​What does innovation mean to you within fundraising?

I’d like to talk about what innovation means at Marie Curie first of all… Like most national charities we have an Innovation Manager, whose role is all about facilitating ideas. We live in a rapidly changing world and how we respond to those changes is really what that innovation is all about. I’m not very creative myself – I probably have one or two good ideas a year! – so I leave this to other people. There is a great quote that I read today: ‘great leaders don’t innovate the product, they innovate the factory’ and that is what innovation really means to me personally. When I first started community fundraising, I remember sitting down with my line manager and saying, ‘I want to revolutionise the way that we manage office volunteers!’. I probably didn’t revolutionise it as such, but the way that my brain works means that I see things not working and I want to improve them. So I guess that’s what I mean when I say I am innovative leader.

How do you enable and encourage your team to work innovatively?

In terms of the team, it is about having a culture that means they can challenge things and putting the tools in place for them to make things happen. I think I am lucky that I have an opinionated team and that really helps! I make sure we have the time and space to give opinions and never put people off if they are trying to challenge things, even if that means challenging me directly – in fact, I welcome that.

Not saying ‘no’ is also important. I very rarely say ‘no’ to people. If I don’t think someone is on the right track it is more about exploring that – discussing what it is we want to achieve and finding out where we can take it there – rather than just saying ‘no’. I definitely want to improve how we do things and that is what innovation is all about.

I see the Innovation Manager at Marie Curie as a facilitator and it is really important that my team have a voice as experts in Community Fundraising championing what will work for us in the regions with volunteers. I really encourage people to speak up and get involved and encourage them to take on our internal role of ‘Innovation Champion’. We have lots of routes for people to feedback and I really encourage my team to use those routes if they don’t agree with something – be active, get involved. I get frustrated by
people who moan about things after the event – if you don’t tell anyone at the time, then you don’t have a leg to stand on. How can the organisation do anything in retrospect? Be present at the time if you want to challenge something.

Also, don’t be afraid to celebrate failure – I don’t think you can be innovative if you’re not willing to take risks. If you are brave enough to take risks, you’re going to get some of them wrong and that’s ok. It’s about learning from that experience and having that acceptance – if you do something and it doesn’t work, you’re not going to get into trouble. I would rather be brave than just stay within the same parameters all the time. If you just do the same things, you get the same results and it’s a challenging environment we are operating in.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to innovation?

As part of a national charity, people do sometimes move on because of the perceived barrier of not having their voice heard – they don’t feel that they have enough freedom and flexibility. At Marie Curie, we’ve gone through a change process over the past twenty years. Back in the old days people had lots of autonomy, but weren’t always making commercially sound decisions based on ROI. There has been a natural process that a lot of organisations go through of tightening up, and once you’ve done that, then you can relax a bit.

I think trust really does come into it. We take recruitment very seriously; we bring in the right people with the right skills who we trust to get on with the job. I really trust my team and always try to come from a place of trust. Of course, you have performance issues from time to time that you have to deal with, but you don’t have to earn my trust (although you can lose it!).

Our Innovation Manager is really good at coming out and speaking to us, so we have a really open dialogue. That wasn’t always the case, but definitely is now. We’re not just existing in our own little vacuum in the North of England, but respecting the fact that we have four regions with very different opinions.

You have to accept that you can’t take every single idea and suggestion forward. I think if we present ideas in a logical way and we’ve thought it through, quite often our colleagues in London will listen to us because they respect that we are the experts on the ground talking to volunteers.

Developing a positive culture of innovation throughout the organisation is a big challenge. I spend a lot of my time challenging decisions and encouraging people to really listen. Developing an innovative culture doesn’t happen overnight and it is something you have to work really hard at. As a leader, sometimes you have to think how much you want to expose your team to – you want to be open and transparent, but also know people have to work together and there is a fine balance between the two.

Can you give us some examples of innovation within your team that you are really proud of?

I want to manage expectations here – these aren’t going to be ideas that raise millions and millions of pounds! I really do think innovation is more about us challenging ourselves to do things differently. The Daffodil Appeal is obviously huge for Marie Curie, so a good example would be how we have changed the way we work with supermarkets. We were really panicking as we weren’t getting the quantity of high value collections we had in the past, so in some instances we were just collecting anywhere no matter how high the
footfall. We had an army of collectors willing to give their time, but needed somewhere to harness their generous support. In some instances we were putting in so much energy, but getting such little return.

So we did two things… We challenged our perceptions and thought about ROI much more – not just paid staff, but volunteers too. Our Yorkshire Fundraising Manager looked at the data and found that she raised the majority of her income from half the team’s collections. So we decided to put half the resource and time somewhere else and that is something we have implemented across the North. The Yorkshire team are now smashing their targets because they are thinking about it differently, so I’m really proud of that.

The other thing I am really proud of is my team’s response to something that I’ve said to them. I was at the IoF convention last year and the take-away theme was ‘fundraising is all about relationships’. Yet we talk about our progress based on monthly financial targets and the two can be polar opposites. 

At Marie Curie, we talk a lot about putting the supporter first and we do really mean it. I felt on the one hand I was saying put our supporters first; listen to their motivations and interests. But on the other hand I was focused on internal pressures: what campaign is our current priority?; where are our gaps in income?; what have we committed to against each activity in our budget?. I felt that I was giving potentially conflicting direction about what our focus and priority should be. I think those internal pressures can sometimes prevent us from putting our supporters first despite our best intentions.

I started to think about how we could marry up our supporters’ motivations and interests with Marie Curie’s key priorities. The way that we currently budget using each individual income stream (e.g. collection tins) made people feel quite restricted and hemmed in, rather than concentrating on the needs of our supporter relationships and the long term results we could deliver by working together on what is the right activity for them, by matching it up with their interests and motivations.

So we are currently piloting a different way of working in the North – we have stripped out our individual income stream targets so that our fundraisers just have one figure to worry about to give the individual more autonomy and control, which in turn makes us so much more agile. I’m proud of the fact that (as far as the way Marie Curie operates) we are trying something new and different.

What is next for regional community fundraising? How do we keep it living and breathing in new and exciting ways?

That’s a really interesting question! I do believe you either love community fundraising or you don’t really understand it; externally, I’m not sure that it is ever viewed as new or exciting. There is so much uncertainty in fundraising at the moment. In the post-GDPR world we will be working in, the depth of relationship is going to be absolutely key and critical to a charity’s success. That’s our strength in community fundraising, so I hope that it will be our moment to shine – our chance for people to realise the depth of relationship we are building will really help the charity. People absolutely trust the personal relationship they have with their Community Fundraiser.

So much starts with community fundraising; from legacies right through to the brand awareness of staff from potential charity partnerships. If you’ve got a strong network of community fundraisers and volunteers, it can really help support the aims of other departments and charity wide objectives. The ambassadorial relationship we have is so important in spreading the message and I think people are starting to respect that more.

Community fundraising has traditionally been seen as a ‘jack of all trades’, but I truly believe we are experts in relationship building with people from all backgrounds. And that’s what differentiates us from other fundraising disciplines. An average day for a Community Fundraiser might be a school assembly talking to a bunch of four year olds, then meeting the managing director of a company, and then a church hall talk to a WI. It is so varied and you have to be skilled in building relationships with so many different kinds of people. You have to be confident in the social situations most people want to avoid!

We also seem to be seeing lots of people who are looking for flexibility in their work; perhaps from having seen family members working to live and wanting something different. Community fundraising can offer so much flexibility for people, so I think that’s another change we will start to see – people valuing the flexibility we can offer. Yes, it’s a challenging role and there are core activities and hours that need covering, but the nature of community fundraising lends itself to flexible working in ways some other professions can’t. I hope that will see us attract some really exciting talent in the future.

In terms of what the next big thing is, I think we have to diversify. It isn’t my job to try and guess what the next big thing is. As communities change, we will adapt and change too – you have to be led by what your community wants and needs. We’ve considered looking into virtual fundraising groups, but our fundraising group programme continues to expand as people want to keep the social aspects of volunteering. Whilst people continue to want that, we will continue to ask people to join our fundraising groups. I personally think people will always want that personal connection; you only have to look at recent events in Manchester & London to see that community spirit is still very much alive and people do still want and need to come together.