Sector Snapshot: Fundraising Challenges and Opportunities for Heritage Organisations

27th April, 2023

Based on a fundraising focus group held on 2nd March 2023 in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Fundraising. Facilitated by Gill Jolly (fundraising consultant) and Daniel Fluskey (CIoF).

A series of focus groups was run at the end of the Rebuilding Heritage project, in March 2023, to explore current challenges and opportunities for heritage organisations. The findings from each focus group are presented as a series of ‘snapshots’ of sector views and experience.

To see all of the sector snapshots, click here.

Purpose of Focus Group

To explore the current challenges and opportunities experienced by fundraisers in the heritage sector, with a focus on issues arising in the year ahead.

Ten people, all experienced fundraisers, attended the focus group. They were drawn from different parts of the UK, different types of heritage organisation, and different roles.

As a prompt to start the discussion, participants were asked to choose from a list of six which three issues they saw as the most challenging issues in heritage fundraising. The results of the poll show that the ‘impact of economic environment on donation levels’ was in the top 3 of 8 of the 9 respondents.

Impact of Economic Environment on Donation Levels

The challenge of ‘impact of economic environment on donation levels’ was explored in more detail.

Examples of the different ways in which the current economic environment is affecting donation levels are:

A reluctance to ask for donations in times of financial hardship because of concerns about people’s ability to contribute.

Reduced visitor or user numbers mean that fewer people are paying admissions or visiting cafes and shops.

Changes to post-pandemic funding. Emergency funding during the pandemic has meant it has been possible to provide services for free. Now that this has finished, there is a need to charge for services once more but there is reticence to re-introduce charges when people are struggling with essential expenses.

Rising costs mean that even where donation levels are stable, the income doesn’t go as far as it used to. Historic buildings are expensive to run and maintain. This also applies to funded projects for which budgets were designed at a time of much lower inflation and costs; actual costs no longer reflect budgeted amounts and this is not recognised by funders.

Concern about the perceived value of heritage to society when choices are being made about funding other essential services (for example local authorities setting up foodbanks; ‘emergency’ heritage appeals have less impact than a homelessness charity)

The fragility and uncertainty of donation income makes planning challenging.

Capacity: Workforce and Volunteers

The challenge of needing to generate more income in the context of economic hardship is made more difficult by the sector’s limited capacity.

Examples of the different ways in which the current economic environment is affecting donation levels are:

There are challenges in retaining a skilled and experienced workforce (staff and volunteers).

The workload of staff and volunteers has increased as people are returning to normal activities leading to less time to focus on fundraising and income generation activities.

Operating models tend to still be very dependent on volunteers for capacity but the pool of volunteers has reduced.

A focus by some funders of funding smaller projects (<£10,000) is understandable but often more difficult for small organisations to engage with because they tend to be resource-light and these funding schemes do not cover the additional resources that smaller organisations need to bring in to run the project.

However, there are also opportunities. Focus group participants shared the innovative approaches they have taken, or opportunities they have identified, for the year ahead as well as tactics for addressing the challenges for heritage fundraisers.


There was agreement that it is easy to talk about income diversification, fundraising strategies and investing in new ways of doing things including use of technology, but innovation and experimentation is hard. The main barriers are lack of time to devote to exploring new ways of doing things, and risk-averse senior leadership or Boards who are unwilling to prioritise expenditure on fundraising activity when there is no guarantee of a return on the investment.

There are relatively low levels of skills to engage with new technology and digital income generation opportunities. But it is noticeable that technology plays a greater role in fundraising and income generation post-pandemic, for instance a swing away from cash for donations.

Examples of innovation and the use of technology to support fundraising and income generation were:

Virtual tours – acting as a springboard for visits, donations, or use of online shops.

Virtual lectures – (paid for)

Bookings for visits – enables collection of contact details which, with permission, can be used for mailings to engage people with future activities, services or fundraising campaigns.

Tactics for addressing challenges

Think about repackaging what you offer. Is your heritage building also a warm, safe space for people to use and therefore playing a greater community role that deserves funding in addition to its heritage function?

•  Think ‘outside of heritage’. Don’t be afraid to take a more commercial approach to generating a surplus from activities. The surplus is still used by your organisation for social good.

•  Be sure to include sufficient revenue costs in projects, or seek funding for revenue activity as this is the core element needed to keep the organisation going.

•  Look at which streams of income are increasing. Focus group participants agreed that legacy-giving is increasing and is a relatively low-input method of fundraising (though unpredictable and involving a lengthy timescale before returns are realised).

•  Look at the composition of your Board and the skills of the Board. Are there people who can help with fundraising through direct experience or their networks? Does the composition of your Board need to change to include different skills or appetite for positive change?

•  Up-skill Board or senior leadership to move from a risk-averse culture to one of risk-management.

•  Build relationships and form partnerships to increase capacity.

•  Invest in communication (advocacy, engagement and outreach) to ensure that your purpose, case for support, or services are reaching a wide audience.

As a closing question, people were asked what they are optimistic about. The stand-out response is “the kindness of others and their willingness to give time and money”. With this in mind, be positive about the year ahead. We hope you will gain inspiration and ideas from this snapshot of the challenges and opportunities currently facing heritage fundraisers, and we thank the facilitators and focus group participants for sharing their views and experience.

Rebuilding Heritage was a UK-wide support programme designed to help heritage organisations navigate the challenges presented by COVID 19 (July 2020-September 2022) and challenges arising from increases in cost-of-living (November 2022-April 2023).

The project was coordinated by the Heritage Alliance, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and delivered in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, Clore Leadership, Creative United and Media Trust, with support from additional providers.

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