Return on investment in high value fundraising

This is an updated version of a post which originally appeared on the blog of my good pals at Money Tree Fundraising.


Pound for pound, return on investment figures differ depending on the type of fundraising you’re doing and tend to be higher for trusts and foundations, major gifts, grants and capital appeals (what I define as ‘high value fundraising’ or ‘one to one’ fundraising).

Return on Investment in fundraising is a controversial topic, with some fundraisers decrying the publication of such figures for fear they’ll be misinterpreted by influential figures at their charities and used to create unrealistic targets.

Standardised, industry figures also enable us to examine our own fundraising practices and to understand how we compare (which is maybe why some fundraisers don’t approve!).  It can be hard to learn that there are people out there doing better than you, but information is power and benchmarking against others can provide useful information from which you can:


  • make plans,
  • ask questions,
  • focus on specific areas for either investment or improvement.


Here are some of the qualities which specifically impact return on investment in high value fundraising along with some practical tips on making the most of the opportunities available.


Longer lead in times


Whist return on investment can be quite high for this area of work, there’s no such thing as a free lunch (I’ve certainly worked with colleagues who wondered if ‘lunching’ was all I ever did).  In order to benefit from the higher returns which trusts and major gifts fundraising can generate, you’ll have to wait a little longer for the goods to materialise.


If you’re starting from scratch, high value fundraising takes longer to establish the close connections required for gifts to materialise.


Typical lead in times are around 9 months for trusts and 2 years for major donors.


This can be hard to stomach for charities with a very limited budget where funds are needed yesterday.  You’ll need an understanding board, some watertight KPI’s (such as number of meetings, phone calls, trusts researched, proposals sent) and regular monitoring to be confident that progress is happening.


My tip: start small and scale over time. 


For charities new to fundraising, know that you do not need to commit a huge amount of money to trusts or major gifts fundraising in order to see a return.  A short feasibility study will give you some solid advice on where best to direct your resources for maximum impact (email if you’d like to talk about an audit / feasibility study for your charity – we’d love to help you with this!).

If you want to dive straight into employing a fundraiser, be open to flexible working hours and offer a part time role or job share.  Recruiting for attitude and acknowledging someone’s potential through their transferable skills will open the field, ensuring you get some great candidates.

A volunteer willing to learn about high value fundraising (or better still, with existing knowledge and / or experience) will add immeasurably to any team.

Make the most of free resources available online to help you to secure the best return on investment for your high value streams.  The Fundraising Chat and Trust Fundraising Hub groups on Facebook are also extremely active with supportive communities of fundraisers ready to help you, whatever your question.

As well as this blog, I love reading the articles on Alicia Grainger’s blog and on the Money Tree Fundraising blog too.


There are few areas where for every pound invested you’re likely to see £5 – £7 returned (at least…)


Trust in the experts, work hard and your good cause will benefit massively in the months and years which follow.


Fewer eggs, bigger baskets


This is not an analogy which resonates with my explorations into veganism, but you get the gist.

High value fundraising can feel very all or nothing, with the potential to return an ROI of £30 for every £1 spent or 50p (should none of your prospects bite).

I recall working on a project in a wealthy seaside town in Cornwall.  A very famous celebrity chef had bought an historic property near the waterfront and submitted planning permission to bulldoze it and replace it with something more modern (and inevitably more enormous).

A colleague on the board knew his architect well and promised to make an introduction when the time was right.


This guy was now a HOT prospect for a major gift for the following reasons:


  1. we were pretty confident that he had the capacity to make a big gift
  2. his interest in our very local cause was likely to be quite high given his geographical proximity and looming PR disaster relating to the plans for his proposed new property
  3. he was connected by only one degree of separation to a member of our board


I went away and wrote a cultivation plan including all possible motivations he might have for supporting our work and factored a potential gift into our fundraising plan.

On presenting this work to my colleague, I was informed:


“My architect friend isn’t working for him anymore.  Sorry.”


There we were, left hanging with no credible route via which to contact said chef.

The stakes feel even higher for the following charitable organisations for whom this type of fundraising is even harder:


  • Start-ups (most charitable trusts will want to see two years of accounts before they put their trust in you)
  • Non-profits which are not registered charities or CIO’s. I’m currently working with a Community Benefit Society which has an extremely limited number of prospects available.  CIC’s and other social enterprises will often see themselves excluded from applying to trusts and foundations.


Most organisations in these categories will need some kind of individual giving / community fundraising to help them get started.


My tip: Map out your options and be realistic


I recommend you do your research to ascertain just how many prospects you have for each area of high value giving.  Look at their previous giving patterns (if they’re a trust) and / or use your knowledge of them to make a best guess at how much you might be able to ask for.

Divide these prospects up over a year so that you have a month by month calendar of approaches.

Look at the total amount of potential available to you.  Bear in mind that it’s highly unlikely (or impossible) that every single one of your approaches will result in a gift.  You may need to do further research to seek out more prospects, or alter your fundraising target / programme of activity.

Check out this post for practical ideas about setting a target.


Under pressure


When faced with a shortage of funding needed to fulfil an ambitious target, fundraisers are often pushed towards ‘quick wins’ at the expense of the riches and rewards which await when one is bold enough (and has planned ahead sufficiently) to play the long game.

Holding your nerve, especially at the beginning of a high value fundraising programme is horrible. Return on investment in high value fundraising is absolutely that – high value, but not immediately…

When done well, Major Gifts fundraisers spend most of their time on tasks which are important but not urgent.  Lack of urgency can go hand in hand with a lack of accountability as more pressing (often internal) calls for attention win out.


My tip: Hold your nerve and tighten up those KPI’s


Trust in your staff and don’t micromanage.  Make sure KPI’s provide accountability and a feeling of progress, examples include:


  • Number of prospects researched and rated
  • Phone calls made
  • Meetings held
  • Visits to charity projects
  • Connections mapped with trustees


Trust in the many, many charities who have done this before you and the many who are yet to begin.  Good things really do come to those who wait.


In summary:


 The qualities needed to achieve the highest return on investment in high value fundraising:


  • understanding about investment needed upfront and the wisdom (and resources) to play the long game
  • holding your nerve during the seemingly interminable time when the irons are the fire but the stove isn’t yet lit…
  • discipline and a single-minded focus on the tasks which bring you closer to donors and which advance their relationships with your charity.


Thanks for reading!



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Posted in Fundraising, Major gift fundraising, Trust fundraising.