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Laurie McMahon: Charities must embrace corporate and individual donors

12 Jan 2021 Voices

The power of corporate and individual donors shone through in 2020. Our sector must embrace this to see us through the continuation of the Covid-19 crisis, says Laurie McMahon, chief development officer at Room to Read

Despite overcoming unthinkable challenges in 2020, our sector yet again faces a challenging year ahead. With further turbulent economic times on the horizon, and a new national lockdown introduced, we are certainly not yet out of the Covid-19 tunnel despite vaccinations beginning to roll-out. 

The urgency to fundraise remains just as great as last year. Recent data from CAF suggests a quarter of charities won’t last more than a year if more funding is not received, at a time when one in three UK charities have seen an increase in demand for their services.

It is times like these which force our fundraising strategies to embrace new levels of boldness and confidence. Above all else, it is time to embrace the power of corporate and individual donors, who have shown their true potential more than ever during the pandemic. 

It is this base of donors which we rely on in times of crisis. They are able to react to emergency situations, understanding the need to raise flexible funds, fast. When circumstances flip the world on its head, charities need committed long-term supporters who are willing to help them change course at a moment's notice, traits best found in private donors.

I remember making my first calls to these donors in spring last year, when as a global education charity, Room to Read faced the struggle of ensuring education could endure at a time when 1.5 billion students were impacted by school closures.  I shared with donors that in in the communities we serve, primarily in low-income communities across Africa and Asia, access to household internet is rare, and children faced untold pressures to cease their education, to take up manual labour, to get married, or even worse. 

The response to my urgent message was overwhelmingly positive. 

Despite donors in the business community facing large financial losses themselves or long-term supporters who feared for their own jobs and financial security, the response was undeniable altruism.  These donors stepped up right away, committing to give immediately and at many times, giving even more generously than ever before.  These acts of compassion during a global crisis became the bedrock of Room to Read’s year of keeping children safe and learning in some of the poorest parts of the world. 

I want to share my lessons from this unique year of fundraising and how our sector must never forget the importance of these donors, particularly in times of crisis. 

1. Local knowledge is critical 

Communicating local knowledge is critical in building real trust with donors.  When we approached donors with urgent asks in the spring, at the height of Covid-19 related school closures, we shared detailed stories and accounts directly from the communities we serve. Access and transparency to real-time information is critical in times of crisis.  Whether it was our lead programme staff or teams on the ground serving communities, we made those with the most up-to-date knowledge available to these influential donors, helping them to understand and trust our ability to deploy their funding in the most impactful way in that moment. 

2. Confidence to make an urgent ask

Confidence as a fundraiser is always key. As a fundraiser, you need to truly believe that you are giving donors a unique opportunity to positively impact lives. Nonetheless, it is not easy to ask those facing grave financial uncertainty themselves to give urgently and give big. But the work that Room to Read does – work that was now more critical and life-changing than ever in our 20-year history – was entirely dependent on those asks being made.  And our donors responded so warmly. It became increasingly clear throughout the year that in the face of a crisis unlike anything many of us have ever experienced before, people wanted an outlet, they wanted positivity, they wanted joy, and they truly wanted to help those less fortunate. 

Keep it up! My team was driven by the urgency of our continued mission in 2020, motivated to make the hard asks. And that urgency hasn’t dissipated.  The roll-out of vaccines across the UK will see newspaper headlines move from the impact of Covid-19, and donors will, hopefully, begin to feel a sense of normality again in their own lives. That is why charities must keep the pressure on, continue having these conversations with donors and not to shy away from the reality that this pandemic will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in our world for many years to come. 

3. Knowledge can be just as valuable as donations

Alongside generating the funds needed to continue our work, perhaps one of the most effective uses of my time over the past year has been spending time with donors and seeking their guidance and insights. Our donor base is diverse – from across the globe, industries and different demographics – and their knowledge of the financial markets, marketing, politics and many other areas has proved invaluable to our organisation as we navigate through the unknown of a global pandemic.

I leaned on these donors throughout 2020 when making some of the toughest decisions of my career.  Never be afraid to ask influential donors, particularly those in the business community, for a call to purely ask for their advice. These conversations may help your mission far more than any donation ever could. 

Laurie McMahon is chief development officer at Room to Read

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.



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