the ability to siphon of a tiny percentage of major companies' annual profits for a short period to create a generous endowment fund for every charity. Digital is the one area from which any transformative or exponential change in fundraising is going to come.
On the techie side of things, are you a PC or a Mac these days?
I've been a Mac user since the early days. I got to use an Apple computer in 1983 that belonged to a friend's dad. At Oxfam I used the Oxford Student Union's Mac (with removable floppy for its operating system!) to design flyers for Oxfam events. So, the first laptop for Fundraising UK Ltd was of course a Mac. But I admit there is a PC here too.
Which smartphone do you have and what are your favourite apps?
As a Mac user it has to be iPhone, but I did wait until the 4 for my first one. Image apps delight and fascinate me - so, WordSwag, Prisma, Instagram and Canva. Buffer too is valuable on an everyday basis to schedule future content via social media.
Huge thanks to Howard for joining us for our Nonprofit Heroes interview!
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