Choosing to be Great instead of Big

Choosing to be Great instead of Big

Guest Bloggers | 30 August 2017

Damian O'Broin on how small charities can punch above their weight.

For a small country, Ireland has certainly held its own when it comes to Nobel Literature prizes. Yeats, Beckett, Shaw, Heaney – not a bad haul for a country with a population the size of Manchester.

Scotland too has punched above its weight in many ways. Another small country yet one which can claim, among other things, to have invented modern economics (Smith), transformed philosophy (Hume) and scored the greatest goal in World Cup history (Gemmil).

Working in a small organisation or a small country, can be frustrating. It’s tempting to look across at the mega charities in England or the US and envy their scale, resources and impact. If only we had their size we could do things so much better! We could be great!

But greatness is not a function of size, it’s a function of attitude.

Look at some of the businesses that Bo Burlingham talks about in his book Small Giants: Companies that choose to be great instead of big. These are businesses, like Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, who have, Burlingham says “…quietly rejected the pressure of endless growth, deciding to focus on more satisfying business goals – being the best at what they do, creating a stimulating place to work, providing perfect customer service and making important contributions to their communities.”

These are all very noble goals, and also some of the very things that charities should be focusing on doing. Not just because they’re good things in themselves, but because they’re good business practices, and they’re the sort of things that will lay a foundation for donor retention, income growth and creating a positive impact in their field of work.

As my colleague Caoileann Appleby says, “the things that matter most to your donors don’t depend on big budgets and lots of staff”. And in her work as a trustee with Abortion Support Network in London, she helped to grow their individual giving income by 800% over a five year period, simply by adopting good, donor-centred fundraising practices:

  • Thanking promptly and properly
  • Showing progress and impact
  • Getting to know their supporters and responding to their needs
  • Empowering supporters, and
  • Asking consistently


These are things which, with the right attitude,  any charity, of whatever size can do.

And this approach is backed up in our own work in Ask Direct. We regularly use the Donor Voice donor commitment approach with our clients. In essence, this says that donor commitment, as measured by a donors response to a series of simple questions, is the best predictor of donor lifetime value. Highly committed donors tend to give multiple times what low commitment donors give to a charity.

And in the donor commitment surveys we have done with clients, time and time again, the things that are most important to donors – the things that actually drive commitment the most – are the things that any charity can do. Things that don’t cost the earth, and don’t require big budgets to do. What they require is attitude. Because what we found from these surveys, is that the best way to improve donor commitment is with great donor service. Responding to emails. Dealing effectively with queries when your donors call you. Thanking donors promptly – and just as importantly – making donors feel thanked.

That’s how you build commitment, and grow income. And you don’t need to be a monster-sized charity to do that. 


Damian O'Broin leads Ask Direct, a fundraising and direct marketing agency based in Dublin. He helps charities understand, inspire and connect with their donors so that they can raise more money to do more great work. He’s passionate about doing fundraising better, treating donors better all with the goal of making the world better. 

He is a regular speaker at conferences, probably spends too much time tweeting and occasionally finds time to write the odd blog… sometimes even about fundraising. You can find him on twitter @damianobroin


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