Make a difference in five steps

  • 10th July 2023

Simon Lerwill

Simon Lerwill reveals the research and planning that went into creating Marlborough’s new bursary fundraising campaign

Fundraising campaigns require a lot of preparation – often more than people think. Planning for ‘The Marlborough Difference’, the college’s new fundraising campaign, which went live in March this year, started three years ago. During this time we consulted donors, set our goals, built the team, created the brand and launched the campaign. These are probably the big five building blocks for any effective campaign – and it all takes time.

Co-creation is a relatively new term in fundraising but it speaks to the truth that a major donor is more likely to support a project that they have helped to shape. As a result, consulting with your donors and potential donors is perhaps the most important first step when creating a new campaign. Unfortunately, within three months of commencing our planning work we found ourselves in the first lockdown of the pandemic. Despite this we soon discovered that Zoom can be a great way to run a focus group. In the end we ran several, not just for donors but also for non-donors, teaching staff, support staff and pupils.

All of the feedback we received from this research, alongside the data we already held, was incredibly useful and helped to shape our thinking. We found that the two top motivations for giving to bursaries were, in priority order, the difference it makes to the recipients (the life-changing opportunity to study at Marlborough) and the difference it makes to the college (the benefit to all pupils of having a more diverse pupil community). These became our two core messages.

Another discovery we made was that the majority of alumni and parents had a preference to support full bursaries (free places) rather than partial bursaries. As a result we decided to focus the campaign solely on these bursaries. This discovery was useful because the most effective campaigns often have a really clear focus. In the end we decided on three key goals for our campaign:
• Secure 100 free places by 2033.
• Raise £75 million to fund these places.
• Secure 100 bursary futures volunteers (for example, mentors).

Note that the headline campaign goal is the number of free places, not the fundraising target. Too often, in my view, fundraising campaigns tend to lead with the financial goal, which is odd as we know it is the impact this money makes that actually motivates donors (which in our case is growing the number of bursaries). That said, I knew that £75 million was an ambitious financial goal so we undertook a feasibility study, looking at the data we held, to make sure it was achievable over the 10 years of the campaign.

We wanted to include a volunteering goal because there’s a lot of evidence that people, especially young people, want a relationship with the charities they support beyond just donating money. Volunteering, whether mentoring a pupil, giving a careers talk, or offering work experience, can be a great way for your alumni and parents to get more involved. There is also a lot of evidence that volunteers are more likely to donate (twice as likely on average) and give more (twice as much on average), so there’s a strong correlation between volunteering and raising money too.

Your goals need not only to be clear but also aligned to the strategic priorities of the institution. In Marlborough’s case this was easy as increasing the number of bursaries was one of the top priorities for the master Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and council (our governing body). If your goal also aligns to your institution’s ethos and history then this is extremely helpful as it gives authenticity to your campaign. In Marlborough’s case we were originally founded to provide financial aid to one-third of the pupils who were sons of clergy, so helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds was something we’ve always done.

There’s a lot of data that demonstrates that larger teams raise more money. Early on I realised that we would need a larger development team at Marlborough to deliver the ambition of the campaign. Campaigns don’t just need fundraisers either, they need communicators, planners and data analysts too. During 2021 we recruited for three new roles, filling the skills gap to plan and run the campaign effectively, increasing the team to nine people. We worked hard to create a team spirit, galvanising people around the goals of the campaign and making sure everyone felt involved and had a part to play.

A strong identity can really help a campaign come to life. Early last year we appointed a creative agency, True North, to create the name and look of the campaign. Getting the campaign name right was the hardest thing (and often this is the case). True North developed about 12 different names, but none of them seemed right. As soon as we saw the ‘Marlborough Difference’ we knew it was the one. In one word they had managed to encapsulate the difference bursaries make to the recipients, to the college and even to society after they leave.

The company developed a powerful, simple and effective identity for the campaign which both aligned to the Marlborough College branding and stood out as something new (not an easy balance to get right). Crucially it put the bursary recipients front and centre and told their story in a really creative, emotive and poetic way. This approach was then used for our main campaign film which features five of our bursary recipients. It has had a very emotional response which I think is testament to the concept and the pupils themselves who were inspirational. The same approach was used for the website where the amazing stories of the recipients play a central role.

We launched the campaign in two phases.First, we had an exclusive launch event in London for our largest donors and potential donors. We wanted these key individuals to be the first to hear about the campaign and to see the premiere of the campaign film. Making your most important donors feel important is, well, important.

Second, we held a special launch day at the college. We decided early on to use the format of a Giving Day (a 36-hour fundraising challenge which has become a very popular initiative in recent years). A Giving Day typically encourages alumni and parents to donate online while pupils and staff raise funds at the school through a variety of activities. We wanted to harness the buzz of a Giving Day to raise awareness of the new campaign among our whole Marlborough community and to encourage as many donors as possible to make their first donation. In total, 1,000 donors gave £1.3 million – a record-breaking result. But as important was the impact on the college community who felt involved and took real pride in the campaign. Ensuring your fundraising campaign is truly an institutional one, and not just something run by the development office, is so important.

Of course, in reality none of this is possible without institutional buy-in and I am lucky to have a very supportive head, senior leadership and governing body. This support is critical. And none of this can happen without the generous donors and volunteers and again I am lucky to work with some amazing supporters who have been true pioneers for this campaign (we’ve already raised £15 million thanks to their support). Finally, none of this is possible without my team. I am so proud of what they have achieved together – an amazingly powerful bursary campaign which will go on to change lives and the college forever. Not bad for three years’ work.

Simon Lerwill is director of development at Marlborough College






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