Tearing up the traditional fundraising models

7th August by Jo Hastie

Published on


Gemma Sherrington is Executive Director of Fundraising and Marketing at Save the Children UK after joining the charity in 2007 and holding a range of director-level positions there. She was also responsible for launching Christmas Jumper Day in the UK in 2012.

Gemma wasn’t even permanent in the Executive role, when she initiated a new, innovative and audience-focused fundraising operational model at the charity - a model that also wasn’t embedded before Covid hit.

We talked to Gemma about how the new structure has worked, given the challenge of the last six months, and how this new way of working can help deliver Save the Children’s mission to educate, protect and help children survive around the globe now and in the future.

Gemma Sherrington image

Creating a more audience-centric organisation

As the impact of Covid became apparent in the UK, Save the Children faced many of the challenges confronting other charities; its shops closed and all fundraising events were cancelled. Gemma Sherrington and her team prepared worst, medium and best-case scenarios for drops in income, with 25% at the worst. But it’s now looking likely the drop will be between 10 and 15%, and although the senior leadership team took a voluntary 10% pay cut, the charity has not had to make any redundancies and has, in Gemma’s words ‘been able to weather the storm relatively well’.

Part of that resilience was down to previous strong investment in fundraising at Save the Children, with a wide and varied portfolio meaning not all fundraising channels were as badly affected.

As well as quick decisions to reduce spending, the charity was also able to respond rapidly to the needs of the organisation in terms of supporting people suffering from the impacts of Covid, both here and overseas, as a result of restructuring that had taken place earlier in the year.

The restructure came out of a review of Save the Children’s current operational model and a long-term aim to deliver on being a more audience-centric and responsive organisation, meeting supporters' needs and expectations. It was a shift in early 2019 that the charity decided to make because they believed it would give them long-term lifetime value of supporters that they needed to meet their mission.

The traditional models of working at Save the Children for Gemma were becoming inefficient, with different fundraising teams working in silos and “all marketing against each other to reach their targets - the experience for a supporter could be really fragmented”. Creative, skilled people were stuck on a treadmill, doing the same thing every day. “I oversee brand and public engagement in the round and from my vantage point, I could see we are competing against each other, we were wasting effort in transaction between all of the different teams, we were becoming less than the sum of our parts”.

For Gemma, this method of working meant that sector was lagging behind the commercial world which was, in comparison, offering people new levels of choice, speed and consumer experience and control:  “There has been a general sea change, not just in the charity sector but in commercial brands as well, where if you are more focused on meeting the needs of the audience and audience experience, you create deeper, longer brand connection and loyalty than if you just focus on transactional product marketing.”

The review made Save the Children step back and think – if they were going to disrupt their operating model completely, what would it look like? And how could they integrate brand, fundraising and campaigning in order to give their supporters a better experience?

Agile methodology

The methodology Save the Children chose to transform their structures and decision-making was ‘Agile’, a management practice that originated from software development in the early 2000s but is now used in all business areas in the commercial sector. It is a practice that enables organisations to master continuous change in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The model was implemented across the organisation, but its impact was felt most in the mass marketing and mass fundraising teams.

Gone were the traditional fundraising product teams with heads of departments and a separate digital division. In, were four agile ‘squads’ with all the expertise they need to make decisions and deliver. New roles and job descriptions were introduced that hadn’t been seen across the sector before, with a new distinction between line managers responsible for pastoral care and managers of activities.

The four squads map against a marketing life cycle:

  1. Creating awareness, capturing the imagination of as many people as possible.
  2. Acquisition; the moment of conversion.
  3. Loyalty
  4. The Moment squad – an additional team integrating all the above around specific events, for example a humanitarian response.

As an example of how this new model works, when the pandemic hit, Gemma and her team set overall objectives for the squads (including cash in year, a Covid response and maintaining a brand profile in earned media), rapidly repurposing resources, people and activities.

The awareness squad worked on the brand profile, identifying ways to reach new audiences. This included the ‘Save with Stories’ initiative, working with artists and influencers reading children’s stories for families stuck at home, to help raise funds for children and families around the world who have been hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis.

The moments squad led on the overall appeal, with an incredibly fast turnaround time. The squad partnered with Save the Children’s programme arm, UK Impact, to give the appeal a more directly relevant UK angel, exploring questions around audience – what do they care about, what do they need? Within three weeks, an emergency grant programme had been established for people who suddenly found themselves in poverty overnight as a result of Covid and needed food and other basic items. It was a very creative and responsive reaction to the crisis, identifying a gap for the charity to have impact and worked really differently, but really well.

For many humanitarian donors, their donation is often a transactional one, responding to a cause rather than a particular organisation. The loyalty squad’s job was to build on the work of the awareness and acquisition squads to create a meaningful journey and to maintain lasting relationships with donors. Performance so far has been strong.

Learning and change

Covid provided a huge challenge as staff were only just learning their new roles – some were still disoriented, with deep specialists being asked to be generalists. This has made it a difficult time for some of the team. However, the new model made it very easy to pivot all activity, with a methodology that allowed the charity to set an objective which everyone worked towards. Gemma admits this has been a period of constant learning and adapting, and that some of the quality of their materials wasn’t as high as it could have been right at the start, but ultimately the immediate and tangible benefits she has witnessed over the last few months has verified the decision that had been made to do something radically different in the sector.

Despite consultations, forums and workshops for people to help shape the changes, staff reactions were mixed. Gemma states that she has lost some good people who didn’t want to work in this new way or because the simplified structure meant that some roles were now duplicated and no longer needed. Some staff were scared of the new responsibility and taking new risks. Others have relished the increased autonomy, new opportunities and flexibility. For Gemma “this process has really highlighted the historical, hierarchical way of working was really hampering people’s creativity and ability to take on lots of responsibility”. Talented staff are now finding their feet: “It was a big move for a lot of people… in all honesty, it was really daunting, because there was no example in the sector where you could look and say ‘oh look it’s exactly like that charity did it…’”

The last few months, Gemma states, have just been “dipping a toe in the water… I estimate this will take around 18 months to fully embed” but alongside her leadership team, she is making regular assessments of what’s working, what isn’t, and “making sure that the bungee rope of old ways of working doesn’t tempt and pull people back.”

The new model means that from the CEO to the bottom of the hierarchy at Save the Children, there are now only six layers for the entire 350 members of staff in Fundraising and Marketing, ensuing a much more flatline structure.

At AAW, we’ve been saying that for charities to survive in the future, they will have to face change and be agile and innovative. Gemma, a self-confessed ‘ambiguity and change junkie’ agrees: “It all starts with insight, understanding the people you’re trying to engage. Start there and the answers will come. Anyone who is not externally focused and stuck in their organisational bubble will struggle.  The world is changing at a breath-taking pace and we have to be able respond quickly so we don’t get left behind. Our missions deserve it”.