Patrick Malachi - a community healthworker at Kibera Amref Health Centre. Photo by Brian Otieno/
Patrick Malachi - a community healthworker at Kibera Amref Health Centre. Photo by Brian Otieno/

We need to start putting communities in the driving seat of successful fundraising

When donors, INGOs and local partners work together in equitable partnership, we are better able to support marginalised communities. It’s no different when it comes to fundraising.

So, what can we learn from a public fundraising team that took a risk and seized the opportunity to put community members in the driving seat? In short, it’s not just the right thing to do, but also an effective way of raising more funds.

In the third session in our Responsible Fundraising series, we heard from Patrick Malachi, Community Health Worker in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, and Amref Health Africa’s Media and External Relations Officer, Maureen Cherongis, and then-Communications and Fundraising Consultant, Rachel Erskine.

All three shared their respective experiences of “Who Owns the Story?“, a responsible fundraising initiative delivered by Amref Health Africa in partnership with the University of East Anglia and the University of the Arts London which showed that fundraising appeals designed by community members can be more effective and raise more funds than those created by the charity itself.
In a dynamic and informative session, here is what we learned.

When communities are given the opportunity to tell their story how they choose, it creates a real sense of community ownership and allows power to be rebalanced.

As we witness increasingly positive shifts towards more ethical storytelling by UK INGOs, it is undeniable that there remains a heavy power imbalance in who decides what makes a compelling story and how the story is told.

The “Who Owns the Story?” project piloted an innovative approach which tested assumptions of what “works” in fundraising. It was a live test with real financial risk and a unique opportunity to create compelling content, centring community voices. The project shared two fundraising appeal packs with Amref’s active UK supporter base: one “traditional” appeal designed by the INGO and the other designed by Patrick, a local community health worker. The audience’s financial and emotional response was then analysed.

Community-led storytelling tells the “real story”

As a community health worker, Patrick works closely with his community, bridging the gap between INGOs and community members. He decided to participate in this project because he knew that people had been telling different stories about his community over the years, and was excited to be given the chance to sit in the driver’s seat and tell a story from a local perspective.

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Too often, Patrick tells us, INGOs don’t prioritise the things that communities really need, and this translates into the stories they tell about local people. If a community takes a front seat in communicating their own story, he stresses, the project is inherently going to be more sustainable.Being a familiar face in the community also often mitigates consent issues, and fellow community members are likely to trust that their story is being told truthfully and for the right reasons.

What makes a fundraising appeal “responsible”?

A truly responsible fundraising approach may require organisations to expand their definition of what a successful fundraising campaign looks like. It may involve relinquishing a certain level of control, and this will likely feel uncomfortable.

The reality is that responsible fundraising is not only about the funds raised but also about a fair, ethical and equitable process that centres around people, rather than a UK-devised strategy. Nonetheless, we’ve seen that we can do both – Patrick’s “unmediated” appeal centred local people and raised more money than the “mediated” appeal created by UK fundraisers. Patrick’s appeal raised 38% more compared to previous appeals and while fewer people donated, they each gave more.

Amref found that as well as raising more funds, the ethical storytelling agenda had renewed momentum across the organisation, prompting questions that we should all be asking ourselves, such as:

  • As communicators, how do we share authentic stories from communities?
  • How do we represent people and communities realistically and positively?

Patrick’s community-led appeal was a success, but that is not to say it was without challenges.

What can we learn and adopt intoour own fundraising?

Fear of change

Organisations fear the unknown. But change is underway, and people are ready for it.

Fundamentally, the bigger risk lies in not evolving. The sector is changing rapidly, though perhaps not as rapidly as it should be, and if you don’t start evolving your communications and fundraising, you are going to be left behind.

Financial risk

There is inevitably financial risk in adapting the way you innovate and experiment.

Start small and scale-up. Start with one appeal or target one segment of your audience. Find what works for your organisation and audience and work your way up from there.

Overwhelmed or uncertain about where to start?

Start somewhere! Every single one of us has power in our position. Think about what you can do as an individual and how you interact with the communities that you are working with. You don’t need to be in a position of leadership. Try instead to influence across, up or down within your organisation. Gather data yourself and use that to make your case for change.
Start a below-the-radar revolution.

Once you have some evidence, use it to accelerate change.

The responsibility to deliver this work doesn’t rest with public fundraising teams. In fact, it requires collaboration and collective backing across the organisation, including institutional fundraisers, to be successful. Seek out allies within and outside your team and support each other using your respective expertise.

What’s next?

In our final next session in the Responsible Fundraising series, we will review what we’ve learned, and discuss the changes that we need to make to fundraise responsibly.

We will be sharing the findings of the series with the sector at Bond’s Power in Development Conference which is taking place in September. You can sign up now!