From communications to fundraising director: Macmillan's Lynda Thomas

Lynda Thomas, fundraising director, Macmillan Cancer Care

From communications to fundraising director: Macmillan's Lynda Thomas

Fundraising | Celina Ribeiro | 10 Apr 2012

“You don’t have to be pigeon-holed. What is wrong with making that transition?” - Lynda Thomas has made the move from communications to take on the fundraising director post. It’s not as different as you might think, she tells Celina Ribeiro.

How have you ended up as a director of fundraising?

I was doing a job-share. My ex-jobshare partner, Hilary, and myself had six children between us. About ten years ago we said ‘I fancy doing a nice big job, but I don’t want to work full-time. Shall we do it together?’ Macmillan took a punt on us and we moved from head of media to campaigns and ended up as director of external affairs. It was almost with amazing timing that my youngest daughter has just started at secondary school and the opportunity to do this came along.

How did the job-sharing work?

We had the most amazing partnership. It was as close to a marriage as you could get. There were some serious rules about how we worked with each other. We were completely committed to never, ever criticising each other in front of anybody else. Even when we had differences of opinion, we respected those differences. We split the job so that from Monday to Wednesday I was in, and from Wednesday to Friday she was in. Whatever decisions I made on a Monday, even if Hilary thought to herself ‘that’s a bit of an interesting one!’, we’d just go with it.

Do you have other job-shares like that at Macmillan now?

At Macmillan we have a lot of women and further up the food chain we have a lot of women who get married, and then you just know that two years later they’re going to go off and have a baby. In most of our teams we’ve been really successful at helping people come back to work on a part-time basis and making sure that there are opportunities for jobsharing or splitting a role. We recognise that for someone like me ten years ago, when my kids were little, I couldn’t give as much to work. But if you invest time in someone you get it back in abundance.

What has been most surprising in moving over into fundraising?

I spent five years at NSPCC before coming to Macmillan. I’ve worked in the comms team, but only on fundraising projects so I had a pretty good understanding of fundraising before I moved to Macmillan. I’ve always got on well with fundraisers. I think we have a similar DNA.

The most surprising thing for me was that it wasn’t as different as I expected it to be. When you’re in a leadership role, it’s not my job to plan a direct mail campaign, it’s not my job to pitch to a corporate partner. It’s my job to oversee a very large team of people and make sure that everything runs well. It’s my job to be their champion on the board and the executive management team, and make sure we have things like the right budget and adequate investment in fundraising. It’s my job to make sure that when things go wrong, I can step in and help out as well.

I don’t need to be able to do the detail – which is just as well. I always had the feeling that a director of fundraising needed to walk around with a calculator, just in case suddenly there was an urgent need to do the maths. Again, that hasn’t happened. If you have the support of other people, it’s amazing what you do and don’t do in this job.

In terms of how your money comes in, how is it structured?

Ninety-six per cent of our money comes in from voluntary donations. Of that the vast majority of the money comes in through our mass programme, so through legacies, direct marketing, events like Coffee Morning. At Macmillan we’re very lucky. A large number of people give us what will seem like modest amounts of money, but when you add it up it’s a huge total. We raise less from major donors than you might expect from a charity of our size, and that is something that I am keen to have a look at.

Last year our fundraising just topped £140m and around £50m came from legacies. I think we will look at investing a little bit more in legacies. I’m making sure that we spend our money really wisely and thinking about what we offer potential legators and how we attract them to Macmillan. We need to make sure that we are working really hard for our legacy income, because it is a massive chunk of money for us and we wouldn’t want to see it decline.

The Coffee Morning event was very successful last year. Why?

Coffee Morning exceeded £10m for the first time last year, which was a massive reason to celebrate – especially because we didn’t put any extra money into it. I’ve got to thank (former fundraising director) Amanda Bringans for this: we just did everything better. We joined stuff up in a way that we hadn’t done before. In the past we’d spent money on advertorials, which is brilliant from a brand point of view, but they weren’t actually generating that many registrations. So we put our money into things that were guaranteed to drive registrations rather than doing a halo brand piece of work.

Are you investing in other events?

We’re certainly looking at a number of options.

What are you doing around digital?

If I said that I think only 1 per cent of our income comes digitally to Macmillan, that’s quite a surprising statistic if you look at commercial organisations. We have absolutely got to play catch-up on this, like a lot of charities. As a mother of three teenagers for me there is no option because I can see the way things are going. They never do anything offline. They’re never offline. So, to think that in years to come they’ll be requesting a booklet rather than downloading something on whatever device they’re using then would be completely naive of us. It’s an area that we are looking at.

Cancer is a really competitive cause in the charity market. How do you see Macmillan competing in that space in the future?

There are more cancer charities than there are any other charities. There are obviously bigger and smaller cancer charities than Macmillan. I think we’re really lucky that of the top three we all do different things; if Cancer Research is about hope and the future, Macmillan is about living with cancer in the here and now, and Marie Curie is very much focused on the end of life. There seems to me to be plenty of room for the three of us to play nicely together in a competitive market.

How do you see the Macmillan brand evolving?

We are one of Britain’s most-loved brands and charities. If you have ever experienced a Macmillan nurse, it’s not hard to understand why. No matter how much money we spend on advertising and making our stuff look marvellous, what drives our brand is that when a person living with cancer experiences one of our services it will be fantastic. As long as the Macmillan experience continues to be as good as it is, I believe we will still be a beloved brand. Having said that, we have a fabulous brand that says ‘If you need help, come to us’. Over the next few years one of our challenges is going to be having an equally fabulous brand that says ‘If you want to give something back, leave it to Macmillan’.

In future, what is the biggest issue regarding fundraising?

There are two million people living with cancer at the moment – that will grow to four million by 2030, so we’ve got to do something dramatic to help all of those people. Part of what I’m going to do is make sure that everything we do now is as wonderful as it can be, and look at the products that we have now that we can make even better. Coffee Morning is an established product. We probably need another one or two products like that to offer to people who want to support us.

Does this mean that you are investing more in fundraising?

Our fundraising budget is a little bit increased this year, but I wouldn’t say hugely increased. We are focusing very much on getting our teams to work really well together and making sure that we can raise money as efficiently as possible. The team at Macmillan is unbelievably good. To a man they are passionate about the cause, they work really, really hard and make sure we spend as little money as possible to raise as much as possible. If we can get the digital stuff right, it’ll be fantastic in terms of cost.

Having stayed at one charity for so long, do you think that fundraisers changing jobs quickly is a problem?

Obviously we like to retain our talent at Macmillan. So when we do have exceptional people we really try to develop them and make sure that they can move from one thing to another when the time is right for them to move on. Having made the move from comms to fundraising has helped me realise that you don’t have to be pigeon-holed. A community fundraiser could make a brilliant major donor fundraiser, because they could be doing that already. What is wrong with making that transition over? We’re very much encouraging people to think outside a silo they might have thought themselves in before. That seems to me to be a good way to hold on to your talent.

What are your plans for income?

We’ll be looking at raising more money than we have last year. Cancer charities tend to hold up well, but it’s a tough market out there. People need to be really sure that you’re spending their money well before they part with it. So we need to be better than ever at demonstrating that. I think we’re up for the challenge. 


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