Empty Chairs - Filling the Fundraising Gap
28th June By Imogen Ward
Annamarie Hassall is a passionate advocate for children. Her career spans over 30 years as a children’s service practitioner and strategic lead for local authorities, central government, the private sector and now as Director of Practice and Programmes at the National Children’s Bureau (NCB). Here she reflects on building a fundraising department at NCB literally from zero when fundraising became part of her remit last year.
Building a better future for children
I work for the National Children’s Bureau, a charity dedicated to building a better future for children. We do that through influencing policy, practice and legislation, as well as capturing and amplifying the voice of children and their parents and families. We work to tackle inequalities to try and give all children the opportunity for good outcomes and, where children are having a tough time, ensure their needs are identified even earlier.
NCB has its own Board of Trustees but its broad remit includes a ‘family’ of organisations with while also bringing together a number of organisations with a single-topic focus and an advisory board, this includes Anti Bullying Alliance, Sex Education Forum, Childhood Bereavement Network and Council for Disabled Children. At NCB we work wherever we can with other charities, specialist organisations and local delivery partners; the collaborative approach is part of our DNA.
I have been at NCB for nearly six years and I’m the Director of Practice and Programmes, which I describe as ‘the Director of Getting Stuff Done’; I have oversight of a whole range of programmes and delivery around the country. The job was an opportunity for me to take skills from the private sector and my experience of working with Government and bring that back to my early focus on Children’s social care as well as the values and ethos of working in the charity sector.
In January 2018, my remit expanded to include new responsibilities after the director in charge of fundraising left for a new job. In these tough times, we saw having one leader less as part of our leadership team as an opportunity to reduce costs and share the workload.
As my boss informed me she has never seen me leave a room empty-handed, coming out with a partnership, a relationship or a promise, I was given responsibility for fundraising!
There were several surprises in store for me, however. Before the outgoing director left, we had been through a restructure and literally everyone in that department left for new jobs. That was just one of our challenges. The outgoing fundraising team hadn’t developed any new relationships. I have never seen such an empty pipeline before with no prospects, trusts, foundations and hardly any live fundraising activity.
I also learnt we didn’t have any sort of systems in place to support reporting and analysis, which meant we initially had to build some basic spreadsheets and some quite manualised approaches.
This was a lesson for me as well, that I had been part of a leadership team that hadn’t asked more questions and really opened my eyes to bringing more visibility to our work and transparency for the whole of the organisation, as well as for the leadership team and trustees.
The first thing we did was to hire an interim fundraiser. Some of my previous roles have involved business development in the private sector so raising funds wasn’t completely alien to me and I have always believed that fundraising is one of the most important things we do at NCB. However, I was extremely grateful to our interim for agreeing to stay on for six months and not walking away when he realised he was working on his own and with a leader relatively inexperienced in this area.
That introduction to fundraising was the worst and best of times for me. On one hand it was completely in my hands to shape change and I had the full support of our trustees and our strategic team. But I also had other commitments, my team and a deficit budget, feeling like the responsibility for the future of the organisation lay with me essentially. It was an exciting, exhilarating and scary time with a number of sleepless nights, but I remained enthusiastic for the future.
The first thing I did was to establish a fundraising advisory committee which would act as a sounding board for the path we would take to transform fundraising, to approve investments and to throw some energy behind our plans. We quickly agreed a new structure for a Head of Fundraising and two fundraising officers.
At that point, we involved AAW to recruit for the senior role. My experience of working with AAW was completely different than working with other recruitment agencies and from the beginning they showed how specialised their work is in this area, understanding completely what we were trying to do with the department. When I first talked to AAW, I was planning to go to another agency to recruit the junior roles immediately to build the team, but Imogen Ward of AAW advised otherwise.
Imogen recommended it would make a much more attractive proposition to candidates to be able to recruit their own teams and choose exactly who they needed for each role. That made sense to me thinking of going into new roles in the past – I have always helped nurture and develop existing staff, but it has been fantastic in other roles where I have been able to go in and build my own team, even though it is tough as go in from start and work from the ground up. Now I had to be more strategic and think about the long-term game, even though it meant more work and less help for me in the immediate term.
The consultancy approach to recruitment
The process with AAW felt much more of a consultancy and advisory process, not just a recruitment relationship. I felt I was working with someone who really got under the skin of what we were trying to do, and not only supported but gave me the right sort of challenge back.
I also respected AAW’s honesty – I would have loved it if they could have taken on the full package of recruiting the whole department, but their specialism is executive search. So we went to another agency but worked the timeline for recruitment around the director role.
I also really valued Imogen’s advice on the recruitment process. I am used to working my way through a large number of CVs when recruiting, but Imogen recommended that she would do the first sift and only present CVs to me of people she thought would be a great fit for our organisation, something equally as important as the skill set. At this point I really trusted Imogen, so when she said “trust me, don’t measure our success on the number of people we bring to you but on those are a good fit”, I knew she would just bring me the best people available.
She also advised having a preliminary informal conversation with everyone on the longlist before the interviews, in person, via skype or a phone call. I found having a discussion about ways of working, values and really getting underneath what is on someone’s CV was a very beneficial approach and meant that people in the actual interviews were more relaxed and we got the best out of them on the day, having got to know each other a bit in advance.
Our final choice, Ros, was a fantastic match for the job. She was totally unfazed and pragmatic coming into a complex organisation with all our ‘sub brands’ and different income streams and willing to follow a staged approach, keeping some essential things running whilst also recruiting a new team. We had a full team established by mid-August and after eight months, we have now secured almost six million pounds worth of new work. From a standing-still position, the team is really motoring!
I feel like we have a completely melded approach now, working as part of a wider team including delivery teams, finance, research, policy and communications. There is still much to do and we need to expand into a more diverse range of fundraising activities, but witnessing the progress of the team we have now is phenomenal, with a bid success of around 50%. Our internal culture has also changed – our mantra now is that everyone is a fundraiser and has a connection to the fundraising team. It’s not ‘them and us’ anymore, we all have equal shares in the successes and equal learning from what hasn’t been successful.
Another step-change is that we have done a lot of myth-busting on why we might not have been successful in the past. The team are now securing true and accurate feedback and building stronger and better relationships with funders. Our focus is now on the long-term, not just the immediate and to build a pipeline over several years. As a charity, we are now respecting the time it takes to develop meaningful relationships and the importance of a collaborative approach to fundraising, which goes back to the heart of the way NCB works.
It now feels like an absolute privilege to be doing this job; I am very proud to be part of the fundraising team and the direction of travel and transformation we’ve had at NCB.