Built to last

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How to achieve sustainable fundraising growth

In a world of finite resources, we’re finally realising that our old system of take, make, waste and start again cannot be sustained. As we mobilise to protect our planet from the worst ravages of consumerism, the concept of sustainability has become ubiquitous in our culture. It’s a word that has taken on many meanings in all of our lives.  

The principles of sustainability can also be applied to fundraising. In this case, sustainability means the ability for growth to be maintained in the long-term without the need to continually re-start the effort put behind it. But curiously, considering the popularity of the word, it’s a principal that - for many reasons - few charities have put into practice.

As the sector emerges from one of its most financially devastating years ever, most charities have considerable shortfalls in income to make-up. But with fundraisers facing the double whammy of tight budgets and a shrinking audience (over a fifth of the UK population are now financially worse off), there’s unlikely to be a quick fix. The time to take a sustainable approach to fundraising is now. 

So, how is sustainable fundraising achieved? In my view it has four essential cornerstones. Each is substantial, none are new-news but all, to some degree, are often side-stepped because they can be challenging to tackle. But get them right and the path to sustainable fundraising growth opens up.

They are: 

Knowing your targets for the medium and long term.

One year planning is tactical, and it is the enemy of sustainability.  To quote the late Peter Drucker: “long-term results cannot be achieved by piling short-term results on short-term results”.

It may sound obvious but it’s essential to have a three or five year fundraising target in order for it to be achieved. The breakeven on business-as-usual (BAU) can be up to two years for new acquisition. For step change growth it can be even longer. If these are not being worked on in year one, then we cannot reasonably expect them to be achieved in year three.  In order to give them the best chance to succeed, growth targets and budgets should be separated out from BAU and given their own KPIs. 

Being audience centric

Charities have by and large led with their beliefs and picked up an audience of people who happen to share these in their wake. This approach often misses out on large segments of potential supporters who would considering giving to the charity if only the cause was framed in a way that was more relevant to their worldview. Consumer brands are innately customer-centric. They know exactly what their customers need from them and their marketing is a laser-sharp reflection of that.  In a tougher market, charities are increasingly competing with consumer brands, and so must learn from them. This means spending longer getting to know their audiences and then being much more consciously focused on being relevant to them.

Recognising the importance of brand

Brand is essential for achieving sustainable growth – not as a stand-alone end-in-itself, but as part of an integrated marketing strategy. Supporting a charity is not a moment in time or a transaction - it is a journey. Brand is what takes people on that journey. Brand creates belief in a cause and the desire to support it, and continue supporting it. It needs to be focused on hard targets. It needs to be audience-centric. For growth, it is essential to invest in brand confidently and consistently.  A single integrated long-term campaign run over a year or more is much better for long-term growth than a series of short-term ones. Long-term campaigns will deliver in the short term, but the reverse is not true.


The fundraiser’s competitive advantage is creativity. Great creative connects people to causes at a personal, emotional and sometimes visceral level. When we support, we support from the heart not just from the head. It is creativity that touches the heart. The best creative ideas are sustainable in that they are enduring and build familiarity and trust. It is vital that they are invested in too.

Nowhere is great creativity more important than in the digital space where the sector is relying on step-change growth but where engagement is always only ever a thumb-swipe away from being lost. Creativity alone is what gives a cause its split-second chance for success.

To quote the great Bill Bernbach:
“An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.”

Sustainable growth begins now

Human resources are scarce and BAU needs to keep running. That takes time, commitment and energy. Because of this, it can be hard to find the time to step back and tackle the bigger challenge of sustainable growth. But without doing so, it will remain elusive. Find the people and time to do so and your programme is guaranteed to find a new strength and momentum. 

At Arthur we’re lucky to be working with some incredible clients that are on the journey to sustainable fundraising growth, including the RSPCA and Centrepoint. If you’d like to chat with us about how we’re doing it, feel free to get in touch!    

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