Chatting Fundraising
with Jess Winchester, Relationship Manager, Forest & Bird, MFINZ

Forest & Bird has recently appointed Jess Winchester to the role of Major Gifts and Bequests Fundraiser. Jess has moved to New Zealand from England. I caught up with Jess and we discussed a number of things including fundraising practices, influences and challenges, both here and in the UK. 

What were your first impressions of fundraising in New Zealand?

I really think it is a case of “watch this space” for fundraising in New Zealand. There are some incredibly talented and creative people in the sector here and charities which are flourishing as a result. If it isn’t already happening, I think it is only a matter of time before we see even greater things from New Zealand fundraisers. The campaign Proud to be a Fundraiser is a good one to be a part of and I’d like to see more Kiwi fundraisers championing their achievements, not just in New Zealand but on the world fundraising platform.

How does the competition for donors’ attention compare between the two countries?

I have been struck by the sheer amount of potential for fundraisers to make a difference – we are living in really exciting times and whilst charities here may sometimes be smaller in terms of their bank balance in comparison to the UK, that gives us greater flexibility to adapt and to change and more importantly to place donors at the heart of everything we do. I love the fact that I work for a national charity but I can still pick up the telephone and thank a donor for their gift and that our Chief Exec still finds the time to personally sign letters. Of course, the trick is to keep donor-focused as your organisation grows.

There have been some interesting developments in the UK in recent years – most significantly linked to the growth of social media. It means that everyone has the tools they need to be a fundraiser right at their fingertips and it is not really surprising that some of the largest and most successful campaigns have originated from members of the public. The Ice-bucket challenge for Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA) was launched in the UK by a volunteer for the charity who spotted the potential of a campaign which had originally been used to raise funds and awareness for the ALS Association in the US. It definitely pays to keep an eye on organisations working in the same field as your charity, even if they are thousands of kilometres away, as the UK version raised over £7million which will fund over six year’s work for MNDA. The campaign went viral with participants filming their challenges, sharing and daring friends to take part, primarily on Facebook. Donations were made possible through on-line giving platforms and by texting ICED.

Another inspiring campaign from the UK is Stephen’s Story. A remarkable teenager, Stephen Sutton was 18 years old when he was told the cancer he had been battling for three years was terminal. He created a Facebook page with a bucket-list of 46 things he wanted to achieve before he died. Top of the list was to raise £10,000 for The Teenage Cancer Trust. Initially Stephen posted updates on his progress but the campaign went viral when he posted what he thought would be his last ever “thumbs-up” image on Facebook in April 2014. In the last few months of his life, Stephen’s Story captured the hearts of the British public and social media networks combined with on-line giving platforms like and by text made it easy to share and donate. To date over £4.5million has been raised – not just through direct donations to Stephen’s appeal but by individuals motivated to join “Stephen’s Team” and to organise their own fundraising events and activities. For me, this campaign demonstrates the combination of an emotional and inspiring story with the power of social media and the ease of on-line giving, but it is also a credit to the Teenage Cancer Trust, their relationship with Stephen and his family and the sensitive fundraising support they provided.

Tell us more on how technology is impacting upon fundraising.

Technology is moving at an incredible rate and I think any organisation which is not at least exploring the use of social media as part of its fundraising and communications mix does so at its peril. Television is still seen by many as the way to access large audiences and raise significant funds but it is expensive and not always that lucrative. In the UK commercial breaks at certain times of the day are often flooded with appeals for regular donations: just a few pounds every month to save a child’s life, to provide clean water, to stop the extinction of the rhino…The list is endless and is this really what we want? For prospective donors to become desensitised to the situations we are working so hard to change? And do we want people to think that just a few pounds a month are all it takes to solve the problem? Some organisations will see it as a good route to donor acquisition and the opportunity to build deeper relationships with individuals but you need a lot of investment into a well-thought out strategic campaign to make the most of this opportunity. In terms of awareness-raising it has been really great to see partnerships with TV production companies where the charities have an opportunity to contribute to a story line – for example the UK charity Mind has been working with EastEnders to create a believable character suffering from depression.

My feeling is because we have developed into such an impatient and visual society Direct Mail will not be around forever. You can’t beat the tangible quality of a letter, addressed to you, in a proper envelope, maybe even with a stamp, that arrives in your letter box but its days are numbered. Email offers such a huge degree of personalisation and flexibility at such a remarkably low cost and the opportunity to analyse your responses and ultimately to understand your donor and in turn it enables us to personalise communications even more. We can learn from corporates whose websites remember the visits and the preferences of their customer – “last time you were here, you looked at our project to provide clean water to a village in Ethiopia, would you like to see what impact this has had on a family living there?” We can offer personalised urls in our thank yous so the donor can visit a page which has been tailored to their donation, the project they have supported and what we know about their motivations. In fact we can learn a lot from corporates and how they (the good ones!) treat their customers – flexibility in the method and frequency of their donations, donation holidays for regular givers if they wish would be a great start and a number of charities in the UK have recorded better donor retention when they offer these options.

Is it the same job, just a different place or have you found that there’s something special or different about donors in New Zealand and your fundraising practices?

I think it is always tempting to think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence but I appreciate that not everyone moves all the way round the world to see if this is the case! Before I came to New Zealand I made contact with the FINZ group on LinkedIn and I was told a familiar story; the challenge of finding a decent database (and encouraging the team to use it), the lack of available resources to invest in fundraising, the often unrealistic expectations of a Board about what can be achieved and in what timescale (millions and yesterday) and the shortage of professional fundraisers. We should be Proud to be a Fundraiser because there aren’t that many of us around!

I would describe myself as a relationship fundraiser – I love that opportunity to make a connection with a donor, someone who really wants to make a change and help a charity they are passionate about. It is a privilege to be the person who can help them achieve that. So far, and maybe I have been very lucky, Forest & Bird donors have been incredibly open and receptive. I like the fact that so much of business is done through personal contacts in New Zealand and I can generally find someone who will introduce me to the person I need to speak to. People are very generous in opening up their networks and sharing their contacts here and it does make a refreshing change. Of course it does have the potential to make a charity vulnerable if a particular donor is only supporting their work because of an individual connection, but a professional fundraiser will always ensure that the relationship is, above all, with the charity.

Where do you get your fundraising inspiration from?

You only have to read the papers or look on or Facebook or Twitter to see the incredible range of innovative activities that are taking place all over the world right now! Closer to home, I am grounded by my belief in relationship fundraising and I guess I am most inspired by the donors I speak to on a daily basis. In my first ever fundraising job my manager gave me a book to read by Ken Burnett and that really did determine my approach from day one. His advice will never age because it encourages us to tailor our fundraising to our donors, their needs and motivations and to engage and involve them in our work with our compelling stories. He taught me that as a fundraiser I have a responsibility to be the best I can be and that we really can change the world if we try.

From the UK I also really respect Lucy Gower – she is championing innovative fundraising and encouraging charities to think outside of the box, but to always remain focused on the problem they are trying to solve. I am also keen to learn more about the work of Charlie Hulme – he has written some great articles about relationship fundraising and what we can do better.

What’s your greatest opportunity in your role?

I have never been so emotionally moved by a country as when I first visited New Zealand two years ago and I feel incredibly lucky to be working for a charity like Forest & Bird which is focused on saving and protecting the environment I fell in love with. The environment is certainly a large part of life in New Zealand and this is reflected in the number of bequests we receive but I believe there are opportunities to engage with our donors during their lifetime, linking in with their passion for the great outdoors and Kiwi sense of adventure. In the UK challenge fundraising – treks, cycling or horse riding events - has been a popular way for supporters to raise funds for a charity they are passionate about. I am interested to see if we can test the water in New Zealand – although having received a proposal from a supporter that he swim the Foveaux Straits to raise funds for Forest & Bird, I’m not sure what I have in mind will be adventurous enough!

Thanks Jess for your reflections and insights. And welcome to New Zealand!

Jess Winchester, Relationship Manager, Forest & Bird

Photography courtesy of Michael Lookman

Read more stories at People Philanthropy

Chatting Fundraising with Jess Winchester, Forest & Bird



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