Date: 11-03-2021

ISSA Fundraising Workshop Builds a Secure Future at the AMURTEL Family Home

Author: Didi Ananda Devapriya, President of Neohumanist Education Association, Romania

In 2017, when I received an email invitation from ISSA to a fundraising session with Bernard Ross, Director, =mc consulting, it literally felt like a sign from the heavens. I had only just learned, a month earlier, that the funding for the AMURTEL Family children's home from our main donor organization in Switzerland had dwindled significantly and may end in as little as two years. The prospect of raising more than 100,000 eur annually myself, was overwhelming. Just thinking about it made my heart accelerate and my brain freeze. I immediately signed up.

It was a pivotal opportunity. Bernard's witty, engaging style and impressive expertise shifted my whole perspective on fundraising. I was also quite inspired by ISSA's executive director, Liana Ghent, in a brief moment at the beginning, when she shared how she actually enjoys fundraising. As an ISSA Member, I already long admired her professionalism and the amazing results that ISSA achieves, with a relatively small core team. I have to admit, I initially had a hard time wrapping my mind around that statement, but it started to profoundly shift something in my attitude. One of the key take-aways I gained from that initial workshop was that I had been falling into a very common pattern of NGOs. More than once, Bernard had playfully pinched the group for our "narcissism" as we are often obsessed with talking about how great our organizations are. Rather, he shifted our focus, to stand in the shoes of the donor, and to understand their need to feel good and make a real impact on things that matter to them.

Fundraising is not fair!

I will never forget, at the very beginning of the workshop when Bernard waved a twenty euro bill in the air, as he told that he had a lot of money that he needed to give away, and he was going to start with this twenty euros. I turned out to be the lucky recipient, and why? Just because I happened to be sitting in one of the front rows. The point? "Fundraising is not fair!", a mantra he had us collectively chant a few times to let the message sink in. I was a bit confused and didn't know what to do with the twenty, as it seemed to be part of an ongoing game, which I didn't want to interrupt, so I put it into my pocket.

The most important thing to do after receiving a donation

A little while later, after a coffee break, Bernard began the session with a question.

"When you receive a donation, what is the most important thing to do?" We all chirped up, eager to have the right response: "To say thank you!" "Exactly," he said, "unlike Didi, who just put the twenty in her pocket!" he said with feigned shock in a playful, humorous way.

I joined in the eruption of laughter. Indeed, I had been caught, guilty as charged! I am quite sure I flushed a beautiful shade of bright red in embarrassment, but that made the lesson remain all the more memorably etched into my consciousness.

Going deeper

After that initial workshop, I then devoured the reading materials that Bernard had generously provided, bought the "Influential Fundraiser" and continued to ask questions and receive important, insightful feedback. I took the course again, when it was held at the ISSA office in the Netherlands in 2018.

I was thrilled that ISSA had opened it up to non-members too, so I was able to bringing along several colleagues from other partner organizations. I was particularly happy that a colleague of mine attended who is working in Greece at a project to support refugee infants and mothers.

I was quite proud of her when she bravely entered into the "hot-seat" to do some role plays with Bernard in front of the group. Afterwards, we both continued discussing together how to applying the principles to her crowd-funding campaigns, and she saw a significant increase in their impact.

Dramatic impact - 300% increase

The impact on our organization has also been dramatic. Since then, we have seen a 300% increase in the income from donations and a 200% increase in the number of donors. Although I still have work ahead of me to be able to generate sustainable annual funds for the AMURTEL Family children's home once the Swiss donor organization has completely withdrawn, I now feel confident that I have the skills to meet this challenge. Not only that. I have been able to apply these new skills to help support my colleagues in other countries.

Breaking it down into bite-sizes

How did it happen? First of all, the goal felt overwhelming, so I broke it down to something that seemed more manageable.

As my first goal was to be able to raise half of the needed income, my rather simplistic mathematic approach was - 50,000 eur/year = 4150 eur/month = 166 monthly donors each giving a minimum of 25 eur/month. If they give more, as some give 50 or 100 eur/month then I would need less individuals to reach the same goal. Focusing on acquiring 166 donors seemed a lot more do-able than focusing on 50,000 euros.

I do want to note here, though that Bernard had correctly stressed that the "ROI" or "Return on investment", when targeting small individual donors, is relatively low, compared to spending the same energy on larger donors. However, in my particular situation, I decided to start with applying the principles to build and improve our existing "distance-adoption" program. As my task was to generate long term, sustainable funding for the years that it takes to raise children, I felt safer sticking with this strategy, as it was the strategy the Swiss organization supporting us had successfully used. In addition, I already had experience with for generating support for our after-school center by attracting monthly donors. I also considered it to spread out the risk, so that if one or two donors leave, out of 166, it creates less of an immediate threat to the project than if one or two donors that we depend on for a significant chunk of the budget suddenly withdraw.

I also happen to travel internationally a lot, as a trainer. I usually integrated a presentation about the distance-adoption opportunity into my trainings, and through individual interactions with people, relatively easily attracted new donors in this way. This particularly strategy however, did not obviously work during the pandemic, but I will get into that later.

Shifting to a donor-centered approach

The course helped me to understand that I needed to change my approach, from "you can help AMURTEL to offer a safe home to neglected and abused children" to "You can offer a safe home to neglected and abused children". I also redesigned our donation landing page to associate meaningful direct impacts with three different donation levels. After some insightful, brief feedbacks on my emails, I also worked on building as personal of a relationship as possible, talking from the warmer first person in my emails rather than as "AMURTEL", and including a photo with one of the children in my lap as a signature.

I also created private WhatsApp and Facebook groups for the sponsors, and many of them really love that, as it really makes them feel "part of the family". The posts are quite simple, sharing photos of various activities at the home.

We are careful to protect the children’s identity, which I sometimes find a creative challenge, in terms of telling compelling narratives without direct shots of their faces. For our first seaside vacation campaign, for example, I filmed video close-ups taken over-the-shoulder of the children painting what they imagined the sea would look like and talking about their paintings. Hearing the children's own words was quite touching, and it was a very successful campaign. These types of feel-good short term campaigns, are also followed up with a thank you campaign to show impact. After new donors participate in a few such campaigns, if they are satisfied with the results, some then convert into regular, monthly sponsors.

Going beyond my comfort zone

This approach however, does take a lot of energy. As I have gotten more comfortable with this, I am finding that the skills are exactly the same needed to build a good relationship with larger, corporate donors. This past Christmas, securing just under 10 corporate sponsorships brought in more funds in one month than I had secured by monthly sponsorships in six months. So, now I am more encouraged and inspired to attract more such supporters. I also find that it is our inspired and satisfied donors that bring the companies and bigger donors. So it again points to the importance of building warm, authentic, human relationships with our supporters.

Zoom to increase commitment during the pandemic

During the pandemic, I wasn't able to travel and attract new supporters in that way. However, I realized that I had at least 1000 people on my mailing lists that haven't yet converted to donors, but that enjoy following our news. So I decided to work with my already "warm" audience and think about how to help them make that next step to actually give.

In the past, we had organized "Play Days" at the children's home so that potential donors could have the chance to get to know the children in a natural way, through play. Very few people managed to make the trip, but those that did became extremely loyal and dedicated after getting to know the children. As 2020 happened to be our 25th anniversary year, I decided to organize an online 25th anniversary zoom party. We had far greater participation than would ever have been imaginable at a physical event, and the impact was wonderful. I had made some simple videos, using the children's voices telling what they liked most about staying in AMURTEL Family in the past year, combined with their drawings and photos. It was very touching. We also made a "Global Toilet Paper Roll Toss" in which a humble roll of toilet paper was passed from sponsors all over the world, our staff and the children. The children had also recorded a guided tour of the home. After the online event, several people became sponsors, and those already sponsoring a child felt deeply connected to the children and home.

Raising funds for the Beirut Blast

I have also been delighted to be able to apply the same skills that I have learned to emergency relief fundraising. When the Beirut Blast happened in 2020, I immediately contacted my colleagues in AMURT Lebanon. For years, I had been travelling to Lebanon to provide consultancy support to their projects for Syrian refugees.

I helped them to set up a quick crowd-funding campaign, and within the first days following the blast, we had raised more than 12,000 euros.

It was an immense satisfaction to be able to help them to immediately set up relief interventions, and to know that the seed money we had raised was later critical in convincing larger donors to invest more than 10 times that amount to set up a longer term project addressing the psycho-social needs of children and families affected by the trauma of the disaster. This proved to me that the same principles are relevant in a wide variety of fundraising situations.

ISSA's online fundraising workshops

Since then, I have also been invited twice to present these results, using the AMURTEL Family project as a case study for ISSA's online fundraising workshops in June and December of 2020. It was a great honor to do so, as I feel very indebted to Bernard and ISSA for the support I have received that has helped to save our project from closure. I hope that it helps to inspire other smaller member organizations in ISSA, that similarly struggle with limited resources, that they can also significantly expand their fundraising efforts by applying the principles that Bernard teaches.

I am so grateful to be a Member of ISSA, and to have had such an invaluable learning opportunity. ISSA has been so responsive and such a source of professional growth for me personally, and for the organizations I am part of.


Bernard Ross during the Fundraising Workshop, 2017 ISSA Conference, Ghent

Screenshot from Online workshop: Creating an online fundraising campaign, 23 June 2021. (The name of the child has been changed to protect her identity)