Helped, Heard and Hugged: How commiseration has helped me become a better fundraiser

Helped, Heard and Hugged: How commiseration has helped me become a better fundraiser

Alice Beverley is Head of Development at London Youth Choirs. She is a 2023/24 Professional Fellow.


Someone recently asked me what had got me through the last 6 months of fundraising. My mind immediately jumped to commiseration. I started planning my blog - ‘Who’s on your Commiseration Committee?’ or ‘My Ode to the Moan’, all about the power of collective negative thinking with other people in arts fundraising. Cheerful. But an attempt at research brought up multiple articles about how bad commiseration is for you, including a scare-mongering article from Forbes about ‘The Dangers of Commiseration’, including that it might ‘drive you to drink’! I abandoned my depressing premise. 

However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that commiseration had been important to my resilience over the last year or so. (I won’t rehash here the difficulties the sector has been facing, but Michelle Wright provides a good summary in Arts Professional.) It felt more concrete than the fact that everyone needs space to vent every now and then, and specific to the current context of arts fundraising. I think it also follows on from Charlotte’s great blog last month about managing change and uncertainty at this time, both personally and professionally - especially the mention of the ‘exceptional support of friends, family and colleagues’, a relatable feeling that we couldn’t go it alone. 

I thought I would examine a little more closely why I have found commiserating with others in the sector valuable, and what this says about the different kinds of support that can be offered by your networks, enabling the right kind of help at the right time. 

So, I do believe that sharing recent fundraising difficulties, failures and no’s has not only provided a needed space to vent but has also improved my fundraising. 

 

I have only worked in fundraising for 3 years and have limited experience other than my current organisation. It is fairly common for people to ‘fall into’ fundraising, with Cause4 publishing their own report into this phenomenon, ‘Accident Prevention’, stating that only 5% of surveyed fundraisers actively chose it as a profession. So I know I will not be the only one who, while knowing their own charity inside-out, lacks personal experience which would give points of comparison to benchmark progress. 

Of course, there are many brilliant professional materials available for benchmarking, and it’s invaluable to read as much about the current fundraising trends and contexts that have been rigorously researched. Some of the resources that I use are the NCVO almanacCause4 reportsLarkOwl benchmarking, and various others.

However, it’s the commiseration conversations with other fundraisers about how hard it feels - the data combined with anecdotal evidence - that have lent me the confidence and reassurance to use these to advocate for myself internally. Evidence about the wider context has become a key part of my development reports to the board and conversations with our Executive Director around resources and future planning. As things have gotten harder, commiseration has helped me analyse what is somewhat inevitable in the current context, and what I can control and do better at, a crucial differentiation for not feeling like a complete failure and losing confidence in myself.

There isn’t space in this blog to fully explain how this has snowballed into more help, but it has multiplied itself, in a way. Advocating internally for more resources to face the challenging climate led to recruiting a corporate fundraising specialist. Their first action was to undertake a mapping exercise with staff, Trustees and the development board bringing up nearly 80 prospects for partnership. Support has grown from commiseration to a new employee, to our immediate circle and then to their own networks, different kinds of help all working together to have a big impact on our organisation.

I recently attended the Thriving through Turbulence webinar with Fundraising Everywhere which had some really thought-provoking tips on management tools when you are asked for help by your team. My notes aren’t completely clear, but I believe it was Matt Midler who spoke about the tendency for fundraisers to be problem-solvers, and therefore whenever a colleague asks for help we jump onto solving the problem for them, rather than supporting them to solve it themselves. 

I thought this resonated with my positive experiences around commiseration, emphasising the value of a safe space to express concerns rather than necessarily a place for immediate advice on how to solve them. It also reflected an article published in the New York Times last year around the school-teacher trick of asking young people who were upset if they wanted to be ‘helped, heard or hugged’. It outlined the benefit of asking what kind of support was needed by that person, rather than assuming.  

While a hug isn’t always the appropriate support response in the workplace, assessing what different kinds of support you could offer, especially to someone who is developing their own professional resilience tools, can be really useful. Going back to the webinar, Matt offered a few questions that outlined a mentoring approach to management, helping not immediately make someone else’s problem your own by asking them:

  • What options are open to you?
  • What information or resources do you need in order to move forward?
  • Do you have any worries or concerns that are stopping you from taking this forward?

 

I have really felt the positive impact of the sharing community of the Fellowship group this year (lots of commiseration, lots of affirmation, shed-loads of practical help!), and also the EVOLVE programme for LYC’s Development Officer Amy, who was recently featured in a Classical Music Magazine article about the benefits of mentoring and peer-to-peer buddy programmes. So moving forwards, we’re now discussing a 100% mentor scheme for LYC staff. 

While many people have developed their own support networks, I feel like anything we can do in the sector to amplify this is going to pay dividends, personally and professionally, whether that’s providing practical advice or some protected space for good old-fashioned commiseration.