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Teamwork: working with Management, Trustees and Donors to raise funds

[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series that looks into think tank funding models. It is based on a course that Politics & Ideas has delivered to a group of think tanks in Central Eastern Europe and Nepal]

Even organisations with a strong and well-functioning fundraising unit need further involvement to succeed in raising funds. This post considers some additional pieces of the puzzle separately: senior managers, members of governance bodies (e.g. trustees, board members), and the donors. We have already discussed how the communications unit (if existent) can be helpful.

The management

Executive directors of think tanks often have heavy fundraising possibilities. In some think tanks, this is a natural circumstance which does not pose major problems. However, in other scenarios it can be more challenging. For example, those in leadership positions sometimes find it very difficult to do research, manage the organisation, and do fundraising at the same time. They might prioritise investing themselves in core functions of the think tank like policy research planning and influence. In addition, in certain cases the managing director is uncomfortable in delegating these tasks due to control or competency concerns or is not duly convinced of the value of professional fundraising (broadly understood), which might leave those in charge of fundraising somewhat alone.

Whatever the distribution of fundraising responsibilities, it is essential for the executive director and its fellow senior staff members to be fully committed to the fundraising effort. Indeed, committees that evaluate projects or funding proposals usually include executive directors and senior managers.

The trustees

Think tanks that have solid governance bodies can greatly benefit from them in fundraising terms. However, this is not always the case. In some organisations, the trustees are mostly concerned with legal, financial and strategic oversight, which does not necessarily mean they will make it their own responsibility to help the organisation obtain funds. As with managers, they may not be familiar with fundraising techniques nor be persuaded that it is their job to pursue it.

It is reasonable to assume that in most cases, board members will be relevant individuals with good connections, and in turn they have great potential for fundraising purposes. Some think tanks have it useful to involve them beyond their compulsory board meetings. For example, CIPPEC (Argentina) has a small committee within the board that is specifically devoted to funding, with the participation of some senior staff members. In sum, trustees can not only approach donors themselves: they may be a good source of advice for the fundraising unit or the executive direction when devising strategies to do it.

Generally speaking, board members provide more value when they have explicit and personalised goals set for them (see how Grupo Faro has strengthened its board of directors). On one hand, it is important to match their preferences and skills to their goals, which implies that those with a flair for fundraising would be crucial to a committee like the one mentioned. On the other hand, fundraising support can be expected from all board members (i.e. in non-profits).

Working with donors

Relating to a donor is not just a contractual question. Ideally, donors and trustees are bound by a relationship based on the ‘mutual commitment of resources to a shared future’ (McCrea and Walker, 2013, pp. 71-72). This perspective has a long-term horizon: any one-off contribution, grant or contract can be only the beginning of an enduring relationship. Moreover, it is a collective perspective whereby any donor becomes part of a larger network of individuals and organisations that collaborate towards a common end – the think tank’s mission. The best donors are partners, and the best possible modus operandi is to work together rather than being recipients of their resources.

Developing relationships can be challenging when the only available channel is a website to submit electronic applications. However, this is not generally the case. Some donors may be easily accessible for face-to-face meetings, while others may be located in distant countries. But it is increasingly possible to find moments for conversation and exchange of ideas that at some point amount to personal relationships – be that through e-mail, conference calls or occasionally in conferences or workshops. What matters is the willingness to listen and have conversations rather than simply following application procedures or submitting formal requests (McCrea and Walker, 2013).

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