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Another bloody course: should formal training be the first port of call to develop community fundraising staff?

Another bloody course: should formal training be the first port of call to develop community fundraising staff?

Community fundraising is an odd beast. Whilst it’s usually well defined, separated and cultivated through various charities, rarely do two charities have similar community fundraising programmes.

There is good reason for this.

I recently sat down with a friend who works in individual giving. Every time he goes to a new cause he evaluates certain areas of their output, learns the cause and then implements the same specific steps. He has been incredibly successful in this approach. 

It was really interesting to me as community fundraising is so different. Good community fundraising is completely adapted to the nature of your supporters, cause, opportunities and historical marketplace. You can’t waltz in to a new community fundraising department and implement the same specific steps to hope for any results. 

You can compare wider themes within community fundraising and ensure the basics aren’t being lost amongst the noise but the rest is a novel challenge. This can even be true sometimes when you are moving between two regional versions of the same cause such as neighbouring hospices. 

I’ve worked professionally in four community fundraising departments and volunteered in a further three. I can see where there are similarities in the workload, challenges and opportunities but it’s easier to focus on the differences. 

Of those roles I am proud of the times I have learned the landscape, adapted and got myself into a place where I can throw my energy into the cause. The time I didn’t adapt, didn’t go nearly as well. 

It’s with that variable nature in mind that I start to think about formal training. If the beast is constantly moving, how can you target it? 

I have been on a lot of training courses throughout my career, I try and make it an early agreement with any employer as part of my career plan. All of the training falls evenly into three categories:  the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of the good has been truly fantastic but it is in the minority. As there is little that binds community fundraising together then most courses focus on the beginner level, whether consciously or subconsciously. 

This actually makes complete sense. It is difficult to create a course that will suit everyone in the room equally, especially if you are coming from different charities and arriving with different challenges. Often those training no longer work full time in community fundraising and often they finished being directly employed by a charity at a level of high seniority. This means the training tends to be fantastic at strategy but lacking on technique and contemporary nuance. 

Sadly, a relatively good review from someone I manage of training was “It was a bit sh*t”.


Bored woman, head down on a desk



The best training is often that which has multiple topics, presenters and includes networking. Which makes me question why training is the first port of call?

Having spent my career in medium sized/smaller ‘Large’ charities, resources are always tight and as such I’m very sceptical of what formal training can bring. It’s rarely cheap, usually involves an expensive train journey and is often booked based on the category it is in and how soon the training is.

When we work with limited resources we quickly get good at questioning costs outright. If something is expensive, is it the right approach? What alternatives are cheaper or free?


So let’s apply this to personal development


Get someone with significant experience to assist you for free. They can provide one on one support, gain an understanding of your specific challenges and give you targeted advice. You can then report to them on their suggestions and have an evolving conversation, fine tuning yourself as a fundraising machine.

If you get the right mentor, you can have an absolute expert in the field, who is well networked and experienced in coaching high level performance.

Freely available in Facebook’s Fundraising Chat, at little/no cost through the Institute of Fundraising (IoF) or freely available to select applicants through the Tony Elischer Foundation

Since joining the TEF mentoring scheme myself I have been on multi topic seminar day, attended an hour lunchtime webinar, two prestigious networking opportunities, been donated a free professional membership and assigned a mentor who is of a similar personality, and very senior in my field. 


Peer Networking in person

The IoF provides SIG and first thursday networking opportunities that typically include multiple or singular focus speakers respectively. You can network with local fundraisers, find those who may have similar challenges to yourself and discuss particular issues. 

There are other, similar meetups that vary from free to inexpensive. The contacts made at such events, if cultivated can become great sources of knowledge, support and further contacts.


Peer Networking online

The chances are that if you are reading this article you are utilising online networks to increase knowledge, ask questions or expand theories you may have.

The astronomical rise of Facebook’s Fundraising Chat has cemented itself as part of many fundraisers weekly routine but it is not alone. It has paved the way for sub groups to be utilised as part of more specific community. In community fundraising there is the IoF SIG community, the Mass Participation Network, the Supporter Care Forum and of course the Events Managers Forum

Further to that there are Linkedin groups, and individual practitioners who blog through Linkedin or on their own platforms. There have never been so many opportunities to learn or ask for free support from the comfort of your own desk.



If your mentoring/online/face to face networking is going well you can probably get to a point where you have found peer who has skills, processes or knowledge in an area you are struggling with or developing. By organising a shadowing day/half day you can go to the source of where it is working for them. You can make extensive notes on what is working well for them and leave with an extensive list of highly specific changes you can implement or what barriers you need to overcome before you embark on any further development. 

Shadowing can also act as an exchange programme. The chances are that your organisation is doing certain things fantastically and by sharing this you are opening yourself up for new opportunities. 

I’d highly advise that if you do partake in shadowing to try and identify organisations that have similarities to yours. The closer you are in the nature of community fundraising teams, the more useful and specific take homes there will be. If you want to shadow ‘the best’ i.e. a charity with far greater resources than your own, you might be frustrated by the inherent differences between yourselves. 


Wider experiential development

Man running up steps in running gear -


Why did Rocky run up stairs and punch carcasses in a butchers? Because they taught him something he couldn’t learn in a ring.

Does the legacy team need help at an event? Is a volunteer organising an interesting event that is too small to normally be worth staff representation? Does a corporate fundraiser have a big pitch coming up?

All of these can be rich experiences that may be useful for development. You should consider these as important as any formal training. Like Rocky, they can become part of the montage of your personal development!


Does the formal training have to be in community fundraising?

One course I attended that was fantastic was the Major Donor Fundraising Masterclass by IOF/Rob Woods. Whilst this wasn’t directly related to community fundraising, the skills behind major donor fundraising were similar, and more importantly they weren’t the skills called on me day to day. They were the skills I required once in a blue moon in order to progress important supporters. At the end of this course I understood how to format proposals, how to build up to big asks, how to build rapport as well as the principles behind emotional financial decisions. 

Now I manage a large team of fundraisers it will be courses like this that I am seeking when I identify a need for formal training. I want to see how bid writing, story telling, Charity of the Year (COTY) management and strategy can bring a positive impact into their fundraising. For me, especially when the majority of my team have been community fundraising for over a decade, it’s these frontiers that I feel will have the greatest impact.


In conclusion

Overall this article may be viewed as an assault on the industry of training in fundraising but I hope it is more of a balanced view. For too long I too have been guilty of looking at development as just formal training courses and moving forward I am keen to widen that box. If it were just me then I’d put it down to personal circumstances but I am seeing the same commentary from peers and from staff I manage. 

Better than that, there is a difference in engagement. Training is delivered to an individual but development is usually sought out. 

Recently a friend told me about a project he was working on. He summarised a long and resource heavy process with “We’d have been better off locking a few of us in a darkened room for a day and running with the results of that”. I wonder if we could summarise personal development in the same way. “I wish I’d just spent a day reflecting on what I need to develop than a day on the wrong training course”. 

Oli Hiscoe is the National Fundraising Manager at the MND Association. Starting in the hotbed of fundraising that is Loughborough Rag he moved straight into the challenge events arena. Moving on through community and regional fundraising he is in his third management position. He is passionate about community fundraising and motivating fundraising teams.

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