Sofa cushion forts and fundraising

Published by Alison McCants on

When I was a kid, I used to spend hours building forts: in the living room (generally of sofa cushion construction), outdoors (up a tree or in a bush), my bedroom, even once under the sideboard in the dining room. My setting never really changed – my sphere was limited to my family home and our backyard – and yet I spent years of my childhood doing this, always trying to build a better fort, or adapting the imaginary story that involved me seeking refuge in said fort. My most imaginative was probably pretending to be a cow escaping the slaughterhouse – you’ll be relieved to know I escaped thanks to a hiding place built in my closet that functioned as a railway car.

(You’re probably wondering how this relates to fundraising. I swear, I’m getting there.)

Part of the reason I could play the same games and build variations of the same forts time and time again is I was never satisfied. I could always build a better fort. I could always find some way to make my games closer to reality. And even though I was an imaginative kid, I took real pleasure in bringing my imaginary world as close as possible to my real one. That was half the fun.

I started thinking of all of this after Helen Brown posted an excellent blog about how a fundraiser should be like a 4-year-old. I’d suggest you read it if you haven’t already. I completely agree with her that a natural curiosity is a key characteristic of a successful fundraiser, because really, all of our work is about linking people to other people. And to do that, we have to understand motivation. And to understand people’s motivations, we need to ask questions and want to listen to the answers.

And it got me thinking that there’s this other childlike quality that good fundraisers seem to embody. It’s about not resting on one’s laurels. It’s that reluctance to be satisfied and the sincere pleasure one takes in making something better.

We know our donors.

Do we really? Could we know them better? Surely there’s more to donor insight than a pen portrait?

The banker pack is working really well.

Could something work even better? What happens if it stops working? What about it seems to make it work? Let’s test, test, test.

The mailing programme has been working and we’ve seen increase year on year.

That’s great. What will we do when the results starts to sag (as they inevitably will)? Could we see a bigger increase if we did something differently?

Of course, I’m not suggesting we fix something that isn’t broken, and I also think it’s important to prioritise. For instance, if you’ve just done a lot of donor insight research, focus groups, and profiling, I’m not suggesting you run out and do it again right away. But there’s still that next step. ‘Right, we know our donors well. Let’s test this new proposition and see how they respond. Let’s see if we can learn more about them now that we have this research to inform our tests.’

And maybe there are more pressing issues. Yes, we’d like to test propositions on our warm audience based on our donor research, but we also need to develop a new acquisition pack as our current banker is starting to lose its responsiveness. And we’re only a team of two people so something’s got to give. Fair play.

But I think the really great fundraisers I’ve seen have that desire, even if they have to factor in the practicalities of the real world. They still wonder how it can be done better. They seem to come alive as they think of ways to make something work harder. They simply do not wait until the programme is working and then, like some kind of deist God who has set everything in motion, retire and let it continue ad infinitum.

Because frankly, things change. Our donors change. Economies change. Priorities change. Other charities change. Technology changes. Sometime our charitable projects even change.

Our fundraising programmes have to continue to change, too, no matter how good they are.

Maybe that’s why kids seem to get it so well. Everything changes so quickly in childhood, from your own understanding of the world to your physical body to your friends and the games you play. Change is an inherent part of childhood, so perhaps it’s easier to embrace it: rewrite the imaginary game, build a better fort, make it better.

As a fundraiser, I try to remember this. Not just that change is inevitable and I should embrace it, but to remember how fun change can be. It’s not about arriving at some destination (We’ve made it! The perfect direct marketing programme!); it’s about continual change and seeing just how good you can make something be.

Alison McCants

Fundraiser with a passion for charities. Currently Alison is Direct Marketing Manager at The Brooke, a leading UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules (all views are my own). I am a member of the Institute of Fundraising (IOF) in the UK and hold a Certificate in Fundraising Management MInstF(Cert) from the IOF.


Helen Brown · April 8, 2011 at 20:24

Great riff on a theme, Alison! I especially like your comment about how (in childhood) change was fun! – and exciting! – and led to new and greater things. I agree, as adults, we can become comfortable in what we know and hesitant to try entirely new things just to see how they ‘play.’ Thank you for reminding us to embrace (and even look forward to) change!

Marcello Pedalino · April 9, 2011 at 01:42

“Maybe that’s why kids seem to get it so well. Everything changes so quickly in childhood, from your own understanding of the world to your physical body to your friends and the games you play. Change is an inherent part of childhood, so perhaps it’s easier to embrace it: rewrite the imaginary game, build a better fort, make it better.”

Hi Alison,

As both a new father and a new fan of Helen Brown, I appreciate your latest article. I think these past two years have certainly favored those who not only embrace change, but those who have enough imagination and courage to build and hop on their own railway car.

Continued success,


    Alison McCants · April 9, 2011 at 09:08

    Thanks Marcello. I agree that the economic climate has been a real test for our sector. Imagination is an important part of fundraising and problem-solving. I’m sure you’re looking forward to what games your young child will come up with; a child’s instinctive creativity never ceases to amaze me!

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