Cause and effect: Can fundraising be part of a movement?

by Marc Whitmore - 14 March 2017


Following last month's guest post, "What makes a movement?", from Kirsty McNeill, Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children UK, Marc Whitmore considers whether 'movement thinking' can work for fundraising organisations.

It was a real thrill to be able to invite Kirsty McNeill to speak at the recent More Partnership breakfast: “Campaigns and campaigning: money, movements and momentum”. Kirsty and I have been good friends now for nearly 20 years and her discussion with some of the most senior development professionals in the UK was every bit as thought-provoking and stimulating as I've come to expect from one of the country's most accomplished Third Sector leaders.

I was keen to hear Kirsty's thoughts on movements – what they are, what makes them tick – in part because as organisations become more successful at fundraising, leadership inevitably asks: “what next?” Minds turn invariably to wondering how to push further: to raise more, in order to achieve even greater impact.

Equally inevitably, some who consider this question turn to organisations who mobilise the public and their members and ask “is this another way?” This is understandable: just look at the numbers. While recent Ross-CASE data shows total donors to higher education hovering at around c180k, Cancer Research UK alone boasts more than 1m donors (and raised £447m in 2015/16). And that doesn’t even touch on the scale of participation organisations achieve when they coalesce behind a common purpose: think of the millions involved in Make Poverty History, Black Lives Matter or the recent Women's March in Washington and around the world. Seen in this way, having a little envy about what movements can achieve makes perfect sense.

Is this practical? Is “movement thinking” the key to ever-greater performance? Should we unite behind bigger causes? Is it time to stop running “campaigns”, and start campaigning?

Some have already taken their first steps on the journey towards putting the “cause” at the heart of what they do. For example, in reflecting on Kirsty’s comments Gemma Peters, Executive Director, Fundraising and Supporter Development at King's College London and King’s Health Partners explained that the £500m World Questions, King’s Answers campaign embodied a “conscious decision to put the university at the ‘back’, and instead invited the question: ‘do you care about what we care about?’” Doing so shifts the conversation from ‘we’re great!’ towards helping find and build common cause with potential supporters.

Yet while some have started this journey, arguably most have not. And as we think about doing so, we need to ask some big questions if we are to really make it work:

1. Are we willing to identify with causes beyond our own organisations?
Clearly, some institutions can already play the identity card – think the Open University with its clear message of social mobility. But others may well struggle to reach beyond themselves to connect appropriately and authentically with larger causes, to say nothing of the risks of putting your head above the parapet at a time of increasing politicisation of “expertise” and “facts.”

2. Are we really willing to stand up for our values?
If we are to identify beyond ourselves, then we will also have to recognise that identity isn’t just about those with whom you associate: more fundamentally, it’s about the values you stand for and by which you judge yourself and others. Articulating this clearly and bringing it to life in ways which go beyond laminating them in the HR manual or burying them in the bowels of the website is no easy task. Yet my instinct is that such a stance will become ever more critical in the era of no-platforming, Rhodes Must Fall, and Brexit.

3. Are we willing to give up control?
Clarity over purpose and values is a definite start and will enable others to rally to your own flag with much greater ease. However such an approach will also require an internal shift in mindset as command is ceded from the centre to the edges. The mantra of this future world will undoubtedly be “co-ordinate not control.” Which raises the issue – perceptively framed by Lori Houlihan, Vice-Provost (Development) at University College London – of whether that’s as easy to do as it is to write as a slogan: “Universities, like many large organisations, need to look more from the outside in – rather than inside out – we can be very risk averse. How comfortable are we in letting go?

4. Are we willing to invest in brand?
Musing further on the implications of “movement thinking,” Dan Radley – from our favourite creative agency NB Studio – reminds us that “if you want to start a movement, first move me.” Seen in this way, movements are the sum of constantly mutating and evolving individual reactions, thoughts, feelings and moods, reliant as much on fun and laughter as outrage, tears and anger. Such an approach demands inspiration, creativity and the kind of attention to and investment in 'brand' that brings Finance Directors out in a cold sweat. Dan's plea that fundraisers “burn your brochures” was no argument for austerity!

5. Are we willing to invest in the technology needed to enable this?
Finally, while command-and-control may all seem very 20th century, proponents probably argue that at least it has the benefit of a degree of efficiency. Contrast that with “co-ordination” with its far greater premium on communication, time and personal agency. How to achieve this without falling back into the old ways? Well, clearly technology can help and we’re already seeing its impact across fundraising: crowdfunding is engaging different demographics; social media is increasing ways supporters can interact with organisations and each other; “big data” is providing “the centre” with previously unimaginable insights into behaviours. Each adds depth to the understanding we have of those we seek to move: and helps us move them! Yet all of these approaches require new kit, new tools and new skills to make best use of the opportunities each presents.

If we are therefore to fulfil the promise of “movement thinking,” we’ll need to engage with the challenges it presents in a clear-eyed and politically savvy way. The conversation about how we do so is only just beginning, but the vision Kirsty has shown us of where we might get to is an exciting one indeed.