Fundraising history: Arthur Venn, a founding father of modern fundraising

Seven years ago this month, a Melbourne fundraiser called Arthur Venn passed away. He was 87. A great crowd of fundraisers turned up to his funeral to pay tribute to a man they called “a founding father of modern fundraising in Australia.”

Not long before he died, FIA created an annual pinnacle award in his honour. Today, the much-coveted Arthur Venn Fundraiser of the Year goes to a fundraiser who has made an outstanding contribution to fundraising and demonstrates consistent excellence and best practice.

But just who was Arthur Venn? We asked three fundraisers who knew him well.

“Arthur was a mentor to many fundraisers, a teacher, and a capital appeal and major gifts fundraising guru. He was a lovable character with a great sense of humour,” recalled Leo Orland, who first met Arthur at lunch events organised by TAIF (the forerunner to FIA) in the 1980s.

“Arthur strongly promoted fundraising ethics. He had strong religious views, but he didn’t push them on others. He possessed a moral compass,” said Peter Dalton, who was rigorously schooled in capital campaign fundraising by Arthur.

“Arthur always took an interest in those he agreed to mentor, particularly so if the individual involved was keen to listen and learn. It was like being in the presence of someone great and of awe. Few who came under his ‘spell’ ever failed to progress in their careers,” added Mark Hindle, a former national executive director of FIA, who first encountered Arthur in 1993.

Arthur believed fundraising was an inherently good profession.

“Thirty years ago, I thought it was a bit embarrassing to go to a party and tell people I’m a professional fundraiser. Arthur taught me to be proud of the profession. He sought to build pride in those who became professional fundraisers, and that is something that stayed with me. Whenever I travel overseas today, and people ask me what I do, I’m proud to say ‘fundraiser’, and I can always bring that back to Arthur,” said Leo.

Mark said that Arthur built pride in the profession by “showing, doing, and mentoring others. He was a great believer in ‘paying forward’ and always made me aware that I stood on the shoulders of many to get to where I am and that it ought to be my mission to always offer a hand up to others in our profession.”

Peter noted Arthur was a great teacher who helped him immensely when he first came to work at the Downes, Venn & Associates consultancy.

“Arthur trained me in the conduct of capital campaign fundraising. On my first day, he gave me a huge book which outlined the process for doing a capital campaign. It was complex, focused and authoritative,” recalled Peter.

“I don’t think there’s anything else like that book out there. I had to read it and then go on a two-day workshop with Arthur. When I became an account manager and was juggling several campaigns at once, I had to report back to Arthur every Friday afternoon. He would ask where everything was at, what were the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. He was tough but kind.”

From draughtsman to fundraiser

But in 1956, Arthur wasn’t working yet on capital campaigns. At that time, the 31-year-old worked as a draughtsman, and was busy with his wife Ivy, three kids, church and volunteer work with the masons.

But one weekend, he spotted an advertisement in The Saturday Age seeking applications for a campaign director role with the Wells Organisations, an American company that specialised in fundraising programs for churches.

The active church-goer was intrigued. The starting salary of £1800 a year was attractive as was the £3 a day living away from home allowance.

In some notes he wrote for FIA about his fundraising career, Arthur noted that after several ‘’exhaustive interviews”, he got the job and presented himself for training at the head office. Two weeks later he was sent as a trainee director to work on a fundraiser for Vermont Presbyterian Church, and from there, to his first director job at Coleraine Presbyterian Church.

He somehow “struggled through at Coleraine, went to an Anglican church in Hobart next and then to the Anglican Church at Norlane, once the most extensive housing commission in Victoria.”

At Norlane, Arthur met Syd Herron, who was an operations manager in Melbourne. The experienced fundraiser told him to come up to the office where he bluntly said: “You’re being crucified down there, you’ve not had sufficient training and I’m going to pull you from this assignment and give you some training.”

But they were short-handed, and there was no one to replace him at Norlane. Syd told him to go back there and said: ‘I will tell you what should happen today and then you ring me tomorrow and tell me what did happen.’”

So, Arthur began his 42-year career in fundraising. He was with Wells Organisations for 10 years, working across Australia in churches of every denomination, raising thousands to build churches and parish schools.

“Arthur was a man of great faith, and his grounding in the ‘Wells Organisation’ of church fundraising showed him and ultimately, others who came under his influence how vital our work is. It also showed that it really does make a difference in the lives of many,” said Mark.

“Arthur was one of the founding fathers of modern fundraising, which started with the YMCA and the Wells Organisation. Those principles of ethics that those Christian-based organisations first set down in the 1900s still apply today, and Arthur believed they were important,” said Leo.

At the Wells Organisation, Arthur learned what living away from home meant. Campaign directors were never assigned programs in their home city, let alone their home state and could work up to eight weeks on a campaign with maybe a day off for every week they’d been away.

“Wells believed if you were far enough from home, you cannot worry about domestic matters and can devote yourself 100 per cent to the job,” said Leo.

Some campaign firsts

Eventually Arthur tired of living at the local pub in whatever community he was assigned to work in, and having to book phone calls at the post office to talk to his family. So, in 1966, when the president of the Melbourne YMCA approached him with a job opportunity that promised regular hours and proper weekends, Arthur took it and stayed for 10 years as their fundraiser.

In 1976, John Foley, then head of the MS Society of Victoria, invited him to join his staff and Arthur worked there until 1981. During that time, he had his first overseas trip attending conferences in Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco. As a result of this trip, Arthur developed the idea for the MS Readathon, a phenomenally popular fundraising event for children.

In 1981, Arthur became the first fundraiser employed by the Queen Victoria Medical Centre. Although the hospital had been operating for 96 years, fundraising hadn’t been on their radar. He stayed for three years and conducted a successful capital campaign with a team of prominent businessmen led by then-BHP Chair Sir James McNeil. That campaign raised an impressive $1.5 million for equipment for the neo-natal ward.

Arthur was also one of the first fundraisers to use direct mail in Australia, organising the first past patient mailing for the Queen Vic. And he always maintained the Queen Vic campaign was his most excellent achievement.

“Arthur set the example to many of us by sharing his knowledge of capital fundraising and fundraising in general. He believed that there were basic principles which stood the test of time, and he was always happy to share his ideas with other fundraisers. He would also let people know if they were not adhering to these principles,” said Leo.

“He had definite ideas that people weren’t fundraisers until they understood every aspect of the profession, especially the principles and why they work. He would also say ‘you can’t be a fundraiser if you can’t ask for money’,” Leo added.

“Arthur had a lot of other sayings like ’people give to people, not to causes’ and ‘you get the money where it is, or you don’t get it’,” said Peter.

“In all fundraising, Arthur always answered questions on ‘how to’s with one of his own: ‘what’s your case for support?’” added Mark.

“He felt strongly that the essence of fundraising sat with major gifts and capital campaigns because with those you are asking a person face to face to commit to a cause that’s meaningful to them. He found it compelling,” added Peter.

In 1984, Arthur joined forces with fundraiser Michael Downes and co-founded Downes, Venn & Associates where he trained and supervised the firm’s consultants. Many of Australia’s current top fundraisers came through the DVA “school.”

He retired from the consultancy in 1992 and from fundraising altogether when his wife suffered two strokes in 1998.

A proud FIA supporter

During his career, Arthur generously gave back to the fundraising community.

He was part of the group that established The Australasian Institute of Fundraising (TAIF), now FIA, which merged the Melbourne-based Society of Fundraisers and the Sydney- based National Fundraising Council.

TAIF was born at a meeting held at the Palm and Prawn Hotel in Wagga Wagga in1972.

Arthur was TAIF’s first treasurer. He later became a Fellow and life governor, served two terms as president and maintained his interest in FIA even after retirement.

Over the years, Arthur presented papers at nearly every FIA conference, was involved in many skills training programs and spoke at many overseas conferences.

“He was one of the best teachers I knew. He captivated everyone who heard him talk with his lovable ways. He would always conclude his talk by saying: ‘and this is how you spell fundraising: h-a-r-d w-o-r-k’,” said Leo.

“Arthur got arthritis in his later years, but even when he was in a wheelchair, nothing would hold him back from coming to FIA events. He wanted to remain connected as long as possible,” said Peter.

In 2012, FIA recognised his contribution to fundraising by creating the Arthur Venn Award, presented annually at the FIA Awards for Excellence in Fundraising. A year later, Arthur passed away. Poignantly, a month later, Leo won the Arthur Venn Fundraiser of the Year.

“It was a bittersweet moment. I cried when I received it,” Leo said.

Peter won the award in 2016 and had similar feelings.

“It was so powerful for me because I had such respect for Arthur. The award isn’t just about your campaign work; it’s about your contribution to the sector which resonated personally with me. One reason I became FIA chair was Arthur encouraged me to do it.”

So, how should we remember Arthur today?

“Remember Arthur as a man of great passion for our profession and for those who are engaged. There are very few senior fundraising professionals who have not been lifted through their exposure to Arthur’s mentorship. He loved FIA. He was a family man who worshipped Ivy, his wife and enjoyed the joy of children and grandchildren. He was a freemason who helped many. And he was a Christian,” said Mark.

“I wish I could have a cup of tea with him and chew the fat. We’d talk about what fundraising is today as grumpy old fundraisers. Those of us who knew him believe he is in heaven instructing the angels in the art of fundraising,” said Leo.

“He’d also be showing them how to create heaven’s best capital campaign while telling them people give to people, not causes,” added Peter.