What lies beyond financial outcomes: a donor’s perspective on supporting fundraising

 

By Charlène Minster, Manager, Mediterranean Basin Programme and Impact & Sustainability Unit, MAVA Foundation

 

In 2020 and 2021, as part of the support offered by our Impact and Sustainability Unit, we launched two calls for proposals dedicated to supporting the fundraising of our partners. The total support awarded was of CHF 1.16M shared between 23 partners (each grant being of CHF 30-50K). With projects now coming to an end, it is time for us to reflect on this support.

Before we dig into this, please note this blog is not intended as a fully comprehensive analysis of the impact of our fundraising grants. Keep in mind that it is complex to determine the exact amount raised that can be specifically attributed to the efforts developed via a grant. The below seeks to give an insight on some interesting observations we made on a type of support we had not provided in this form until then.

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In the face of a rapidly changing and competitive funding environment, being armed with an entrepreneurial mindset towards fundraising and with a diversified funding model can be key in helping an organisation adapt to unexpected changes.

To help our partners navigate through uncertain times and prepare for success after the end of our funding in 2022, we implemented a two-step approach to support their organisational resilience and long-term sustainability through the development of their fundraising efforts:

  1. Online fundraising course
  2. Call for proposals for fundraising grants

 

MAVA’s approach to supporting financial sustainability

The first step of this approach was for our partners to develop or strengthen a strategic mindset towards fundraising. MAVA partnered with Acumen Academy to develop an online course, ‘Nonprofit Fundraising Essentials: Embrace Entrepreneurial and Strategic Approaches to Fundraise More Effectively’. The course sought to guide organisations, such as our partners, through the main steps of the development of a fundraising strategy. It also provided guidance on how to create and maintain strong relationships with donors. ‘The course offered great framing for important fundraising conversations. No matter where you are in the fundraising cycle or stage of development, the course guides you through really important topics and resources to strengthen the organization’s fundraising capacitysaid one of the course participants. This course was a first essential step for our partners to feel more prepared to venture into an often dreaded and uncomfortable fundraising path. I feel more confident in what we want to do now, I feel that we have a plan…’, shared one of the participants, reflecting the confidence and clarity many had gained through the course.

 

‘Theory without practice is just as incomplete as practice without theory.’

– Assata Shakur

 

As a natural follow up to the course offer, we opened two consecutive calls for proposals dedicated to fundraising activities. Partners who had followed the Acumen Academy fundraising course were given priority consideration. In fact, the calls were put in place to enable our partners to put into practice what they had learnt in the course. It was an opportunity to test and implement the fundraising strategy they had developed during the course.

As solutions and needs were diverse, the calls for proposals were rather open in terms of eligible activities. Amongst others, activities focused on developing communications, such as rebranding, updating a website, or creating visual assets, were accepted as they served to support the credibility of the organisation and the impact of the fundraising activities. The experimentation of new revenue streams and the diversification of funding sources were highly encouraged. What are the streams that bring the highest returns on investment? Which streams are best aligned with staff’s expertise? Where is capacity building needed? It is not often that an organisation has the opportunity to be supported in strengthening staff fundraising capacity and in taking risks and going outside its field of expertise (in our case outside its usual fundraising streams), and we wanted our partners to get just that!

 

What are the key outcomes of our fundraising small grants?

Outcomes are as diverse as there are grants

The diversity in outcomes is reflected in the amount of funds raised during the grant (12 to 15 months in most cases). While the median funds raised is of close to CHF 456,000, the range is wide. Some projects did not raise any funds that can be attributed to the grant; this is the case for projects consisting in a feasibility study for a potential fund, those who tested innovative streams like green digital finance, or those focused on setting the foundations for new streams like earned income. Other projects raised several millions. In any case, financial outcomes are difficult to compare between partners given the difference in organisation sizes, in pursued streams and in the way each partner attributed outcomes to that specific grant.

Anticipating returns on new streams can be challenging and often means lowering short-term expectations

But what is interesting is to get the point of view of grantees. A great way to start is by comparing our partners’ expectations with the financial outcomes. Overall, 39% of the pursued streams reached the anticipated goal. Some partners admitted they were too ambitious at the start of project, particularly considering they were testing new funding sources. Others were more conservative, anticipating the impact of the pandemic potentially preventing them to deploy all planned efforts. In any case, it is worth noting that the estimates were subjective as each partner was setting its own goal based on its own selection of factors.

But how about looking beyond the financial outcomes? Sometimes the activities undertaken in the projects laid the groundwork for other important developments, such as enhanced capacities, improved processes and greater teamwork within organisations.

Practice takes (well-needed) time

Key feedback we received from our partners following the grants highlighted the time they were able to dedicate to fundraising. One grantee mentioned that the grant had been an ‘opportunity that ha[d] enabled [them] to dedicate time to strategic fundraising and thereby to support [their] longer term development outside of project deliverables’. Pablo Garcia Borboroglu from the Global Penguin Society shared that ‘the fundraising grant was critical to be ready for fundraising opportunities, so [they] could capitalize on all of them when they appeared’. Being offered the time – and by time, we also mean staff time – to plan strategically, build capacity, and then experiment, fail, and restart, is precious when seeking to diversify one’s funding sources. We quickly came to realise that financial outcomes were only the tip of the iceberg.

Fundraising changed from being the responsibility of a few people to being adopted by entire teams

Likely coming as one of the biggest learnings from the Acumen Academy fundraising course, we saw a number of partners adopting an integrated and holistic approach to fundraising and dedicated to implementing a fundraising culture within their organisation. Fundraising capacities were enhanced, barriers often persisting between fundraising and programme teams faded and fundraising responsibilities were shared amongst staff. As mentioned by Urban Furlan from Association J’aime ma Planète, ‘the approach has impacted on the modus operandi of the organisation as a whole’.

 

So why invest in supporting fundraising for grantees?

Our learnings from these fundraising small grants are well aligned with the lessons drawn from the overall work of our Impact and Sustainability Unit: Going beyond usual technical project support – in this case by providing fundraising support transversally to our programmes’ partners – enables to consider partners and the system in which they operate in a holistic way. While exact return on investment is difficult to measure, it still seems fair to say that most fundraising projects we supported had a positive (financial but not only) return on organisations at large.

Based on our experience, providing fundraising support in a knowledge & practice two-step approach is a complementary, impactful combination.

✿ Being trained in the tips and tricks of fundraising, having a defined strategy with clear objectives, and being able to put this strategy to the test has the potential to contribute to greater confidence, capacities, and readiness within grantee organisations and their staff.

✿ Testing new streams and diversifying an organisation’s funding sources offers the possibility to reduce the well-known risk of funder financial dependency.

✿ And of course, dedicating time and efforts to fundraising does in most cases contribute to the financial sustainability of partners and their projects.

But here is the rub. Financial outcomes are not always noticeable on the short term. And while as funders we often seek concrete impacts by the end of projects, we need to accept that fundraising support is only the first step of a long, progressive journey that only our partners can lead. As our fundraising grantee Natalie Nicholles from Capitals Coalition said, ‘the milestone projects are complex, transformative, and will take more than a year to realise’.

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