A new conversation

So, once again this year’s International Fundraising Congress comes to a close. It’s a potent cocktail, leaving you with a feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration, bringing you clarity and even confusion by challenging your existing thinking. Amongst my scribbled notes I can sense some sparks of insight – possibly even the emergence of an epiphany.

The theme of this year was a New Conversation. Either by design, or how my mind works, or both, I left realising that it’s not just about the conversation we have with our peers it’s also about creating a conversation with donors, supporters, and people who give a damn.

The opening plenary by Jeremy Heimens contrasted Old Power with New Power and left some feeling a little uncomfortable. On reflection most of fundraising feels it still sits in Old Power.

If we want to embrace new power (which can be done alongside old power) then how do we move from donors to owners? From a state of mind that ‘We are the experts’ and ‘give us the money’, to one where we don’t have all the answers? The answer for me came from a discussion afterwards, and put forward by the inspiring Jack Sim (aka Mr Toilet), is to have a higher purpose. One you don’t own. Because you don’t have all the answers you need to collaborate and to do that you will need to have … conversations!

So, take out 1: Have a higher purpose that frames the problem you are solving and welcomes others to be part of that mission. This opens up the need for you to have a conversation to fulfil the mission.


It means making others feel part of the conversation not as a tactic but as a genuine way to deliver on the impossible dream – your mission. That way they will own the mission with you.  To be a higher purpose it has to be something that right now you don’t know how to solve and can’t on your own (but can play a major part).

The nature of that conversation needs to be one that is not prescribed. It is no longer a donor journey, as Johnty Gray proposed in sharing his session about the learning at WaterAid towards greater engagement. He’s right, donor journeys are not conversations, they are scripts. He observed even the word ‘donor’ assumes you just value money so WaterAid have adopted the word ‘supporter’. The language you use matters.

Take out 2: Think conversations, not journeys, with your supporters.


The potential for this hit home when Anita Yuen from Facebook took us through the new functionality that not only allows charities to have a donate button on their Facebook page and posts, but for donors to add your donate button to their posts. So, they can start the conversation with their network of friends and encourage them to support the cause they believe in. And of course an ask from them is even stronger. The one example that stood out for me, was when founder of Humans of New York asked people to give to another charity he believed in, resulting in a flurry of donations.

Take out 3: Let your donors and advocates have conversations with their network. Which means they need to know your mission so it spreads.


The session by Zoe Bunter and Alice Ferris stressed the importance of using the right words and understanding the culture of your audience. It boiled down to knowing the values of the audience you want to have a conversation with, because if you align with their values then people will want to support you. Zoe showed how the Church of England attracts more money in donations than the UK’s biggest charity, Cancer Research UK, without having a professional fundraising arm, concluding that it was rooted in the values of people that gave to it.

In the next session, I attended the dynamic duo of Kay Sprinkle Grace and Beate Sörum teaching us how to describe our mission. They gave us a simple exercise of writing a plain speaking paragraph that ends with the sentence “We exist because…”. I recommend you try it.

Kay highlighted that as well as being your WHY and memorable, your mission should be rich in values. From pinning down your real mission, by using the sort of exercise they suggested, and from reflecting on the words you use, and the emotion it conveys, you can begin to understand your values.

Put those two together – knowing your values and knowing those of your potential supporters – you will be ready to talk to people in a way that resonates within the core of who they are. Beate Sörum went on to share an example of putting values into practice from training an army of volunteers in thanking and engaging supporters over social media after a national collection.  By drawing on their values the volunteers could use the right words and phrases in their messaging.

Takeout 4:  To have meaningful conversations know both your values and the values of the audiences you wish to engage. Match the two and you will connect. Values are after all deeply held beliefs that guide our decision making.


On the last day listening to Eva Heininger and Franziska Linkert about Digital Lead Generation I began to appreciate the importance of introducing a consideration stage rather than just pushing for a response. This enables potential supporters to explore for themselves, say by visiting a website where they can, if they wish, arrange someone to call them. Then you need to be ready to engage quickly as soon as someone says ok I’m ready to talk.

A similar point was made in closing the plenary by ‘angelic troublemaker’, Bisi Alimi. He told a moving story of how he spent 4 hours on the streets of Ramsgate after speaking at an event armed with a cardboard sign that stated “I’m an Immigrant. Hug me or ask me a question”. One chap watched him for hours, finally approached, spoke to him, asked questions and then hugged him.

So, people need to take their time, gather information, ask questions and when they are ready then you can embrace them.

Take out 5: Be ready to respond and react promptly when someone wants to speak to you. Not when you want to speak to them. Then you can have a conversation.


A genuine ‘conversation’ has a sense of taking your time with someone, of an exchange. Of listening. Of also having an unknown outcome. This feels different to the response driven communications that interrupt us by shouting, with prescribed pre-determined outcomes, that dominate many fundraising activities.

So, in summary my five take outs:

  1. Have a higher mission that enable others to own it and require you to start a conversation
  2. Think conversations with potential supporters not donor journeys
  3. Encourage supporters to have conversations with their networks about the mission
  4. Know your values and the values of your potential supporters and then connect the two so you have meaningful conversations
  5. Be ready to have that conversation as soon as someone is ready to talk to you. That’s when you have their attention.

Those that follow my blog will be aware that my thinking is this: it is no longer about how to get money out of people, but how to get people to share your mission story. As a result of this week, I can see that to make that happen you need to have a conversation with people who believe in what you believe. And for it to be a meaningful conversation you need to do 1-5. That’s how to make the magic happen.

Just think how that changes our approach to fundraising, if we thought how can we have conversations with people who share what we believe in? Then the questions you need to answer are: “What do we believe in?’, ‘What do our supporters believe in?’, and, ‘How can have a meaningful conversation with them?


To the speakers, and many fellow delegates I had conversations with, thank you for sharing your thinking that has helped progress my own. And, of course, a huge thanks to Kyla Shawyer, CEO of the Resource Alliance, and the IFC team, especially the volunteers for creating the space to have those conversations.

 I realise these take outs could do with further unpacking so I’ll aim to explore each of them in future blogs. If you have examples that help convey them or attended sessions at this year’s IFC and came away with thinking which re-enforces or alternatively counters my line of thought let me know. Let’s start a conversation!


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