Direct Mail: Two years on and it’s a completely different picture

The National Youth Orchestra winning the Best Supporter Experience at the National Fundraising Awards

Guest Bloggers | 5 December 2019

The National Youth Orchestra won the award for Best Supporter Experience at the National Fundraising Awards. As part of our Awards Showcase Nicolette Shaw, Development Director at the charity, explains what led up to this win.

It was a bold move two years ago to walk into the board room of a small arts charity and ask for a chunk of our reserves to launch a direct mail campaign. The debate that surrounded this work was all encompassing and I have to admit I put no thought whatsoever to how it would feel two years into the programme. I was so focussed on whether there were donors out there who would support us that I underestimated the importance of looking after them and how much that would change our entire team and its focus.

Let's recap. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO) is one of our national gems. 164 of the most committed, most inspiring and most accomplished young musicians reaching out to teenagers all over the UK with the joy of orchestral music. Last year NYO touched the lives of 15,000 teenagers in the UK in schools as well as the concert hall. It's an incredible privilege for anyone and everyone to be involved with NYO.

Yet, somewhat bizarrely, NYO was operating well under the radar. When I joined in 2013 we had 149 committed givers with the majority of funding coming from the Arts Council and trusts. This is perhaps not that surprising as it had virtually no access to audience data and no real way of capturing a vast database of support. The Alumni group was only 4,500 strong and mainly comprised hard working and shamefully underpaid professional musicians. NYO performed 11 concerts a year compared to the 100 or so of a professional orchestra. As a result, we found a large body of supporters was hard to come by.

Researching our donors

So in November 2017 we undertook a careful and in-depth survey of our existing donors. We rejected the online survey approach and put real time and energy into meeting our donors and challenging them to really get under the skin of why they supported NYO.

What emerged was a simple phrase: "turning talent into brilliance". Although we tend to shy away from using the word "talent" when speaking to our teenage musicians, it had a sense of romance about it that our donors responded to. Our acquisition was themed around this phrase and our stewardship centred on the honest truth that "Because of you... we have a National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.”

It worked surprisingly well. In just two years we have gained nearly 4,000 new donors. We have 801 donors signed up to Direct Debits and this year we proudly accepted the National Fundraising Award for Supporter Experience in July 2019.

It was only at that point that I realised that the real work was about to begin. We had a growing body of donors some of whom had now given to us over 10 times. We invited them to come and see the orchestra in rehearsal in the summer and over 200 of them came. Virtually overnight we had a large donor base who cared about our work and were relying on us to fill their world with orchestral music and youthful joy. It was once again back to the drawing board with some serious questions:

  • How will our brand and the journey of our young musicians stand out?
  • How far can we push our fight against the downward spiral of investment into music education in the UK?
  • How bold can we be with youthful innovation and teenage buzz without turning off our older audience?
  • How can we demonstrate longer term impact when some of our musicians stay with us for short times in their lives?
  • How can we fill our donors' lives with our joy, passion, energy and above all music?
  • How far can we push a clear understanding of how important our donors are to NYO’s very existence?


Our ambitions remain high. Our stewardship programme needs to be the biggest and best programme in the sector. We should become known for the very best donor care and exemplary supporter experience. We will know each and every one of our donors and why they care about us. We will constantly ask ourselves if we can be doing more and if we can bring more to our donors.Nicolette Shaw

Nicolette Shaw is Development Director at the National Youth Orchestra