On a mission

This week five years ago I started as the fundraiser at SolarAid. Right from the outset I took a decision to apply a different approach to fundraising.  I knew back then in 2011 that fundraising was starting to creak.

It’s been an extraordinary journey for me.  I feel I have achieved more in my five years there than any other cause I have worked for (although FARM-Africa comes a very close second).


Throughout my time I have been learning from doing – which was always the intention. In between finishing my previous job as Director of Fundraising at ActionAid and starting at SolarAid I read and read (books like Sticky Marketing and The New Rules of Marketing). That fired me up with enough to set out from the beginning to approach fundraising differently. In effect SolarAid has been a laboratory to experiment in – it was a deliberate choice at the time to find an enterprising organisation I believed would allow me to do just that.

We developed some fabulous ideas at SolarAid which I had a part in shaping such as the impact calculator which shows potential donors the impact their donation will achieve (and now we know gets shared). Or some simple ideas such as asking ‘why?’ when someone chooses to take that extraordinary human action of donating, and so adding to the donor experience. My favourite innovation has to be the Speed of Light – a digital platform that shows donors where the light they funded is located and then credits them if they get others to give too. I wrote blogs on all of these.

Simple truths

I learnt some simple truths. Such as the sheer power of having an ambitious goal or BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). One that inspires people to join you on helping achieve an impossible dream. So extraordinary was the BHAG that I have blogged about it many times and I even did my own BHAG to see if works on a personal basis (It did – doing a triathlon within 9 months when I could hardly swim a length of a swimming pool). I learnt the importance of saying thank you really really well – again something people will talk about and share if you do it well. So its not just nice to do its entirely strategic to invest time and thought into truly exceptional donor care.


Over the last five years I have come to realise fundraising is not about clever strap-lines (ok so those help) – it’s about being in the right mindset. Getting this right changes so much. And the mindset is no longer how to get money out of me, but how to inspire me to tell your story. The logic of this is simply because we are all now channels. Which in turn makes your strategy and tactics much clearer (such as a decision to offer solar lights to donors so they could tell our story for us and to begin selling them at a premium too).

Ok so SolarAid is also fortunate to have a tangible product – the solar light. That said donations don’t buy lights – they help SolarAid build awareness and get them to remote locations to sell them. We’ve had to really sweat the story and the light is really the means for others to tell and spread our story.  It looks good in hindsight! To focus on the solar light meant dropping other areas of our programme – even turning down money and significant grants from other funders when that course was chosen. At the time when we set our ambitious goal to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa we were distributing and selling just a few hundred solar lights (its now approaching 2 million). So it needed courage too, And what started our journey was asking a question in my first week – “Whats our purpose – what does it all add up to?”

I was fortunate that we did not have not much choice but to try a different approach to fundraising – organisations like SolarAid have limited resources so I always knew we would have to generate funds with little up front investment. Entrepreneurial fundraising if you like. And I have shared my learning throughout my time at SolarAid – which was the purpose of this blog I started five years ago.

So what are the top insights from my time during my five year mission in the laboratory called SolarAid?

Actually its surprisingly simple.

  1. focus on your mission
  2. find your story
  3. empower your supporters to spread it for you
  4. give a great donor experience
  5. be ready to respond

The result is supporters and partners who advocate on your behalf, leveraging their social capital, and spreading your story. This results in incoming leads – far better than investing huge amounts in push style marketing. It helps attract opt in supporters who want to hear from you.

Does it work? Over the last five years unrestricted income grew five fold. We secured major gifts from extraordinary donors who wanted to help us achieve our goal. We won prize fund awards by focusing on our story, such as the UK’s first Google Global Impact Award (and if you go to google.org you will often see the main picture is one of SolarAid’s – of Christopher from Zambia studying by solar light). We attracted new corporate partnerships – which have usually started by the company contacting us, including an award winning partnership with 9BAR. This year SolarAid had three legacies (its first) one from a supporter who kept her solar light in the kitchen and would say to any guests over for a cuppa “SolarAid is it”. Each week there is an example of sticky fundraising – something that happens as result of the ripples we initiated from engaging and inspiring people. This isn’t intended as boasting. It’s evidence.

And when SolarAid hit a tough period ( as many causes striving to break new boundaries do) it was our fundraising that saw us through. As the market for solar lights took off in Tanzania where we had the most success (selling just shy of a million solar lights) our social enterprise was competed out. We achieved something special – a catalysed market putting ourselves out of business. I even recall major donors saying well done! Of course the mission isn’t over there are plenty of other countries that need help. So the mission goes on

It’s all about the mission

I’d like to think five years on I am leaving behind a diverse base of committed donors and supporters that will continue to build and tell the SolarAid story (and that includes me!). No doubt time will tell.

Perhaps more importantly I have learnt its not about the money its about the mission. At other causes I have worked for during my 25 years as a fundraiser, I have raised more – but SolarAid is the cause where I feel I have achieved more.

imgresSo now I have a new mission – I want to preach what I have learned, particularly over the last five years. I’ll continue to blog on all of these areas and make my site a resource. Now its time to put all that learning into practice, helping others achieve their mission and continue on the journey I have started.

2 thoughts on “On a mission

  1. I love this Richard – it is the distillation of many years of experience and insight, but most of all, it is inspiring because we all have the power to be our purpose. Nice one!



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