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Cause & Effect: Gemma Sherrington
Cause & Effect: Gemma Sherrington

Gemma Sherrington is Executive Director of Fundraising and Marketing at Save the Children UK, where she has held a number of roles over 12 years. After joining NSPCC on their graduate training programme, she was a community fundraising manager at Water Aid, before joining Save the Children. She has a Master’s degree in the Psychology of Music.



I’ve learnt a lot from music. Music was something that was part of my life from a very, very early age. So I was involved in all of that from primary school. The more I reflect on it, I see that it is a part of how I am as a fundraiser now — the collaboration and the wanting to bring things together to create something bigger as a whole.

We have to up our game with corporates. If you look at any kind of corporate strategy, people are putting purpose right at the centre of the strategy. We are seeing commercial organisations seriously entering the business of doing good and implementing programmes on the ground, even in international development work. As charities we have to raise our game to enter into that level of strategic conversation with those commercial operations. We have to be thinking big and disruptively and we have to move away from thinking about just money in-year from these types of businesses, and think about where’s the alignment in our purpose and how can we co-design to create solutions?

Donors are also consumers. If I think about how I order my shopping or how I buy gifts or how I order a taxi or even how I book travel, the experience I have is in a different league to the experience I have when I try to interact with charitable organisations. That puts us in a vulnerable position, especially with our new audiences that are coming through in the next generations.

Do we have a reason to exist? I do think that we have to take a hard look at ourselves and really interrogate the purpose of our organisations. Do we have a reason to be? Not just a marketing purpose, but a genuine cause-driven purpose that’s differentiated? And I think the answer to that question is probably some people do, some people don’t.

We are risking our position of trust. If we all constantly send out very disparate, but seemingly quite similar, asks to people from all of our organisations all the time, what does that do for the sector? It doesn’t build trust, it doesn’t build engagement. We need more intelligent thinking around when we come together and when we operate as our own brands. This is really important.

We have to be better storytellers. There’s a reason that John Lewis get the most watched Christmas ads, because they’re great storytellers and they create emotion around buying stuff in their shop. It’s much more emotive than a lot of the content that we’re putting out around really important causes. It should be the other way around. We should do our causes justice.

We have to think longer term. The traditional fundraising model is very much focused on spending a lot of our money in the action space of a marketing funnel, ie literally direct asking. And what we haven’t done is invested much in our brand building and awareness raising. So, your in-year finances look brilliant, but what you haven’t done underneath that is grow any depth of loyalty to the cause and the brand.

When those channels stop working, your fundraising falls off a cliff. So what we’re looking at — and actually this is not an unusual model in the commercial sector — is that you invest across the whole marketing cycle. You invest heavily in awareness raising, converting that to consideration, and then you invest in action ie the ask. But you’re having to invest a lot less in action because you’ve done a lot of awareness raising and consideration building and have created loyalty.

We need to take people on a holistic journey with us. That’s the major change that we’re trying to make. It’s not easy. It relies on some faith in long-term performance, because when you draw yourself away from that individual product focus, you will see a dip in the products in the short time. And it’s almost holding your nerve through that to create the longer-term deeper value from the audience. We’re just on the beginning of that little journey and we’ll see how that goes.

Be careful who you compare yourself with. Whatever team I was in, I was looking in the sector benchmarking us against that and thinking, “How can we be the best version of the sector?” I guess what I’ve learned over time is, maybe that isn’t good enough, maybe we need to look beyond that. When you benchmark against something outside, you find that you’re not very good at all. I’ve learned to be bold, take more risks and to look outside in order to deliver what our causes deserve.

Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Interview by Michael Isaacs.

Michael Isaacs

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