This article by Simon Scriver first appeared in the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand magazine.
At one point or another this year I think I've questioned everything we do.
Being a fundraiser is hard enough as it is. I’ve questioned why we came in to 2020 with higher targets and a lower budget...still reporting to our 12-month-bosses on monthly targets in an industry that hopes for an 18 month return on investment.
I’ve questioned us getting in to bed with companies and politicians who create the very problems we address. I’m not sure I can face one more charity’s annual conference that opens with Minister Hyde gushing about the work while Dr Jekyl slashes the budget.
And we weren’t exactly celebrated. It can sometimes feel like we’re criticised from every direction in our role, and besides the odd FINZ award or networking event we don’t get many pats on the back. Fundraising is a lonely job: A successful fundraiser is at the back of the room while those on stage are applauded.
If it was a difficult environment before (and the high turnover of fundraising staff said it was), then 2020 has really shaken our buckets.
There were glimmers of hope. We caught a glimpse of what a world could be: less cars on the road, more time with the ones we loved, a contagious sense of caring, and finally a moment to take a deep breath and ask ourselves what we were doing.
But COVID obliterated fundraising. Let’s be honest here. While there are success stories, small victories and rewards for those who moved quickly, nobody can deny that charities have felt and will feel the effects of this for years to come. I’m thinking of my fundraiser friends: some of whom were quick to be furloughed, suspended or let go. A baffling knee-jerk reaction by some organisations who seemed to forget what a fundraiser’s role is.
Others had survivor’s guilt as they watched friends and co-workers deal with uncertainty. All the while continuing to try and raise money from individuals and companies who were as lost as the rest of us.
Not everyone struggled...in a crisis the rich get richer. We’ve all heard about Zuckerberg, Bezos and Gates snatching even more personal wealth during this global pandemic. But there are ghouls in every corner of the world profiting off the struggles your charity addresses. I try not to think about how our sector hopes against hope that another billionaire will wake up tomorrow feeling generous enough to dip in to their stockpile and decide to sprinkle some equity.
If the politics annoys you, you wouldn’t be the first. One of my badges of honour this year was being told to “stay out of politics and stick to fundraising”, like our whole industry doesn’t exist to clean up the pathogens of a political sneeze.
And that’s what the future holds for us: A full embracing of the idea that we can’t achieve our missions without changing the system.
Fundraising has been a plaster. No, not in a bad way. You might hear someone describe charities as just a plaster, but it’s necessary in the short-term while we address the long-term changes. They work in harmony. If you accidentally chop the end of your finger off you still grab a plaster while you address the inherent flaws in your knife-juggling skills. Fundraising is a plaster. A beautiful, and necessary plaster. A safety net for the vulnerable.
And it also funds change.
It funds our advocacy, our campaigns, our petitions and our protests.
It funds the voices. And it buys louder megaphones.
It helps us change minds and move our followers off fences. It powers a wave of change that trickles in to the laws we live by. It looks beyond the growing waiting lists charities deal with every day and makes changes that will be felt for generations.
I think 2021 is an opportunity. A chance to reset and build on what fundraisers have always done well. We must continue the work we have always done: successful fundraising has allowed and continues to allow our organisations to change lives.
And we must adapt. We must speak louder in a noisy world. We must work together in a divided system. And we must elevate and amplify each other in an understanding that we are working together as a sector. There’s no room for scarcity thinking.
We’ll see a permanently virtual-world. Not an endless lockdown, but even further confirmation that the online and offline worlds don’t operate independently or competitively.
We’ll see the rise of community-centred fundraising and the decline of donor-centred fundraising. We’ll have to question and re-evaluate some of the principles of our fundraising because the world is outgrowing us. It will be a time to be brutally honest about what we’ve been so wrong about.
It won’t be easy. But fundraising never was.
Do you know the story of the starfish? The grumpy old man (who looks like me) spots a boy on a beach throwing starfish back in to the sea?
“What are you doing there, boy?” the old man asked, walking closer.
“I’m saving these starfish that are stranded” replied the boy, “if they stay on the beach they will dry out and die, so I’m putting them back into the ocean so they can live.”
The old man was silent for a few seconds.
“Young boy” he said, “on this stretch of beach alone, there must be more than one hundred stranded starfish. Around the next corner, there must be at least one thousand more. This goes on for miles and miles and miles – I’ve done this walk every day for 10 years, and it’s always the same. There must be millions of stranded starfish! You’ll never make a difference.”
The boy replied “well I just made a difference for that one...now shut up and grab a starfish or help smash the system that allows so many starfish to die. And wear a mask.”