ProFile: Hans Wolters
Fundraisers across the globe are facing challenges. No matter where your organization is headquartered or where its work takes hold, the issues generally are the same: acquiring, retaining and engaging donors in an ever-changing societal landscape.
With that in mind, FundRaising Success reached out to international fundraiser Hans Wolters, CEO of U.K.-based The Resource Alliance, an organization missioned to build the fundraising capabilities of the nonprofit sector worldwide. Wolters has an extensive background as a fundraiser, having held positions at Greenpeace Europe, WWF International and the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR), and as an independent consultant.
FundRaising Success spoke with Wolters about fundraising, the increasing control of the donor and the great things that efficient, effective nonprofit organizations can achieve.
FundRaising Success: What drew you to fundraising?
Hans Wolters: NGOs perform an incredible and hugely important role across the world. Indeed, they are essential for a well-functioning democratic society and — on a daily basis — are solving so many of the world's problems that politicians and others simply have not been able or willing to solve.
But, what services can they deliver if NGOs themselves are not sustainable? Fundraising and creating steady flows of income are absolutely essential if organizations are to meet their objectives and if they want to plan for what lies ahead. Since the very first time I tried my hand at fundraising, when selling Christmas cards in aid of UNICEF in a small city called Assen in the Netherlands in 1960, I felt inspired by doing something very concrete and tangible in support of a great cause.
The Resource Alliance has been doing this in various guises for 30 years now on a global platform, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead the organization in its mission to help NGOs build capacity and raise the funds ?they need, and ensure ?sustainability.
FS: In your last two years at the ECFR, you helped double the organization's income. What fundraising tactics and donor-relations strategies did you employ?
HW: At ECFR, the trick was to get donors excited enough about the work that we were doing. We put our time and energy into an incredibly strong communications strategy to ensure that potential supporters knew what we were doing, what we wanted to do and how this would benefit people. We targeted our communications at key regions as appropriate, making best use of the capacity available to us.
For example, when fundraising in Italy, we worked hard to invigorate politicians about what we were doing and placed stories in the media to build the profile of our work. At the outset, we ensured that the standard and quality of communication and overall professionalism were very high.
Having established a high-profile platform, we found that donors were encouraged to support us. Moreover, we found ourselves in the fortunate position that — after a relatively short period of time — some donors were coming to find us.
FS: How has your experience working for and with different organizations over the years helped shape your fundraising philosophy?
HW: There are three key aspects that I believe to be essential when it comes to fundraising: Organizations must always be transparent, accountable and professional. In the same way as businesses do, we have to demonstrate value for money. A donation is an investment — think what the donor is getting in return. The very least we can offer is to ensure that donors are acknowledged and thanked, that they understand how the organization uses its funds and how the charity will go about meeting its objectives. Nonprofits need to be run effectively and efficiently. We cannot and should not be seen as a business — we play a very different role in society — but that doesn't prevent us from looking critically at the business sector to learn from them about improving our effectiveness.
FS: What lessons have you learned in regard to raising funds? What's worked well for you and your organizations?
HW: NGOs must be self-aware, review fundraising practices, and adapt flexibly and fluidly when things change. Just because one technique has been part of the fundraising strategy for the past decade, it doesn't necessarily mean that it should be there for the coming decade. Look to your own organization, to others within the sector (and beyond) and to the wider marketplace to ensure that you have selected the most appropriate and efficient strategy for your organization. Above all, don't bury your head in the sand. If things need changing, be bold and quick to react.
FS: What are the biggest challenges you face today as a fundraiser? How do you overcome them?
HW: Perhaps the most challenging issue for fundraisers in the current economic climate is fundraisers' own self-cheating attitude that less money will be donated. We know that there is less wealth, but it doesn't necessarily follow that donations should fall. Many NGOs could be aiming higher, and the recession offers a platform to communicate to their donors, albeit in a different way or with a different ask.
FS: What advice would you give fundraisers looking to expand their donor base and contributed income?
HW: I believe that organizational development is absolutely key. As a fundraiser, it is essential that you have the right structure behind you — that you are confident that the organization is operating efficiently and professionally. Whilst the structure itself may not be your own responsibility, you do need to be able to communicate organizational efficiency to potential supporters and donors.
As discussed in earlier questions, aim high even ?during a recession; don't be defeatist; and ensure that — whatever you do — you do it well, professionally and efficiently.
FS: What do you like most/least about working in the sector?
HW: When an NGO is operating well, it is quite extraordinary what it can achieve. NGOs are making the world a better place, and it is a privilege to be part of that movement. On a day-to-day basis,?I encounter some of the most positive and committed people who have achieved so much on behalf of others. Little could be more motivating than that.
My personal bug bear is NGO offices that are not professionally run. It is not alright to use the term "NGO" as a reason for a lack of management or structure. We need to retain what is so special and moving about the organization's mission and its commitment to that mission, paired with absolute professionalism.
FS: What is the future of fundraising?
HW: Fundraising is increasingly volatile. Donors … are more and more informed about your organization and other organizations (locally, nationally and internationally), and they certainly are in control when it comes to their donations. They are able to pick and choose which organization they give to with relative ease, changing how they donate, the amount and which charity they support with just one click of the mouse.
We cannot expect donors to continue to support NGOs on a long-term basis. The times that you can expect an individual donor to support you for, say, an average of seven years are over. This is reflected in the growth of online tools (comparison/benchmarking Web sites, etc.) that enable donors to quickly and easily compare organizations. Increased transparency means greater scrutiny of NGO practices, and no organization can afford to be left behind. NGOs must ensure that their organization will fare well in such comparisons if they are to continue to fundraise effectively in future years.
At the Resource Alliance, we can help NGOs nationally and internationally adapt to this change, amongst others. Our role is of a multiplier, bringing the best possible knowledge, expertise and advice from all aspects of the globe together and sharing it with others in order to benefit civil society internationally.
Joe Boland is copy editor and staff writer for the Target Marketing Group at FS’ parent company, NAPCO. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org