Pound for pound, return on investment figures differ depending on the type of fundraising you’re doing and tend to be higher for trusts and foundations, major gifts, grants and capital appeals.  This is what Money Tree Fundraising defines as ‘high value fundraising’.

There are some qualities within high value fundraising relating to return on investment, which make it different to the one-to-many approaches typical of community, digital and individual giving.

As a fundraiser who specialises in High Value Fundraising and as author of a recently published report entitled ‘What Good looks Like –  Benchmarking in UK Fundraising’, I have plenty to say on the subject and am excited to do so exclusively here within the Money Tree Fundraising blog.

Return on Investment in fundraising is a controversial topic, with some fundraisers decrying the publication of such figures for fear they’ll be misinterpreted by influential figures at their charities and used to create unrealistic targets.  Whilst I recognise the frustrations of these fundraisers, I believe that having a broad expectation for each type of fundraising can be a useful place to start when making plans and setting objectives for a fundraising programme.

These figures also enable us to examine our own fundraising practices and to understand how we compare to others (which is maybe why some fundraisers don’t approve!).  It can of course be hard to learn that there are people out there doing better than you, but information is power and benchmarking against others can provide useful information from which to make plans.

Here are some of the qualities which are unique to high value fundraising along with some practical tips on making the most of the opportunities available.

Longer lead in times

Whist return on investment can be quite high for this area of work, there’s no such thing as a free lunch (I’ve certainly worked with colleagues who wondered if ‘lunching’ was all I ever did).  In order to benefit from the higher returns which trusts and major gifts fundraising can generate, you’ll have to wait a little longer for the goods to materialise.

If you’re starting from scratch, high value fundraising takes longer to establish the close connections required for gifts to materialise.

Typical lead in times are around 9 months for trusts and 2 years for major donors.

This can be hard to stomach for charities with a very limited budget where funds are needed yesterday.  You’ll need an understanding board, some watertight KPI’s (such as number of meetings, phone calls, trusts researched, proposals sent) and regular monitoring to be confident that progress is happening.

My tip: start small and scale over time. 

You do not need to commit a huge amount of money to trusts or major gifts fundraising in order to see a return.  A short feasibility study run by a consultancy such as Money Tree will give you some solid advice on where best to direct your resources for maximum impact.

If you want to dive straight into employing a fundraiser, be open to flexible working hours and offer a part time role or job share.  Recruiting for attitude and acknowledging someone’s potential through their transferable skills will open the field ensuring you get some great candidates.

A volunteer willing to learn about high value fundraising (or better still, with existing knowledge and / or experience) will add immeasurably to any paid pilot projects.

Make the most of free resources available online to help guide your efforts.  Money Tree have loads of fab articles on their blog to help you learn more about this topic.  I also blog regularly on fundraising from trusts and foundations.  The Fundraising Chat and Trust Fundraising Hub groups on Facebook are also extremely active with supportive communities of fundraisers ready to help you, whatever your question.

There are few areas where for every pound invested you’re likely to see £5 – £7 returned.

Trust in the experts, work hard and your good cause will benefit massively in the months and years which follow.

Fewer eggs, bigger baskets

This is not an analogy which resonates with my new-found vegan identity, but you get the gist.

High value fundraising can feel very all or nothing, with the potential to return an ROI of £30 for every £1 spent or 50p (should none of your prospects bite).

I recall working on a project in a wealthy seaside town in Cornwall.  A very famous celebrity chef had bought an historic property near the waterfront and submitted planning permission to bulldoze it and replace it with something more modern (and inevitably more enormous).

A colleague on the board knew his architect well and promised to make an introduction when the time was right.


This guy was now a HOT prospect for a major gift for the following reasons:

  1. we were pretty confident that he had the capacity to make a big gift
  2. his interest our very local community cause was likely to be quite high given his geographical proximity and looming PR disaster relating to the plans for his proposed new property
  3. he was connected by only one degree of separation to a member of our board

I went away and wrote a cultivation plan including all possible motivations he might have for supporting our work from what I was able to glean from Google (and other internet sources).

I factored a potential gift into our fundraising plan.

On presenting this work to my colleague, I was informed told “My architect friend isn’t working for him anymore.  Sorry.’  There we were, left hanging with no credible route via which to contact said chef.

The stakes feel even higher for the following charitable organisations for whom this type of fundraising is even harder:

  • Start-ups (most, though not all, charitable trusts will want to see two years of accounts before they put their trust in you)
  • Non-profits which are not registered charities (CIO’s). I’m currently working with a Community Benefit Society which has an extremely limited number of prospects available.  CIC’s and other social enterprises will often see themselves excluded from applying to trusts and foundations.

Most organisations in these categories will need some kind of individual giving / community fundraising to help them get started.

My tip: Map out your options and be realistic

I recommend you do your research to ascertain just how many prospects you have for each area of high value giving. Look at their previous giving patterns (if they’re a trust) and / or use your knowledge of them to make a best guess at how much you might be able to ask for.

Divide these prospects up over a year so that you have a month by month calendar of approaches.

Look at the total amount of potential available to you.  Bear in mind that it’s highly unlikely (or impossible) that every single one of your approaches will result in a gift.  You may need to do further research to seek out more prospects, or alter your fundraising target / programme of activity,

Under pressure

When faced with a shortage of funding needed to fulfill an ambitious target, fundraisers are often pushed towards ‘quick wins’ at the expense of the riches and rewards which await when one is bold enough (and has planned ahead sufficiently) to play the long game.

Holding your nerve, especially at the beginning of a high value fundraising programme is horrible.

When done well, Major Gifts fundraisers spend most of their time on tasks which are important but not urgent.  Lack of urgency can go hand in hand with a lack of accountability as more pressing (often internal) calls for attention win out.

My tip: Nothing specific here other than hold your nerve.  Trust in the many, many charities who have done this before you and the many who are yet to begin.  Trust in your staff and don’t micromanage.

Good things really do come to those who wait.

In summary

The qualities needed to achieve the highest ROI in high value fundraising:

  • understanding about investment needed upfront and the wisdom (and frankly the resources) to play the long game
  • holding your nerve during the seemingly interminable time when the irons in the fire but the stove isn’t yet lit…
  • discipline and a single-minded focus on the tasks which bring you closer to donors and which advance their relationships with your charity.

Caroline Danks is a fundraising consultant specialising in high value fundraising.  As well as being part of the Money Tree team, she runs her own consultancy called LarkOwl. 

To download LarkOwl’s Benchmarking study, please click here.


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