A leap into the unknown - fundraising abroad

Mary Smith and children in Ghana

Guest Bloggers | 31 May 2016

Fundraisers are passionate by nature. We have to be. We know that our ability to convince, and clearly present a coherent vision helps our organisations’ survive in an increasingly competitive industry. The money we raise funds projects that make a real difference to people’s lives.

For the last 4 years, I have been Head of Specialist Giving for World Vision, the world’s largest international children’s charity. I have worked for a couple of NGO’s, and I can honestly say that my motivation to deliver hasn’t wavered. My motivation comes from the fact that I have the privilege of connecting people to worthwhile causes that they want to support. 

Last year I took a leap into the unknown – I went on a six month secondment to Ghana. If I knew then what I know now I may well have thought twice. But fortune favours the brave, and any fundraiser who decides to up sticks and head to the other side of planet, where they know no-one, will be rewarded. My professional expertise was confined to the UK and the way we do things here. So six months in Ghana pushed me well beyond my comfort zone. A new role, a new environment, a new culture, a pretty much new everything left me struggling to find my feet but with hindsight I know I’m a better fundraiser as a result. 

My skill set went exponential in the role of Resource Acquisition and Management (RAM) Team Leader - a role with a projected fundraising portfolio of $10 million dollars. 

I learnt what it was like working on the other side of the fence’. World Vision operates a number of national offices which implement our programmes – the money spenders. I know now what it means when a fundraiser needs a project ‘this week’. It means that someone from the field has to arrange last minute travel, fly up to the project area, stay for a few nights in rural areas, get impactful stories and photos and fly back again – putting all their other work and family commitments on hold for the week. 

The new role of RAM Team Leader had two main objectives – to increase funding from institutional donors and to investigate the potential from local companies for Corporate Social Responsibility partnerships. The position was created in response to decreased funding revenue after Ghana was given ‘lower middle income’ status. A positive change for the Ghanaian economy, but a blow for its ability to attract cash from NGOs who prioritise on need alone. 

There were numerous challenges with the two most significant being: 

a) Corporate social responsibility is not a well-developed sector in Ghana

b) I had little experience with institutional donors


Private companies build schools and fund projects as part of their ‘giving back’ to society but they tend not be sustainable. The church is the primary beneficiary of most giving. Charities exist but they have a fairly small brand recognition. Instead, philanthropy is confined to the family unit and it’s not uncommon for wealthier relatives to take on extra children as their own, so it’s understandable that there is little money left over for charitable giving.

As Head of Specialist Giving, I’ve worked primarily with wealthy individuals as opposed to corporations or institutional donors. In the UK you can pay for funding intelligence, but in Ghana there are no prospect research companies or reports written about charitable giving trends, so I was starting from scratch. 

The UNDP’s philanthropy platform launched in 2015 which aims to connect corporates with NGO’s was a starting point of sorts. Ghana was chosen as a pilot country so at least I had some information to work with. 

I was apprehensive about acquiring new donors from audiences I was unfamiliar with. But ultimately relationships are relationships, it’s all about being proactive and reaching out to key individuals who share your ideals. I passionately articulated the charity’s successes, it’s capacity and capabilities. Donors want to see efficacy and I was able to demonstrate that. 

Finding the right person to grow our corporate donor relationships was a key task of my tenure. What was needed to grow a relationship with Voltic, the Ghanaian drinks company, was a talented individual to deliver on their CSR expectations. But how to find the right person? After about 85 CV’s and just three interviews I found the perfect candidate who combined charisma and discipline with relationship management skills. I like to think this was my legacy to the Ghana office. 

One of World Vision’s long term goals for Ghana is to set up child sponsorship paid for and benefitting Ghanaians. Due to the challenges of investment in infrastructure (processes and systems) I decided to start small and recruited the World Vision Ghana board members to sponsor children in Ghana. I had to tweak some established procedures but we got there in the end: the seeds of a local sponsorship programme had been sewn. 

As the title of my new role suggests, my success would be measured by my ability to bring in significant funds. The biggest revenue stream hinged on whether we could research, write and apply for a UN funded grant. As a major gifts specialist my knowledge of grant proposals was untested. 

I had written proposals in the early days of my career, but I hadn’t written one for a multimillion dollar project. The learning curve was steep to the point of overwhelming, but with the help of my team I became an expert in bore hole drilling, rigs, the geology of northern Ghana and the risks of living in a flood prone environment. 

I learnt a huge amount about proposal development and budgeting – and the intensity of the process, the amount of work that goes into writing those concept notes in such a short space of time. 

Full credit goes to the team, who through their passion and commitment made that proposal come to life. Together we were able to distil nuanced technical engineering into a tangible proposal for a water project that will change the lives of boys and girls in rural Ghana. And to top it all, we surpassed our 2 million dollar target by a further $300,000.


My team was great, but the office as a whole suffered from issues that plague all organisations: lack of leadership in some areas, long term sickness and wavering levels of commitment. 

So how was I going to motivate them? It was tricky, especially as people could choose to not engage with me, knowing I was there for only 6 months. But as I got to know people and build relationships with them, they recognised my strengths and the value that I could add. It was working on proposals that brought us together and made people realise that I wasn't overly intimidating. 

I have come back to the UK with a much greater understanding of poverty having lived in the developing world. I have a far better understanding of how institutional donor funding works from the field perspective. I’ve also been forced to look at my approach to work in a different way and be far more appreciative of the commitment of our colleagues in the field, often leaving their families for days and weeks at a time. I’ve broadened my fundraising portfolio which is always an asset and can now quote my first multi-million dollar success. 

Would I recommend fundraisers to go on secondment? Yes, but be careful what you wish for.

Mary Smith, Head of Specialist Giving, World Vision



Dom, VSO | 2 June 2016

Hi Mary, did you face any difficulty in terms of regulations when trying to fundraise for a charity that is registered in the UK?

I'm curious as to whether most countries would have a problem with this, not so much on a major donor level (especially when making applications to the UN), but maybe on a community/ground level? Do you need to be registered overseas to fundraise overseas? Australia seems to have pretty stringent rules, but are they enforced?

Anyone got any experience with this?

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