Major Donor Showcase: Islamic Relief’s WhatsApp genius, raising £180,000 via messaging

This showcase originally appeared on SOFII (Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration), a free online resource full of ideas and examples of fundraising excellence. I.G. curates the Major Donor Showcase on the platform — if you would like to suggest an example for us to showcase, get in touch!

Background

Islamic Relief UK has generous donors at every level, and a recent survey found that Muslims are the most generous donors in the UK. However, much of their connection to giving is through paying zakat during Ramadan, and not focussed on commitment to a specific organisation or cause area. In addition, most of Islamic Relief’s fundraising is based on emergency appeals, so it can often be challenging to build and maintain loyal and long-term donor relationships the charity can rely on, or sustain fundraising outside of the holy month, or when there is not an urgent appeal.

Summary / objectives

The key to any great major donor programme is relationship building, and the methods of doing this are incredibly varied. Islamic Relief UK mostly uses fairly traditional methods, but for the last several years the Deputy Director of Fundraising, Tufail, has been focussing on developing closer connections with 15 key donors, and moving their communication to more digital and informal channels, like Facebook and WhatsApp. He says this required a building of trust, but that once the initial connections had been made, his donors really enjoyed the dynamic. They loved sharing information on their lives, as well as hearing about stories from the charity, and forging a friendly rapport with him.

Tufail had noted there has been a trend in the sector in recent years of donors wanting to deliver aid themselves, setting up their own projects without knowing the full scale and challenges, and inevitably struggling to do it in an impactful or coordinated way. Seeing that these moves came from a place of wanting to be connected to the frontline of aid work and experience for themselves what their money was being spent on, he began using Facebook Live from the field as a way of ‘taking’ donors with him to see the work first hand. He then shared videos and photos on WhatsApp too.

In early 2017, the East African Crisis became serious enough for Islamic Relief to decide to launch an emergency appeal. Tufail was on a flight to Somalia the next day, and on his way decided to use WhatsApp to update his close contacts on his journey, ask for their prayers for his safety and let them know what he expected to find when he arrived. He knew he was likely to see some distressing scenes and wanted to emotionally engage his donors with the frontline as much as possible. He committed to share as much as he could with them, and through social media, to help connect them to the situation on the ground and build a strong narrative around the crisis. He didn’t want to spam them, and needed to find the right balance between informal, trusted updates, and overwhelming information.

On the second day in Somalia, Tufail met Fatouma, a refugee who had been walking for nine days, barefoot, in the scorching heat, in search of food and water. She had lost her home, and set out with six of her children, sadly three of whom (Nooratu, Khadiju and Usman) died one-by-one on the journey. This devastating story had a profound impact on Tufail, who had experienced the loss of a child himself, and he was able to share this authentic and powerful emotion with his contacts in a heartfelt message about the story he was witnessing.

The message he sent was live, raw, and visceral. It was a divergence from his professional updates, and had an impact on the donors reading it, who were able to relate to the pain and hurt Fatouma was feeling by seeing how emotional Tufail was too. The sentiment was not a typical NGO or charity message, it was personal and real, sharing the kind of words everyone feels when they see suffering: ‘how can we go on with our lives whilst the world has these things happening?’

After sending it, Tufail was concerned that he might upset the donors, or put them in a difficult position by having shown them such an emotional scene from the field. But he felt confident in the relationships he had built with them, and knew them well as people too. He felt that the work he put in to qualify which donors were suitable to cultivate in this way, and the time he had spent building trusting relationships with them, were essential to the process being possible. Of course, it was also essential that he had their permission to communicate with them through WhatsApp, and had checked that they felt comfortable using that medium to connect with the organisation.

Aside from the specific medium of fundraising, Tufail also points out that being a good fundraiser is often about frequently exposing yourself to the work of your charity in a way that lets you authentically communicate about it, in a way that is emotional and personal to you. People give to people, and if you can show your experience of the cause, and tell stories that have impacted on you, donors will be much more likely to trust you. There is a lot of cynicism in the market at the moment, a lot of questions and doubt, and many donors are oversubscribed, so donors will always respond best to a sincere approach.

‘Always try to fundraise from the heart’, says Tufail, ‘one key thing that helps a brilliant fundraiser stand head and shoulders above good fundraisers is passion for the cause’.

Results

They had an amazing response to Tufail’s WhatsApp messages, photos and videos. Within hours they had raised £180,000. One donor contacted Tufail to ask exactly what was needed, and the honest answer was ‘a £100,000 borehole to allow local people access to water’. This was a huge ask, but the donor immediately said ‘I’ll give £125,000, for the borehole and for food’.

Influence / impact

Whilst food and aid has been distributed in Somalia, and is still ongoing, the money for the borehole allowed for the project to go ahead, and now it sustainably provides over 4,000 people with water each day, including for farming and animals whilst protects against food insecurity too.

Islamic Relief’s donor relationships have also become much stronger since that day — many of the donors who gave in response to Tufail’s message have become repeat donors, and the most generous donors have been on trips to see their projects on the frontline, further connecting them to the work.

Creator / originator

Islamic Relief UK’s Deputy Director of Fundraising, Tufail Hussain was the fundraiser who managed this, and he couldn’t have done it without the work of the Humanitarian Team within Islamic Relief Somalia, who were on the ground in very dangerous circumstances (there was a bombing 10 minutes after he left their offices which killed 9 people).

He would also like to credit his Samsung phone for being an essential tool in his authentic fundraising from the field.

Other relevant information

One key lesson Tufail took from this is that not all fundraising needs to be polished messaging, or pre-prepared. Fundraisers should feel able to quickly take opportunities, and not hesitate if they trust their instincts.


Emily Collins-Ellis is a Senior Advisors at I.G. Advisors, who has worked closely with Islamic Relief 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 impactandgrowth.com for more information.

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