As part of Fundraising Week, Alex McDowell, head of community development and growth at the RNIB, led a careers breakfast briefing for fundraising professionals on the importance of community engagement.
Talking about the RNIB’s ambition to “make every day better for everyone affected by sight loss”, McDowell explained that although the well established charity has been around since 1868, its techniques and services have indeed evolved. However, the role of volunteers and strong community relationships are as important as ever, as is leading from the bottom up. The charity is currently supported by hundreds of volunteers and is looking to increase this further.
Relationship fundraising is critical to sustainable growth
McDowell emphasised the importance of rebuilding community engagement and striking the right balance between nurturing long term, sustainable relationships and delivering short term income targets. He said: “Whilst community fundraising is a valuable way of building relationships with local communities and mobilising them, it is crucial that community fundraisers also exercise commercial discipline and analyse what’s working and what’s not.”
McDowell discussed the tensions that exist between relationship building and short-term ROI: “Whilst community engagement doesn’t always immediately provide a big direct financial return on investment, many charities are rediscovering the importance of community relationships for long term sustainability. However, we still need to bridge the gap with ROI”.
He added that people are more likely to trust your charity and want to donate if they see or know local advocates or beneficiaries who are committed to demonstrating work being done to improve lives locally: “Trust is the biggest challenge facing fundraisers right now and perception is important. For example, the RNIB is a big national brand but we also deliver services throughout the UK - many people don’t realise that. This is partly why we are heavily investing in community engagement.
“Community fundraisers can also play a crucial role in helping potential service users receive the support they need, creating a more joined up and seamless experience of the charity’s mission.”
RNIB breakfast briefing at Fundraising Week 2016
Community fundraisers need to demonstrate their value
“Fundraisers need to capture and articulate the impact of their work a lot more”, he asserted. “Community fundraisers are often brilliant at helping donors support a charity in many different ways but this added value often goes unrecognised or monetised.”
McDowell gave the analogy of rock climbing: “If I was to send someone rock climbing I would give them a harness and a helmet. Not to stop them from climbing but to help them climb higher safely. Similarly, bringing structure and more accountability to community fundraisers’ work is not to squash their crucial creativity but to enable them to consider and communicate their full impact and value to the organisation.”
One way that fundraisers can generate more value from their fundraising activities is by focusing on fewer but more engaging products. McDowell mentioned the RNIB’s ‘talking books’ for partially sighted and blind people as an example of a vital service they have packaged up, enabling fundraisers to sell something tangible to raise funds whilst engaging with the community at the same time. Being more digitally-savvy, commercially-minded and creating fundraising asks or products such as ‘talking books” can help achieve this."
What skills do community fundraisers need?
Alex McDowell summarised the top skills required to be a successful community fundraiser now and in the future:
- Be proactive, creative and tenacious relationship builders
- Be brilliant storytellers
- Never be afraid to emotionally connect with your audiences
- Understand your role within the wider charity
- Be commercially-minded and be aware of the financial impact your work is having on the charity
- Be resourceful: seek out new opportunities
- Make sure you’re digitally-savvy and harness innovation to communicate with your communities
- Understand data and compliance: don’t just leave it to the data team because you have to be accountable too