Louise Baxter, CEO, Starlight Children’s Foundation

FRANKIE:  So, as CEO what went through your head as you were turning Starlight towards major giving?  What worked well?  What did you face and how did you deal with it?

LOUISE:  Our dominant revenue source had always been corporates.  It’s not easy to refocus an organisation and you have to keep pushing.  Moreover, we’re different to a lot of other organisations because we have to fund our hospital programs every day.  This makes it more difficult to think long-term when there is a short-term need for funds constantly at the fore.

We began by drilling into our database.  It was really clear to us we didn’t need to cold call prospects.  The prospects for a major giving program were already there, giving at a low level, but we hadn’t been doing anything with them.

Secondly, I knew we needed commitment throughout the organisation – if everyone isn’t aligned to your mission, vision and objectives, you start to see cracks.  We had to keep communicating to everyone why we were doing this.

Ultimately, it’s about engaging people through stories.  This may sound ridiculous, but very often major donors don’t need the facts.  We have all the facts about our program impact however, they need stories that tap into their intuition about humanity, and we have so many stories that tear the heart.  We took the view that everyone at Starlight is a fundraiser and introduced a staff program called Get Connected whereby every staff member must spend half a day every quarter working with the children and their families.  That way everyone starts to build their own stories to have the kind of quality discussions you need with any potential supporter and donors.

I found that when we started putting oxygen into major giving we started to get wins quite quickly, even if it was just that someone who gave five thousand moves up to ten.  Now, the wonderful thing is we’ve grown our major giving tenfold since 2004, yet most of that growth has come in the last 4 years.

We took the view that everyone at Starlight is a fundraiser and introduced a staff program called Get Connected whereby every staff member must spend half a day every quarter working with the children and their families.  That way everyone starts to build their own stories to have the kind of quality discussions you need with any potential supporter and donors.

FRANKIE:  In driving change, what resistance did you encounter and where from?

LOUISE:  It wasn’t aggressive resistance.  Because our default position was corporate, and people knew how to do that, they naturally reverted to it.  But corporate is very different – you have to nail the transaction first go.

FRANKIE: I always say, with corporate the relationship starts with a deal and with individuals the relationship culminates in a deal.

LOUISE: Yes, and with a major donor you start with conversations about what has interested them.  Sometimes the conversations are not just about the charity; they want to know about you as an individual – “who’s spending my money?”

FRANKIE:  It’s not a pitch.  It’s about asking the donor questions and getting them talking.

LOUISE:  Yes, exactly.  It’s not even about materials.  I tell my managers when they’re going to a first meeting, “no words on the page, no numbers, no program descriptions”.  Just ask questions about their interests and listen.

It has really been interesting to me how some major donors, who were contributing at a low level but had significant capacity, went away and researched Starlight by talking to people they knew.  A third party endorsement is incredibly important.

FRANKIE:  When you appointed a Philanthropy executive to set things up, she started to trawl through the lists, making personal contact with many low level donors, spotting the trends.  There was great teamwork between you both, with the CEO at the top of the pyramid as the public face of Starlight, and the philanthropy executive role working to identify and warm up the next round of people for you to talk to.  How easy has it been to get other executives to work it that way?  What have the issues been in getting the process to the point where it will continue to function even when you are no longer there?

LOUISE:  One thing we did was go around the state offices to teach the process, showing them what to look for and how to seize opportunities.

Now, we give our team pipeline documents for major gifts.  Of course, that’s a corporate sales technique but it does translate. While donor relationships are not transactional, they do have to be structured.  What we’ve done is overlay proven ways of achieving.  All managers have a list of donors with amounts given and details of discussion points with them, and we know what funding needs are coming up so we can work out who to talk to about what.

FRANKIE:  You’re making it sound so easy, but I know it hasn’t been!  Transitioning an organisation from one market to another is a big task.

LOUISE:  Yes, well, it’s also important to manage conflicts over donor allocations.  Who’s responsible for the income if a former direct mail respondent makes a larger gift after a personal contact with a major donor manager?  Who gets the credit if it still comes in via direct mail?  We soft credit targets back so everyone involved in raising that gift gets recognised.

One of the really key things we’ve done is be fully transparent.  Diversified revenue is critical to us so every team member must understand the work of others, and see the crossover between corporate, community and individual contacts.  We get the teams to share their results, though some people were initially very cynical about that.  But by being open about our how we are performing they begin to put the dots together and work more cohesively as a group.

FRANKIE: So, tell me about your first million dollar donor.

LOUISE: We’ve received 2 now!  It might surprise people to know that until last year the largest single gift we’d received was  a quarter of a million dollars, mainly because we had never used our capital needs to drive future fundraising.  We went year by year.  But now we look 3 years ahead and focus on raising capital in advance so that, rather than starting programs we can’t finish due to a funding shortfall, we can be absolutely confident we have the funds to deliver services into a community.  And this has helped us move towards those larger gifts because we can project both the need and the impact.

For these 2 gifts we had calculated the capital costs of a new Starlight Express Room, and the cost of running it to ideal standard over 3 years, at $3.8m.  That gave these donors a good sense of what was required and what impact their giving could have.   These two gifts have made the smaller gifts meaningful.  We will hit that ideal target.

FRANKIE: Can you talk about the relationship between staff, CEO and Board?

LOUISE:  The CEO role is important but no more so than the team that’s supporting you.  Each gift is the result of a team effort.  Someone will have done all the mining of the database and advised when it’s important for me to be involved and what they think I need to be doing.  Communicating need and thanking are critical – these are often areas in which I can be involved.

In terms of the Board, we have a structure where we have a National Governance Board, and then we have our State Advisory Boards.  The State Boards are local and their objective is to connect us with local networks.  They have absolute focus on fundraising, so we don’t cloud it with any governance issues.  Our National Board is governance, so it has less involvement (but not none) in connecting.

Interestingly, most of our state advisory board members come from the corporate environment.  So we’ve had to work with them to get them to understand how major giving works.  They can be more focused on transactional gifts if they don’t know the process.

FRANKIE:  And how do you do that?

LOUISE:  We set up sub-committees when we’re working on capital and share how things work because often they are interested in having a big PR launch, but we can’t have that until we have 70% of the funds raised.

Generally I’ve found they are very willing, but because they don’t work in the area of philanthropy we have to help them to build another skill set.  Because we have success under our belt, it’s hard for them to mount an argument to do it another way.   In the last 12 months we’ve raised nearly 2 million from major giving – and that’s not including the two $1m gifts.

FRANKIE:  Well, in 4 years Starlight has been transformed.  In 2009, just as the GFC hit, I remember you saying – “why waste a good crisis?”


FRANKIE:  “Here’s the opportunity to change everything around.”

LOUISE:  Well it was!  We’d known for some time that individuals and major giving were the potential growth areas, but we needed a good crisis to prompt doing things differently.  I needed a commitment from the Board to changing our current funding model.  Without the GFC there would have been resistance, but as it was we got permission to make the necessary investment.

FRANKIE: You need to invest to raise.

LOUISE:  Now they can see the results and they are completely converted to the power of support from individuals.