January 24th, 2024

Innovating in Uncertain Times

The top five challenges we’re hearing from Fundraising Directors.

Let’s be clear: it ain’t easy out there. Or, as one senior leader more eloquently put it: “It feels like a total clusterf*ck of negativity at the minute.”

The sector is facing a myriad of challenges, from rising costs squeezing even those who are exceeding income targets, to staff burnout, hiring freezes, slashed budgets and ever-increasing demands on services.  

This often leaves Fundraising Directors with an unenviable task: delivering more income with less investment. But this challenge is not new. It may feel less dramatic than Covid, but that’s just because it’s unfolding more slowly. It’s the boiling frog to Covid’s volcanic eruption, but may end up being just as damaging to the sector, if not more so. 

In every crisis though, there is opportunity. Some charities acknowledge that the immediate response adopted during Covid was far from ideal.  But with the benefit of hindsight, rather than reverting back to previous crisis reactions and behaviours, we need to start applying some of those learnings. Because one thing everyone agrees on is this: carrying on as is ain’t going to cut it. 

We’ve compiled five of the most common challenges we’re hearing from Fundraising Directors, alongside some initial thoughts and examples on overcoming them. 

Over the next few weeks, with your help through our ‘Uncertain Times’ survey, we’ll bring you insights from across the sector and beyond, and more ideas on how these five challenges can be overcome.

Challenge 1 -  I need a more focused and efficient portfolio 

One lesson from Covid is that less can definitely be more. Rather than spreading your resources thinly across multiple products, there is merit in aligning finite resources around those with the most potential and impact. 

This requires reliable data first and foremost, and then the bravery to stop or disinvest in products that are delivering marginal benefit - releasing that resource to invest in ones that maximises results, as well as targeted new initiatives with high future potential. It also requires rationalisation of your portfolio against your strategy and audience needs.

Doing this work can be intensive, but can be done in a matter of weeks, and leads to both short-term benefits (eg. unlocking budget from areas you disinvest in, and strategic clarity) and long-term benefits (eg. increased income & supporter engagement, and greater staff wellbeing from a more focused workload). 

Decisions to disinvest in marginal activity can be difficult. Yet for the clients we have worked with on this type of project, those decisions can also be massively liberating, and can free up budget to invest in areas of high-growth and high-potential. 

A great example of this approach is the British Red Cross, which during Covid, aggressively streamlined its fundraising portfolio whilst still innovating in a targeted and opportunistic way. This approach freed up marketing space to launch a timely new gaming product that had been sitting in their innovation pipeline, waiting to go. This went on to raise £1m+, bring in a new younger audience for emergency fundraising and is now a key part of their BAU portfolio.

Challenge 2 - I need less risk and more certainty in what I’m doing

It seems obvious: when facing increased uncertainty, we need to play it safe. And what this generally translates to is budgets being slashed, increased oversight, and reverting to tried-and-tested fundraising products and propositions.

But is playing it safe the best course of action in a market where, with the exception of legacy fundraising, traditional bankers are often static or in decline, and growth is desperately needed? In this case, playing it safe can lead to stagnation, demotivated staff and missed opportunities. 

One alternative: take small bets, streamline go/no go decisions, and spread your risk. This means keeping budgets relatively small, and focusing instead on removing barriers to innovation that we know are often the most insidious cause of expensive failures. 

This may be a step away from some existing innovation approaches that prioritise big bets, and long-term innovation delivery cycles (there is still a place for those, and check out our Mission and Money report for more on that). But it’s one to consider as a proven method for de-risking your approach to innovation. Either way, in a market like this, doing nothing new is the riskiest choice of them all. 

A recent example of de-risking your innovation approach is Amnesty, who have redesigned their innovation process to focus on speed, with streamlined and rapid go/no-go decisions for new initiatives that show promise.

Challenge 3 - I need to maximise engagement from my current supporters

Engaging your current supporters is crucial for retention and loyalty, especially in a time where acquisition costs are skyrocketing. 

Relevant, honest, and emotive stories that show the impact of your work, the need for their support, and the difference your supporters can make will always pay dividends.  But how else do you keep them interested and involved in your cause, especially during a cost of living crisis and an increasingly competitive market?

Whilst Covid warranted a short term approach, and as instinctive as that approach might feel, charities need to stay focused on longer and deeper engagement.

Supporters will always also value empathy from their relationships with charities. WaterAid and the British Red Cross, for example, have both highlighted how much they value their supporters, even if they can’t give right now. The cost of living crisis is front-of-mind for so many right now, and acknowledging that elephant in the room can go a long way to earning trust and loyalty. 

Challenge 4 -   I need to manage uncertainty and stress in my team

Uncertainty can be uncomfortable for many.  At a time where stress and burnout is already prevalent across the sector, uncertainty can amplify anxiety levels.  Driven to hit income targets and with a burgeoning workload, staff are spread thinly across multiple workstreams, and plagued by back-to-back meetings. The risk if not addressed is that the drive to do more with less will just lead to more burnout across the sector.

In the short term there are some potential ideas to try. Zoom itself, for example, bans video calls internally every Wednesday, and encourages staff to switch to audio-only breaks during meetings to disrupt the repetition of regular video meetings. Longer term ideas, such as a 4-day working week, are being considered by some. Friends of the Earth says it has increased the wellbeing of their people, their families and their communities.

For those we have spoken to, another of the biggest contributing factors to stressed out teams is too many competing and unclear priorities. 

We run cultural innovation projects to help diagnose and improve damaging ways of working, but you don’t need to run a whole project to begin to make a difference. One step is for leadership to encourage a ‘less is more’ mindset, which can be kickstarted with clear prioritisation of what’s important, and what’s not (see challenge 1). 

Challenge 5  -   I need to reach new audiences that can generate new revenue streams

Reaching new audiences is vital for growth and sustainability. But how do you do that when you don’t have the budget for expensive, in-depth audience insight work?

One possible approach: work with the insight you already have. Many of our clients have existing insight or hunches from past projects that can serve as a jumping off point for a new initiative - and we often top this up with some low-cost audience insight if required. 

Most of the time, there is existing insight hidden in a shared drive or someone’s email, just waiting to be found. Alternatively, you may have some existing marketing segmentation that can offer you a starting point. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to provide a place from which to start exploring and experimenting. 

Another approach: start with a trend, or existing market analysis, to tackle your need from a different angle. This can bring the up-front cost down to desk research alone, and save your limited budget for the creation and testing of new initiatives. Similar to how charities have jumped on the gaming bandwagon, which came from a trend a decade ago emerging around the rise of live-streaming. The bonus of this approach: you start with a ready-made market and a new audience. 

Our top tip for staying on-top of emerging market and audience trends: join our Good Futures subscription, which will do the heavy lifting for you. You’ll get access to a growing trends library, up-to-date reports and quarterly deep-dives. 

But wait…what about AI? 

AI can be a powerful tool to help speed up innovation, decreasing the greatest risk that most innovation functions face: slow delivery. 

It can help with data analysis, content creation, audience segmentation, personalisation, and automation.

We are bringing together a collaboration of charities to explore the opportunity of AI. We'll be looking beyond tech deployment to consider the future implications for the third sector: how we deliver our missions, how we engage and mobilise communities, how we generate income, and how we effectively and productively make the most of human expertise. If you want to find out more, drop a note to Daisy (daisy@goodinnovation.co.uk).


There was some really positive behaviour and work that happened during Covid. We’re keen to help the sector do more of that in this current crisis.

If any of this resonates, please do get in touch. We’d love to chat about your experience. Book in 30 minutes with Ben Cohen (ben@goodinnovation.co.uk)

We’ll be sending a short survey in two weeks to gather the challenges and views from across the sector. If you can take part, we’ll share the results with you personally, a few weeks later.

These are difficult times. But there are some evidence-based ways of doing more for less. We look forward to talking to you more about this topic over the coming months.