Lessons from the Sessions (2019)

Our second Gherkin Sessions took place on Wednesday 2nd October 2019 and were a great success, providing our attendees not only with the opportunity to network but also to ask our speakers those all-important questions about why they chose the particular fundraising consultant they did.  

Our 3 excellent speakers boast impressive resumés:

Chris Burghes became the first Chief Executive of the Royal Free Hospital in 2010 and has overseen the strategic change of the organisation from a grant-making body to a direct service provider.  Last year the Royal Free had a turnover of £42 million but it only has limited capital funds and this is where the need for fundraising exists.  The Royal Free is not set up to run large capital appeals and so the help of fundraising consultants was required.  They used an AFC member, the IFC, based on word of mouth and the fact that the IFC showed they had the competencies and skills needed for the specific appeal being run.  It was crucial to Chris and the Royal Free that the consultancy they chose had the ability to deliver messages effectively to the charity’s Trustee Board, especially negative messages which the Board may not want to hear.

Pip Wood has been the Chair of Governors at Dr Challoner’s High School since November 2015. She was instrumental in launching and helping run the fundraising campaign for £750,000 for Phase 1 of their Shape their World development plans in 2017/18 which ended up raising £840,000 in just 3 terms.  She is currently involved in Phase 2 of the plan to raise funds to build a new Sixth Form Centre.  Pip has over 30 years’ experience in the communications industry including as Director of Corporate Communications for Sainsbury’s and The British Land Company.   Pip considers that engagement with the parent body is the key element of successful fundraising for schools and that the soundest advice she received from their fundraising consultants was “under promise and over deliver”.

David Wheeldon retired as the Headmaster of King Edward VI Five Ways in 2012 and had previously been the Headmaster of Altrincham Grammar School for Boys.  He is currently the Chair of Governors at King Edward VI Handsworth Girls’ School and is also a Governor of Camp Hill School for Boys.  It is in his governor role that fundraising has become important.  David believes that getting the governors on side is the biggest issue fundraisers face and is very hard to do.  Getting parents on side is slightly easier than the governors but not by much.  He has found it extremely hard to persuade other governors to employ professionals to help schools raise much needed funds and governor support is crucial for any fundraising campaign.  Aligned with this is the need for governors to accept that they will have to make a financial contribution to the campaign personally.   It is also crucial that any fundraising campaign is tailored for each year group as different emotions and requirements are at play with the parents depending on the age of their children.

Below are a few of the lessons learned:

1. What are you looking for in a fundraising consultant other than experience and obvious skills and what would put you off someone?

The most important considerations were whether they liked the consultant, whether they felt they could work with them and whether the consultant was a good “organisational” fit too.

Second, to this was whether the consultant had previous experience with a similar organisation and/or project.

Thirdly was whether the consultant had taken the time to do their homework on the organisation they were pitching to.  Had the consultant taken the time to find out all about us too.

The biggest “put off” was not feeling a connection with the consultant and feeling that there was a bit of “blagging” going on.   Also, the inability of the consultant to deliver negative messages regarding the campaign to the people that mattered was quite a decisive factor in not choosing that consultant.

2. Whilst Universities raise funds from alumni and private/public Schools do so from alumni and parents – who are the target donors in the state school sector?

The panellists had different experiences in this respect.

David had had success in getting donations from alumni in the state schools he had worked in mostly because there were existing Old Student Associations in both schools.  But it is definitely the existing parents that give first, especially in grammar schools.  This is most likely because the parents are extremely grateful their children have got into the grammar school and, therefore, they want their children and the school to do well and have great facilities.

Pip had not had much luck at all with alumni but had found that the existing parents were the primary audience for donations.  It is crucial to target the right parents – there is no point in wasting time approaching those that have no interest in helping.  As part of this, it is vital to have an engaged and involved Head who leads from the front and a compelling story to tell.  Governor support and involvement is also essential not just financially but in terms of time and involvement.

3. What is the internal fundraising capability of NHS Trusts to help other Trusts which are smaller and don’t have the same resources?

It was important to understand that all NHS Trusts need money and most of them are not set up to run any kind of capital fundraising appeal.

The NHS Charities Together group try to get together a couple of times a year to exchange views and ideas regarding fundraising.

All the panellists agreed that the first step is always to get a Feasibility Study to take back to the relevant body, whether that is the parent body, an NHS Trustee Board or the Governors.

4. What do you expect of a fundraising consultant?

There are many expectations but one of the most important is the ability to achieve the required target.

The ability to deliver the project and work together effectively was vital, together with keeping the lines of communication open with constant updating, effectively being your “best mate”. It was also wise to test the consultant out on a smaller project first to see how the consultant performed.

Several approaches had been tried eg. fundraising without a fundraising consultant and also using a non-professional: neither route had worked particularly well. 

It was important to have someone with a proven track record who could give a campaign the rigour and honesty that it needs: especially to push the governing body and the Head in a school environment to try things they might not want to do, new things which perhaps went against the grain a little bit.  Speaking to other local schools to see how they had gone about fundraising had also proved useful in identifying what was needed in a fundraising consultant.  Activities and events which helped engage the parents often made any future fundraising easier. 

In addition, recommendations were very important along with word of mouth. In a school context, it was crucial that the governing body and Head were willing and able to listen to the consultant and take on board the consultant’s advice. For small scale fundraising, the parent body was pretty effective, but for a larger capital campaign professional help was needed, although it was still important to ensure the parents and any parent body were also involved and onboard.

5. How do you go about bringing people close to the “cause”?

It was recognised that it was important in the to tell a great fundraising story but that some parents/patients just don’t want to get involved and that sometimes the school/NHS Trust is reticent to ask because the “story” is a sensitive one.

In the health sector, HIV and mental health issues were always two areas where the people involved don’t usually want their story told due to the stigma that, unfortunately, is often still attached to these issues.

It is crucial to get positive people on board and not to waste time trying to get people involved who just didn’t want to be. Also, there is no point telling a family’s story as part of a campaign if the patient or the parents are not willing to be involved in the campaign.  The most important thing is to have someone who is a great advocate for the campaign, whether that be a patient, parent, governor or the Head.

Getting the right people/parents involved was crucial to the success of any fundraising campaign in the education sector.  A school usually has lots of parents with resources at their fingertips and who are willing to help either through their time or their businesses.

6. How would you go about looking for a new fundraising partner?

There were a number of techniques that had been used:

  • Googling
  • Word of mouth
  • Recommendations from others who had run similar campaigns
  • Asking colleagues who they would not recommend

Also, it was important to tailor the fundraising to your audience and geographical area and so local consultants were good and consultants with experience in the particular area of fundraising proposed were also good too.

7. Have you had any negative experiences with fundraising consultants?

There had been some. One consultant had been more concerned with getting paid than with actually moving the campaign forward in any meaningful way.

Any fundraising consultant needed to be committed to the campaign and also needed to be able to explain to any relevant board/body that they also needed a tremendous commitment to the campaign.  An effective way of delivering that message was crucial.

Communication was the key to a successful experience.  As long as there was open and honest dialogue any issues could be worked out which is why it was so important to choose a consultant that you have a rapport with.

The feasibility study was very important in ensuring a positive experience. It was important that the study was honest and not untrue.  It was better for a consultant to say that the feasibility study showed that things were “just not there yet” rather than to pretend everything was “good to go”.

8. Have you used online techniques to assist with your fundraising campaigns?

Chris had used most of the online platforms for single and small donations but in the case of a major capital campaign, he tended to recommend the more old-fashioned method of contacting previous patients directly.  As a result, it was vital to stay in touch with patients generally in order to have that relationship to call on in the future.

Pip had found that the face-to-face method has always worked best.  Email is often used to keep people informed of progress and developments but not as a means of contacting individuals to ask for donations.

David had found that having an Old Student organisation and/or database was crucial in raising future funds for school projects.  It was important not to only used this for asking for money, but to also use it to inform alumni about developments at the school and any achievements etc.

9. Did you think it was the fundraising consultant’s role to go out and ask for the money for you?

Not at all.  It was important to all our panellists that they had a relationship with the donors themselves so they wanted to be the ones to ask.  

The fundraising consultant was important in helping them establish the best way to structure the campaign and ask for the money but not to do the actual asking for them.

10.  How much does the cost/fee matter?

In a school, it is the governor’s role to ensure that there is value for money and so if the fundraising consultant is the right person for the job then the cost is not the be all and end all.  If all the other necessary elements are in place but the fee seems too high then a conversation would be had to see if the cost could be reduced.

In state schools there is not a lot of money to spare so cost does play a part in the decision, whilst in the NHS the cost is not relevant, it is all about who will do the best job.

11.  If you have an in-house fundraiser, how can they persuade the bosses to use an external professional?

There is always a risk that the in-house fundraiser has limited experience and skills and that as a result, the campaign won’t work as effectively or possibly even completely fail.

The first step is to at least get the bosses to meet the external fundraising consultant so they can make an informed decision for themselves.  Also, to persuade them to talk to others who have used an external consultant to see how they felt about it, why they chose to use one and what the benefits were.   Maybe try to get them to at least use the external consultant to carry out the feasibility study.

12.  In the education context, who are the consultants selling themselves to? Is it the Governors, the Head or the Bursar?

Generally, it is the governors and the Head.  Every Chair of Governors must have a means of direct contact with the Head and so it is often best to approach the Chair first and get them to then talk to the Head.

13. Have things changed over the last 10-15 years in terms of what you need from a fundraising consultant?

Generally speaking, in the school sector, things have stayed pretty much the same but more money is needed so the fundraising campaigns are bigger.

In the NHS sector, the requirements of a fundraising consultant have stayed constant but a much quicker turnaround is needed and expected nowadays.

14.  Which method of payment is preferable – a set fee or a percentage of the amount raised?

It is rare in today’s world for a consultant’s fee to be based on a percentage of the amount raised and those consultants that ask for this method of payment tend to be avoided.

If an organisation wanted to pay in this way it should ring alarm bells as it suggests that either they don’t have the necessary funds to pay the consultants fee or they do not have enough or sufficient approval from within the organisation to run the campaign.

15. There seems to be a lack of knowledge and understanding in the school sector of how it all works – how could we help to improve this?

A good starting point would be to get previous or existing clients to talk to any new less experienced ones to explain how the fundraising process all works.

16. Would it help if fundraising consultants came to speak at conferences and events for specific sectors?

One suggestion was for the AFC to provide a list of those organisations currently using consultants which could then be shown to new users and donors.   It is important that members of organisations like the AFC are upfront about who they are working with, obviously with client approval.

Another suggestion was that those clients who have successfully used a fundraising consultant could talk to new and potential donors about how it all works and the benefits involved.

17.  Would any of you consider using more than one consultancy, eg. for different aspects of a fundraising campaign?

It is definitely a possibility but you would need to be sure that all the consultancies would get along together and work collaboratively.  But it would depend on the sector and the campaign. 

For small capital campaigns such as the school sector ones, only one consultancy would be needed in reality.

18.  Would you consider using one consultancy for the feasibility study and another for the main campaign?

The preference was to use the same one for both.   It would be hard to explain why the consultancy was good enough to carry out the feasibility study but not good enough to run the actual fundraising campaign.

The overall consensus was that it was difficult to think of a reason or scenario as to why you would want to change.  It would involve a lot of work and repetition and by extension extra cost.

Several consultants mentioned that they often only get asked to carry out a feasibility study and nothing more.   It was commented that this might just be because the organisation was at a particular point in their thinking/planning process and, in addition, it is often hard to decide on whether or not to run the campaign at all until the feasibility study has been carried out.

Often the feasibility study itself highlights whether the consultant and the organisation can work effectively together, whether the campaign is feasible at all and whether there are the sufficient and necessary leadership skills in the organisation to take the campaign all the way.

19.  How many organisations who commission a feasibility study go on the have a successful campaign?

A lot of this will depend on the robustness and honesty of the feasibility study.

Obviously, if clients fail to follow the recommendations in the feasibility study the successfulness of the campaign will be affected.

It is important as a fundraising consultant to have the integrity and honesty to say to a client that they should stop the campaign if and when things start to go wrong rather than just continue with a campaign that is falling apart.

It was also important, as part of any feasibility study, to be honest enough to say that using a fundraising consultant might not be the best option for a particular client and that it would be better for them to try corporate fundraising or to recruit a more qualified and skilled in-house fundraising director and use them.

20.  Is the timing of the feasibility study important?

Yes, absolutely.  These studies can often be done too early.  Ideally, they should be done right before you want to start the campaign.

Only about 50% of studies result in a campaign being launched due to the decision making in the organisation concerned grinding to a halt.  Therefore, it is crucial to get the timing of the study absolutely right.


Our AFC Chair, Caroline Hutt, summed up the 8 most important elements of a successful relationship:

  • A good fit between the organisation and the consultant – that all important personal relationship
  • The consultant needs to have experience in the particular type of campaign and/or sector
  • The consultant must have done their homework on the organisation
  • Boards/Trustees/Governors need leadership from within the organisation and from the consultant
  • Communication is crucial
  • Honesty and rigour with the client is vital to keep them on track
  • Research into the consultant is also important to ensure there is a proven track record
  • Feasibility Studies are all important and they must be honest and transparent

Reasons why relationships between the client/organisation and consultant sometimes fail are:

  • A lack of honesty and transparency in the relationship
  • A lack of communication
  • A lack of energy and momentum in moving the campaign forward