Asking the right question

The International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands took place last week. The theme of the gathering was ‘asking the right question’. This is a short story I shared.

Over five years ago when I joined SolarAid I asked the question “What’s our purpose? What is the problem we are trying to solve?”. These are questions every fundraiser, no matter there level has the right to ask. By answering them you will raise more money for your mission. The opportunity to ask the question came about as a result of a fundraising dinner we were planning later that year. It was my first week at SolarAid (the great thing about being new is you can ask dumb questions!).

Weeks later as a direct result of asking the question we set our mission goal : to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020. Within months it was endorsed by the board. Now we had a problem to solve. Kerosene lamps by the way keep people in poverty – we now know families use 15% of their household spend on kerosene. It adds to indoor air pollution due to the fine particles it spits. There is risk of poisoning too as kerosene is often stored in soda bottles children mistake for water – a doctor told me one swig can be fatal. And of course there fires and horrific burns are all too common place as a result of misspelt lamps.

Then at that fundraising dinner later that same year – the one that prompted me to ask the question and where we first announced the goal – Darren stepped forward at the end to say “I work for a Chinese solar company Yingli who believe in ‘Solar for all’. How can we help you?“.

sm100Five years on using their expertise in manufacturing and SolarAid’s learning and feedback from customers in Africa together they have developed a new solar light – called ‘the SunnyMoney 100’. Designed in Manchester and manufactured in China it is the world’s most affordable light. Since setting the goal SolarAid has sought the best solar lights available and brought them to market. This is the first time SolarAid has manufactured its own light. It will sell in Africa for $5 – that’s less than people spend on kerosene each month. And be selling lights rather than giving them away it creates a market that moves quicker than handouts of aid and puts the power in the hands of ‘customers’ (with rights to a warranty) rather than beneficiaries of aid. And for every safe clean solar light in the hands of a family they use one less kerosene lamp leading to savings from no longer burning kerosene.


My point is this corporate partnership didn’t make a big dent on the bottom line with a grant or a donation. Their contribution was greater than that and far more visionary. Their involvement will be a game changer for families who use kerosene lamps for light and towards achieving the crazy goal we set. Already the light has been “flying off the shelves” with enquiries from around the world for it’s use, including in refugee camps.

But it might not have happened if a fundraiser hadn’t asked the question “what’s our purpose?” that led to inspiring an individual to use his influence (i.e. his ‘social capital’) to engage the company he worked for and contribute his own determination to make it happen.

The art of fundraising is not always about the money – it’s always about the mission. So find yours by asking the right question.


p.s. you can buy the new SunnyMoney light at a premium price via the shop on the SolarAid website and help spread the story for just £10. For every one you buy SolarAid will be able to manufacture one and sell it a fair market price (which will then recycle the income to help sell more lights). A great way to light up Christmas and help spread the SolarAid story. It’s got a neat gap either side so you can use it with a head strap too. Perfect for camping, reading or night running!

3 thoughts on “Asking the right question

  1. Pingback: Retention – is it the right measure? | ifundraiser blog

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