fire fighters tackling a blaze

How to respond when you’ve been given a ridiculous fundraising target

Ridiculous fundraising targets seem to be a bit of a theme for 2021.  In our annual community survey, we asked you all:


What is your biggest challenge at the moment?


What topics would you like us to cover in the Nest Egg in 2021?


We’re grateful for the detail and honesty with which you answered.

There were a wide variety of problems / challenges described and topics you asked us to cover.

Here were the most common themes across the two questions:


  1. Finding new donors and building a pipeline – fewer opportunities but greater need
  2. Strategic planning in the face of so much uncertainty / setting targets
  3. How to balance high targets with reduced capacity
  4. Struggles with burnout, lack of motivation, focus, the exhaustion which comes with being constantly reactive


The more I look at the survey results, I actually believe that I’m seeing the same problem articulated in different ways:


  • Demand is higher
  • Opportunities are reduced and reserves are depleted
  • Expectations don’t match the reality…
  • …so everyone ends up overworked and burned out


Houston, we have a problem…


Honestly, this feels like an overwhelmingly large problem.

I worry that we’re on the precipice of something troubling.  Fundraisers being the fall guy for the collapse of charities who are not able to meet the demand for their services.


Fundraisers are not (always) miracle workers.


There are no quick fixes, magic beans or rabbits waiting to be pulled out of hats.


And my favourite….


“All the low hanging fruit has been eaten by the unicorns” (Bernard Ross)


Fundraising is (and has always been) a slow burn, gentle art / science which relies on authentic, meaningful relationships built over years.

The healthiest relationships show up as a two-way conversation, a partnership where donors and charities go on a journey together and work side by side to solve some of society’s biggest challenges.

And yet suddenly, it would appear that some people are expecting fundraising (and donors) to perform like some tacky ‘get rich quick’ scheme, cue the ridiculous targets…


I understand the desperation.  I see the need.  But this is not the answer.


I think that most people reading this newsletter realise that the lack of available funds is not the fault of their fundraiser / s.  Yet, I worry that a tsunami of burnout amongst fundraisers is imminent and that without realistic re-alignment of expectations, we will lose a lot of incredible talent from our sector.


How to respond when your target is wildly unachievable


Here are some responses for those of you who have been given a frankly, ridiculous fundraising target.

I’ve set out some classic arguments for a higher target and some suggestions for things you can say in response.

Whilst there are some absolutely wonderful leaders and managers out there (many of whom subscribe to this newsletter), there are also some who are not so great.  This is not designed as an attack on anyone, but as an opportunity for all of us to learn.

Before engaging in these discussions, make sure you prepare yourself.  There are two things you need to be confident in:


  1. You’ve worked out what you think your target should be


We all need to feel confident in explaining and quite possibly, defending our target to our managers and leaders.

It is our role to give them confidence in the process and to help them spot the challenges and opportunities which may be on the horizon.


If they are not fundraising practitioner, then it’s your job to help them understand.


Use actual data to set your target, for example:


  • The applications / asks you expect to make, a target amount and a percentage chance of success for each
  • Reasons as to why funds you secured last year aren’t prospects for this coming year
  • Previous years’ results (in context please – hello pandemic?!)
  • External benchmarking reports (you can download ours here if you haven’t already)


  1. You’re focused and productive and you’re confident your outputs are strong:


  • Are you submitting plenty of applications to trusts / proposals to major donors and corporates?
  • Are you confident of the quality of your work?
  • Are you phoning your donors and continuing to build relationships?
  • How is your stewardship and are you regularly reporting back to your donors?


When the pressure is on, it’s important that you are choosing ONLY those activities which will really make a difference to your income for the year (or the next year).

There are enough distractions surrounding us when many of us are working from homes which are simply not set up for this (never ending laundry anyone?)


Try not to get distracted by the random tasks which colleagues might be chucking in your direction which do not relate directly to the area of income for which you are responsible.


Keep your precious working hours for only the most important, donor focused tasks.

If both of these apply to you, then you might find the following imaginary conversations helpful:




“I know you only think that you can raise £200,000 from trusts this year, but we really need to step things up a gear to make up for loss of income in other areas.”



Response (there are three things you can talk about in response to this particular challenge):


1.Data and evidence


“Here is how I reached my target (show the formulae you’ve used and explain how you’ve come to your figure and describe other data you have which backs up the target you’ve come to)

Last year we achieved £250,000.

Competition for and availability of funding has seriously decreased since then.  We need to be realistic.”


Present any specific evidence e.g.

  • Changing priorities
  • Funders which are closed to new applications
  • Feedback from funders
  • Lack of response from funders when you’ve tried to get in touch


2.Return on Investment, benchmarking and expectations (adjust this specific example to fit your circumstances):


As a fundraiser employed for only three days a week on a take home salary of £18,000, I think that £200,000 is more than reasonable.

I spend 46% of my time on trust fundraising which represents £9,936 of expenditure to the charity on this area of fundraising.

If I am successful in raising £200,000 next year, it would represent a ROI for our charity of £20 for every £1 spent.

The average ROI for trust fundraising in UK charities last year was closer to £10 raised for every £1 spent.  However:

This survey was mostly filled out by large charities with an income of £1m plus.

Most had employed professional fundraisers for at least ten years.

The global pandemic hadn’t even hit.

Whilst I believe in myself and in the work of this organisation, I think it’s unrealistic that given what we know, that we can exceed the target I’ve set here.


3.Making up for lost income


“I see the impact that losing our events and retail streams is going to have on our ability to deliver our services this year.

However, just as it would be wrong to blame me for global events, similarly it would be wrong to expect me to be able to fix these issues.

It would be de-motivating at best and irresponsible at worst to set an unrealistic target to placate the trustees in the short term”.





“A big gift ALWAYS comes in”




Certainly we’ve been lucky these past few years in receiving large, unsolicited gifts.  However, I think it would be irresponsible of us as fundraisers make such an unfounded promise to our service delivery teams.

Surely it’s more responsible to set our expectations using actual information from previous years and external benchmarking data from our wider sector.

In setting my personal targets for the year, I’ve left a bit of space in each month to manage any unsolicited giving or big opportunities we didn’t foresee whilst prioritising space for our long standing, most committed supporters.

Until we uncover and qualify new prospects, it would be unwise to make assumptions about how much we can raise.





Thank you for setting out your objectives for the year.  I really need you to add (insert random, unrelated activity of your choice here) as well though.




“I have worked out my objectives based on the actual amount of time I have available for certain tasks.

Using my own experience and some industry standard figures, I am confident that I have estimated accurately.

If you want me to add something new, then what is it you’d like me to drop?

I would advise against reducing the amount of time I spend with existing supporters.  They are so much more likely to make repeat gifts if we look after them well.

I am happy to have a conversation where we look at the risks and opportunities of removing an area of work vs exploring a new stream of income.”


A reminder, these are the things you can control:


  • Use of evidence and data to set a realistic target (no matter how depressing the final figure is)
  • Explain how you’ve reached your target
  • Productivity (ish, if you’re anything like me then you’ll be spending more time these days unstacking and restacking the bloody dishwasher!) – experiment with new routines until you find something which works well
  • Where you choose to place your precious time (feeling motivated is hard so hone in on only the most important things)
  • Output / body of work


These things, you can’t control and therefore mustn’t take responsibility for them:


  • funders deciding whether to support you or not
  • your charity’s budgeted shortfall in any given year
  • the loss of income your charity has experienced because of covid


I know that many of you are already having these difficult conversations and I know how incredibly hard it can be.

These examples are absolutely NOT a one size fits all, but I hope that they give you some ideas and some food for thought as we move through these incredibly uncertain times.



Want to learn more about setting an achievable fundraising target? 

We cover this topic in great detail in our training courses for both trusts and foundations and major gifts.

Click on the links to find out more.


Posted in Fundraising, Productivity.