This article is a very honest, behind the scenes look at my business, LarkOwl and our move towards creating online fundraising training.
The world is gravitating online more and more with each passing year. Charities are starting (slowly) to recognise the importance of having a strong digital presence, especially in the context of building warm, connected audiences and through providing easy ways for their supporters to give.
The recent success of Fundraising Everywhere has broken down accessibility barriers, enabling small charities to participate in quality training, hearing world renowned experts which until recently were only available at some of the biggest fundraising conferences in the world.
Online fundraising training
We are first and foremost a face to face consultancy. However, I first had the idea to create online fundraising training back in February 2018, during a conversation with some friends who are also small business owners.
I had already decided that I wanted to try selling products alongside my consultancy, recognising that as a single mum (as I was back then) with sole responsibility for our household income, trading my time for money left me in quite a vulnerable position.
One incidence of illness, a failed MOT, or a bathroom floor / kitchen ceiling plumbing incident (yes, this happened a couple of years ago on CHRISTMAS EVE!), could easily leave me and my small daughter in a very difficult financial position.
I believed that selling products which by their nature don’t rely on an individuals’ physical presence was one solution to the business continuity issue and would be a fun experiment through which I could scratch my entrepreneurial itch.
After much research around the possibility of launching a range of laptop bags (try finding one that isn’t black…), I decided to bring my short lived attempts to launch a fashion brand to an end and to focus on a product where I could apply some relevant experience.
Having lived in rural Cornwall for several years, I was feeling quite disengaged with the sector. Attending conferences and events was tricky and a busy schedule of client work left little time to engage with colleagues on social media.
I was worried my passion for the sector had faded.
There are already some superb examples in the UK fundraising training market of digital offers, Rob Woods, Lucy Gower and Elanor Hoskin run membership communities, operating on a monthly subscription model with regular, fresh content and the opportunity to connect with other fundraisers at a similar level / on specific topics).
These people, along with a couple of speaker gigs at some Institute of Fundraising events inspired me to action and helped me to realise that:
1. I am rich in experiences and I can help other people by sharing them
2. I have an authentic voice and feel confident that there will be a group of people who resonate with my style
3. I love fundraising and realise how incredibly grateful I am to have had a career where I genuinely enjoy going to work every day. Very few people can say that.
I believed I had enough experience of teaching and coaching through my consultancy practice (I also taught music theory to kids during my degree and dance fitness classed in my local gym), to translate my many years’ of fundraising into an awesome course.
I started to map out the modules and lessons and in December 2019 my first course will be available for pre-sale.
Here are some things I’ve learned in the last year.
1. My digital knowledge sucks
I’ve had to pay for help with the things I can’t do, either through online teaching programmes which give me the skills I’ll need to make this a success, or simply through outsourcing. Whenever you see something from LarkOwl online and its looks great; you can bet that it’s been paid for.
I am therefore conscious that this course is becoming less profitable as the days go by (especially as starting anything always takes longer than you think it will). Reminding myself that this is a long-term project is a constant mantra.
2. The joy of learning is real
Apart from good food, hot sunshine and watching your kids do something awesome, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is nothing better in life than broadening your skillset and challenging yourself to operate outside of your natural comfort zone.
Working on this project has filled more evenings than I thought it would, but it really doesn’t feel like work and routinely, I choose building my business over 99% of the offerings on Netflix.
Here are some things which have given me unexpected joy.
1. Writing. Yes, I LOVE creating a weekly article, it’s helped me to clarify my thoughts and has helped me to re-engage with the sector which I love being a part of
2. Positive feedback from people who read my newsletter is humbling
3. Sharing my learning with clients. Clients get added value when I share my new-found knowledge around the value of creating great content, the benefits (and traps) of social media and the power of an engaged online community.
3. The mind-numbing dullness is also real
Contrast the joys with the boring things which no online business owner can avoid. Learning new skills is one thing but often the hard work needed to build the audience (and then to sell your product) becomes repetitive and dull.
Here are some boring things which other business owners will surely relate to.
- SEO (I spent an afternoon filling in Yoast for every single blog post on my site…)
- Knowing what a Facebook Pixel is and where the hell to put it
- Finding suitable stock photos
- Re-formatting content in different places online
This is why so many people give up (and quite frankly, I don’t blame them). Like the manager with the large fundraising team, working on your own trust or major gift prospects is never going to come top of the list.
No-one (though I’m happy to be proved wrong) is going to hunt me down if I don’t send me weekly newsletter, perfect the copy on a sales page or promote my blog on Twitter.
Many people I imagine are happy to sit in their zone of excellence, focusing only on their professional skills and not all the stresses and challenges which come with running your own business.
Everything about building digital products feels important but never urgent. Some days I have to force myself to complete tasks when I’d rather be curled up with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, but the satisfaction is worth it.
4. There are some myths to cut through
Anyone who has ever tried to sell digital products will be aware of the stories out there which, for the vast majority of us will never be a reality:
Most of these myths are created by people selling their own online programmes. A rather cynical friend of mine describes this model as nothing more than a pyramid scheme, designed to prey on the vulnerable.
Whilst I believe that my expectations for my own product are realistic, it’s hard at first not to get drawn into the rhetoric surrounding the ‘six figure launch’, the ‘passive income product’ (my course will be anything but passive, I plan to be available and helpful to everyone who buys from me) or the idea that I can move to Bali tomorrow and ‘make money in my sleep’.
5. (Nervous) excitement for the future
Putting myself out there, delivering weekly content and sharing my experiences and opinions with the world has been the hardest thing, but also the most rewarding and joyful thing.
Promoting a product feels similarly scary. What if no-one buys it? What if the people who do buy it think it’s rubbish?
There are a lot of self-critical thoughts which arise from this process, another reason (alongside SEO optimisation) why plenty of people give up on this kind of project.
However, I’m (so far) managing the fraudy feelings well and am well on the way to believing that my worst-case scenario really isn’t that bad. So even if NO-ONE buys my course:
• I will have learned SO MUCH
• I can launch it again in the future
• There are a thousand other marketing tactics to try
• The new skills I’m learning will benefit the charities I support
Re-framing the worst-case scenario and replacing negative thoughts with positive is a practice I hope to take forwards in all areas of my life.
If you’ve made it to the end (well done!). From my key learnings, here are my challenges for you.
Personal development and lifelong learning is so incredibly satisfying.
What have you learned recently? When did you last make an investment of time or money in yourself?
There are no shortcuts to success. Hard work, focus and application (when you’re not in the mood) will get you there in the end.
If you’re honest, where could you dedicate more time to generate the results you’re not currently getting?
There are no quick wins. Good things come to those who wait.
Where are you currently feeling impatient? Can you practise holding your nerve and not prematurely rushing on to the next thing?
Caroline Danks is a fundraising consultant specialising in high value fundraising and capital appeals. She runs LarkOwl with her partner Tony.
Trust the Process is available on pre-sale between 2 and 6 December ONLY.