Joint CEO Susie Hills recently had a chat with Consulting Fellow Penny Hubbard about the challenges of fundraising with a small team. Here’s how their conversation went:

Susie: The last 12 months have created tremendous pressures for fundraising teams. Many have seen budgets cut or frozen, staff furloughed and, of course, all the challenges of working from home and juggling caring that we have all faced. What do you think its harder for small teams to respond to these challenges?

Penny: Whilst it is entirely understandable that the immediate reaction of some organisations was to cut costs, those which chose to furlough staff or make staff redundant from small teams created huge pressure on those remaining in post. It is well established that it is much harder to recover pre-crisis levels of fundraising where there has been a drop or cessation of activity in times of crisis.

If your organisation reduced contact with your donors you can be reasonably sure that many other charities, particularly those addressing specific pandemic issues, will have been approaching them for support. Experienced fundraisers know the importance of maintaining contact, of ensuring the mission of your organisation is at the forefront of the minds of donors in times of crisis. It was critical that financial supporters were kept up to date with how the institution they support was coping with the pandemic and ensuring long term sustainability as well as continuing its important work and impact. As a result the fundraisers who remained in post within small teams found themselves trying to maintain a reasonable level of activity without, in many cases, the right levels of staff.

I have seen numerous Development Directors having to turn their hand not only to continuing to maintain good communications and relations with existing donors, but to running online events, writing communications as well as spending a great deal more management time on supporting their team members who might have been working remotely. I am seeing real signs of burnout amongst some senior colleagues who have worked harder than ever during the pandemic with no real break.

Susie: Are there any advantages to being a small team during challenging times?

Penny: Members of smaller teams are often more used to having to pivot and help out with activities which are not the prime responsibility under their job specification. This established flexibility and willingness to support colleagues has proved to be an advantage in times of fast change and transition. I have also seen very strong support between team members as a result of the fact they already all know each other very well and do not sit in silos or stand on ceremony. Where there has been pressure on team members through having to home school or struggle to cope with new technology and intermittent broadband, the strong relationships already formed as a result of having been part of a small flexible team have made a big difference.

Susie: How can small teams build their resilience and boost their energy?

Penny: Good leadership is critical in times of crisis. Managers who have held regular (weekly) team meetings online backed up by one-to-one sessions have helped support team members and strengthened their resilience. Kindness and empathy have proved critical qualities and managers who have taken the time to actively listen to their staff have reaped the dividends.

Treating the team members in a holistic way – regarding them as entire people and recognising the challenges they have faced has resulted in increased loyalty and commitment. Sharing successes with all of the team has been even more crucial than it is normally as a result of everyone working remotely, feeling more isolated sitting in their homes. Celebration of achievements – whether big or small – builds energy and good managers have given credit to each and every contribution that has played a part. Making sure that all the staff keep the mission of the organisation in the forefront of their minds helps maintain their positivity and resilience: for example, sharing personal stories of students who were helped at a desperate moment when they didn’t have a lap top yet were sent home for the rest of term or the international graduates wo found the cost of flights home had shot through the roof created a feel good factor and a sense of achievement and positivity.

It has been important to have some fun too – in the first lockdown I saw regular informal social events (such as ‘bring a cup of coffee and have a fifteen minute social chat’) work very well – by replacing the conversation around the water-cooler.

Susie: Prioritising must be particularly important for small teams. What do you think small teams should focus on over the next 12 months as, hopefully, we see some return to “normal”?

Penny: I would first focus on ensuring that existing donor relations are strengthened and would conduct a review to pick up any who have ‘lapsed’, perhaps because the team had not been able to keep as connected as you would like, due to furlough or other cuts. These donors should be contacted as soon as possible to start to re-build relations. Communicating how the institution has adapted during the pandemic will be important in conveying the message that the organisation is resilient and able to continue its great work, even during something as transformational as a global pandemic. Donors want to be reassured that the mission will continue and to be shown how their personal gift can and has made a difference in challenging times. The old advice of ‘never talk to strangers’ will be particularly pertinent to re-building a strong foundation for your organisation as you go forward and I would focus first on that area, whilst starting to build back capacity for engaging new donors through great stories and case studies. Once the existing relations are cemented and strong communications on what the organisation has achieved during the pandemic established, then attention can be turned by Major Gift Officers and Development Directors to new support.

Susie: Any tips you would offer to leaders of small teams?

Penny: Visible leadership of the organisation is key in establishing the trust and belief which are critical factors for good fundraising. I would advise leaders of small fundraising teams to enlist the help of the leaders of their organisation to get out strong messaging from the very top as you start to rebuild and/or expand. Looking at how to run your small team there is a great deal of discussion in the media about how working practices may change but I do not think we are yet at a position where we can be certain on how flexible people will want to be going forward. In this period of crisis we have all worked from home and for many this has shown a glimpse of longer term flexibility that may be attractive. In many cases working remotely has improved productivity – but equally in some cases it has not. Whilst good leaders have ensured team members each have a voice at online meetings (I am a great fan of Nancy Kline and her approach to allowing everyone round the table to speak) it has been harder to ensure this happens with the rather more stilted structure of online meetings compared to having team meetings in person.

With a small team, the face to face relations and ‘water cooler’ talk is particularly important to establishing strong working relations and commitment both to each other and to the mission of the organisation. Seeing students physically present in their higher educational institution is part of the magic that makes working in fundraising for higher education so motivating. Whilst leaders of small teams need to show empathy and understanding to their staff in yet a new period of transition as we move back to a ‘new normal’ they also need to encourage a return to the office for at least some of the working week to help strengthen the team bond.

Penny Hubbard is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education fundraising. If you’d like to discuss your particular fundraising challenges with us, get in touch