New power, new conversations: the IFC report

The International Fundraising Congress is – I declare my interest as a volunteer – the world’s best fundraising conference. Each year in October around 1,000 people from over 60 countries gather in a conference centre just back from the beaches of the North Sea, west of Amsterdam. It’s a buzzing, active gathering of leaders, new thinkers, experts and innovators…and runs the best end-of-conference dance party I’ve ever attended.

This year’s theme was ‘A New Conversation’. It was about linking fundraisers with the social and environmental causes they promote, about activism and about participation.

Participation, and the ‘new power’ were the themes of Jeremy Heimans’ opening plenary. Jeremy, one of the founders of Avaaz, compared ‘new power’ with ‘old power’ using the tools he describes in a joint paper with Henry Timms, founder of Giving Tuesday. In his view, organisations must adapt to a world in which people want to move from consumers to shapers and designers of ideas, to crowdfunders and eventually to co-creators and co-owners of ideas and product. People want to participate. That participation may be short term – he described the short life of the Occupy movement – and it is certainly not loyal: people switch in and out of their membership of social media groups.

Old power is characterised by hoarding and controlling power, influence and ideas. We buy a car, a frozen pizza or a magazine, but have very little say, often no say at all, in what they contain or how they are produced; we are merely the consumers, buying the product, or not. When we don’t, the old power business rethinks the product and offers us a new one, until they produce the car/pizza/magazine that people are willing to purchase.

New power is, in Jeremy’s words, a ‘current’, like electricity or a fast-flowing stream. We can’t hoard it, but maybe we can channel it. It’s the fast-flowing current of knowledge that is filling the encyclopaedic sea of Wikipedia. It’s the brains behind Linux and open-source software. It’s the million people on the streets of Barcelona to protest police brutality, or the signatories on a campaign website.

Great, Jeremy, but how can we use this in major donor fundraising?

The clue came in another session at the conference. Led by Dr Max Martin, Global Head of Philanthropy at Lombard Odier bank in Geneva (and one of the most brilliant people working in philanthropy in Europe), the session was about innovations in finance for Social Purpose Organisations (SPOs). During the session we heard from the CEO of the Womanity Foundation about a cleverly designed funding model involving UBS Optimus and CIFF in which Optimus provide initial funding for an educational project, with CIFF paying the foundation back for each measureable outcome from the project. And from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) about the first Humanitarian Bond, a CHF26m bond issued by ICRC in conjunction with Lombard Odier and including, amongst others, Fundació LaCaixa, the formerly Catalan banking foundation.

Developing the bond was a long and arduous process for ICRC. But it started with a clever move; before they had gone any further than having the idea of a bond, ICRC involved the bank. That meant persuading board members of ICRC, a very venerable organisation, to sit down with bankers and work out what they wanted to do, and how they would do it. The donor – in this case the leading financier – was involved right from the start of the project.

And that’s the connection with Jeremy Heimans. Because although ICRC and Lombard Odier are both, most definitely, ‘old power’ organisations, this CHF26m project worked in part because ICRC gave up their power, opened up to a donor and shared the process of development with them. Together they came to a bigger, better solution than each player could have managed on their own.

So although crowdsourcing and ‘new power’ sound like the antithesis of the kinds of understated high-level philanthropy that result from our relationships with strategic donors, the same underlying force occurs in both; involve your donors, your investors and your stakeholders RIGHT FROM THE START. Share your power of project- and programme-creation with them, and you could win, big-time.

The Prospect of Power

The Researchers in Fundraising conference this week in London feels like a milestone in our profession – the arrival of a real community of professionals.

There were signals everywhere that we are a real profession. We, the community, have our networks – I saw lots of ‘Hello again! How are you?’s. We have an emerging group of personalities – Martin Mina (Action on Hearing Loss) is the personification of the funny-but-with-a-message presenter. We have our academics – Dr Beth Breeze (University of Kent) continues to uncover the emotional underwiring that supports philanthropy and fundraising. We have international appeal, with Helen Brown (Helen Brown Group) and Gerry Lawless (iWave) flying all the way across the Atlantic to join us.

We have suppliers anxious to win our business and therefore competing (this is normal and healthy) to innovate for our sector. We have media – social media – as conference attendees Tweeted #RIFConf2014 to the world. We even have the beginnings of politics, the politics of women and women’s rights in a workplace where too many bosses (mea culpa) are still men, celebrated by Beth Breeze in her sense of enjoyment at a conference audience that was mainly female.

And we have the intellectual and ethical challenges that define a real profession, personified in Karl Newton of LSE with his intimate description of the Gaddafi incident.

So what’s missing? At the conference the missing ingredient, reported again and again by researchers, was power. They didn’t use that word. What they said was ‘I just can’t get my boss to take research seriously’, or ‘I couldn’t get the budget’, or ‘My boss wrote our policy and I can’t get him to change it.’

Power, and the lack of it, is not a new topic at RiF. But now that we have a real, fully-fledged profession the lack of it is becoming more painful. We need the power to influence our fundraising colleagues. We need the power to write strategy, manage people and influence policy in the fundraising community. We need the power to set budgets, hire and fire. We need the power to commission research, development and innovation in our field. With the Sword of Damocles of new EU data protection legislation hanging over us, we need the power to influence legislation.

We need power, and we need it now.

We know how power works. We research it all the time. It is linked to circles of influence, to people with a strong voice, to a community united behind one or two clear ideas simply expressed.

We don’t have to call it that. We can call it “voice” , or “influence” or “a seat at the high table.” We can be subtle about winning power or we can be loud and proud. We can fight or argue, persuade or hint.

We need friends high up in the non-profit trees. The Chief executive of a brand-name national charity who ‘gets’ research. The MPs and MEPs who used to work in nonprofits, who befriend research. Senior staff at the Institute of Fundraising. We need to find these people (ha! easy for us prospect researchers!) We need to cultivate them and we need to persuade them with one or two clear simple messages. And then, like good fundraisers, we need to steward them.

We can use the power of research. We can do this.