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National Arts Fundraising School Alumni – our greatest challenges

The Management Centre

In this blog, =mc Senior Consultant Philly Graham writes about the recent reunion event held for 20 arts fundraising professionals who have been on the National Arts Fundraising School (a week long residential programme run by The Management Centre).

There was a great gathering of minds last week, while some of the National Arts Fundraising School alumni came together and shared tales of their wonderful (and sometimes weird!) fundraising successes since they had attended the school.

It was quite humbling to hear just how much they had all been up to.


With some input upfront from =mc Director, Bernard Ross on how to be not just a great fundraiser but an influential one, the group then set to work at putting the world to rights – sharing their greatest challenges since the school and some advice to each other on how to solve them!

Some of the challenges that came out included:

  • How do we retain and grow ‘friends’?
  • How do we manage all our fundraising streams successfully, while dealing with a deficit deadline looming?
  • How do we manage our stakeholders and donors in a transparent yet effective way?
  • How do we create a compelling ask for the organisation to inspire giving?

Yet there were four key challenges that stood out more than any others. Let’s take a look at these one by one and see what tips the NAFS alumni came up with!


Challenge 1:

How do we get more data on our supporters?

This discussion considered both a ticketed and non-ticketed audience, recognising the challenge is different depending on whether there is a venue involved.
With a ticketed audience the ideas included:

  • Not forgetting that manual collection is a key way of gathering data. This is one of the greatest advantages of having an actual venue! The use of donation envelopes handed out to audience members/visitors, with the inclusion of a request for Gift Aid continues to be a great way of keeping new data coming in.
  • At The Lowry, they use skills swap sessions called Learn and Take Part to engage with audience members, where their artists and actors run workshops with the public on learning to draw or act. This invites their audience in and creates a deeper relationship with their supporters that they can then continue to build on.
  • There also exist new and potentially exciting technological solutions that can be applied to help engage venue visitors. The 2014 technological craze iBeacons, where you can tap into smart phones which are in close proximity and push out notifications, is one such technology. This article sheds some light on how you could use this app in specifically to fundraise and promote the arts.

Where there was no ticketed audience this challenge became slightly more stark but this did not stop the alumni from coming up with some great ideas!

Ideas discussed included:

  • Not loosing the opportunity of directly approaching visitors at venues where your organisation is touring. This requires some agreement on behalf of the venue but has been done well at the English Touring Theatre to great effect. Inserting a leaflet on audience seats, having something on show in the programme or running a stand at the event itself can all lead to an increased interaction with the audience and lead to more data on who they are.
  • The Lowry even spoke of joint events, where they partner with touring companies to host engagement events as part of the exhibition or show, benefitting both organisations through the shared the cost of the events and the data collected.
  • Using technological solutions to engage with audiences when they are present, such as the aforementioned ibeacons app, used to good effect at Sound and Music to communicate with supporters in a different way.

Challenge 2:

How do I demonstrate the importance of fundraising to my organisation?

There was a resounding agreement on this next hot topic, with one of the most challenging aspects being getting ‘the Board on board’. Ideas included:

  • You will be much more successful if you focus each member in on a specific ask in your fundraising plan. When thinking about how to allocate your asks, first identify the strengths in your board and try wherever possible to play to their strengths. Don’t ask the board member who has a vehement dislike for networking to wine and dine your prospective donors, maybe there is another job for them – such as tapping into their current contacts, or tweeting to their many followers.
  • Tap into competition! Naming no names, one approach that can work is actively sharing stories of other board member’s fundraising successes both from within the organisation but also from across the sector. They may well be much more likely to say yes to your ask, if they know their peers have already shown their support and been successful, had their profiles raised as a result!
  • Donors want to speak to artists. If you have an artistic board member or a member with a past history of performance, use them to generate case studies, speak with donors and share their experiences and take an active role in your fundraising plans.

Board aside, what about the challenge of engaging with senior colleagues and peers who do not see it as their role to engage with your fundraising plan?
Yet we know that if fundraising is to be successful, it is about bringing everyone on board to realise the importance of supporting the role of fundraising across the organisation. So here are some tips:

  • Ensure people understand what you’re working on – and most importantly that you are working for them. Your role is there to enable them to keep doing what they are doing – don’t let them forget this!
  • Share your priorities with your colleagues. If there is a big event or opportunity coming up let them know and help them understand how this will fit into the bigger picture of why you are there, what it will mean to the organisation.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you think you have communicated enough, communicate some more! Let your colleagues know what is required of you to do your job – both time and money. Share your knowledge of the funding cycles and how long it really takes to get a legacy donation through, to help manage expectations! You could even do a quiz to test their knowledge at your next company meeting – a prize for the winner!

Challenge 3:

How do I ensure my targets are robust and my strategic planning is right?

One way of getting people on board is to ensure that your plan is the right plan and your targets are based on real evidence. However, the alumni believe there are some other ideas to consider too. Here are their thoughts:

  • Language can be powerful. In order to help people understand the importance of fundraising, the language used in the communication of the strategic plan can be as important as what is in it. At the Hackney Empire, Chief Executive Clarie Middleton, described their move away from an emphasis on the term ‘fundraising’ towards the term ‘income generation’. It is about running a profitable organisation in order to do the work we want to do, not about shaking buckets!
  • Think commercial. When forming your strategy, think beyond the artistic side of the organisation, and explore the commercial avenues. How else can you use your venue or product to create an income? The Watts Gallery has done just that, and opened its doors up to being a wedding venue, after successfully securing the cost of the wedding license from a supporter.
  • Distinguish between elements in your plan. Think about the case you are making for each target – is it responding to a ‘crisis’ or a ‘vision’. Part of your strategy may be about ‘balancing the budget for survival’ as well as ‘income for growth’. In the way you pitch the case to the board and internally this distinction is important.
  • You also need to ensure you are balancing the need to fund core activities, in as well as your known project funding, so that core funding continues to be achieved. As NAFS Alumni Carl Grainger from Artes Mundi put it – you need to beat the Polo Mint Paradox. Ask yourself how can you speak about your core activities in a more meaningful way to prospective donors? It may be about supporting a salaried position, but what does that role actually do, what is the impact they have in the community?
  • Consider presenting your strategy in a different way. Instead of looking at each income stream in turn, why not present your strategy as a mix of income generation across each strand, helping your budgets become more flexible as it is rolled out.
  • Work with your donors to develop your strategy – where else do they think you should be looking for funds? They may have some great ideas to add, and is a great way of engaging them in the work you are doing.
  • Finally, your strategy shouldn’t just a piece of paper with a plan on it, it is about ‘strategising your board’, and using them to make it live.


Challenge 4:

With such limited resource, how do I manage my time better so I can do more?

Last but certainly not least, the need to self manage and prioritise came out as a key challenge for the NAFS alumni in delivering their plans. Whether it was about lack of resource with small expenditure budgets, or a lack of people – sometimes with only one person in post. How can you make your time count. Here are their ideas:

  • A change of direction is as good as a rest – try new things in your plan if you are coming up against a brick wall in others!
  • Be clear on what you are trying to achieve and communicate this to yourself and others. This will help you stay focused on what really matters.
  • Know the value of your time. Remember your time is money, so cherish it and use it well.
  • Be disciplined with your technology – close your emails, turn off your phone – plan for disruption rather than letting disruption happen to you.
  • Channel your tomatoes and use the Pomodoro Technique.
  • Create a ’dump list’ of everything you have to do. This frees up your mind to focus, and by prioritising the list, enables you to put first things first and focus on the things really that matter.
  • Take responsibility. If you manage yourselves well, this sets a great example to the rest of the organisation and commands respect. Your colleagues will be more likely to get on board with your ideas, if you are in control of them and demonstrate it is a party they do not want to miss!
  • If your are struggling with time management, check out =mc’s Managing Multiple Priorities programme, a one day session on how to increase your personal effectiveness.

What’s next?

If you are interested in finding out how you can become an Alumni of the School, visit the National Arts Fundraising School website.

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Philly Graham

About Philly Graham

Philly specialises in personal effectiveness, communications and management development. She is an accredited coach, action learning set facilitator and a CIPD Learning and Development Associate. Philly’s career has spanned...