Creating and leading a Great Fundraising Organisation

Published by Alan Clayton on

Do you work for a Great Fundraising Organisation? Not any great fundraising organisation… but a Great Fundraising Organisation.

For the purpose of the academic study, “The Great Fundraising Report,” Profs. Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang from the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at the University of Plymouth, defined Great Fundraising Organisations as those charities, NGOs and non-profits that:

  • Achieved significant growth in voluntary income, typically 200 percent to 400 percent over the middle term, being five to ten years.
  • Sustained the increased levels of income.
  • Drove this income from a database of donors who were mission driven.

The object of the study was to identify behavioural factors that created a Great Fundraising Organisation. The project is supported by ongoing, informal action research on over 300 case studies worldwide. We particularly studied organisations that outperformed organisations with similar markets, missions and projects. We found three key areas in which the Great Fundraising Organisations out-perform their competitors.


In the Great Fundraising Organisations, the whole organisation is fired up and inspired by the fundraising programme. The fundraising function is not in a silo, or seen as a subsidiary to the other departments.
In organisations that fail to achieve great fundraising, the fundraising function is deemed to be funding the organisation’s budget, and propositions are dictated by other departments based on fiscal need. In the Great Fundraising Organisations, the organisation unites around a mission-based proposition, meaning that fundraising and other departments are trying to solve a problem together. They understand that fundraising is about a dream of the organisation, not the organisation itself.

Also, the Great Fundraising Organisations:

  • Are all capable of donor-centred thinking – understanding the rational and emotional needs of their donors as well as those of their service users.
  • Have a learning culture about fundraising. They use the “test and learn” scientific method to create a culture of constant improvement, rather than seek certainty of outcomes before commencing a surge in fundraising growth.
  • Train and educate the whole organisation on the importance and principles of fundraising.


The Great Fundraising Organisations do not suffer from internal conflict about the need to invest short-term in fundraising to drive middle-term growth. They are capable of prioritising fundraising investment, and other departments understand there will be a time lag between fundraising investment and increased programmes expenditure budgets.

Also, the Great Fundraising Organisations:

  • Train their boards, executive teams and managers in the principles of fundraising investment.
  • Clearly understand the large returns available, if the period allowed is long enough.
  • Give their boards confidence to invest, and to roll out when tests are successful


The Great Fundraising Organisations base their brand on “the problem we are trying to solve”. They brand the mission, not the organisation. They focus their communications less on “trust” (i.e. organisation credibility) than on “belief” (i.e. the dream of solving a problem).

They understand that, first and foremost, people give emotionally and that their emotional decisions are backed up by concise rational arguments. They understand that different people give for different reasons and are able to meet these different segments of need.

The key difference between the Great Fundraising Organisations and their competitors can be summed up as the ability of the board and executive teams to lead in the emotional space.

Also, the Great Fundraising Organisations:

  • Are brilliant at communicating in a simple, emotive manner with integrity. They are master storytellers.
  • Test all communications continuously.
  • Can navigate the cultural difference between control of emotion and logical excellence in service delivery, with the fact that fundraising is in the emotions business.
  • Give all staff in all departments permission to tell the truth well in communications, and to communicate the problem as well as the work of the organisation. They overcome internal conflicts about such activation of emotion.
  • Understand the power of an emotional brand.
  • Overcome the fear of investment through the scientific method.
  • Understand the emotional needs of their donors.
  • Focus on their most emotionally powerful propositions.

Most Great Fundraising Organisations seemed to create a growth surge by:

  • Creating a new dream: a fresh approach to communicating the problem they are trying to solve.
  • Uniting the organisation by involving them in the creation of the communications.
  • Testing, then investing.

Keeping focussed and simple is key to all leadership. Keeping emotionally focused and simple is key to fundraising leadership.

50 percent of this work is internal.

[Editor’s note: Alan will be presenting a special Great Fundraising Masterclass  12-13 September in Cape Town, South Africa. You can learn more and register here. You can request a copy of “The Great Fundraising Report” at alanclayton.co.uk]

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Alan Clayton

Alan works in the inspiration and creative business, for charities, non-profits and NGOs globally. He is a force for rapid and dramatic change and growth, with people power at the front of his philosophy. After a career in national charities, he spent ten years running a full service agency, then formed Revolutionise in 2008. Alan has worked with over 320 clients around the world. He specialises in pitch-winning creative insight and strategy, donor insight, emotional communication and motivation. Alan is chairman of Alan Clayton Associates, Karat Marketing, the telephone fundraising agency in Dunfermline, Scotland and managing partner of the Inch Hotel and Inspiration Centre, Loch Ness.


Sonya · August 11, 2017 at 08:23

A brilliant and timely article – thanks Alan

Pam Davis · August 11, 2017 at 13:36

Should be required reading for all CEOs and Boards!!

Sarah Scarth · August 14, 2017 at 21:24

Thanks for a great article Alan! So looking forward to having you share this message with South African social impact leaders and fundraisers next month on 12 & 13 September in Cape Town – http://bit.ly/GFMsept

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