As the world comes to terms with the impact of COVID-19, one senior not for profit leader is optimistic for the fundraising profession, even though things are tough now.
Karen Napier, Chief Executive, The Reading Agency
Q. Karen, during the Recession of just over a decade ago, you headed up Development and Advancement departments, and lead multi-million-pound fundraising campaigns at both Southbank Centre and London Business School. How does the current COVID-19 crisis compare in terms of its impact on fundraising?
A. I have thought back quite a bit in relation to what was happening here in the UK in respect of fundraising and what we learnt from that time. This feels much bigger and on a very different scale because of the global impact. These are very, very tough times for so many organisations and individuals as this pandemic has touched every country and all of us in some way.
Q. What long term impact do you think COVID-19 is going to have on the fundraising profession?
A. For any Development Director or fundraiser, it is always important to consider how to connect with those who can offer philanthropic support to your charity, in order to develop your mission and work. That need is now even greater with what is going on in the world today. I think one of the most important constant aspects of the profession, is how great fundraising really connects the relevance of a charity’s work to the donor. We are continuing to see huge generosity, but with so many calls on donors for support, it feels more important than ever to be able to really demonstrate the positive impact philanthropic support can make. Having the ability to articulate what your charity is doing to contribute to society through this time, and post COVID-19, feels very important.
Q. How do you think fundraisers and their organisations will need to adapt?
A. Undoubtedly, there is going to be significant pressure on charities to raise money for their work. I have a view that everybody in an organisation is a fundraiser and has something very positive to contribute in terms of bringing people closer to the organisation, financially and emotionally. I hope that during this time, more people will recognise they have a real role to play.
The situation is very tough in the UK arts and cultural sector which, of course, is amongst many other important areas of our society. I am seeing so many cultural leaders who have always been brilliantly passionate and highly articulate about their work, having to ask for financial support much more overtly because the need for funding to just keep going is so very real. They continue to demonstrate that fundraising does not sit in the development departments. It sits right at the heart of a charity.
We know that great fundraising is based on relationships as the route of philanthropy is about love of humankind. It encompasses engagement, connectivity, stewardship and many more aspects. Finding a way to do that remotely and connect donors to the mission in different ways will be important, whilst recognising the challenge of being on lots of video calls all day, every day!
Q. Many companies and sectors have had to let go of staff. How do you see the outlook for fundraisers?
A. I think the role of really good development and fundraising professionals is going to be needed more than ever.
Skills and attributes that fundraisers demonstrate such as being highly intuitive, a great listener, the ability to interpret the situation and reflect back, and being able to find opportunities to connect donors with making a positive impact to a cause they feel passionate about, are highly relevant today. The resilience needed by fundraisers will be even more relevant in today’s climate along with tenacity in navigating the development of donor pipelines. These all feel like they will continue to be incredibly important.
Q. Just prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 The Reading Agency Board approved plans to grow its development team. Are those plans likely to go ahead now?
A. I inherited an incredibly wonderful organisation and team at The Reading Agency, but it had no Development team. That is not to say it has not raised money from donors at every level. It has and continues to benefit from wonderful and much needed support, but fundraising did not sit within the staff structure and our Board committed to the professionalisation of this area in December 2019. Despite the terrible situation that we find ourselves in, the commitment to building development within The Reading Agency remains very much part of the plan. Like so many other charities, we are needing to raise additional income more than ever before. We have lost a lot of our earnt income and the need for great development skills will help us continue to deliver our mission and much needed work. Not that fundraising for me is ever about filling a hole in a budget. It is completely the opposite. It is about building up real donor engagement to make a positive difference through their involvement. My point is that there is more of a need to make sure that we have in place the skills and experience to build a strong and deliverable development plan, pipeline and income over the coming years.
Q. Are there any big shifts that have taken place in the last 3 or 4 months that have surprised you?
A. Well, certainly, from my charity’s perspective, I have seen an engagement with the corporate sector in a much more nuanced, active and detailed way than I have perhaps felt for the last 10 years.
I really feel that the corporate sector, here in in the UK, has been much more open, engaged and forthcoming as citizens wanting to make a difference, wanting to do good work through their corporate power. We are seeing heightened examples of corporate support being actively used to assist in the many challenges we are facing as a society. And the charity sector is able to offer the corporate sector opportunities to have a very positive impact as responsible businesses within society.
From a personal perspective, I am having some interesting, dynamic conversations and it certainly feels much easier now to be talking with a Chief Executive or with a very senior executive in the business sector than just a few months ago. I think the fact that we are all at home on email, despite the challenges everyone is facing, does mean that it is much easier from a cut through point of view. It feels very open and extremely positive in a way I haven’t experienced for quite a while.
Q. You describe yourself as an optimist. What makes you feel positive despite the current challenges?
A. I absolutely believe that philanthropy makes a real difference. When I look around London and the UK, there are some wonderful examples of philanthropic support from small to large donors, individuals, trusts, and corporate support. There are many examples and role models of both outstanding fundraisers and those who give generously.
Without glossing over the very tough environment that any fundraiser or charity is facing right now I do have a sense of optimism for the development sector. People genuinely want to give and make a difference. On some levels, I think it gives fundraisers more confidence to ask. It does not mean the noes aren’t there as demand for a donor’s support is high. But, as a fundraiser being comfortable with being open and direct with donors who have the capacity to give at this time of heightened need, is getting positive results.
Q. What have you learned about yourself, professionally and/or personally, as a result of COVID-19 restrictions?
A. I really like to work at home, which I never thought I would as I have always loved going to the office of the organisations that I have been a part of. There have been lots of upsides working from my home office such as cutting out the travel and being home on time to make and eat dinner together. Usually, one of my two children is running around somewhere, or there are background distractions that everybody at home has been learning to juggle, but I have appreciated the opportunity to work in a different way.
Q. What are you most looking forward to once our freedoms are restored?
A. On a very personal level I want to see my mother-in-law. She is 81 and lives on her own in Devon on the side of Dartmoor, five hours away from London. Although we speak to her almost every day, I cannot wait for me and my children to see her. My best friend from school days, who is in Yorkshire, would also fall into that category. I think it is about seeing family and friends first and then there will be lots of other things that it will be great to do. I long to go back to Kiln Theatre, where I am a Trustee, and see their inspiring performances, but sadly that is going to take a very long time.
I would like the world to hold on to some of these things that feel very precious and have been hard won in all of this, and not just go back to the busyness and rushing around. Let us hope in another 10 years we can look back and see the positive impact of lessons we have learnt and the ways this pandemic has made us behave differently.
- The Reading Agency is a national charity that tackles life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading.
- In 2019-20, The Reading Agency reached over 1.8 million people across the UK, including more than 950,000 children and over 900,000 adults and young people.
- The Reading Agency works every day towards a world where everyone is reading their way to a better life. From toddlers to children, young adults, prisoners and older people – irrespective of age or economic background.
- The Reading Agency works closely with its partners to deliver programmes across the UK, from the Summer Reading Challenge and Chatterbooks for children, to Reading Friends and Quick Reads for adults, and intergenerational programmes such as Reading Well.