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| Posted by: Prospectus

A lunchtime chat with Ken Burnett

Earlier this month, the fundraising team at Prospectus were lucky enough to have lunch with the talented and experienced Ken Burnett. Ken is a well renowned consultant in the fundraising sector, as well as an author of a number of influential fundraising books, including Relationship Fundraising, a topic that is briefly explored within this article.

Ken started his fundraising career at ActionAid in 1977 where he worked until 1983, when he left to start Burnett Associates, an agency he founded that produced original, donor-focused and effective communications campaigns. Ken has worked with over three hundred different organisations; most notably, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Royal National Institute of Lifeboats, National Trust, NSPCC, Save the Children and UNICEF. Ken runs a blog where he writes regularly on relationship fundraising, donor experience and the meaning of life. You can find it here.

We started our conversation with an important question:

What do you like about Fundraising?

I, like many others, came into fundraising almost by accident. I was inspired by how fundraising can influence people to do good things. I have always thought that what we do in the charity sector is fabulous. This is mostly what inspired me to write my books; I believed I could do something to make a positive change in the world. The voluntary sector really is a national treasure.

I really do enjoy everything about fundraising; it is challenging and it is not self indulgent. It is a great role for dreamers, people who dream of changing the world. Good people can really excel in fundraising, but they must be challenged, in my experience; when you stretch people, they surprise themselves.

Do you believe fundraising should be scrutinised as much as it is currently?

This is a really tough question. I do not think the sector should belong to regulators.  I would not define myself as an expert in this area, however I think it is fair to say self regulation has not worked.  I believe the media’s take on Olive Cooke put us in a bad light; nevertheless we should have been condemning certain behaviours long before that.

I would argue that the problem arose from increasing financial targets, which encouraged fundraisers to become more focused on reaching those targets, and less on donor experience. I think the scrutiny is just and it should encourage us to incorporate a stronger focus on relationship focused fundraising, with a positive donor experience.

How can we increase the public’s understanding of charities’ financial responsibilities?

This is an enormous role and one that I do not think I have an answer to. There seems to be a notion that administration core cost are a negative thing and it should be kept to a minimum. This should not be the case. For an organisation to run well we need the best people involved, yet there seems to be a perception that they should be paid very little. I believe this is an important communication challenge.  

I find that, in the fundraising sector people are often eyes down on their career. This needs to change, and we should be focused on an exceptional donor experience.

What would you say makes a great fundraiser?

First and foremost, a great fundraiser must be passionate about the cause. I believe we make an immediate mistake if we think skills are instantly transferable between different organisations.  You must believe in what you are selling, you must be inspirational. There should be a stronger focus on story telling, engagement and inspiration. Inspiration is like pollen, it spreads.

A word of advice, only work for causes you truly believe in. At Burnett Associates I encouraged employees to work for causes they were passionate about.

Lastly, how can we change the public’s perception of the charity sector?

I like to think of the world as predominately good, although I would say the world is hardening.  I think in order to change the public’s perception, we need to tell our stories with passion.  In fundraising, we have some of the most inspirational, moving stories to tell and the best reasons to tell them.

In order to change perception we must know what the public are thinking, this is why feedback is key. I like to think of this feedback as the “Five F’s: Famous for frequent, fast and fabulous feedback”. I think a highlight here is that we have to go back to people quickly.

I would also add, to change perception you need the right people in place. Charities should recruit the best, most suitable, most committed fundraisers. I guess this is where you guys come in. Having the right people in the right roles is crucial, without this we fail. Recruitment is a very important factor, clients need to realise just how important it is. The right people should be part of a charity’s DNA; it is now a new world of opportunity.