Five minutes with… Matt Small, regular giving manager, Bush Heritage Australia

Encouraging people to dig deep for and appreciate nature: Matt Small, regular giving manager at Bush Heritage Australia, in the countryside around Daylesford, Victoria. The organisation works with the traditional owners, the Dja Dja Warrung people, at the nearby Nardoo Hills Reserves. 

Digging deep for nature 

Bush Heritage Australia’s Matt Small saw a lot of inequality while travelling the world. He also saw a link between environmental degradation and social damage. It made him want to change the world and he found his calling in fundraising. In this interview, he tells FIA’s Kim Carter what he likes about regular giving, what makes a successful RG program, how Bush Heritage coped during the pandemic and their project which won the most innovative campaign award at the recent FIA Awards for Excellence in Fundraising.  

And, if you were a 2021 FIA Conference delegate, you can tune into Matt’s presentation  Dating your untapped prospects for regular acquisition giving success  on the conference website. It’s available on demand for the next six months. Login and watch it here.

How did you get your start in fundraising? 

By accident! When I first arrived in Perth in 2003, I was in the city looking for work and the first person that I met was fundraising for Greenpeace. We had a good chat and though I was unable to support at that time, the team invited me to hang out with them at the park after work. They encouraged me to apply for a job with them and I gave it a go despite serious misgivings. It was the most challenging thing I’d ever done, but I was determined to do it well! 

You travelled around 50 countries before moving to Australia. Did you work in fundraising then? Any highlights to mention? 

I was fortunate to join an exchange program to India when I was 15 years old, which opened my eyes to just how colourful, interesting and unfair the world can be. I also became interested in Mahatma Gandhi and the power of non-violent action. Throughout travels in Latin America, Africa and Asia, I couldn’t avoid feeling the unfairness of the inequality I witnessed and the noticeable link between environmental degradation and social damage.  

Although I wasn’t working in fundraising until I came to Australia, I was thinking about ways to help solve the problems that I’d seen. I hadn’t imagined that I could be paid for talking to people about issues that I was passionate about!  

You worked as the Wilderness Defenders national manager at thWilderness Society for 11 years. That’s a long time in fundraising where the average person stays just 16 months in a role. What kept you entranced for so long? 

I feel a strong connection with the purpose and values of The Wilderness Society, with a real focus on empowering people to make a difference for us all. The regular giving program is an integral part of the organisation and managing a large team of passionate fundraisers was always challenging and interesting. I was surrounded by brilliant, supportive, passionate people and it became like a family. We felt like every conversation that we had and dollar that we raised had immense value. 

On to regular giving…what do you like about this form of raising donations, often called the engine room of fundraising?  

Many of the challenges that for-purpose organisations face are long term, and I think that donating little and often is great for charities that need ongoing resources. For most supporters, regular donations are usually quite painless, but there is a feeling of being a part of a meaningful solution. Personally, even though I’ve never been wealthy, I’ve been able to support several charities regularly, and I feel really connected with their work. 

You now work as the regular giving manager at Bush Heritage Australia. Tell us a bit about the mission. What have been the joys of working here? 

Most of my fundraising career I’ve worked in face-to-face fundraising for advocacy organisations, so it was refreshing working for Bush Heritage, who are necessarily apolitical and had no face-to-face program. We’re an independent not-for-profit that buys and manages land, and partners with Aboriginal people, to conserve our magnificent landscapes and our irreplaceable native species forever and return the bush to good health.  

There was a lot to learn and a different proposition to work with. It’s also been an opportunity to collaborate with different teams and work more in supporter journeys as well as web, direct mail and tele-fundraising spaces.  

How did the bushfires and the pandemic impact your work and that of your team? How did you and your team adapt in this unprecedented business and giving environment? 

Bush Heritage was directly affected by the bushfires, with seven of our reserves impacted, but we consciously tried to avoid competing with the immediate crisis relief efforts. Our supporters were incredibly generous, however, which allowed Bush Heritage to start the post-fire recovery. With restrictions in place, we missed being able to invite volunteers to reserves, especially at a time when there was so much regeneration and restoration work that needed to be done.  

For those of us that were office based we had to adapt to working from home, with many of us also home schooling and that meant we had to focus on core business, with some projects being put on the back burner. Bush Heritage management was fantastic with allowing the staff flexibility to manage time and workloads and that helped immensely with the emotional rollercoaster that we were all living through. 

What has changed in monthly giving since you started working in fundraising? 

When I first started fundraising, face to face was still quite new and seemed much simpler. There was an assumption that everyone that agreed to a regular donation would continue to donate for several years.  

I think that there is necessarily much more professionalism and a greater focus on quality than quantity now, with more focus on retention and life-time value of regular donors. 

What’s the most reliable way to convert one-time or annual donors to monthly donors? 

With cash donors, I would say that the key is genuinely expressing gratitude for their support and understanding their motivations before explaining how they could maximise the impact of their donations by donating regularly. Having well trained, well briefed, credible fundraisers on the phone helps to ensure positive outcomes. 

What makes for a successful regular giving program?  

It involves several ingredients: organisational support and understanding that RG is a long-term investment, a solid retention strategy, a proposition and case for support that explains the need for regular donations and multiple acquisition streams.  

What are some common mistakes you see fundraisers making when it comes to regular giving programs? 

Regular giving is a long-term investment, and it’s easy for fundraisers and managers to push for short-term wins rather than long-term gain. It’s important to focus on long-term ROI and have accountability for retention. 

What’s the best way to reactivate lapsed donors? 

We have trialled an SMS re-engagement journey for lapsed donors this year that has shown encouraging signs of helping to rekindle the fire with longer-lapsed donors that were previously challenging to reach.  

Bush Heritage undertook an intriguing regular giving project with various partners to pilot the use of emerging technology such as propensity scoring through machine learning and donor engagement journeys using AISMS. And your organisation won the most innovative campaign award at the FIA Awards for Excellence in Fundraising this year. Can you tell us about this fascinating project?   

Thank you! It’s fantastic to be acknowledged by FIA for innovation, especially at such a dynamic time when we all need to think outside of the box to adapt our programs to changing circumstances, and the ‘primed project’ has been an incredible collaboration to be involved in.  

When I started working at Bush Heritage, it seemed that we were spending a lot of our resources on lead acquisition, yet we were only reaching a small percentage of these potential supporters. We were really interested to see how we could build relationships with supporters before asking for a long-term commitment.   

It was a complex puzzle to work out who to engage with, and how best to gain their interest and trust. Each of the partners was able to contribute a part of the solution. Lemontree used propensity modelling and data hygiene to focus our efforts. Conversr and More Impact helped to design a multimodal, values-based engagement journey. Then Cornucopia called the people that had engaged positively with the journey. 

The outcomes in terms of retention and ROI have been brilliant. We’re currently amid the third campaign, and it’s now an essential part of our regular giving program. 

Given the project above, Bush Heritage Australia has worked with several suppliers successfully. Any advice on working with outside consultants 

Perhaps I’ve been lucky with the consultants that I’ve worked with that we were able to collaborate to bring about better outcomes than I could have individually! I feel that I’m learning so much from incredible people with a wealth of knowledge and expertise, and I think it helps to have agreement about desired outcomes with consultants and agencies before beginning to work together. 

How has Bush Heritage Australia reworked the donor journey in recent years?  

In the past year we have redesigned our welcome and donor journeys to respond to what our supporters have told us through surveys. We’re also working towards reducing paper use as much as possible. We created an online welcome page and a secure portal for each of our supporters to have more control of their donations and communication preferences. We’re also trying to give back to our supporters with offers such as the Bush Kids Club, which provides free nature-based activities for kids in the school holidays for our supporters.   

How important has digital become, especially during COVID? Are you doing anything interesting on that front?  

Digital is a tough nut to crack, but it’s a growing part of our RG program. We have a brilliant team of people working with some great agencies that are helping to develop incremental improvements that are bringing fantastic outcomes. 

What trends can we expect to see in regular giving in the coming years? 

I’m not confident to predict the future after the unpredictability of the past year, but I expect that there will be a continued focus on donor journeys and finding ways to keep regular givers regular. I also imagine that digital fundraising will continue to grow as we spend so much of our time online and people become more used to spending money online.  

A paw-fect day: Matt enjoys spending time with Banksi, his one-year-old border collie. 

As we get through the pandemic, what are you most looking forward to on the other side? 

I’m a social animal, and I’m very much looking forward to being able to be spontaneous and catch up with people face to face that I haven’t seen for a long time. And to be able to hug without feeling awkward! It will also be great to get to gigs, festivals and protests and feel togetherness with crowds. 

What do you like to do in your spare time? 

I love to spend time in nature with my kids whenever possible. Whether that’s camping, visiting the beach, or running beside the river, it’s rejuvenating for all of us.