The ability to write clearly about an organisation’s ethos, approach, and audience needs is an essential skill for effective cultural sector fundraisers, says Caroline McCormick.
Over the last five years, BOP Consulting and Achates Philanthropy have worked with over 500 arts organisations on the review of Arts Council England's Catalyst and Catalyst Evolve programmes. The research has provided an insight into the challenges arts organisations face across England, and has established a number of principles essential to successful cultural sector fundraising. It has also revealed that the size of an organisation, its location, artform, and whether it has its own venue and access to data, all directly influence its success at fundraising.
Even in our increasingly visual age it is the written words we leave behind that make our case for us
The experience of reviewing the nominations for the Achates Philanthropy Prize has also given me an insight into the challenges organisations face in supporting their fundraisers to write bids to trusts that make a compelling case and communicate the distinctiveness of their organisation.
Clarity and precision
It isn’t bad grammar, or even bad spelling, that particularly trouble me when reviewing applications, as they are relatively easy to correct. What has emerged is that as a sector we have become used to speaking a coded language that has become devoid of any real meaning and often communicates little. Clarity and precision are my watchwords when reviewing a draft bid.
However, to achieve that you have to consider what it is you are actually trying to say. This requires a fundraiser to question, rather than simply repeat, and that can be difficult if the fundraiser is in a relatively junior role and in the early stages of their career.
Fundraisers have to be curious and strategic in order to understand their organisation’s ethos and approach, as well as the role it is playing in the wider cultural ecosystem. They should also understand the artform and policy area the work is in, the needs of the audiences for whom they are creating change, and the contribution the work is making in addressing those needs. Then they can articulate why it is that this project should be funded at a time when some trusts are rejecting as many as 90% of all bids.
Even when an organisation recruits a trust fundraiser or promotes a dedicated staff member they wanted to develop into a trust fundraising role, they often find it hard to give them the support they need to develop these skills. Most courses dedicated to trust fundraising focus on theory, without providing writing practice. As any writer will tell you, there is only one way to develop as a writer and that is to write. And ideally, that writing needs feedback from an expert who can help with the development of style, focus and conciseness.
Trust fundraising is the quietest form of fundraising, with a lot of the work being desk-based. It is perhaps because we value verbal communication over written communication in fundraisers that the skill of writing is commonly overlooked. However, even in our increasingly visual age, it is the written words we leave behind that make our case for us. For most organisations outside London, the written proposal is often the only opportunity they will ever have to communicate with a potential funder.
Given that there are thousands of organisations in the arts and no definitive list, and indeed that many funders support other causes in addition to the arts, it is hardly surprising that funders are not familiar with every organisation and its work. Standing out in such an environment is essential, and my experience of reviewing nominations and bids has helped me understand how a clear and compelling argument, that takes no prior knowledge for granted, does just this - and how rare it really is.
At Achates we try to work in partnership with the sector to develop solutions that draw on its strengths and support its resilience. So when thinking about how to respond to this challenge, we could think of no organisation better to partner with than those experts in the written word, the National Centre for Writing. The partnership will see the launch of the first programme to bring together support from both a fundraising and a writing coach to help develop the skills needed for the complete trust fundraiser.
Caroline McCormick is Director of Achates Philanthropy.
This article is sponsored and contrbuted by Achates Philanthropy.