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5 Lessons from the Battersea Arts Centre Phoenix Fund

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In this blog, we look at Battersea Arts Centre’s Phoenix Fund campaign (born after the devastating fire in the Grand Hall) and discuss what worked well and how other organisations can learn from it.

5 Lessons from the Battersea Arts Centre Phoenix Fund

The fire that devastated the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre and the fundraising campaign that followed highlighted just how important it is for organisations to have plans in place should the unthinkable happen.

Battersea Arts Centre fire in the Grand Hall

Since the BAC Phoenix Fund launched on 13 March over £75,000 has been raised from almost 2,500 individual donations through the DONATE platform.

During the National Arts Fundraising School (NAFS) in March we looked at what was good about
the campaign, where it could have been improved and what other organisations can learn. I’m happy to share these insights.

Lesson 1 – Be Ready

As alumni of our fundraising training know, the first Golden Rule of fundraising is “Be Ready”. The fundraising campaign was launched quickly (with the fire still burning) and BAC was able to capitalise on the media coverage and outpouring of emotion from the local community and those further afield. This was largely thanks to DONATE, who saw the joint opportunity to support an organisation in need and to gain valuable publicity for their platform.

It is too easy to think that something like this will never happen to your organisation. However, you need to think seriously about what disasters could affect your organisation and actively put plans in place should such a situation occur. We hope you will never have to use these plans but this forward-thinking means that, should the worst happen, you will know what actions are needed and who is responsible for carrying them out.

In the case of BAC, the text codes and DONATE URL were quickly circulated through social media. The BAC team worked hard to get information about the appeal out to those showing concern about the fire and secured an interview on London Live to get information about the campaign to the wider community.

Lesson 2 – Clearly Communicate the Need

As with any case for support, you need to be able to articulate what the need is and why it is urgent. The recent UK Giving report by Charities Aid Foundation found that 70% of donors say that knowing the impact of their gift is the key motivator for giving. On this front, I think BAC did less well.

You might argue that having a theatre with no roof is evidence enough of need but I disagree – we know that the insurance will cover the majority of the building costs and DCMS has pledged £1million to support the company. So, what is my donation needed for? After four weeks, a number of blog posts and a thank you email it is still not clear to me what impact my gift will have. (The latest blog post says the funding will help “tackle the challenges of not having the Grand Hall for up to three years” but this is still too vague.)

As well as articulating the need you also need to be clear about how much money is needed. Crowd-funding platforms such as JustGiving or Virgin Money Giving have found that fundraising campaigns with a clearly stated target result in larger average gifts than campaigns with no target. While a target of £1million has been added, following the announcement of the DCMS grant, this came too late – after the momentum of the public campaign had been lost.

Lesson 3 – Make sure you have a flexible donation platform

I’ve been disappointed with the DONATE platform since it launched in 2013 – for me, the one-size-fits-all approach makes it too restrictive and I think there are better platforms available. In the BAC appeal, this restrictive approach is particularly evident in the gift table (the suggested levels
of donations available when you go to make a donation). Unlike other platforms (such as CAF Donate) these cannot be changed. Instead, every DONATE campaign is permanently set at £5, £10, £15, £25 and £50, with £15 already selected.


The weighting towards smaller gifts is appropriate for many of the campaigns run through DONATE but is completely inappropriate for an emergency campaign of this nature.

With the strength of emotion felt at the time of the fire (coupled with a clear need to raise a significant sum of money) I would have expected to see much bigger average gifts to this campaign. However, the suggested gift of £15 sets the expectation far too low.

Another area where flexibility would have helped is in the text codes. The partnership with South West Trains was impressive. Both the fire and the badly-damaged building were clearly visible from trains running in and out of Clapham Junction. Getting South West Trains to tweet the appeal codes and make on-train announcements helped bring the campaign to a new audience. However, using the same text code means it is not possible to tell how successful this partnership actually was. This seems like a missed opportunity – both for BAC (in developing the relationship) and for South West Trains (in understanding the value of this opportunity for future charity partnerships).

Lesson 4 – Keep your friends close to you

One great part of the campaign was the blog posts from BAC’s Artistic Director. I like the tone and content of David Jubb’s blog posts, which have created a sense of ‘family’ between the BAC staff, associated artists, local community and everybody drawn in by the fire. As well as providing an update on what the company is doing it has been a great platform to thank those who have supported and outline other ways that people can help (such as donating office equipment or identifying alternative spaces to create a temporary Grand Hall). Having built up this community of both new and existing supporters I would like to see BAC go further in proactively asking those that have supported whether there are other ways they could help. There are a number of ways this could be approached:

  • Having made one gift, would I consider making a second gift, or a regular gifts to the appeal?
  • Having donated, could I suggest other people that might make a gift, or could I share news of the campaign with friends (this seems especially important in the arts where it is highly likely that I will know other people with similar interests)? Having made a personal gift, could my company or trust also make a gift?

Individual Company Trust

An obvious place to do this would be the Thank You email. The thanking mechanism for the BAC campaign was a topic of much discussion during NAFS as, whilst others received a follow-up email, one person was left perplexed at only receiving the automated receipt (note of caution: a receipt is NOT a thank you!). It seems this person, used to having to opt out of receiving marketing spam, accidentally chose not to pass their details on to BAC – another weakness in the DONATE platform.

On the whole the thank you email is good, maintaining the same warm tone of the blog posts. That said, I might have been slightly peeved at the impersonal, copy-and-paste approach if I had given more than my modest donation.

Lesson 5 – Be Ambitious

Partly a new lesson, partly a combination of all of the above. In recovering from disasters such as this you have an opportunity to challenge yourself and those around you. You only need to look at the responses to previous emergency campaigns to see what is possible (for example, the response to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester following the IRA bomb).

Set ambitious goals for recovery – it will inspire and engage your supporters. Set ambitious financial targets – it will almost always lead to larger gifts. Set ambitious plans for spreading the word about your campaign – it will introduce you to new friends and a whole new audience.

I think the team at BAC have done well in incredibly difficult circumstances, not least in getting the theatre open within 24 hours. They deserve the support and the love that they are receiving. However, I challenge you that if you are looking at the BAC campaign and thinking the £75,000 raised in individual donations to date is a fantastic achievement you are not being ambitious enough. To prove it, you only need to look at how much was raised by Manchester Dogs Home in just 5 days after the fire there…

 Manchester Dogs Home fundraising campaign

What’s next?

To learn more about the National Arts Fundraising School click here or can call us on 020 7978 15161.

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Bernard Ross

About Bernard Ross

Bernard is an internationally regarded expert in strategic thinking, organisational change and personal effectiveness. He works in Europe, USA, Africa and South America. His assignments have involved a wide range...