Stepping out of your comfort zone

Published by Sonya Swiridjuk on

It’s hard to believe that a week has already passed since the 31st International Fundraising Congress (IFC) took place in The Netherlands. As delegates said their goodbyes in the hallways and on the coaches en route to Schiphol Airport or Amsterdam, many shared the same sentiments: “Wow, this was amazing! It was so great to meet you! I wish it wasn’t over! I can’t wait until next year!”

As an IFC volunteer, every comment, hug and wave made me smile. It was wonderful to see that delegates were leaving happy, fulfilled and inspired.

Not surprising, I didn’t hear anyone say, “Hmm… I don’t know. There just wasn’t enough choice at this conference.” Because, if there’s one thing that the IFC offers, it’s choice! Here’s what was on offer for the almost 1,000 delegates in attendance at this year’s conference:

• The choice to engage with over 65 fantastic speakers from around the world who are experts in their field.
• The choice to participate in one of 14 dynamic Masterclasses.
• The choice to develop your own conference program from nearly 40 unique sessions across seven workshop tracks, seven 60-minutes sessions and five Great Debates.
• The choice to network in a variety of venues, including receptions, dinners, the exhibition zones – and yes, the bar!

Personally, I love that there’s so much to choose from, as it gives everyone the opportunity to create their very own IFC experience. But, let’s be honest. Sometimes all of this choice can be a little overwhelming! Whether you’re a first-timer or a returning delegate, it’s often tempting – and easier – to just stick with what you know and who you know at the conference.

Yet, we’ve all come to the IFC to learn, enhance our skills and knowledge, and expand our fundraising horizons and networks. To do that and get the most out of the IFC, you have to occasionally step out of your comfort zone. That’s what I challenged myself to do this year, and I’m so glad I did!

Instead of only attending sessions that related to my current work, or just seeing my favourite speakers, I made a pledge to participate in at least one workshop with a less-than-familiar topic and a presenter I’d never met.

So, with my daily timetable in hand, off I went on Thursday morning to attend Kevin Waudby and Gavin Coopey’s workshop, “Succeeding at Innovation: Part Two – Developing and delivering new income”. Kevin is with Good Innovation in the UK, while Gavin is with More Strategic in Australia. The two had worked together previously at Cancer Research UK, which undoubtedly contributed to the session’s great synergy and a co-presentation that was completely in sync.

Before the session got underway, I thought, “Hmm… maybe I should have attended ‘Part One’ first!”, but Gavin assured everyone that this wasn’t necessary. The session kicked off with some interesting food for thought (pun intended): to succeed at innovation, you have to serve up a great meal – The Innovation Burger. The ingredients? Take your platform, insights, ideas, propositions and prototypes, pilot and launch. Mix into capacity and strategy. Sandwich between culture and engagement. Et voilà! A recipe for innovation success!

Kevin and Gavin explored each of these elements, and discussed how focus and engagement are two of the biggest challenges to developing and delivering new income. They shared many excellent examples of how organizations successfully overcame these challenges, including MyProjects from Cancer Research UK, Movember and Save the Children’s No Child Born to Die campaign. This session whetted my appetite to learn more and check out their Part One presentation, “Getting the foundations right” a.k.a. “In the Kitchen”!

So, there it was: I went to a session with a new subject area and two new speakers at the IFC. Mission to step out of my comfort zone accomplished! Or so I thought. I’d soon learn that Fate had more in store for me on this.

As I was running to a lunch meeting afterwards, Jolan van Herwaarden stopped me in the hall. (If you don’t know Jolan, she’s the lovely person who organizes all of the IFC’s session leaders.) She asked, “What are you doing this afternoon? I’m short a body to cover a workshop. Can you help?” I’ve been a session leader at the IFC before, so that part was an easy “yes” – anything for Jolan! I then asked, “Who’s the presenter”? Jolan replied, “I don’t know… someone named Matthew Sherrington. He’s stepping in to replace another speaker who couldn’t make it.” Not knowing who Matthew is either, and mindful of my personal challenge, I answered, “Sure! Why not? Could be fun.” And it was!

Matthew Sherrington is from The Good Agency in the UK, whose nonprofit experience includes roles with Oxfam, Greenpeace and Everychild. His session was entitled, “‘I did that!’ – Transforming supporters into super-heroes (through the power of your brand and fundraising story)”. The presentation was filled with fantastic examples of how to honour the supporter’s place in your mission and organization, and how to translate your mission into supporter experience and action. A big take away for me was developing what Matthew called, “The Supporter Mission Manifesto”: what will it take and how will we do it together to achieve our goals?

Unfortunately, I arrived for Matthew’s session a little late. But, I had anticipated that my lunch meeting might run over, so I had saved myself a seat in the front row earlier. As I quietly took my place, I spotted something unusual. There, sitting on the front desk, looking disheveled and a little worse for wear, was a Barbie. My curiosity was piqued! And then I panicked. What had I missed by being late? I asked a couple of people beside me, “What’s with the Barbie?” They shrugged, “We don’t know”. Phew! The “big reveal” was still to come!

Near the end of his session, Matthew shared that this doll had been part of the “Greenpeace Chainsaw Barbie” campaign to stop rainforest trees from being used in Barbie’s packaging:


In the related UK’s “Barbie Hunt”, people could track down “delinquent dolls” to help stop Barbie’s trail of destruction. Matthew’s young daughter learned about the campaign and became a Barbie Hunter. She successfully found (with a little help from Dad!) the Barbie that was now sitting in our session. It was a great, personal story of supporter/super-hero engagement in action (and yes, the campaign was a success!).

After thanking Matthew for his superb presentation, I thought, OK. Now I’ve really fulfilled my pledge to step out of my comfort zone at the IFC! But Fate thought otherwise, and would intervene again.

On Friday morning, I decided to go see Adrian Sargeant, who I always enjoy. I thought his workshop, “Philanthropic psychology – using donor identity to grow giving”, would be right up my alley in direct marketing fundraising. Apparently, so did dozens of others! As the Brits say, Adrian’s session was “over-subscribed”. With no spaces left, I took it as a sign to continue my IFC challenge to see something and someone new. Fate smiled. I walked over to Cambridge 32, where the session, “Everyone’s a fundraiser! Working with your Board to achieve fundraising and campaigning success”, was in full swing. The presenters, Andrew Cook from WaterAid UK and Per Stenbeck from WaterAid Sweden were leading a passionate discussion on how fundraising and influencing success of an organization is the responsibility of staff, volunteers and board members alike.

In our breakout groups, we all realized that no matter what organization or country we’re from, the issues around boards and fundraising are very similar, including board members thinking if they give their time they don’t have to give money to the cause; boards being too “hands-on” with day-to-day operations; board members resisting new ideas; and board members being afraid to ask for donations. We brainstormed how to help board members get out of their comfort zone, with steps like getting them to make thank you calls to donors; developing fundraising champions on the board; and having the board chair encourage 100% board participation in giving (it’s not how much you give, but that you give!).

There was another person in the room helping out with this session. Her name is Lucy Blythe, and she’s with Philia International. Since I had missed the beginning, I wasn’t sure what her involvement was (as she wasn’t listed as a speaker), so I wrote to Lucy last night and asked her. She replied that they had all run into each other at George Smith’s book launch, Up Smith Creek, last month. Lucy mentioned that she was putting together a proposal for next year’s IFC on boards, so Per and Andrew invited her to attend their session and provide a few practical observations. Her response was, “What an offer!”, and so there she was!

But hang on. Wait a minute. What’s this? George Smith, veteran fundraiser, author extraordinaire and one of the early captains of the IFC ship, has a new book out?! (Of course, if I was on Twitter or current in my readings of “The Agitator” I’d have known this, but I digress…) I quickly searched the internet and there it is – Up Smith Creek, an exciting new read that I can’t wait to buy and dive into!

If I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone (either intentionally or not!) at this year’s IFC, I would have never learned some incredible new things to think about and implement in my future fundraising efforts, nor would I have met some exceptional presenters who specialize in different areas from my own but have much to share and offer. And I wouldn’t have discovered the gem of George Smith’s new book for weeks! For IFC 2012 or your next fundraising conference, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and pick a few sessions and speakers you normally wouldn’t see.

The choice is yours. Take a chance. You’ll be so glad you did!


This blog post is the fourth in a series of 6 blog posts covering the IFC 2011:

IFC: folding letters and licking envelopes! – Reinier Spruit
I Am The Comms Devil – Margaux Smith
Legacy Fundraising 101… Fresh from the IFC! – Juan Hendrawan
– Stepping out of your comfort zone – Sonya Swiridjuk
– Monday 31 October: Ellen Janssens
– Thursday 3 November: Julie Verhaar

Sonya Swiridjuk

Sonya Swiridjuk, CFRE, has passionately served our sector for 20+ years, holding senior fundraising positions in several charities and at Stephen Thomas. Currently a fundraising and DM consultant, Sonya is a past board member of the AFP Greater Toronto Chapter and served as Congress Chair in 2007. She presents locally and internationally, is on faculty for the Fundraising and Volunteer Management Program at Humber College, and is the Canadian Ambassador for the International Fundraising Congress.


Treva Wilson · October 30, 2011 at 12:34

I’d very much like to be a part of your organization. Is it possible to e-mail me some information for review. Thank you for your kind attention.

    Sonya Swiridjuk · October 31, 2011 at 13:28

    Hi Treva, if you’re looking to join 101fundraising, you can subscribe to the blog via email at the top of this page or join in on any of the social media icons listed. Thanks!

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