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Not all thank you letters are created equal.

What the perfect thank you letter looks like is a regular topic in our office. Don’t be too gushy so you appear false. Don’t be too casual and risk not sounding grateful enough. Don’t drop too many tears over the paper so the ink runs.

Today I had to write a thank you letter to a lady who donated a large sum of money to us in memory of her son. I work for the East Anglia Air Ambulance and we flew out the day her husband handed their 11 month old baby a blackberry to nibble while on a family walk. Heartbreakingly, the poor child choked on the fruit and was unable to be saved.

How do you even begin to convey, on paper, to a family that have suffered such extreme loss, that you’re thankful for them thinking of you during it all? How do you convey to someone you’ve never met that the whole charity has been touched by what’s happened to you and has questioned often, how you must be coping? How do you say that you have no clue how they move on from this but you hope they have people around them who are helping? How do you get across that you really value writing you this letter, that you’re concerned about saying the ‘right’ thing, that you know they’re going to receive this just before Christmas when it must all feel like it can’t get any worse and you don’t want to make anything more terrible? How do you let them know that you won’t just write this and forget what has happened to them and that you won’t stop working hard in the new year in the hope that no one else will have to go through what they are?

Writing that thank you is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my role. I hope I did OK. I hope the family know how grateful I am for their donation. And how much my colleagues feel it too. And that I’ll be thinking of them on Christmas Day and hoping they see some glimmers of happiness in 2016.

For the record, I don’t believe there is a perfect thank you letter actually. But what I do believe, is that there is being truly thankful. This Christmas, I hope all fundraisers are taking a moment to be truly thankful for the support they recieve from the public, again and again and committing to remembering it a bit more often in 2016. We’re going to need to remember how much support we DO get, because the media is going to try and make it really hard for the public to keep believing in what we do. It’s down to us to show them differently. It’s down to us to remain thankful.

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You’re running the marathon? Meh.

A wonderful supporter has just got in touch with me as she wants to do 14 challenges in 2014. Big ones! When I asked her what motivated her to do so many, she said ‘Because I didn’t think I’d raise as much money if I just did one’.

This got me thinking about a friend who ran the London marathon last year. She had her own place but wanted to raise money for a tiny charity she supports. She raised £125. As always, every little helps but to put that into perspective, most charities only offer a place in the London marathon if you can raise over £1500. The amount is at this level not only because places are expensive, but because running the marathon is considered an incredible feat of human ability and so it makes sense that runners should be able to inspire lots of people to give money to the cause of their choice by taking part.

Or so used to be the case. Clearly with the case of my friend, not many people cared enough either about her doing the marathon or the cause she was doing it for and so felt inclined to make a donation. It used to be that running 26.2 miles would be enough to raise thousands. Now, it’s not that easy. Now it’s a bit blasé.

The marathon has been going for a long time…meaning a lot of people have done it. When you tell someone you’re doing it, they will often reply with a list of at least three other people they know also taking part. You’re competing for income at a time when 36,000 other people are too and of course there’ll be crossover in the people you’re asking. A charity would never (?) organise a campaign that asked the same set of people for money, for the same appeal, repeatedly, in a period of just a few weeks. So you often have to work for it. Plan additional, smaller fundraising activities. Cake sales. Discos. Bucket collections. Anything to reach your target. And all while also trying to fit in training for the blooming thing.

Entry fees and enjoyment factor also play a part in making challenge events hard to fundraise for. I did a 370km cycle challenge in India and had to raise £3200. That included the cost of doing the trip. Some people were happy to contribute to the fee, understanding that costs are involved in challenges of that nature. Other people told me to come back once I’d passed the fee value as they only wanted their contribution to go to the charity. Other people point blank refused to donate, questioning why they should fund my holiday. Some challenges involve travel which is both fun and (at times) expensive. People can be wary of funding something like my trip because it sounds (and was) amazing. Why should I get to have all the fun while they have to stay at home?

What seems to have been forgotten in a world where everyone seems to be doing a charity challenge though, is that these things are just that – they’re challenges. Mental, physical, spiritual challenges that test the person taking part to the limits. I did the London marathon and it took me 7.5 hours. They were literally clearing up around me I was so slow. I cycled across India and barely saw any of the country as my head was down, making sure I avoided pot holes and coming off the bike for the 70 odd km we did each day. Last year I walked over hot coals burning at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit and went against everything my mum told me from the age of 3 (Stay away from fire!!!!) to reach the end. The year before I got in a boxing ring in front of 600 people having only put the gloves on for the first time 8 weeks previously. The first punch floored me (as did the second) but I got back up and finished three rounds.

All of these things were ridiculously hard but I wouldn’t change a thing. One clearly wasn’t enough either and do you know why? Because challenges give you something that stays with you long after they’re over. Confidence. Confidence you can use every day or whenever you need to call on it.

It is only you that will make you complete a charity challenge. YOU alone. Of course friends and family offer support and encouragement which is a huge help but when you’re running, on the bike, about to step onto the coals or have punches raining down on you, it is only YOU that has the power to make yourself keep going. And the confidence this gives you, is one of the best feelings in the world.

But why should people make a donation just because you’re doing something that you’ll be more confident because of? Why should they give money when you’ll get the benefit? I’d like here, to highlight the recent achievement of Ex-MS Society trustee Stuart Nixon. Stuart has MS and struggles to walk more than a few steps unaided. Last year he completed a 60km walk through London in 9 days to celebrate the charities 60th anniversary year using a walking frame he had built especially. With a support team, he walked for 6 hours a day. Just think about that. A man who couldn’t walk more than a few metres unaided has just walked 60km to raise money for a charity and raised over £60,000 in the process. If that’s not the true definition of a challenge, I don’t know what is.

I assume (and hope) that Stuart feels more confident as a result of completing his challenge but again, why should this have inspired people to donate to him? Of course, a challenge means something different to everybody. For some people, some of the challenges I’ve discussed above would be a breeze. But they were a challenge for me. For Stuart, walking day to day was difficult. But he wanted to do more. It is easy to coast through life doing nothing but the day to day (even when that in itself may be tough enough) or you can push yourself until you nearly break and in doing so hope that you inspire people to make a sacrifice for something you believe in – a donation to the cause you love.

A challenge is called a challenge for a reason. Put it into context the next time someone asks you to contribute to their event, give them a couple of quid and wish them good luck. And if you’re doing the marathon this year or any other type of challenge, tell your supporters what it means to you. Why you wanted to do it, the highs and lows of training, the mental preparation. And if they still don’t want to donate? Ask them what they’re doing to challenge themselves and make a difference. Then get back to your training.

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General Charity

Classic Charity Christmas Myths…by Uncle Bob

Christmas is a time for catching up with old friends, meeting new people and trekking miles across the country to visit the long distant relatives who won’t speak to you all year if you don’t pop by (even though you’d be quite happy if they didn’t speak to you all year…guilt – and Mum – say you must go).

This Christmas, while embarking on all of the above, I’m sure I’m not the only charity worker who experienced what I like to call the ‘Classic Christmas Charity Myths’. They’re also known as the ‘Random guy in the pub musings’ and the ‘Obnoxious guy on first date main course conversations’ (true story).  They included:

‘Oh you work for a charity? What, and you get paid?’

‘I heard that out of every £1 donated, only 11p actually gets spent on the cause itself’

‘Aha, so you’re a Chugger…’

‘Do you not feel like you should donate your salary back to your employer?’

‘You volunteer for a different charity? Isn’t that a bit disloyal?’

All of this is fine. I’m not angry. Just disappointed. I believe it is the fault of charities themselves that questions like this are still being asked. We must educate the public – as well as ask for their support – about how we work, what we do, why we do it and where their money goes. We must be honest and bold about how we can do better and why we behave in certain ways now, but could soar given the chamce. Dan Pallotta says it much better than me.

So I’m not bothered that my oldest school friend, my friends new boyfriend and Uncle Bob all contributed to the above conversations happening over the festive period. I’m more bothered that I didn’t say anything. And that their opinion is still the same.

But what was I to do?!

If I’d have said what I really thought (PLEASE tell me how to work for free and still pay the mortgage, if only 11p reaches the cause then do not give that charity your money, there are over 200 different roles in most large charities so no, I’m not a chugger, maybe I do donate some of my salary back to my employer – and also see my first point – and who ever just had one thing they’re passionate about?) and tried to engage these people in a conversation about how charity really works, it would have all got uncomfortable, a row would probably have ensued (people get VERY passionate about all of the above) and it would have just been a bit unpleasant. And not very festive. But mainly, nothing would have changed. Because most charities do not include changing opinion on the above in any of their strategies so I as a lone charity ranger, bottle of sloe gin permanently in hand, felt underprepared.

A 2012 report by Ipsos Mori shows that while more people than ever are using a variety of different charitable services, the public is concerned about a variety of fundraising methods being used and the operational activities in the sector (high salaries, bonuses, administration costs etc). Few organisations have responded to this information with an open, detailed plan aimed at addressing these issues – and the realisation that if we don’t, income will suffer.

Except for one. The RSPCA have launched an ambitious 10 year campaign to change public perception of their work as they approach their 200th birthday. I remember nearly falling off my chair when I read this article. A 10 year plan?! To prepare for an anniversary year? OMG! Go RSPCA!

We will of course see how it pans out and how the results from their work has an impact on that of others but for now, as we start 2014, and I thankfully don’t need to see Uncle Bob for at least 352 days, I’ll be asking myself what can I do to change public perception of the organisations I support, and the sector as a whole? I’ll actively seek out and ask questions of the people at the top of the organisations to make sure I hear the truth from the horses mouth. I’ll share information with supporters about things we’re doing, how we’re spending money, how we made that decision and why. And I’ll encourage other colleagues to do the same. It is only through this, and thinking about public perception throughout all of our work, that opinion will change.

I can’t do it alone though – join me?

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Ubuntu

Like everyone who wants to change the world, sometimes I have doubts. I question why I’m doing what I’m doing, and the way in which I’m doing it. I ask is it worth it and will anything ever be different. It’s exhausting, shall I just stop? Today had been one of those days.

Thankfully due to the power of random coincidence, I often don’t doubt for long. And I am eternally grateful for this. Take for example, this evening.

My friend Breifne Early posted on facebook earlier that he was in the recording studio ‘laying down’ a track. He sent me a copy of the song he was recording – I loved it. Boy can sing. I felt a bit stunned. And in awe. For Breifne is not your normal man. He started Challenge Ten in an attempt to turn his life around a few years ago. He wanted to lose weight, meet a girl, travel the world, change jobs, and much more. And he’s done it. And is doing it. He has carved out a career in sport radio, goes on a date a week, is dropping pounds and crowd funding to help him cycle the world while raising awareness of suicide, talking to groups he meets along the way and letting them know ‘It’s ok not to feel ok’. Plus he coaches youth football. And supports the greatest team around (Norwich City FC for those of you wondering).

I was inspired by the fact Breifne was embarking on something else he obviously wanted to do. And fitting so much in to the short time we have. It made me think that I should do a monthly post about people that inspire me. Starting with Breifne. I’d do it straight after I ate my dinner. Great idea.

While I ate dinner, I watched a Ted talk – Boyd Varty What I learned from Mandela . Spend a 14 minute coffee (or dinner)
break watching this. It’s great. In it, Boyd talks about Ubuntu – an African saying “I am, because of you”. He talks about how we must be aware of our interrelatedness and the influence we have on each other and how the magic that comes when we do this, will help us live the way that is right.

It then got me thinking back to Breifne. And the ‘People that inspire me’ monthly post idea. And I instantly dismissed it. For I am not inspired by people just once a month, and I don’t have a top person every 30 days that I want to highlight. Working for a charity puts me in a privileged position of being able to be inspired every day by people – in my case, people living with multiple sclerosis. To see people living with, caring for, campaigning on behalf of, raising awareness in aid of and supporting people affected by MS, helps remind me that it is worth trying to create change. Plus I look around all the time, for people that I am amazed by.

And if you’re open to other people, and recognise we’re all interrelated (Ubuntu), it will help you stay on the right path. Here in one evening, I’d been inspired by two people within the space of 60 minutes. Because I needed to be – and coincidence put them in front of me.

And so the vow has changed. I’ll now write about people that inspire me, as and when they do, in the hope they may inspire you too. Inspire you to keep going, to keep believing and to keep trying to make it happen – whatever that is, fundraising, campaigning, raising awareness, creating change, To me, the people that inspire us are the ‘you’ in Ubuntu – they may vary day to day, they may contradict each other or they may have been there for a long time without you realising. But if you open up and let them inspire you, they make you who you are. So do it now.

And share with me who inspires you – tweet me @inhollyskitchen and spread the word!

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Working for a charity isn’t enough

Recently I felt very proud to become trustee at the wonderful Mind Norwich and Central Norfolk. It was recommended I apply to become a trustee to aid my career development and get a better understanding of how charities operate. It has only been a few months but I have learnt so much already and would recommend it to anyone.

I’ve helped other organisations in a variety of volunteering roles – helping with collections, cheering at events, organising events, giving training for free and of course, helping their fundraising. But it is only when I became a trustee that I started to think of myself as a volunteer. It was the first thing I had applied for and gone through a formal process. With the other roles, I just kind of fell in to it – helping a mate out, joining in because I was already going to something or seeing an opportunity on social media and just thinking ‘Yeh, why not’. The formality of the trustee role has really made me think differently about volunteering.

Of course there are all the common reasons of why people are encouraged to volunteer – it makes you feel good, you help people, you meet new people, it looks good on your CV, you develop new skills, the list goes on.

And of course many charity workers volunteer for a variety of projects in a variety of roles. But many don’t – and it is a shame. Not just because they won’t experience all the common benefits listed above, but because volunteering for another organisation will help influence the work they do for the one that pays them.

The things I’ve learnt by being a volunteer have helped me better understand the volunteers of the organisation I work for. Things like how important an induction is, how we must give people appropriate information, how scary it can feel to be the ‘new kid’, how our role must be given context, how a role description often isn’t that helpful, how useful an assigned ‘buddy’ is for asking questions. And it has helped influence my day job in a positive way. I plan better, I think about my communications more, I check volunteers are OK more frequently. Oh, and I say thank you – regularly and with sincerity. Because I now know and understand, what it feels like if those things don’t’ happen. Rubbish. And a bit disappointing.

There’s also the inspiration factor – if you’re inspired enough by a cause to give your time for free, you want to continue being inspired by the charity when you volunteer for them. So we must make sure volunteer roles make best use of peoples skills, engage them with the charity, give them room to grow, make them feel like their making a difference. How many of the roles you are currently looking to fill, meet all of that criteria? I know I’ve been guilty of not meeting that standard in the past – but volunteering myself and going through the experience I currently am is keeping these thoughts fresh in my mind.

Volunteering is not just valuable for those in fundraising – I just had a conversation with a colleague who works extremely closely with non-fundraising volunteers and feels as I do about her role with a branch of the Cats Protection league. She said that by being a volunteer, she understood much better her volunteer’s motivations and how they must feel in different situations. I also think ‘back office’ staff, those in finance, administration, the mail room and so on, could all benefit from volunteering. Thinking about how important they are to the organisation and how we all play a role in giving volunteers a good experience.

If you work for a charity, often people do a ‘Ooooh you must be a great person’ face and deem themselves unworthy for working in a different field. But a job in a charity is still a job – despite your reasons for doing it. It’s not a good enough reason to not do more – particularly when the benefits can help your day to day work so much too.

 

 

 

 

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Question everything – but don’t stop giving

Last night a Panorama show revealed that Amnesty International gave their Director General over £500,000 in expenses and other claims as pay out when she left. They made a near £750,000 loss at their annual Secret Policeman’s Ball in 2012. They pay top staff over £100,000. They also exposed that Comic Relief have invested some of their income in to the arms, tobacco and alcohol industry in order to increase their funds. And that Save the Children censored staffs criticism of the energy industry as they have energy suppliers as corporate partners.

A brief look at the Twitter response to the programme showed what I expected – ‘This is why I don’t give to charity’ and ‘I’m never donating to Comic Relief again’ were common themes. I’m sure there will be supporters of the charities mentioned who wake up this morning and question whether they should cancel their monthly direct debit or buy Christmas cards that give to another organisation next year. And yes a few things could have been handled better at the charities mentioned in the show – but it is for their boards and supporters to hash out.

The damage of the programme will have affected the entire charity industry though and this is what disappoints me. It has fuelled the debate around top charity bosses pay packets and made it seem that charities are very loose at decision making when it comes to spending their donors money. As with a lot of media coverage, this opinion is skewed.

I feel most for the people working at Amnesty International, Save the Children and Comic Relief, that aren’t at board or top management level. Those are the people today who will be fielding calls from supporters who want to know more about the contents of the programme and what is going to be done about it – unless internal communications are super slick, and an all-singing, all-dancing FAQ and script sheet has been produced, staff (as well as supporters) will need answers too.

Working for a charity when they come under public scrutiny is difficult. When you choose a charity to work for, you represent the organisation, you trust it, you become it, what they do is what you do. So when something like Panorama airs about your employer, you will be left reeling. And scared – because if the charity is working in a way you don’t believe in, you’re going to have to find one that does. But then you may have to move away from the cause which you love.

Each of the supporters on last nights show that were either told about their charities ‘wrong-doing’ or revealed it themselves, said they would continue to give. But would start to ask questions. And I hope that this will be a positive legacy of the programme. As supporters, we must ask questions. We must push our charities to work in the way we believe they should, to help the cause in the way it needs to be helped. But we must remember that as with all business, we cannot have all the information, all of the time. So we must utilise opportunities we have for engagement – read the annual report, go to the AGM, attend the open days and meet the staff, volunteer at events. It is this way that we get to truly understand what the charity does, how and why. Pulling out a few bad examples of practice makes a good show but does not do justice to the good that these organisations have done. They have saved lives, they have campaigned for justice and won and they have helped millions of people living in poverty both at home and abroad. If you watched last nights show, go an question the organisation you support – but don’t stop giving to them. Please. They won’t do better without you.

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