The appeal of capital appeals

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Charlotte Bray | 12 May 2016

I have a love/hate relationship with change. In my non-work life I am very much a creature of habit. There are certain things I love doing, watching or reading. Given the choice I could potentially live on the same 5 ingredients (mainly cheese related) each week. How funny, then, that I should end up as a capital appeal specialist.

Capital appeals are all about change. Often the work is based on a 2-4 year contract. Much of my experience has involved supporting small charities to undertake major projects with minimal resources. I arrive to a blank sheet, frequently working as a sole fundraiser, drafting the strategy from scratch. Capital appeals can be both terrifying and brilliant. Once you have been involved in one, you will never quite look at fundraising in the same way again.   

There are many helpful tools and formulas to apply to capital appeals. Tables of gifts, for example, demonstrate how your donations are likely to form a pyramid, with the majority of the funding coming from just a few major donations. (You can test one of these yourself by searching on the blackbaud website for their handy 'gift range calculator' tool. Just type your target in and bingo!) Then there's the very careful division of your appeal into the silent and public phases. The first focuses on major gifts from a small number of donors (the top of your table if you like). The second is all the fun but exhausting stuff, like bake sales, concerts and marathons. So, simple if you follow the rules, right? Except, as soon as you start to put them into practice, they are subject to change. The funding environment, technical resources available, people and volunteers, case for support and approach never end up looking the same as they did when you started. Like any of the characters in Game of Thrones, you shouldn’t get too attached to your strategy.

For all the challenges and stresses, there are so many highlights. There is the thrill of starting with very little and watching it grow into a solid and lasting legacy. Because the appeals involve buildings, I’ve ended up working in some memorable places. I’ve helped to build chimpanzee enclosures and workshops, residential homes and church extensions. My offices have been based up turrets and in crypts. For my fourth and current capital appeal, I have a lovely sea view.

Then there are the people. They are always inspiring. Whatever the cause, there are those who are passionate enough to give their all. They donate and volunteer and open their address books and host events just to keep the appeal going. Theirs are the reassuring hot drinks, shoulders to cry on and words of encouragement when you hit the marathon-like ‘wall’. At the point when the finishing line is just out of sight beyond the hill, that’s when you really need the right people around you. They can make or break a project.

On reflection, I wonder whether it is my very fear of change that makes me a half decent capital appeal fundraiser. The combination of creativity and organisational skills are essential when working with minimal resources, a fixed deadline and constantly shifting landscape. I have to be able to draft and work with a strategy that is both robust and flexible. All fundraising has to achieve a balance of proactive and reactive, even more so with capital appeals.

There is one final, major thing to mention: motivation. Every capital appeal is taking the charity involved through a period of major change. For every person that is totally behind it, there is another who is terrified. Why do we need a shiny new building? Weren’t things ok the way they were? How can we ever raise such an enormous target within the set timeline? As a wise person once said (actually I think it was Jon Pertwee) courage isn’t about not being afraid; it’s about being afraid and doing it anyway. If I have something I have to do which is not my usual strength, I use a variety of motivation techniques. I once sat writing a 20 page European Funding Strategy with a big sticky cake in front of me. The art of managing change: find your personal cake. If you are someone who has to work hard to motivate yourself through difficult change, you are likely to have the skills to be able to support others to go through the same.

In the end, fundraisers, whether capital or otherwise, are there to bring about and help people through change. As scary and daunting and unpopular as that can sometimes be, the results will always be inspiring. Let’s celebrate the amazing things we help to bring about.  

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