What do you actually do?! Episode 7: Cat Schroeter, Senior Community Fundraiser

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? is all about working in the Charity sector. We are talking to Cat Schroeter who works at Action For Children as Senior Community Fundraiser.

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KM: “You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do Podcast – each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip, or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. In today’s episode we are talking about working in the charity sector we are joined by Cat Schroeter who works at Action For Children as Senior Community Fundraiser. So Cat, what do you actually do ?

CS: So it’s really really varied, my role involves working with all aspects of the local community and so it could be going out to local groups such as clubs or local businesses, or schools and universities. The hands-on sort of stuff is that kind of thing – providing other people with the materials that they might need to fundraise for us. I could also promote events that we have places for like the Great North Run or London Marathon. Other aspects of my work might be going out to present to local groups and so a big part of the role is raising awareness of our work so there’s lots of public speaking involved, going out to groups talking to them, telling them about all of our services and projects – so that’s less about hands on fundraising and more about raising awareness of our work. But in terms of the more admin-y side of it, I also have to keep a really close eye on donations that come through to us and keep our records updated.

KM: So it sounds incredibly varied then – that real balance between the public facing, motivating others etc, and then the real working on your own methodically doing all of that administration and everything.

CS: Yeah definitely – so no two days are the same for me as one day I could be going out to a big corporate company to present them for a charity of the year partnership, the next day I could be sat at my desk researching local businesses to approach or updating our spreadsheets with the income coming this month. So it is really varied, that’s what keeps the job really exciting because no two days are the same.

KM: Does it feel a bit kind of sales-y? Are you cold calling to raise this awareness or to ask for donations does it feel like.. you’ve mentioned targets and things there.

CS: I mean it is essentially the same as a sales role, but it’s because the community side of it is more working with supporters that already warm to us, so there is very much less cold calling – I won’t be sat there at a desk all day making calls to people we don’t know. We have a team that sort of focuses on that – so we have an individual giving team within Action For Children, who would focus on finding individuals who haven’t already supported us. But the role of a community fundraiser which is the side I do is still working with the local community on a more face-to-face approach – so going out into the local communities and finding supporters that might already know of us. It might be people that use our services in the local community, that sort of thing, or we do have a really strong support group already of people who continue year on year to support us. Although we do have to look towards targets to make sure we raise the money, it is also very much a friendlier approach.

KM: So where did your interest in the charity sector come from then?

CS: So I started fundraising at University – I was a member of the RAG society at Univeristy, the Raising and Giving committee, and from there we did loads of different events. It was a great way to meet people as well generally, being a part of that group. But as well, the fundraising aspects of it – so we put on loads of different events, we had a fashion show, a comedy night, that sort of thing. At university it was really hands on fundraising, and I got involved with that sort of on a whim – it was a society I hadn’t heard of before but me and my housemates at Uni decided that it sounded like something that would be fun to be involved with, get more experience with planning events and things like that. So that’s where my fundraising background came from, I hadn’t really done much before that in terms of doing anything with myself. It was just really rewarding while I was at university to work with loads of different causes in our local community at uni.

KM: So how did it move from being something enjoyable that you did at uni to actually realising “I want to work in charity and I want to do this fundraising as a professional role.”?

CS: Well since university as I was graduating I was obviously looking at loads of different roles, I did a Psychology in English degree so I had sort of two options that I could have gone down, but as I had become really involved with RAG in uni and it had sort of built up those skills – those event planning skills, communication, all of those sorts of things. I started looking at different charities that I could apply to, I had quite a good background in retail as well, so I knew that I really liked the customer-facing side of a job. Hitting sales targets, that sort of thing. Fundraising is really similar to that. So that background as well as my fundraising experience told me that it would be really rewarding to work for somebody that actually makes a difference in the local community. My mum actually volunteered for Action For Children at the time, so it was an organisation that I had already been aware of, so it was really handy that at the same time I was graduating a role had come up in that organisation and it really really drew me to it.

KM: That’s really interesting though, to take the different experiences that you had. So you knew that you had a passion and interest for charity itself, but then your work in retail helped you realise that sales and the public facing stuff is something you are good at as well. So it doesn’t all have to be experience from the same context that helps you realise.

CS: No definitely not – my Psychology degree as well was really useful at understanding people’s behaviours – why people donate and that sort of thing. So I really took it from all of the different aspects of what I’ve been doing throughout my time at University and previously at my retail path as well.

KM: So you’ve mentioned communication skills and the kind of public facing stuff and the rest of it – what other kind of personal strengths and qualities would you say that you need to be happy and successful in the role?

CS: So I think that one of the main things is having a really positive and optimistic attitude towards your work. You kind of get quite a lot of rejection in the role just because there are so many amazing charities out there, so persuading someone to donate to your cause can often be quite challenging. You’ve got to be really patient and resilient and be able to keep going when you run into knockbacks – you do get a lot of rejection, as well as all of the positive things that do happen, you can get knocked back quite a bit. So just keeping really resilient and patient, keeping focused, making sure you’re not getting disheartened by getting rejected because you do get the wins eventually which is really good. Working in fundraising is really varied, so you have to be adaptable to all of the change, keeping focused and flexible. Like I said before, no two days are the same, so if you’re an adaptable type of person it is really beneficial to keep those skills and make sure you can adapt to one minute speaking to a local church group and having appropriate communication for that sort of role, and then going out to a large corporate business so you’ve got to keep those communication skills really really varied. Being adaptable is really really key as well, but it’s also important to be able to empathise as well. With our cause and our supporters – being passionate about the cause but understanding what our supporters want, understanding their needs and thinking about what kind of fundraising initiatives that they want to be involved in. Really listening to what they are saying and what they are wanting from us, often we get supporters not knowing what they want to do.

KM: Thinking about all of those different elements then, what bits do you really love about your job?

CS: I generally just love being able to make a difference to the lives of children in my local community. It’s a really really rewarding role, having all of those skills behind me makes me feel like I can make a difference to those children’s lives. Any donations I raise, although it’s just a small aspect of our large charity, when I go out to visit our services and meet the people we are supporting it is so rewarding to be able to know that £10 I raised from that church really did make a difference to that service.

KM: So that’s nice – you actually get to see who benefits from the work that you guys are doing and the money you are giving?

CS: Yes we try, we have lots of different projects and services all across the UK so I just cover Yorkshire and the North East, so I try as much as possible to go out and see our services. We have children’s centres, we look after a group of young carers, we have fostering and adoption services, that sort of thing. There are loads of different things that we do, so there are loads of different services I can go out and visit, speak with the staff there and see where the donations are going. I often work really closely with the staff that are looking after the children we are supporting, and they will often give me lists of things that they would like to fundraise for, so I can physically see what we are buying – it doesn’t just go into a general pot of money that I can’t see. So that’s really nice, to see where our donations are going and how we are helping.

KM: It must be really rewarding.

CS: It is, yes, it just makes the job feel a bit more tangible, you can actually physically see the difference you are making, so that’s a really good part of being a fundraiser is actually being able to make a difference.

KM: What’s the biggest downside would you say?

CS: I think the worst bit probably is just the competitive nature of the role. Having to compete with other amazing causes for the donations can be really really tough and challenging. Obviously I’d love to raise loads and loads for Action For Children, but it’s also really important to realise that there are many different causes out there, and people have their own charities that they’d like to support, so it can often be difficult to win over people in that whole sea of charities it is often really difficult to make people choose us.

KM: What do you think the key challenges will be for the sector over the next few years, for people thinking about breaking into the sector what’s worth being aware of or considering for the future?

CS: Currently there is quite a lot of bad press about fundraising and charitable giving, which luckily Action For Children hasn’t been involved with, but it has made the general public a lot more wary of the charity sector. People question the legitimacy of the organisations that they are donating to, which can be quite challenging for getting people’s support. We’ve got to make sure we are really transparent and honest about how we run our organisation. As a fundraiser for the charity you have to be able to explain where the donations are going, how we are storing people’s records and things like that – with GDPR it’s another challenge for us, it has made it a lot more difficult for us to contact people and get in touch with people, not just new supporters but also our loyal supporters as well. If they’ve not opted in to our communications then they might be missing out on fundraising initiatives they might want to be involved in, and we could be missing out on our target audience there. So we have to be really careful about how we contact people now, and that has made things really challenging, and it’s going to be an ongoing issue for the future of the sector – keeping the legitimacy and making sure we are transparent with our supporters.

KM: Just to clarify for anybody who doesn’t know what GDPR refers to, it’s basically to do with Data Protection laws isn’t it? There have been massive changes.

CS: Yes, so it’s how we store data, how we contact people, there are loads of stories out there about charities contacting people without their permission and using their data in ways they didn’t want it to be used. It is why we’ve got a huge database on our system that we keep up to date with people’s contact references, we’re constantly asking our supporters how they wish to be contacted – email, post, that sort of thing. It’s just another admin that we’ve got to do to be careful about it, because we don’t want to contact anyone without their permission. We’ve got to keep on top of that, which is another challenge for the role.

KM: So it’s kind of being aware of legal changes, keeping on top of things like that, but also the PR side of it – the reputation of the charity sector is not enough nowadays to be like “Oh it’s a good cause! Donate!”.

CS: Yes exactly, we’ve got to be really careful. There have been some charities out there that have been really not good with how they’ve dealt with these situations, and we don’t want to get mixed up with that. It just means that if we’ve got good PR behind us we can raise more donations for the children we are supporting. That’s our main focus – helping as many children as possible, so if we can do that in a safe way in terms of our supporters it will be the most beneficial for us.

KM: So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of trying to break into the charity sector, and fundraising in particular?

CS: I think some people might think that fundraising is this lovely thing that you come in to do lots of different events and meet loads of different people, shake a bucket at people in the street, but it is really hard work as well and you have to be really dedicated to the cause. There is a lot of monitoring income and lots of hitting your targets, that sort of thing. Aside from that it’s really rewarding as well, so if you can deal with the admin side of it it is a really really rewarding career path. Some advice is maybe do some volunteering for a charity, getting some hands-on experience is really really useful, it just gives you a really good idea of the ins and outs of the day to day workings of a charity. Also researching charities as well – if you are interested in the charity sector, but you are not sure which causes you actually want to support, it’s really useful to do loads of research about charities in the area and overseas. You can get really passionate about those causes and find out what you are passionate about. The more enthusiasm you have for a cause, the easier it is to fundraise. If someone can see you are really passionate about that charity, then they are more likely to donate to you, so I think it’s really important to have that enthusiasm behind you.

KM: And I assume a way of evidencing that sort of passion for the cause would be to do a bit of volunteering for the particular charity you’d like to get involved in, did you say your mum volunteeered for Action for Children? Did you do any volunteering for them previously?

CS: I hadn’t actually previously volunteered for Action For Children, but I think getting just a general volunteering experience is really helpful, and then just doing research. It doesn’t particularly have to be that charity that you then go into if you’re volunteering for them, but it is useful to get the general background of what a charity does, especially Community Fundraising is quite similar across all charities. If you have volunteering experience at a charity that you are interested in that’s even better because then you can work upwards, but I think just general volunteering experience is really useful.

KM: It sounds good the idea of doing the actual fundraising with the bucket, doing the fun events, but as you say getting volunteering experience from the administration side as well, I imagine that would be really really useful.

CS: Definitely, often people get put off by admin quite a lot, but it is actually still interesting, and really fun because sometimes it is research so if you’re really interested in researching and putting together lists of data and stuff like that, that’s sort of what we do – we have to find the applications to apply for funding, and find the businesses that want to give us Charity of the Year, that sort of thing. Often updating spreadsheets that sort of thing, getting a bit of office experience generally will help. Perhaps volunteering or getting a part time job in a local office would also be really helpful, it doesn’t have to be at a charity necessarily, but to get those sort of admin skills behind you is really really useful.

KM: Fantastic! Well thank you very much for joining us today. We’re going to put some links to Action For Children and some bits and pieces about you on our website, and also some information about where students who want to find out more about working in the charity sector can do some research.

Thanks for joining us this week on What do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited by Raquel Bartra and produced by both of us. If you loved this podcast, spread the word and subscribe.

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All useful links are in this episode description (on Youtube). This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers