Innovation in Times of Change: New Approaches to Fundraising for Heritage Organisations

13th March, 2023

To see all the Rebuilding Heritage fundraising resources click here.


Heritage fundraisers are no strangers to innovation. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, they stepped up to raise vital income and keep supporters engaged, offering online events and exhibitions, as well as launching emergency appeals and crowd-funders.

But fundraisers are now facing new challenges: increased competition for grants, a steady decline in public donations and, of course, the cost-of-living crisis. Finding new ways to reach and retain donors will be critical to preserving some of the UK’s most important historic sites and assets.

There is no blueprint for innovation, every organisation needs to identify what will work best with their supporters, in line with their capacity and resources. This piece will look at some of the key reasons why heritage organisations need to innovate and outline approaches that fundraisers and boards can take to make new projects a success.

Innovation is key to adapting to changes in giving

Over the past five years, CAF’s UK Giving Research has noted a steady decline in public donations. Their 2022 report found that in 2021, the proportion of people making a donation each month was lower than the equivalent month in 2019 – a trend which continued into 2022.

This decline in giving risks being exacerbated by the current economic climate, as CAF found in September 2022 when 3.2 million people said that they recently reduced or stopped a regular charity donation due to the cost-of-living crisis.

But there is perhaps some good news for heritage organisations: CAF’s UK Giving 2022 report also found that the proportion of respondents who had recently donated to a conservation, environment or heritage-related cause has grown slightly over the past 6 years – from 13% to 16% and has remained stable post-pandemic at 16%. This indicates that there is likely a committed pool of donors ready to support the sector.

The good news – opportunities abound

Despite the backdrop of a challenging economic climate, organisations are proving that new ways of fundraising can help them reach new donors.

Steven Franklin, Social Media Manager, National Archives expects short-form content to grow in popularity in 2023 and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to become more mainstream.

Equally, some organisations are now embedding contactless donations into their operations, such as the Upper Norwood Library Trust, who have used QR codes to capture donations on livestream channels and printed media.

Fundraisers should already be considering how to navigate these changes to the giving landscape and find new ways to connect with new donors, whilst nurturing relations with loyal supporters.

Start by thinking about what your supporters want

There is a plethora of new ways to reach new donors or strengthen relations with existing ones, but not every fundraising product or channel will work for every group of people. It’s up to fundraisers to find out what will be effective for different types of donors.

When starting a new fundraising project, insight into your supporters – who they are, why they support you, and how- should be the foundation of all decision making. There are many ways to go about finding this out, including:

  • Reviewing your database to identify audience behaviour
  • Considering how you segment supporters
  • Carrying out supporter surveys
  • Using feedback from other activities- such as visitor feedback
  • Bringing in external consultants with experience in supporter insight

This approach might require a shift in mindset. As Saira Rahim, Individual Giving Manager, JDRF puts it: instead of thinking ‘What do we want to do’, ask yourself ‘What do our supporters want from us?’ and ‘How do we want our supporters to feel?’.

Consider what will work best for your organisation

Alongside donor insight, every organisation needs to consider what they can deliver based on their resources and capacity. Whilst this is true for all areas of fundraising, it is particularly important when it comes to innovation, as staff and volunteer knowledge, ways of working and budgets all dictate what is and isn’t possible.

With this in mind, fundraisers shouldn’t feel pressured to do everything all at once. Some organisations might be early adopters – experimenting with new technologies or products and troubleshooting any challenges they encounter.

Others, however, might find they benefit from waiting until a technology or product is established before embedding it into their operations. Where you sit on this spectrum depends on your own resources and appetite for risk.

When you see these two guiding principles- prioritising what works for supporters and what works for your organisation- put into practice, it’s easy to see how two charities can end up choosing different ways to strengthen their fundraising.

For example, the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre found launching an app that uses Augmented Reality to bring to life their ‘Marvellous Missenden’ trail gave them an opportunity to reach new audiences; the Museum of Royal Worcester found enhancing their current digital channels and infrastructure was the best option for them.

Win investment by showcasing the value of new fundraising projects

Buy-in from senior leadership and internal stakeholders is key to advancing any new project. Often, this requires understanding and managing your colleagues’ appetite for risk.

It’s important to remember that with many charities dealing with increased running costs due to inflation, it is understandable that some people will have questions and concerns before investing in something new.

Fundraisers therefore need to show the value of new projects by highlighting the opportunities to grow income in the short and long term.

There are a number of ways to go about doing this depending on what you are hoping to achieve:

  1. Use sector insight to show your colleagues how the giving landscape is changing.
  2. Find examples of other heritage organisations who have seen success with similar projects.
  3. Build up a bank of small wins you can share across the organisation.
  4. Take time to educate your senior leadership team and trustees about emerging areas of fundraising in the voluntary and community sector.

“I am always surprised that successful fundraisers often do not have the confidence to stand up and shout about their work. Building that confidence in yourself and colleagues is a real help to further the appreciation and understanding of fundraising with colleagues, fellow fundraisers as well as donors.”

Sophia Stovall, Head of Development Operations, English Heritage

Take a holistic approach to measuring success

Return of investment (ROI) is the most common metric for evaluating a fundraising product or channel. Whilst this is a valuable tool, when it comes to trying something new, it can hold some organisations back from understanding if a project has met its objectives.

A low ROI does not mean that a project should be dismissed immediately, particularly if the organisation has never tried it before. Instead, this could mean certain areas need to be adjusted, such how you communicate with supporters.

Equally, an initially high ROI does not always mean a project will be a lasting success, as it might only resonate with a small pool of donors, or the positive results hinder fundraisers from spotting areas of improvement.

Using supporter-centric metrics alongside ROI can help fundraisers determine if a project was a success, such as engagement rates or if someone has gone on to support your organisaiton in a different way.

It’s not just about finding new supporters, it’s about finding the right supporters who will continue to support your cause over time. A low ROI initially might seem worrying, but if supporters go on to support your charity for 3 or 5 or 10+ years, then that initial investment is worth it.  By focusing on acquiring the right type of supporter, supporter engagement and loyalty and lifetime value, you will be opening opportunities to build relationships with supporters and securing income into the medium and long term.

Helen Daw, Head of Data Strategy and Insights, Woods Valldata

Adopting a test and learn approach

Many organisations looking to strengthen their fundraising have found a test and learn approach helpful in enabling innovation, whilst being mindful of limited budgets and risk. This is centred around continuously measuring and optimising your activities based on what is working well for your supporters.

Normally, you start a fundraising project off small, beginning with low-cost campaigns and perhaps a small number of donors. You can then refine your approach and scale up investment to meet short, medium and long-term goals. Decisions to adjust or change a project are usually made in collaboration with other departments, such as finance or marketing teams. With this in mind, it can be helpful to keep all your results in one place and accessible to all relevant internal stakeholders.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges with test and learn is shifting your mindset so that you embrace failure, recognising that this does not mean a project has failed, rather there is opportunity to improve it.

Where can I find out more about innovation?

You can find more examples of successful innovation in the heritage sector here:

Sector Insight:

Advice on innovation and digital:

More Resources

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