Defeating Dementia: how a feasibility study helped ARUK
tell its story

by Simon Pennington - 27 June 2017


I’m speaking about Campaigns and Campaigning at the Institute of Fundraising Convention on 3 July, together with Ian Wilson of Alzheimer’s Research UK. Specifically, I’m going to talk about how a fundraising feasibility study, involving interviews with a charity's biggest donors, can mark a major shift in an organisation’s thinking, confidence and language in driving forward its mission and purpose.

As background, we had worked with Ian successfully at Cancer Research UK. We’d undertaken two sets of donor interviews, including for the £100m Create the Change Campaign for the Francis Crick Institute. Ian has seen not only that third-party advice, citing the actual words used by major donors, would shift leadership minds, but also that the act of consultation in this way, done well, would bring donors much closer. I interviewed a donor who made an early £10m contribution to the Campaign, far larger than anything they had given before, and this provided a real impetus to bringing other gifts in, finalising a Volunteer Board and so on.

At Alzheimer’s Research UK, the challenge was a little different. A much smaller organisation, the aim was to create a campaign spanning the whole charity. Major giving would be a third of the total, but was still expected to be the area that saw the most ambitious growth, and given the small numbers of gifts involved, the Campaign’s success stood or fell on it.

Three distinctive things came from our conversations with these donors and friends of ARUK:

  • the first was the sense of seizing the moment. David Cameron had just raced this up the agenda by creating the Prime Minister’s dementia challenge and making it the core issue at a UK-chaired G8 Summit. People we interviewed, many of whom had lived with someone who had experienced dementia, saw this as their moment to step up, with the spotlight on the disease – ‘if we can’t do it now, we’ll never do it’.

  • linked to this was the sense of a need for a ‘movement’, such as had been important in shifting perceptions around cancer and AIDS. This is harder when patients lose their capacity to articulate their thoughts, memories and feelings, but we’ve seen with articulate voices like Terry Pratchett or the film ‘Iris’ that it is possible – ‘I want people to understand it, I want my dad’s story to be heard’.

  • finally, and in contrast to CRUK, there was a feeling that this would be a worldwide effort which would need to be collaborative. ARUK will continue to fund the best in the UK, but in a disease where we have no therapy that halts or slows progression, the need to reach out and connect international science groups was strong among our interviewees. Linked to this was a call for ARUK not to be too competitive in pushing its own needs; for major donors, the charity would do better to provide a dispassionate commentary on where we are with dementia, where we’ve built up our knowledge, and what the next stage of the research journey looks like - ‘any help, any progress, is important and needs to be shared’.

I’m not going to steal the thunder too much from the IoF session, but the overall findings from the interviews were positive, the relationships with the major donors were in a good place, and we were able to make one or two very specific recommendations about major donor products and propositions which have borne fruit. I’ve stayed involved in the years since, working with the philanthropy team to help hone their plans to engage and ask their bigger donors. It has been a really enjoyable experience, and although there have been bumps and frustrations along the way, we’re now looking at a very successfully evolved organisation.

ARUK is the fastest growing research charity in the UK, it is on course to surpass that £100m Campaign target ahead of schedule, and David Cameron’s departure from Number 10 has allowed him to take on a new and active role as ARUK President. Maybe progress in understanding, diagnosing, treating and ultimately curing this awful disease will come to be seen to be one of his most important legacies?

How much has this been down to the feasibility study – also a component of the very successful CRUK Campaign? I think it represents an important contribution, both inside and outside the charity. Inside, this is about having leadership understand the role they need to play, to be responsive and think about language that expresses need and urgency, the need for them to commit time and to understand that donors want to feel respected and engaged. Externally, donors like to feel listened to, and feel their questions, concerns and priorities are reflected in the way a Campaign and its messages are shaped. Some want to play an active role; others less so. Almost all are surprisingly relaxed in talking about their own philanthropy and the inspirations behind it.

The end of a study can feel like the moment a charity feels able to claim an important space, and adjust their narrative in ways that donors connect wit and respond to. We felt that strongly with ARUK, and I have been back since to work with Trustees and the charity’s Directors to help shape the vision, projects, stories and data into something that really works.

To hear the inside story – join us at the Convention!

So, you think you need a feasibility study?
Campaigns are often portrayed as the pinnacle of fundraising. But they can also be the pits. Are you really ready to take the leap? Is your target realistic? Does your case for support convince? Do you have enough prospective supporters? A feasibility study by More Partnership will take the pain out of your campaign before you start. And we’ll continue to guide you through the pitfalls all the way from planning to launching to celebrating… and then to deciding what comes next.

Find out more about our approach in our feasibility study booklet.