Five minutes with … Adam Watson

After quitting a job in insurance sales, Adam Watson MFIA fell into a face-to-face fundraising role. Today, he runs Fundraising Partners, a boutique consultancy with Paul Tavatgis MFIA and Peter Coleman PhD, helping a variety of clients create effective, sustainable and compliant fundraising programs. He says an inspiring conversation with a passionate fundraiser is impossible to beat!

What attracted you to fundraising and, in particular, face-to-face fundraising?

I fell into fundraising by accident. I was stopped in the street by a recruiter on the same day that I quit a soulless job in insurance sales. It ticked two boxes: getting paid and restoring my karmic levels.

You worked for six years for the UK’s largest door-to-door fundraising agency. What was it like?

We built a team of up to 150 fundraisers over three cities who were all linked by a strong sense of family, a passion for the causes we represented, well-practised accountability and a suite of processes that were communicated to all staff. 

Career highlights?

My personal highlights change with each project. I was pleased with what my team and I achieved in the UK, but it wasn’t until I got to Australia that I realised how little I knew. Now, with F2F in quite a different place, partnering with Paul Tavatgis and Peter Coleman for Fundraising Partners and getting the Irregular Giving Project up and running is something I’m proud of. If we play this right, we can safeguard the sustainability of the channel for years to come.

You moved to Australia in 2010. What was the attraction for you?

Timing was everything. I had already resigned from my role in the UK when I was offered the chance to work in Australia. In hindsight, it may not have been the right job for me, but it taught me a lot. I knew that the Australian market was different as it was dominated by sales and marketing companies rather than fundraising agencies but knowing this didn’t prepare me for the first six months. It was an uphill struggle, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

In Australia, you were responsible for quadrupling the number of new and active regular givers for a charity. What was your secret?

The quadrupling of regular givers was with The Smith Family and was not such a big deal. I managed relationships with suppliers to increase volume and retention. 

What makes for a good F2F fundraiser?

Having the right values. During a Zoom meeting for the Irregular Giving Project, we asked 40 fundraisers from Australia and New Zealand what values we need to see in fundraising, and the most frequent responses were honest, proud and passionate. If you add hard-working, empathic and resilient to this list, you’ll have an excellent fundraiser.

Three’s company: Adam Watson (centre) with Paul Tavatgis (left) and Peter Coleman, the principals at Fundraising Partners Consultancy

You founded and now head up Fundraising Partners with Paul Tavatgis and Peter Coleman, a charitable fundraising consultancy network based in Sydney, which also has national/international reach. What is the agency focusing on, and what makes you different from other agencies?

I cannot speak to what makes Fundraising Partners different, but I can tell you what we are and how we work. Fundraising Partners provide compliance, review and strategy services for all areas of fundraising. We are sector leaders in every aspect of regular giving, one of the most complex areas of fundraising. We support clients in developing and maintaining effective, socially responsible, compliant and sustainable fundraising programs. We prideourselves on being hands-on and applying our first-hand knowledge in developing practical solutions.

Joys and challenges in your work?

The not-for-profit sector is filled with people who care deeply about the causes they represent and can inspire you to be better. In saying that, the challenges are real. Despite the income from the face-to-face channel being so crucial for so many causes, it doesn’t always get the respect it deserves from the industry, although admittedly sometimes through its own fault. 

What is the Irregular Giving Project?

The F2F channel has suffered at the hands of rising costs, rising attrition and lower returns. Behaviours not in line with what is traditionally held as ethical charity fundraising has helped it build a negative reputation for itself which is periodically publicised by media outlets and gossiped about by charity staff and members of the public alike.

It has moved from the leading light in individual giving to a dirty and mismanaged secret that can risk the reputation and finances of any charity that engages with it.

It’s only surviving because there are no other viable alternatives. This will change so F2F fundraising must change. The Irregular Giving Project is a collaboration of over 100 fundraisers from around the world brought together to share knowledge and sustain the channel.

Fundraisers can join the conversation at www.irregulargiving.me.

Lots of people say they don’t like F2F. Yet charities say it still works for them and younger people certainly don’t seem to mind it. Indeed, PFRA had impressive numbers of sign-ups at its member charities last year.  Why does it still work, in your opinion?

It’s true that F2F has a marketing problem. The channel continues to provide millions of dollars to Australian charities each year. It was the first taste of fundraising for many fundraising managers and has been responsible for the largest volume of new donors into the sector every year for the last decade. But it’s still treated like a dirty secret by some charity boards, isn’t always measured accurately and isn’t integrated with other channels. It works because people give to people. An inspiring conversation with a passionate fundraiser is impossible to beat.

What impact has the pandemic had on your work?

Although unwanted and unplanned, we and some of our clients have adapted to the change of pace. We continue with our non-F2F compliance and review work, and our F2F clients have shifted focus from mystery shopping and training to review and preparation for the restart.

Will F2F fundraising change because of the pandemic when it comes back this month?

I hope so. We must work together as a sector to decides what elements of F2F we need to keep, which we need to edit and which we need to lose. The Irregular Giving Project will allow this discussion to happen and give us the tools to make the necessary changes.

You write a blog called Things I learned this Week. What are some particularly fun things you’ve learned in the time you’ve been writing, and where can we find your blog?

You can find my ‘Things I Learned This Week’ blog at www.fundraisingpartners.com.au/blog. I’ve learned so much over the past few years, so it’s hard to pick one or two things that have stood out. Ken Burnett wrote that the best thing a new fundraiser can do to get a sense of their charity is to sit in the mailroom and open some letters from donors. I can recommend getting out of the office and knocking on some doors with your teams.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

When I’m not working, I enjoy walks with my wife Genevieve, playing and reading with my son, and relaxing with my rabbits. We have another son due in September, so I’m expecting even less free time than now!