ASRC fundraiser proud he helps keep the lights on

Alan White is the fundraising manager at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), which supports refugees and those seeking asylum. Alan is also FIA’s 2019 Young Fundraiser of the Year. In this interview, he talks about his start as a volunteer fundraiser, his career highlights, and why he’s a proud fundraiser and CFRE today.

Rising star: Alan White is fundraising manager at Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and FIA’s 2019 Young Fundraiser of the Year.

You started working in fundraising at university. How did it unfold?

I didn’t know much about fundraising when I first started at university. But then I moved to Queensland to attend Bond University and study for both my undergraduate and master’s. Bond is a private educational institution that is built on and relies heavily on private donations.

There was a council that started within the university around philanthropy, and they were trying to engage students and alumni in the importance of giving. One could say I was hesitant about the council’s approach, at first. In its original plan, the council was very focused on the university’s history and less so on the value of student philanthropy or what donations could do to help achieve better educational outcomes.

While I was finishing up my degrees, a volunteer job came up to lead this group. I was having a chat to my mentor about the group’s current approach, and she said to me: “If you don’t like how it’s being done why don’t you try and make it better and go for that job?” I believe in listening to my mentors, so I applied for the role and got it.

As philanthropy council manager, I was immersed in philanthropy and the role it played in our community. Once I stabilised systems, and the team and the strategy were right, things fell into place. There were many passionate people from the top down who were supportive and wanted us to be successful. I focused on different activities that would appeal to the students, and we raised nearly $250,000 through student, alumni and community donations and events.

Career highlights?

At Oxfam, my first job out of university, my main remit was looking after Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane, a 100-km charity trek. For this campaign, I organised fundraising, marketing and supporters, managed corporates and gave presentations in the community. I made friends for life and learned a lot. A key accomplishment was the planning and delivery of a multi-channel communications strategy to support the donor journey. Overall, I increased supporter acquisition by 12 per cent, raising more than $1 million annually.

I was also involved in developing the world’s first 50-km Oxfam Trailwalker. This was a one-day event designed for active people who couldn’t commit to the 100-km event. It has been very successful and is now replicated globally.

I then moved to the Mater Foundation, which started my fundraising career in the healthcare space. Mater has a well-developed culture around fundraising and philanthropy as well as a strong belief in educating and supporting their staff. I learned a great deal about project management and about taking my career seriously from their executive team.

At Mater, you don’t go into work and say: “I’m going to send out a fundraising email today.” There had to be a strategy and considered process behind that email. The staff are excellent at donor care, and I learned how to inspire donors and build lasting relationships through being donor-centric.

A career highlight at Mater was taking an existing stair climb event to raise funds for cancer and developing an app for Apple and Android phones so people could do the challenge virtually, anywhere, anytime. It was so much fun to be able to do that and use technology to be innovative and a little different. We had 700 registrations for the pilot. Watch this space: I might replicate the learnings for ASRC!

You’re now the fundraising manager for ASRC. What are the joys?

There are three joys. The refugee crisis is the issue of our time globally and in Australia. I’m happy working to be part of the solution.

We have some serious issues we need to deal with in how we are treating people seeking safety for themselves and their families. I feel proud to be part of the groundwork that is changing the narrative on how we view and treat people seeking asylum. I want to look back in 20 years and say I was there and I played my part. I’m not at the coal face, but through fundraising, I’m helping our people on the ground deliver programs and services.

The second joy is working with people who are highly skilled at what they do and deeply passionate about the cause we’re fighting for. I work with health care professionals, detention advocacy specialists, counsellors, lawyers and the nutritionists who run our food banks, just to name a few.

The third joy is how I help our program staff to do what they need to. We don’t accept government funding, so my fundraising enables all those people to do their work. I get to go home at the end of the day—even when it’s been crappy or chaotic—and this I know: because of fundraising we can switch on the lights each morning, the food bank is full, we can help keep people safe, and staff can come back to work tomorrow to run English language classes. We can also help people gain employment or simply be a listening ear when they talk about their trauma. This means that when refugees come knocking on our door, we can assist them.

I would like to shout from the rooftops: I’m a fundraiser, and I help keep the lights on!

What would you most like to accomplish at ASRC?

I would like to build a thriving culture of fundraising and philanthropy at the organisation. This is starting to happen internally. But I also would like to see this more broadly in the community.

ASRC is excellent at mobilising donors during times of crisis, which is fantastic. But it’s essential we continue to build a sustainable revenue and fundraising model whereby people give because they believe in our cause for the long-term and, equally, in a just and welcoming Australia. I want to build a community of donors that responds in times of crisis but also in times of opportunity.

What is the primary challenge for fundraisers right now? How can FIA help?

There are not many people like me who have only ever worked in fundraising. Most have fallen into it, and while that’s fine, we need to start telling young people in university and even high school they might consider fundraising as a career in the first instance because it’s a legitimate, satisfying profession.

I would also like to see more diversity in our sector. We need more people of colour and different cultures. You can’t be what you can’t see, and we aren’t there yet.  FIA can undoubtedly help build our diversity. Let’s get more people of all ages and cultures involved in fundraising—people who don’t know yet that it can be a great career for them.

You’re a young fundraiser with a CFRE. That’s rare. What prompted you to get the qualification early in your career?

I was at the point where I was tired of having to explain to people what I did for a living. People would scoff and say: “That’s not a real job or profession.” Well, I’m proud to be a fundraiser, and I shouldn’t have to keep explaining myself.

To show people how much I believe in the profession, I went and did the CFRE, which is a globally recognised credential in fundraising. It lets people know my work is of a high standard and that I connect with a select group of fundraisers globally who also have the certification. There are not many professions that have this kind of credentialing. Now my work and credentials—those four letters after my name —do the talking.

You have had a mentor since you went to university. Why is this important?

I have a mentor who’s outside of fundraising, and she’s been a great support. Over several years, she has guided me, been part of my growth trajectory and helped me with challenges, failures and learnings. At Mater Foundation, I also had great fundraising mentors who recognised my skills and abilities. It’s where I learned to be a proud fundraiser.

Having mentors has helped me with decision making. Now, not all learnings apply, but I believe you take the bits that are relevant to you and implement them.

I’m a mentor now, and I look forward to supporting other fundraisers as they come up through the sector.

Your first job in fundraising was as a volunteer. Now you volunteer with other charities and for FIA’s state committee in Victoria. You’ve also just been appointed to the board of directors at FIA. Why is volunteering important to you?

I like to have another outlet for my professional skills and volunteering gives me this. A nine-to-five job is excellent and essential, but it doesn’t always let you work with other causes or people and their ideas. As a volunteer, you contribute your skills to people who wouldn’t otherwise have that same capacity. That’s a powerful thing to be able to do.

I get to work with other charities and support their mission, and ASRC is happy for me to capacity-build these other organisations’ fundraising programs.

With FIA, I believe in our sector and having a professional body. I want FIA to be as good as it can be for a diverse range of people. If you don’t have a seat at the table, it’s hard to make changes, improve things or evolve. Otherwise, you’re just a bystander whinging at the sidelines. For me, I have to volunteer and put up my hand to be part of that change process.

You’re the 2019 FIA Young Fundraiser of the Year. How do you feel about it?

Winning the award has been a validating experience. All that love on the night! I don’t know where the pathway ends, but the award tells me I’m on the right track and doing good work.

I feel good about the sector. When I tell people I won this award, they say to me: “That’s great, you’re doing good work, and helping our sector.” In a few years, I want there to be 50 young nominees for this award!

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you as a fundraiser?

At my first ASRC Telethon, a man called up wanting to speak to Kon, our CEO. A volunteer told me the caller was waiting, and I said: “No, we have too much on, and Kon is too busy to take the call.” The caller was very persistent, and so was I. I told the volunteer it wasn’t going to happen.

Well, bless that volunteer’s cotton socks. She didn’t listen to me, and she put the caller through to Kon. I was so annoyed! But after Kon hung up, he called us over for an announcement. He said he had spoken to this man who was very keen on our work and angry with the government about their stance on refugees. This man said he would kickstart our campaign and give us $100,000. I almost died!

This was a valuable learning experience for me. Never rush, and consider your options. I didn’t do this and nearly lost our organisation $100,000. My takeaway for you? Ensure you give everyone the time of day, no matter how busy you might be!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m an avid reader, and I love spending time in bookstores. I also enjoy time with my dog. I’m known for trying and watching new sports and activities. I like to jump into the deep end when it comes to events and festivals and take on a new challenge. I’m a bit of a foodie, but you won’t see me putting it on Instagram because I’m too busy eating it! Guess I dance to the beat of my own drum…