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Reflections On Starting A New Fundraising Role During A Pandemic -with Nova Fundraising In The Wings!

Reflections on starting a new fundraising role during a pandemic -with Nova Fundraising in the wings!

In 2019 Nova Fundraising was commissioned to create the first fundraising strategy for Open Age – an inspirational older person’s charity that champions an active and joyful lifestyle for adults aged 50+ living across West London. That strategy kicked off with the recruitment of Phoebe Thomas-Weeks in January 2020 embarking on her fundraising career, in her first paid fundraising role as the charity’s trust fundraiser.

As Co-director at Nova Fundraising, I had the privilege of helping to recruit Phoebe and mentored her throughout the year. Together Phoebe and I have summarised some of our lessons from building a new trust and grant income stream whilst living through a pandemic, as well as offering some reflections on the many highs (and the occasional lows) of a fundraiser embarking upon an entirely new fundraising career in a small charity… largely from the isolation of her own bedroom!

Building trust fundraising from scratch – with a deep dive into the archives!

As with many charities, starting from scratch is rarely a case of starting out with a blank page.  Early on in creating our strategy, the CEO pointed out that Open Age had some history of past grant applications. Consequently, Phoebe’s first job was to dig into historic filing cabinets and financial records. Her inquisitive and tidy mind had soon catalogued a rich history of fabulous relationships and stakeholders, as well as unearthing several successful funding applications. Fortunately, Phoebe had just under two months before the first National lockdown to become absorbed in the many wonderful stories to be captured about user-experiences in the organisation. She was swiftly onboarded by the warm culture – learning about the charity’s heritage, re-engaging some supportive local foundations, and internally building connections with colleagues who had individually, on behalf of their own projects and ideas, successfully accessed small one-off pots of funding.

Phoebe said, ‘Open Age has SO much going on with it’s Physical; Arts, Culture & Social; and Learning & Skills activities, as well as the various Outreach & Support projects – it took me a while to get to grips with the scale of the charity… I think I still am, to be honest! That being said, what became clear to me within my very first week was just how welcoming and supportive the charity really is. Taking on an entirely new role with only a little bit of experience was always going to be a challenge, but the genuine support of my colleagues, and the continual guidance of Emma & Emma-Louise from Nova Fundraising, has helped me to build my confidence and skills during a really difficult time for us all. It’s a year of my life I won’t ever forget.’

Saying thank you, sharing plans, delivering outstanding stewardship

One of the reasons that Phoebe applied to work at Open Age was her personal affiliation with older generations. Quite simply, the fabulous projects on offer at Open Age lit a fire in her eyes and a warmth in her voice and this was plain to see for the charity’s CEO, colleagues and the grant-funders themselves. Phoebe quickly became proud of the charity and was able to use her passion to write inspiring words; swiftly gathering case-studies and beneficiary feedback to give light and shade to her e-mails and applications to grant-makers. When the reality of Covid-19 really took grip by mid-March, Phoebe witnessed her colleagues making calls to the 4,500+ older people across West London who regularly visited Open Age, listening to their needs and asking questions about how best the charity could help. Quotes and feedback from these conversations contributed to Phoebe’s ability to articulate the importance of the charity’s work; she was able to effectively capture in writing the rapidly pivoting services and their adjustment away from face-to-face service, to phone and Zoom service-delivery. Based on a natural instinct to communicate, Phoebe grasped the importance of sharing plans and she turned the CEO’s updates and plan-shares into dynamic news reports for past and prospect grant-makers, to which they gave encouraging feedback.

Phoebe reflects that being truthful and personable is key with trust funders; ‘Observing and listening to my colleagues at Open Age as they interacted with our members with such care and compassion during a really scary time of their lives, was just the biggest eye-opener for me. The speed at which the staff completely changed the way we support our older members was something that HAD to be captured and documented in ‘real-time’, because I’ve genuinely never seen anything like it. I’m just so pleased I was able to find a style of updating/reporting to our funders which really reflected this dedication. If there is one thing to be taken away from that experience, it’s just how incredibly important it is to be real and personal when managing funder relationships. We’re all humans here, right?’ 

Seizing Opportunities

With Open Age’s swift adjustment of services, and a determination to leave no-older person behind,  Phoebe met the perfect storm of Covid-19 funding opportunities head-on. As her mentor, I enjoyed receiving a weekly barrage of new applications and funding concepts from Phoebe, who was so warmly open to tracked-change-edits and feedback.  With a recent education in drama and literature, Phoebe was inclined to flourish and over-expand her writing (something I could painfully empathise with from cutting my own grant-fundraising teeth 25 years ago). Together, we gradually stripped the applications down to essential words only – plain English and impact-messages – but always maintaining that sense of passion and energy.

‘I think this was the hardest part of the Trust and Grants Fundraising role for me to learn (aside from working in near-isolation and entirely from my bedroom, of course). I just couldn’t understand how all the wonderful things that Open Age does week-in-week-out could be whittled down to just 1500 characters or less. I almost felt like I wasn’t doing the charity justice. Working with Emma I gradually realised that there is real impact to be found in honing the ability to reflect such a massive operation in but a few clear and well-ordered sentences. Developing a combined style of clear and concise with powerful quotes and strong impact statements would be my number 1 advice to anyone starting out in this area of Fundraising.’

Seeking a Balance: Juggling relationship-building with pipeline-building and creative writing.

As with all great trust fundraisers, Phoebe has worked hard on balancing responses to new opportunities and meeting deadlines with writing regular updates and building relationships – both internally and externally.  From the get-go, she built an effective two-week and highly planned proofing process (which included myself, some of her project colleagues, and her CEO). As her confidence has grown the proofing process has lightened considerably, and unless the concepts are brand new (to her and to the organisation) Phoebe increasingly submits proposals more independently. All this in just 3 days per week.

Phoebe says time-management is vital ‘One of the first things Emma suggested I do was to really focus in on my time management. For me, this was an incredibly important lesson to learn early on: I chose to work part-time to continue my journey of recovery after many years of suffering with anxiety, depression and OCD – something which I have always been honest about with my charity, and with Nova – and so learning to manage the workload was not only important for the role itself, but for my ability to continue doing it! It’s great to now be at the stage where I can submit smaller applications independently while still working with Emma and my CEO to develop ideas for bigger projects.’

Not being afraid to ask for help and finding your fundraising ‘people’

Phoebe recognised quickly that with just 3 days per week she could not waste too much time waiting for information or lacking clarity about which projects needed funded. Despite working from home after just two months in the job, Phoebe was able to ask for help from colleagues, her CEO and her Finance Director. Occasionally I would receive an urgent text asking for a check-in – which was exactly the appropriate action for a training fundraiser in a small charity. Many fundraisers kick-off their careers in large charity fundraising teams where there are multiple sets of experienced fundraising colleagues to ask questions about stewardship, language, good-practice and sector-insight. But, when working in a small charity and just starting out on your career, it is vital you know who your cheering squad are. If you don’t have team peers in a fundraising context, the Chartered Institute of Fundraising is a great place to access networks. Or there are several fundraising groups on Facebook. Or do get in touch with us at Nova Fundraising – we love building our work-family and wouldn’t be without them; we’re keen to have YOU join us.

Phoebe comments that ‘Working as a sole fundraiser for a small charity can leave one feeling quite isolated at times, especially when the role is totally new to everyone else working there too. Having mentoring sessions every 2 weeks with Emma & Emma-Louise was probably one of the main things that kept me motivated (and sane!) during those first few months of the pandemic. If you want to find real friends who will support you throughout the highs and the lows of your work then I’d suggest diving straight in to the CIoF or the Facebook groups – they’re full of totally inspiring and lovely people! (the ladies at Nova Fundraising are pretty great too…!!)

zoom call

Tackling the Isolation

The ability to concentrate hard and avoid time-wasting travel and office chit-chat are definitely two of the more positive realities of working alone (from a bedroom in a flat in North East London). But the knock-on effects are of course the bad habits of not moving enough, not taking enough breaks, and the potential pressure of working too long and too relentlessly. Furthermore, particularly in relation to fundraising, there is a danger that grant fundraisers lose out on the anecdotes, new projects under development, and the beneficiary impact stories that can be picked up in the office. Between Nova Fundraising, Phoebe and the Open Age CEO (who is hugely committed to making fundraising work) we were able to embed great knowledge-sharing habits (Phoebe is now regularly asked to join a different departmental meeting every week) as well as regularly being invited to update the whole staff team on successes and upcoming grant-opportunities.  Furthermore, celebrating success can also be a challenge when fundraising without a team around you. Phoebe, with support from her colleagues and CEO, has raised a marvellous £83, 517 with a further £191,309 pending in terms of submitted funding applications.  Phoebe’s colleagues are on hand to celebrate with her via phone and emails! And she regularly sends emails or texts when good news arrives and it is our joy, at Nova Fundraising, to do a little jig with delight every time a grant is awarded to the charity. Everybody needs someone to do a happy jig with, don’t they?

‘Happiness is only real when it’s shared!’

Planning ahead, for a Non-Pandemic Pipeline

The next big challenge that lies ahead for Phoebe and Open Age is to build a forward grant fundraising pipeline, and a plan that doesn’t depend on Covid-19 funding which can be developed despite an unsure service-delivery environment. Our number one piece of advice at Nova Fundraising is to keep in mind the organisation’s overarching strategic direction and (despite adaptions and pandemic-changes), align your fundraising plans with the charity’s ultimate direction and strategy. In the case of Open Age, this is gearing up towards wider-London service-delivery as well as building a national model for active aging. Grant funders like to support a charity with a clear destination in mind and will support the route or journey towards that goal. We observe too many fundraisers who are not able to access or articulate their charity’s ultimate destination (their strategic vision and mission) and we urge charity leaders (whether in small or larger charities) to keep their grant-funders closely involved in the charity’s plans as they unfold in these difficult times. Many grant-funders have demonstrated their flexibility regarding expected outcomes, and as long as the charity informs and involves funders then they will be fundraising with good-practice stewardship in mind.

Phoebe is looking forward to taking this next step, ‘It’s very true that the first 10 or 11 months of my time with Open Age has been almost entirely focused on finding funding to keep supporting our members during the pandemic. I know that I’ve still got a lot of learning to do when it comes to understanding budgets, strategic directions, and the ‘bigger-picture’ stuff, but I’m excited to take everything I’ve learnt this year and move forward with the role and with the charity.’

Covid-Reflections and Mentoring from Nova Fundraising

Phoebe sums up the support she has need to successfully fundraise this year: ‘Throughout 2020 I have relied heavily on my weekly calls with our CEO to help feel part of the team.  His guidance has been vital to my successful onboarding within the charity. In terms of fundraising input, I really looked forward to my bi-monthly fundraising-support Zoom calls with Emma and Emma-Louise. We would kick off with classic ‘water-cooler chats’ about life in general. These chats helped me to feel relatively normal despite working quietly alone at home in a totally new role. Emma was also a tremendous sounding board for input on various applications, pitching the right language and steering my priorities so I didn’t get totally lost or snowed under. I’m also grateful to have built close alliances with colleagues at the charity who run the services for our older members. I’m confident that their clear and dedicated passion for the charity rubs off on me; helping me to reflect this through the stories I tell. It has been a truly strange and unexpected 12 months – I can’t wait to see what’s next for the wonderful community that is Open Age!’

If you and your charity are keen to get started on fundraising, or are ambitious to reboot your fundraising efforts in 2021 but know you need additional skills and guidance – then get in touch or call us on  07717 363295. Supporting and developing new fundraisers is one of the most rewarding parts of Nova Fundraising’s activities – so please let us know if we can help by mentoring or providing interim guidance and management to your fundraisers.

Furthermore, IF you’re just embarking on your fundraising career and want to chat with Emma and Emma-Louise, feel free to share your experience here or get in touch. We LOVE to chat about fundraising – night and day!


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