Major Donor Showcase: ActionAid’s Bold Move, giving donors a say over strategy

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ActionAid UK had a long history and a strong brand, with a focus almost entirely on education and roots in a ‘child sponsorship’ model. ActionAid UK wanted to adapt their programmes to ensure they continued to create the most impact and change the world for the better. This meant a change in focus, to women and girls, and a change in programmes to more complex, longer-term, systemic and strategic work. This presented a problem, as most of their major donors (and most of their supporters) had come to the organisation knowing the old programmes and supporting the old focus.

Summary / objectives

In the context of a changing world, and an evolution in the way the organisation thought about poverty and development work, ActionAid UK wanted to adapt their programmes and develop a new strategy, but weren’t sure how many donors would want to come along for the journey towards such a significant change in focus — even if it were to achieve greater impact — and feared a significant decline in support.

So, they set out to involve their donors in the strategic process in a meaningful way and to create an ethos of being accountable to their supporters as well as their beneficiaries. They began a ‘listening exercise’, where they invited donors to talk about what inspired them to support ActionAid UK and the role they saw for the organisation in creating the change they wanted to see. They worked hard not to lead the responses, asking open questions and providing multiple forums and methods (interviews, calls, debates) for their donors to be involved.

During each part of the strategic process, they continued to involve donors, showing them how their contributions, ideas and challenges had impacted each version of the strategy and giving them further opportunities to comment on the programmes and focus areas that were being developed. This included telephone interviews, meetings with programme experts, written feedback on drafts of the strategy, group donor forums and panel events with senior leadership.

One of the hardest, but most important things about this part of the process was being frank with donors about the risks, challenges and costs of some of the potential programmes. Donors were invited to be heavily involved in the process, but this meant they were also exposed to the harsh realities of complex development work and the hard decisions that come from that. But, by treating donors as loyal and intelligent, ActionAid UK nurtured a committed, passionate and supportive community of donors that felt empowered to steer their own journey and relationship with the organisation.

When the final strategy (Together With Women And Girls) was ready, ActionAid UK brought their donors, beneficiaries and country programme staff together for a launch event. Instead of presenting the strategy to them, they structured a discussion where each element of the new programmes was represented by an expert, a staff member and a supporting donor. Attendees were able to move around the room, hearing, contributing, questioning and experiencing each part of the new strategy in an involving and inspiring way. The donors who had the opportunity to represent a programme felt a sense of ownership of the work they had helped to shape; the donors who came to learn more were able to hear from others like them why becoming, or staying, involved would be so great.

Creator / originator

ActionAid UK’s CEO, Girish Menon, made the brave move towards consulting supporters on the strategy of the charity. Allan McKinnon, who is head of the major gifts team, led on the specific involvement of major donors in the process.

Influence / impact

From this, more and more people started seeing the value of supporter involvement and the organisation developed an internal culture of ‘every supporter matters’ — putting supporters at the heart of decisions, alongside beneficiaries. This means supporters are consulted, their perspectives are assessed and included, or their knowledge and needs are considered in key decisions on everything the charity does. This also meant that when GDPR was causing the sector to panic, and many charities to worry about how they would maintain their supporter relationships, ActionAid UK already had an excellent framework within which to invite their donors to feedback on the charity’s policies and practice and renew their commitment to the cause.

The process has transformed the way the organisation sees itself, given it a strong platform and the confidence to move forward and create lasting change. It gave ActionAid UK a truly fresh start with their major donors, alongside its new programme focus. They had always treated donors with respect and reverence, so had a good starting position, but the outcome of this process was true partnerships and real engagement, not just lip service.

As a result, they didn’t lose any major donors as a part of the strategic change and they maintained their very high retention rate for regular givers. More donors have come on board and intermediaries have become more comfortable referring their wealthy clients as potential donors because they trust the quality of ActionAid UK’s approach. Major donors have even asked the team to challenge them on whether they are funding strategically enough, or in the right way. ActionAid UK have seen more unrestricted funding come from major donors and higher levels of trust have been reported too.

ActionAid UK have also seen a much stronger connection form between donors and their programme teams working directly with beneficiaries. The country programmes now understand the needs of donors much better, donors are more respectful of the journey beneficiaries and projects go through and both are keen to be held accountable by the other. Donors have a much clearer understanding of the ongoing, complex nature of ActionAid UK’s development work and have been able to commit to longer-term progress, support more strategic, intangible impact and celebrate the hard-fought wins.

Other relevant information

An area that ActionAid UK felt they could have done things differently is the scale of the launch: they wish they had involved even more current and prospective donors in the discussion and realise now that their reach could have been even greater if they had done this.

Allan McKinnon’s advice to fundraisers facing a similar challenge is: don’t be afraid to have honest, hard conversations. Major donors are insightful and usually passionate about your work and not glossing over the hard parts will make them more so. If you give them a chance to give their ideas, advice and feedback alongside their money, they will be more informed, more excited and will likely give in ways that are more helpful for your organisation.

Emily Collins-Ellis is a Senior Advisors at I.G. Advisors, who has worked closely with Action Aid UK. I.G. Advisors seeks to bridge the gap between fundraisers, corporates and philanthropists to maximise impact. We provide strategic advice to both charities and donors, advising charities on how to fundraise effectively, and advising donors on how to create the most impact with their resources. If you’d like to find out more about how we can support you, please get in touch or visit for more information.

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