My big mistakes - and what I’ve learnt from them
Resource type: eNewsletter article
We all make mistakes at some point in our lives, but hopefully we can learn from them, put it down to experience and remember not to do it again. The Resource Alliance's interim chief executive Lyndall Stein recounts some of her blips and how she’s dealt with them.
The strange thing about mistakes is that you can always find new ones to make. I keep thinking that at my advanced age (don’t spread it around, but I will be hitting the big 60 this summer) that I should have used up my full lifetime allocation of actual and potential mistakes and learnt from them, but oh no, there is always another one just waiting round the corner. But if you spent your life frightened by the next mistake you might make - you would just stay at home, and maybe just stay in bed and maybe just stay asle.
I have a good friend who is a German brain surgeon. We often say well, it’s good to learn from your mistakes and no-one’s going to die from them. But we are not brain surgeons! So I asked him what do brain surgeons say? “Well,” he said, “we learn from our mistakes, sometimes we make mistakes… and sometimes people die’.” That certainly puts my fundraising mistakes into perspective, and it gives me the courage to take a deep breath and share them with you
And to celebrate my six decades – here are five big mistakes and what I learnt from them. Believe you me I’ve got plenty more up my sleeve, but there is only so much public shame a girl can take.
Let’s start with working for the African National Congress which in the 1980s was a difficult task, when none of us thought Nelson Mandela would ever leave prison. We had amazing supporters, but we no equipment, no money for anything – no way to pay designers, consultants or copywriters, but luckily what we did have were amazing volunteers, who wrote and designed newspaper ads and gave us top class strategic advice.
I own these mistakes but it’s worth remembering that good results take team work and bad results are usually team work as well – nearly always just everyone, just doing something a little bit wrong, which ends up in a great big mess.
But whatever mistakes we made at the ANC we had one of the best and most compelling ‘case for support’ of our lifetime and someone heading the cause who had no opportunity to ‘contaminate his brand’ or spoil his good reputation – not a lot of opportunity for scandalous behaviour, when you are locked up in a prison, on a windswept island, out at sea.
We had a big full page advert, paid for by our supporters, listing their names as contributors, but we had too many for the page and we had to let a few slip off the bottom. How embarrassing when some while later I went to a job interview at the HIV/AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust, only to discover that my future boss Daryl Upsall and his wife Miriam had been two of the names that had been dropped off. Luckily he gave me the job anyway, and later joined my volunteer team when we brought together a fundraising team for the very first democratic election.
What I learnt
The devil is in the detail. Check, check, and check again!
The first event we organised was pretty spectacular at the poshest hotel in the UK –The Dorchester in London’s Mayfair. It was Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the UK after 27years in prison and everyone was there – Ministers, celebrities, business leaders. There were tears, cheers, excitement, emotion, everything you need for a spectacular fundraising success.The only problem was we never really got Mandela briefed in advance. He did not ask for money and the ANC were so overloaded that they did not follow through properly so this amazing event hardly brought in any money.
What I learnt
Never forget the importance of the ask – if you don’t ask you don’t get!
Bad data and bad dates
When I went to work at Terrence Higgins Trust, the leading UK NGO working on HIV and AIDS in 1990, times were so hard, no effective treatments were available, and every day more people became ill, and so many died, often slowly and painfully and many staff and volunteers were badly affected. We were desperate for funds and early on I worked to get a powerful mailing out and a follow up phone campaign – the problem was our data was a mess and we included in our fundraising programme one of THT’s volunteers, who was also caring for his very ill boyfriend – he was not at all pleased to receive a phone call asking him for money and he did not have any anyway. Unfortunately he made sure to tell everyone what had happened. It was not a lot of fun being summoned for a date to meet a group of volunteers who proceeded to tell me in very clear terms what they thought of what I had done to the angry and distressed volunteer
What I learnt
Dirty data can leave you eating dirt. However dirty data can also be your friend just a bit later, through a misunderstanding with our data services team, we ended up mailing a large group of supporters who had requested no contact ,well we got some complaints but we also got our best ever response and made £15,000 which was a lot of money in those days and badly needed.
We had a successful television telethon called Hysteria with a lot of comedians and performers but in 1993 income was down – we decided to do a telephone campaign to those who had donated to Hysteria explaining that the results were disappointing and how urgent our needs were. Freddie Mercury had just died of HI/AIDS, which made our appeal even more poignant. This time the problem was that one of the supporters we rang with the disappointing results was the producer ’s father. Neither she not the televising company who had sponsored the telethon were very impressed with us, and some very grumpy letters were soon whizzing around. However it was a brilliantly successful appeal and brought in a terrific amount of regular givers.
What I learnt
Poor results or disappointing donations can be a platform for very successful appeals if you move quickly and are not afraid of the possible consequences. The value to Terrence Higgins Trust of those thousands of supporters was far higher long term than the bruised egos of a few grumpy television people.
Dealing with donors
One of the biggest foundations in the UK is run by a woman, who I had got to know quite well she had come to several of my events and though she is a very, very, very wealthy woman – she is probably worth the entire gross domestic product of several countries – she had always been very friendly and courteous to me. Well one day she phoned me and asked me why I had been complaining about her behind her back. And oh dear, she was right. I had talked to a funder I had known for many years and it had got back to her – not a good move.
What I learnt
You might have a chance to influence a funder if you challenge them directly but you are not likely to get a good result from grumbling behind their back and gossiping. The world of big funders is a small one and they talk to each other. I did apologise and I did try and explain that it was difficult to challenge those with power (hmmm…weak excuse) and she had the grace to suggest sharing a cup of coffee with me. I am not sure I deserved even a cup of coffee.
But the biggest thing I have learnt is, as my old Dad says: “If you don’t make mistakes you don’t make!”.