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"Be strategic, have confidence in your staff and stay positive"

Debra Bollan, head of fundraising at Contact the Elderly — which tackles loneliness among isolated older people through volunteer-led tea parties — chats to MissionBox about making the move from the corporate world to the charity sector, and the ins and outs of working in fundraising for a small organization.

How did you get into charity fundraising?

After school, I worked at a high street bank for 22 years, making my way up to branch manager. I was made redundant from my role in 2010 and decided to take six months gardening leave to figure out my next step. I wanted to use my skills in a positive way and make a difference, but I hadn’t considered working for a charity.

The role at Contact the Elderly came up through my previous employer which was funding a 12-month, part-time trusts and grants officer role at Contact the Elderly. I applied and was successful. After a year, the role had become increasingly busy, so my days were increased to three a week and the charity took on a full-time fundraising manager who I reported into.

When the fundraising manager moved on five years ago, I decided to apply and I’ve been in the role ever since. I learnt a lot from my predecessor and I’ve also been on different fundraising courses to learn how to make the approach to potential supporters and funders.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Every day is different. One day may consist of internal meetings, either with members of my team or other senior managers, or external meetings with potential or current funders. Another day may find me writing funding reports or putting together a new funding proposal.

When it comes to applying for funding, I work closely with the regional teams to find out what they need to help them maintain and develop new tea party groups. For example, a regional development officer might need more volunteers to launch a group in a specific town. If that’s the case, the fundraising team will research and apply for local funding opportunities to help advertise for new volunteers. I then make sure I’m in constant dialogue with the regional teams throughout the financial year so that when I’m reporting back to funders, I can easily find out relevant information from regional staff. Our regional staff are part of the funding application process as they know the local information and what’s needed.

I also manage a team of four (three staff members and one volunteer) and report directly to the CEO.

How do you track your fundraising targets?

The names and contact details for trusts, foundations and corporate supporters are entered into our central database and given a mailing date — we make sure we have contact with them at least once a year. Every month, I discuss with the team who we should be contacting and for what projects and amounts. We review our progress monthly.

Our annual target is £1.77 million so we must work very closely as a team to ensure that the funding proposals that are sent out will enable us to achieve this figure.

We also carry out research via the Directory for Social Change and the Charity Commission website to make sure we’re not missing out on new trusts that have been recently set up.

What do you enjoy about the role? And are there any challenges you face?

Although there is some pressure working in fundraising, the aspect of the role that I most enjoy is working with other members of the team, discussing new projects and opportunities. I enjoy the varied nature of my work and that I am trusted to make decisions.

It’s a hands on role: I know everything that’s going on and if a member of my team isn’t here, I can dive into their role as I’ve been party to their conversations with funders and supporters and part of the decision making. No two days are the same; this is both a positive thing and a challenge. I walk into the office each day with a plan of what I roughly want to do but that can change. It can be a bit frustrating when you end the day with only one task crossed off your list.

One big challenge is that there is less statutory funding available as there are more people going after the same pots of money. We’re finding that larger charities working with older people are diversifying their services and offering similar social activities to Contact the Elderly, such as befriending and afternoon tea groups. There was previously no competition, but this year I’ve noticed everyone wants a piece of the same pie.

Despite the challenges, when you hear from older people about the difference Contact the Elderly is making to their lives it makes everything feel worthwhile.

What skills does a good head of fundraising need?

You need to be strategic and plan what you’re doing, so people in your team understand the journey you’re taking and how you’re going to reach your goal. It’s essential you have confidence in your staff and let them know this, and that you stay positive — for every successful application you submit, you’ll receive five negative responses. You also need to be honest and let the CEO and trustees know when you need help. Sometime it's important to say: “There is a problem: it looks like we’re not going to achieve this month’s target.”

Where do you see your career taking you?

I’m enjoying what I’m doing at the moment but that’s not to say if an opportunity comes along I won't consider it, whether that’s a director of fundraising role at a charity or head of fundraising at a slightly larger organisation. I couldn't work for a really big charity where you're far removed from the core work: I like being directly involved with beneficiaries. One thing is certain: I definitely won’t be leaving the charity sector. Working for a high street bank was great but working for a charity you get to make a real impact on people’s lives.

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