Tips and take-aways on T & Fs and major donors: Big4 Fundraising Conference

Tips and take-aways on T & Fs and major donors: Big4 Fundraising Conference

Yesterday I attended the Big Fundraising Conference here in Melbourne, the first time I have attended a conference in person since 2019! How lovely it was to catch up with old friends and colleagues, and to make new connections. It was great to be reminded of best practice approaches, inspired by new perspectives and educated by case studies of successful projects and collaborations. Here is a snapshot, and some of my key take-aways:

Nuancing your Messaging

Robyn Penty, Executive Director, Engagement and Impact, the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, kicked off the day in a fascinating session sharing in-depth how RBG rebranded and recalibrated from changing the colour palette in their marketing materials to crafting emotive messaging. Through unpacking what drives their donors, programs were brought into line with their story-telling rather vice versa. The focus shifted from messaging around fear and threat to discovery and exploration, health and wellbeing.

Getting your Ducks in a Row

Jo Garner, Founder & Director of Strategic Grants, led a discussion on best practice funder engagement and stewardship, with a strong reminder that applicant organisations need to prove they are the best in the business. And that other grant-seeking essentials include a three-year strategic plan, having an agreed process for internal project planning, and ensuring monitoring and evaluation is built into your project design.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

As always, good communication with funders (and donors) was a recurring theme throughout the conference (along with the importance of relationship building). Lea-Anne Bradley, CEO of The John Villiers Trust pointed out that the assessment process begins at the point of first enquiry with a funder, while Jo advised us to ensure that ALL transactions with funders reflect well on our organisation, and to remember that funders collaborate and share intel and information.


Funders understand that not all projects go according to plan. Lisa Grinham, CEO, St George Foundation, urged organisations to be open and transparent and to pick up the phone and explain what’s really going on – don’t wait until the project acquittal if there are changes to the original project. And transparency works both ways: there was recognition that some funders need to simplify their application forms and processes.

No brainer… but don’t apply if you don’t meet the requirements

Incredible as it sounds, Lisa shared that St George Foundation still receives a high number of ineligible applications. Even though – and I have just checked out their website – the eligibility requirements are crystal clear on their website, organisations lacking financial accounts still apply anyway. Really? Yes, sadly, yes…

Look after your existing donors/funders

Look after the funders you have, rather than always chasing new ones. In a similar vein, Nic Capp from Bible Society Australia, advised us that the gold lies in our own supporter base, but we often overlook what’s right before us. He took us through a case study of Bible Society Australia’s major donor journey and growth in revenue. Key steps included defining what constitutes a major donor in your organisation, researching and qualifying each and every major donor to the all-important relationship building, ensuring buy-in from leadership – and all staff, tailoring communications and doing the thank-you well. Another important point he made was around accountability and supporting the organisation’s major donor fundraisers to make the ask. As with phoning a funder, procrastination (often due to lack of confidence,) tends to get it the way. As Nic pointed out, however, if you have researched and qualified your donor, you’ll be OK; they know you’re going to ask them.

Personalisation and donor-centricity

Branden Barber, CEO, Rainforest Rescue and Karl Tischler, Founder and Managing Director, Marlin Communications, stepped us through a major donor program created on a budget. The campaign they shared – to raise money for a tree nursery – was informed by four key questions: Why us? Why This? Why now? Why you? Highly personalised, the campaign was bold, visionary and emotive with values-led statements. Similar to the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, the message was one of hope, a powerful motivator. And I loved this too from Branden: You [your organisation] are not the most important thing in your donor’s life; keep it simple.

Know what your donors want

Knowing how often to contact donors, and what method of communication they prefer is an important piece of the puzzle. Throughout the day we heard examples of donors – HNWIs to boot –  who prefer communication by text, others who don’t want acquittal reports but love getting updates, and others who welcome a simple video testimonial taken with an iPhone.

Adapting your Pitch

In a session with representatives from Giving Circles Gail Rodgers, CEO, Geelong Community Foundation, spoke about the wide cross-section of donors making up a Giving Circle. They won’t necessarily be familiar with the sector or the kind of language commonly used. And, while Giving Circles often offer pitch training – a great opportunity in itself – being able to adapt your Pitch to suit the audience is key. For example, you might be addressing someone with a key focus on the bottom line or ROI, whereas another donor might be all about the impact and beneficiaries.

Trust-based philanthropy

Denise Cheng, Relationship Manager – Active Philanthropy at Equity Trustees, delivered an enlightening session on trust-based philanthropy and emerging trends. These included: philanthropists narrowing and deepening their focus to increasing multi-year funding and untied funding, greater transparency, reduced administrative burden and paperwork, giving while living, intersectionality (projects spanning a couple of focus areas), and support beyond the grant. Again, the message was to really understand your donors – does your narrative resonate with them? And, in terms of door openers, consider whether you are approaching a funder via an intermediary such as Equity Trustees or directly. What is the context – is it a lunch or event and what is the best way to communicate?

Impact measurement

Book-ending the day was a brilliant session from Rob Haggett from the Social Impact Hub on bringing together measurement and meaning to align with your mission and purpose. In a great example of good story-telling, Rob shared a pic of a ‘coxcomb’ graph – a forerunner of the pie chart –  created by Florence Nightingale to show the number of unnecessary deaths during the Crimean War as a result of preventable infections.

And his presentation included one of the best and simplest explanations of how to distinguish between outputs, outcomes and impact I have ever seen. From memory it went something like this: Wool as the input, knitting as the activity, knitted jackets as the output, penguins as the beneficiaries and happy penguins the outcome. He also showed us a deft way to create a measurement framework by flipping a Logic Model. And other great advice included starting small with data collection and looking for ways to collect data as part of your existing processes. And to get creative in gathering case studies and testimonials – stories are also powerful ways of showing impact.