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Canal and River Trust

Case Study: Canal & River Trust

New charity: new donors – setting up a major donor fundraising programme from scratch

Formerly British Waterways, the charity Canal & River Trust (CRT) was launched in 2012. It is responsible for maintaining 2,200 miles of historic canals, rivers, docks and reservoirs, as well as museums, archives and a large collection of protected structures.

CRT was established with a generous one-off government grant. This was designed to give the it time to build a sustainable financial model, by combining its existing successful commercial activities with a strong voluntary income stream – including a major donor fundraising programme.


As a charity newly created from a public sector organisation, CRT had two key fundraising challenges – one internal and one external. Internally the senior staff had little experience of major donor fundraising, and in particular the potential opportunities available through Trustee and staff contacts. And though the Trustees had not been recruited with a specific fundraising remit they now needed to be persuaded to get involved.

Externally CRT’s challenge was – and is – that the organisation is perceived as ‘rich.’ Thanks both to its closing Government grant and proceeds from a large property portfolio, it has a strong balance sheet and asset base – all of which would be apparent to any major donor undertaking comprehensive due diligence before investing in the charity. CRT needed to be really clear – and convincing – about why the organisation needed their money.

=mc brief

In 2013, CRT successfully applied to HLF for Catalyst funding to build major donor fundraising capacity. =mc was engaged at the end of 2013 to deliver the work. Our initial brief focused on building capacity with the Board of Trustees and members of the senior management team.

What we did

=mc delivered two bespoke workshops for a mixed group of Trustees and senior staff. The first looked at best practice in major donor fundraising, while the second focused on telling the CRT story and selecting the most ‘fundraisable’ areas of work. These were followed by one-to-one coaching sessions with the Chairman, Chief Executive and Head of Fundraising.

The purpose of the workshops was to share the principles and best practice in major donor fundraising, building confidence and competency in telling the CRT story and reaching out to potential major donors. Part of the work with the Trustees also involved ‘surfacing’ underlying reservations about asking for money from people they knew personally.

Once we had established the basic approach, we then worked closely with the Chairman, Chief Executive, Head of Fundraising and other senior staff to develop tailored solicitation plans for key prospects.

We continued to offer support as they began to engage individuals, providing practical guidance at all stages of the solicitation model. This included detailed discussions on managing key stakeholder relationships, a rigorous critique of the proposal so it truly matched the interests of the prospect, creative input into key cultivation activities and personal coaching how to manage the ‘ask’ itself – plus subsequent stewardship activities.


The workshops and coaching approach had a very positive impact. It:

  • enabled fundraisers to map organisational networks and identify routes into important prospects
  • showed Trustees and Directors how to approach major donors effectively
  • helped the fundraising team to developed and present their first major donor proposal which –
  • enabled the Chairman to make his first major donor ‘ask’

All of which resulted in a seven-figure gift to create the Desmond Family Canoe Trail.

This gift was hugely significant, and not only in terms of the money provided. It helped to raise the profile of fundraising within CRT, demonstrating the value of this type of income generation. Both of which are hugely important as the organisation develops its long term fundraising capacity to deliver its corporate ambitions.

“Thanks to =mc, our major donor fundraising programme is way ahead of where we had originally imagined it would be at this stage of our development. We would not have been able to secure our biggest gifts without their help and encouragement.”

Ruth Ruderham, Head of Fundraising, Canal & River Trust, 2011-2015

And one more unlooked for result: =mc’s collaboration with CRT is being used by HLF as a case study of success for its Catalyst grants programme.

The story continues

=mc’s work with CRT has developed way beyond the scope of the original Catalyst project. In 2016, we remain closely involved, as CRT builds a robust peer-led major donor fundraising programme.

We support the senior fundraising team and other staff at a strategic level, providing guidance, specialist input and challenge on a regular basis. Through individual coaching, we offer members of the team a safe space to explore options, develop approaches and work on specific fundraising projects. We also serve as a ‘critical friend’ for a variety of stakeholders, adding value to plans, flexible support and direct input as needed.

Our long-term aim is to help the team integrate fundraising into the DNA of the organisation so that by the time the Government grant comes to an end in 2017, major donor fundraising is thriving at CRT. This will be characterised by long-term philanthropic relationships, sustained by a culture that respects and reflects the needs of donors in its strategic plans.

How can we help?

=mc’s team of expert consultants can help with all aspects of fundraising – from strategy to pitching, legacies to earned income. Visit our fundraising consultancy webpages or contact Angela Cluff, Director, on +(0)20 7978 1516 to discuss your needs.

We also offer several training programmes for fundraisers:

Further reading

The articles below are part of the =mc online knowledgebase – a free online resource containing hundreds of useful tools, articles, case studies, and blogs written to help transform the potential of organisations like yours.

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