In our view

Discovering fundraising gold

By Gillian Mitchell, an Associate of Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement.

Two striking examples of using the media to raise awareness and funding came to light in the past two weeks. Both raise interesting issues about fundraising, the use of media, the relationship between funders and beneficiaries and the potential donor pool in South Africa.

On May 27th, the Sunday Times ran a story on the desperate circumstances of the Selowe Primary School in Limpopo Province. This school which was started by the community of Silvermine some 150km outside of Polokwane has 165 pupils and 14 volunteer teachers.  Since the beginning of the year teaching had taken place outside under marula trees; teachers had not been paid a single cent; and basic resources such as desks, chairs, textbooks and toilets were non-existent. 

The full plight of the school can be read in several articles which have subsequently been published on the school and the systems and processes which contributed to this sad state of affairs.

Within days of the circumstances under which the school was operating being publicised in The Sunday Times support has poured in from all conceivable avenues. Individuals, corporations, groups of people, churches and small businesses have all been moved to offer assistance. Donations of books, clothing, furniture, teaching equipment, art materials, toilets, shelter and a communications centre, to mention just a few, have flooded in.  The Sunday Times has been inundated with requests from people asking what they could do, where to send funds and how volunteers could get involved. People have offered to get friends to donate what they can, others have pledged whatever they are able to afford, and still more are volunteering their services and talent to support the school.

In Advancement terms, the article in the newspaper has produced fundraising gold. It raised awareness and it motivated people to give.

Raising awareness for a cause is seldom as easy as having an article printed in a newspaper. Given that there are far more causes than there are column inches, getting articles published in traditional print media about the troubled circumstances of our social organisations can seldom be guaranteed. And, even when they are, the response such as experienced by Selowe Primary School is the exception rather than the rule. 

We would do well as Advancement practitioners to spend some time reflecting on why it is that this article elicited this response? What is it about this particular article that hit the “action” button for so many donors? Why did this cause touch so many “giving” nerves while similar plights of similar schools have not? Does the fact that it was published as a news story rather than as an informational precursor to asking for support and funding make a difference? Did the photographs shift this article from one of many to the “the one” that people would leap up to support? Was the placement of the article on the front page of a weekend paper the catalyst? Did this story just come at a time when the we had hit overload on articles about corruption, race, and outrage so overwhelming that individuals felt powerless? And if we find answers to these questions, there are a few others that should be asked.     

Can this reaction be replicated?  Is this a model for Advancement practice or is it a “lucky” strike that is unlikely to be repeated? Is there a place for events such as these in a medium to long-term fundraising strategy?  

How do we respond to people and employers with limited Advancement experience who then use this “story” as the rule by which they measure fundraising in their organisations? 

The second gold moment of the Selowe Primary School story is that the article moved people to actually action their giving. Cultivating a potential donor from a position of awareness and empathy to one of actioned giving is one of the core activities of any advancement programme and arguably, the most difficult. 

Frequently we successfully walk new donors through the steps of awareness, interest, trust and commitment to a project or cause and falter at the final step of action – that final stretch that gets the cheque written, the support delivered. Again, we would do well to think about why this article managed to galvanise people into giving action.  Indeed we would do well to consider the aftermath that will most likely last for many weeks and months to come. 

Within the next few weeks, the Selowe Primary School is likely to find itself in a position that has challenges and pitfalls that need to be managed and monitored. The members of the school and supporting community are going to find that they will need to find a way of administering their new fortunes into a coherent, appropriate, ordered and strategic programme of stewardship and planning.

The staff of the school and the supporting community surely did not expect such an overwhelming response and are most likely unprepared to administer the flood of support optimally.

The goodwill, money, gifts in kind, pledges of support and requests for direction in how best to support the school must be both strategically and practically managed in order to successfully build the school beyond the next few weeks or months. 

Some of the resources being offered, such as the building of classrooms, the provision of toilets and the setting up of communications infrastructures, are medium to long-term projects which will need planning, scheduling, project management, much collaborative discussion and ultimately completed delivery. 

The “softer” contributions such as clothing, books, teaching materials etc. will need to be appropriately assessed, housed, distributed, and even donated to other schools where appropriate. Donors should be thanked, kept informed as to the progress of the school and, ideally, wielded into a community which will continue to support the school into the future.

The staff, community and governing structures of the school will need to ensure that the needs of the school and the learners are fittingly met and that whatever support is being founded, built or provided is appropriate to the needs of the school. The relationship between the school and its donor community should be one of equality and parity with both sides able to acknowledge the value in themselves and each other as vital and collaborative contributors to the success of Selowe Primary School. 

It would be hoped that along with the donations of funds and educational tools and infrastructure there will also be offers from advancement practitioners, project managers and administrators and fund managers to volunteer time and skill to help the school community to best utilise the gifts that are currently being offered to them and to ensure that within the coming months, the Selowe Primary community will not be overwhelmed by the support that they received but empowered.