The Year of the Case for Support

This year has been The Year of the Case for Support.  After 25 years in the business, you’d think nothing could surprise me (sad, jaded old fundraiser that I am), but time and time again we have noticed a hole in the way non-profits talk about themselves and their potential impact on the world.  Yet I’ve only recently registered that it comes down to one word:  why.

Why should donors support you?  Why is it important to achieve your vision?

Organisations rarely spend time thinking of themselves through a donor’s eyes.  They can explain very clearly what they want – often an elaborate shopping list – and how they propose to change the world.  They have worked out to three decimal points how much they’re willing to spend on fundraising.  But the key is in articulating why it matters – the core reason they exist, what purpose they serve, what value they add.  Without tackling this question, why indeed would a donor give?

Why should I give?

In the last few months, we have been scanning websites of arts organisations in Australia and the UK to get an overview of how they present their case for philanthropic support.  More often than not, the link to the ‘Support Us’ section is lost in the clutter and overshadowed by box office appeals and advertising.  When you finally locate the support page, you often find a somewhat apologetic request for funding that focuses on the need for survival or continuation of business operations.  There is none of the sexiness found on the home page and no indication of what percentage of revenue philanthropy constitutes or what would stop if people didn’t give.  In short – the ‘Support Us’ section creeps around in the wings while core business stands centre stage.

It’s not just the arts.  When asked where philanthropy fits in helping his organisation realise its vision, the Chair of a major educational institution told me that “we won’t close if we don’t raise these funds.”  So where’s the urgency then?

The expectation that it is at best a nice-to-have, or at worst a stop-gap for government shortfall, is not a compelling reason to give.   Think!  How would you feel if a non-profit came to you with a half-hearted, mendicant, pitch for funds that may or may not make a difference?  I hate that word, ‘pitch’.  I’ve heard it a lot this year and it misses the point.

What is a case for support?

I often think of a case for support as a manifesto – a passionate statement of why philanthropy is vital for realising the vision.  It’s not merely a form of words for publication.   It’s a way of life.

Few non-profits struggle with vision.  From the ladies of Sydney’s Eastern suburbs who established Australia’s oldest charity, The Benevolent Society, in 1813, through to GetUp founders Jeremy Heimans and David Madden, our non-profits have invariably been set up by a person or persons who had a powerful drive to change the world for the better.  Everyone who works for these organisations believes in that vision – it’s the reason they get out of bed in the morning and work for less than market wages.  But we are truly useless at articulating it to the unconverted.  Often we assume that everyone has the same level of knowledge and understanding of the issues – and that they care as much as we do – so we have no need of spelling it out.  Or even that we “should not have to” spell it out.

But we do!

I remember running a case for support brainstorming session with a bunch of senior academics at Imperial College London.  We asked them what made Imperial great, and they stared at their feet.

The key is depth of thought at the outset.  Upstream thinking, as I call it.  It takes some effort to put words to the why – words that we can stand by and defend.  So, for example, what does ‘creating community’ mean?  Why does art matter?  Where would we be without education?  Why is the environment worth saving?  Why do young people need help?  These big questions are actually not self-evident.  Yet these are the very questions that donors themselves grapple with, and their philanthropy goes to those organisations that they can see are addressing them.  Honestly, donors don’t expect us to have all the answers – but they do expect us to know how to find them.

So our manifesto must articulate how we define the issues, what we think are the solutions and why philanthropy is vital.  Not everyone will agree with our definitions, but that’s OK.  We can’t be all things to all people.  At some stage we have to stand for something – occupy the space.  That way we get people talking, listening and engaging.  Engaged people give more.

Once we have our manifesto, we can then (and only then) begin to construct the messages for publication – from websites to brochures to press releases to speeches and even down to individual donor conversations.

In the words of Ken Burnett – UK fundraising guru and serial blogger:

Fundraisers (by which I mean anyone in an organisation that interacts with donors) must “wake up to the fact that they are selling neither their organisations nor their causes, nor their missions and certainly not all the nuts and bolts and insignificant minutiae of what they do. Rather they are promoting joy, the warm glow, the exhilaration, the sense of achievement and fulfilment, even the meaning of life.”

Now that’s a case for support.