On the night of the 7th December 2017 Coventry won the title UK City of Culture 2021. As the Fundraising Director, my involvement in the project started way back in 2014; it’s interesting to look back on the strategy, as fundraising has been heralded as a decisive factor in our victory.
As this is an informal blog post, I thought real-life examples might tell the story well, but these are not a series of unconnected events; rather they are indicative of how an evolving strategy can deliver incredible results.
My background is primarily in trust fundraising, but the lion’s share of funds for 2021 came from businesses and individuals. So, how did we get more than 100 backers at £10,000 and above?
People give to people, so a development board is a good start, but it takes a fundraiser’s nous and experience to turn a list of names into givers. Creating showcase events to make our case with clear response mechanisms and project outcomes got us off to a great start. Personalising every approach brought in five individuals at £100,000 each. Keeping them fully involved was one of the joys of the role.
How did we get so many backers?
Head Judge, Phil Redmond, lauded the volume of donors, but this did not come from cold mailings. Each approach involved listening and showing how partnership could help supporters achieve their goals: Be it the opportunity to network, to involve staff or to build brand awareness. “Listening before pitching” gives you a much better chance of succeeding as you show how your project can help the backer solve a problem or achieve a goal.
We also had fun: bringing donors together at sports events (and saying bring a friend) started some great conversations. Giving gold badges (painted not precious metal!) to those who introduced others also worked superbly. These “money cannot buy items” often led to donors saying: “I know who you should talk to, let me ring them”. We all know getting away from cold-calling is key to success.
Weekly updates married with visits to backers to create bespoke videos meant we knew our supporters well. One party piece was to say to a prospect “pick a logo at random and we’ll tell you a fact”. To say “we went to the theatre with him last week” – or “she gave because she went to school in Cov”, really showed we genuinely had engaged.
Phil Redmond made the point: you don’t have 100 sponsors, you have 100 community champions, and sponsors continually did more than pay their subscriptions. Raffle prizes, pushing messages and attending events all added to the family feel. Add to this more £1 million from charitable trusts (story for another day!) and the bid was looking strong.
Keeping supporters happy
Another party piece to share before drawing to a close.
I spoke to one solicitor about giving but she said: “I won’t support because I’m not having my logo below solicitor, Smith, Jones and Brown!” (name changed to protect the innocent!).
I thought about this and looked for a solution. Our IT company (who had themselves supported the campaign) rejigged the donor wall so that logos appeared in a random order every time viewed! We used this to our advantage. When “pitching” to a prospective backer we would tell them about the “random wall” and invite them to ask about any of the 150+ supporters.
Without fail, we could say: “Oh, you’ve asked about that one! Their Marketing Manager was with us last week at the football/theatre/community lunch. Or they’ve been in the city years/their owner loves arts/their staff are always keen to get involved.”
This “listening approach” resulted in more than 10 of the backers increasing their giving to £50K. But – and let’s be clear, these businesses committed because we had found a “strategic fit” – that might be a shared desire to improve the lives of those on the margins of our society, to educate or to celebrate Coventry’s heritage. Look at the donors’ CSR goals and its core business to share your request.
Being empowered to negotiate can also really help. One much-respected education provider wanted to get involved but could not offer £50,000 in cash. So, we worked to use their skills to offer an incredible schools workshop programme as a part contribution.
For more than 90%, of our backers this was their largest ever gift to “the arts” – and many have gone on to support other arts organisations as a result of enjoying their 2021 journey.
It’s been wonderful to receive calls from bidding cities, seeking advice as to how Coventry’s success might inform their efforts. We often discuss the reasons the Coventry model cannot be replicated without thought. The genus of our model will be of use to all bidding cities, but the conversation usually (and rightly) involves a discussion about the unique attributes of the bidding city and the need for the strategy to be tailored.
For those who are new fundraising – this may read like a random collection of events. But underlying all of the above was a strategy which evolved and stayed true to the fundraising basics. Asking the right prospect for the right amount, through the right channel at the right time – and finally, for the right project!
WATCH: Coventry Moves – Coventry UK City of Culture 2021
Michael Mogan MBE can be contacted at mi*****@mo***********.uk