Five minutes with… Arani Duggan, head of marketing and fundraising for Ronald McDonald House Charities Greater Western Sydney

Non-profit exec of the year works to remedy life for both sick kids and Western Sydney

Arani Duggan was recently named the 2020 CEO Not-for-Profit Executive of the Year. She and her team put on their thinking caps and produced a fabulous online fundraiser that raised way more money than they expected. Arani will be speaking at FIA Conference 2021 about this event. Her on-demand presentation is Dance for Sick Kids: Our new supporters were waiting for us… all we had to do was ask them to dance! She generously made time in her busy day to talk to FIA about her recent win, the joys of working at Ronald McDonald House Charities and her efforts to bring more jobs to Western Sydney.

Congratulations. Late last year you were named the Not-for-Profit Executive of the Year at the virtual 2020 CEO Magazine Executive of the Year Awards. This win must have been so heart-warming for you, given the year 2020 was for fundraising? 

Thank you so much! Yes, it was such a surprise to win and really made my year. My team also felt that it was an award for them, which it was, so that made it twice as special. It’s so lovely for fundraising to be recognised in this forum, particularly after such a hard year. 

You came to Ronald McDonald House Charities Greater Western Sydney in 2018 with 10 years of experience in senior executive marketing and business development roles. As a Western Sydney resident for many years, you have a great understanding of the region and its needs. What attracted you to RMHC?

Having worked as a fundraiser, predominately in the arts and cultural space, I was ready for a new adventure. Having children, I resonated with the RMHC cause. I also liked the idea of a role based in Western Sydney. I’m on the board of Western Sydney Business Connection as I strongly believe in creating more skilled jobs in our region. It’s crazy that so many Western Sydney residents commute an hour and a half to work each day. COVID-19 has changed that a little, with more work-from-home flexibility for many people. However, there are a lot of people that still commute to the city. While I loved my previous role at the Powerhouse Museum, the commute was killing me. The perfect role at RMHC came up, and I was delighted to get it. 

What are the joys and challenges of your job working to raise funds for the 24-hour, seven days a week facility at RMHC, which provides shelter and care for families with seriously ill children?

The biggest joy is everything I learn from talking to the families. They’re going through the toughest time of their lives, and their resilience and bravery are very humbling. I also absolutely love my team: they’re such a creative and dedicated group of individuals and working with them brings me joy. I suppose the challenges are mainly to do with brand comprehension; there are quite a few misconceptions about the RMHC brand, which can impact our ability to fundraise. In saying that, brand comprehension has been a big focus over the last few years, and we’re seeing the shift in people’s perceptions. 

COVID-19 had its challenges for you and your team. You had to cancel several significant events, but you and your colleagues produced a great replacement fundraiser in 2020: the virtual Dance for Sick Kids. Tell us about it.

Dance for Sick Kids was inspired by a third-party event, a Line Dance Ball. For the last 15 years, they had raised money for the charity from the event. Obviously when COVID-19 hit it had to be cancelled along with many of our other events. It was initially going to be Line Dance for Sick Kids, but my talented colleague Ash came to me with an idea to drop the line and Dance for Sick Kids was born. 

We had two weeks to develop it and four weeks in market. It was crazy: we were all working from home at this stage, so we spent long days on Teams and Zoom getting the job done. I’m so lucky to have an incredible team. The way they were able to pivot and create something so exceptional was awe-inspiring. We were blown away by the results: over 1,300 people registered and together raised over $400,000. Our colleagues from RMHC chapters across the country loved the concept, and we’re excited to be collaborating to launch Dance for Sick Kids Australia-wide this year. It will be the first national peer-to-peer event for RMHC. 

Dance for Sick Kids was the second digital campaign you undertook for RMHC. Tell us how it went with your tax appeal, Molly’s Mission? Was it a bit nerve-wracking going digital the first time? 

Molly’s Mission was another campaign which blew us away. After a lacklustre 2018 Christmas appeal, I decided to scrap direct mail altogether and put all our spend into digital. I had developed a growth strategy around donor acquisition, and I knew digital would be the most economical way of acquiring new donors. We set out to raise just over $45,000; however, the campaign gained momentum, and we went on to raise $170,000 and acquired 855 new donors. 

How has it been on the corporate partnership front for you since coronavirus? Did many still come to the virtual dance party?  

We’ve been lucky with our corporate partners. A lot of them have continued their support for the charity and have even introduced new supporters. We did have a few get behind Dance for Sick Kids; however, we have also had some unique campaigns that they have driven. For example, two of our corporate partners got together and raised $115,000 through a Christmas campaign to their staff and suppliers.  

What other exciting fundraising projects are you and your team working on at the minute? 

We have an incredibly busy year planned, taking Dance for Sick Kids national and re-launching our regular giving acquisition, which we postponed during the bushfires. We’re also working on launching our major donor strategy to coincide with our 40th anniversary this year. Throw in all the business-as-usual activity, and I think we can safely say we’ll be on the go all year!

You lead a team of seven, and it’s always busy. How would you describe your leadership style, and how do you keep your team motivated?

I have a very collaborative leadership style: I believe in empowering my team to come up with the ideas, challenge me when they think I’m making the wrong decision, and most importantly, work collaboratively with their colleagues. I’ve seen too many missed opportunities throughout my career because of team silos and closed doors, so I encourage the opposite in my team. I feel like my team are just motivated – they do what they do because they love their jobs and the charity. They know what we need to achieve as a team, and they all play their part. 

You have a bachelor’s degree in design. What led you to marketing and fundraising?

I started fundraising when I was 15. I was very involved in theatre, and a play I was in was selected to represent Australia at the Aberdeen International Youth Festival. We had to raise the money to attend, and I suppose that’s where it all started. By the time I graduated, I knew I didn’t want to be a designer, so I applied for a marketing and development coordinator role at a youth arts festival. It was a small team, and I got to do a bit of everything from corporate partnerships and grant-writing to graphic design and marketing and communications. It was an amazing start as I learned so much. I was eventually promoted to head up the team, and I suppose the rest is history. 

Other career highlights you’d care to mention? 

Working as the head of development at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) was a definite career highlight. When I was at uni, I visited the museum regularly and dreamt about working there one day. During my time there, I would often think about my younger self and how proud I would have been if I had known I would go on to hold a senior role at the museum. I’ve been so lucky with my career, to be passionate about every organisation I work for, to have had outstanding teams and mentors, and to be proud and excited to come to work every day. Not everyone gets that opportunity.  

You’re keen to improve Western Sydney’s fortunes, which goes beyond your work at RMHC. Tell us about your work as vice-president of the Western Sydney Business Connection.

I’m incredibly passionate about contributing to the growth of Western Sydney through my position on the board of WSBC and my previous role on the Riverside Theatre’s advisory board. Western Sydney is one of Australia’s fastest-growing regions. It plays a vital role economically, and more importantly, it’s rich in culture and diversity. I’ve also gained a lot from the roles, extending my skills and experience in governance, risk management and strategic planning, and of course, building my network in the region. 

What would be something your fellow fundraisers don’t know about you?

When I was in year four, I won the ABC Earthworm award for an entry I submitted about compost. I got interviewed on the radio about my submission and won a $50 voucher from the ABC shop. I have loved gardening ever since. 

 What do you like to do in your spare time? 

I love going to the theatre. I just saw a wonderful play – Queen Fatima – at Riverside Theatres. I believe great live theatre can be transformative. I often think my love of stories is what has made me a good fundraiser. It has certainly made me more creative!