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How to start and grow a charity

Top 5 tips for success from the CEO of a £1 million charity

 Ken Cowen founder and CEO of School of Hard Knocks

If you’re already involved in community activities and are considering starting a charity, or are involved with a small charity that you're looking to grow, Ken Cowen (pictured) may well have some valuable tips. He founded the School of Hard Knocks (SOHK) in 2012 and as CEO has overseen its growth to already become a £1 million charity. Here, he shares his top five tips.

“First, a bit about what we do. At SOHK we change the lives of school children at risk of exclusion and adults who are unemployed through rugby, boxing and strongman courses, supported by a curriculum of powerful life lessons, ultimately helping them to mature and thrive.

Originally, however, I had no intention of setting up a charity. I simply wanted to get these guys to play rugby. We’ve made tons of mistakes on the road to where we are now, but we’ve worked hard at developing and we’ve matured in every aspect. Here are some of the top tips I’ve learned along the way.”

1. Keep the main thing, the main thing

“It’s important to make sure you’re focused on what your charity is trying to achieve. It’s a bit like throwing a stone and the ripples go out – it anchors us: what’s the stone in the middle, and what flows out from that?

For us at SOHK for example, the stone is providing individuals with the opportunity to find meaning and purpose in life, using rugby, challenging activities and behavioural psychology. I think whatever your charity’s aim is, remembering your vision will keep you focused.”

2. Tell a good story

“We’ve found telling stories is the best way for us to fundraise, so we try to tell ours well. We had to learn the hard way, though. When we first started out, I pitched to wealthy donors to take responsibility for helping underprivileged individuals on the verge of exclusion. But I found trying to ‘guilt trip’ people into giving their money doesn’t work.

Over time, I discovered that telling stories – tapping into the human point of connection – is the best way to get people behind our cause. Now, we engage people with personal stories of the individual impact our work can have on the adults and kids we support.” (Editor’s note: you may also find our article, The psychology of giving, an interesting read on this point.)

3. Learn to love the ‘in kind’ support offered by businesses

“In the early days we often had businesses read about us and offer their help. So we would agree, but at first we didn’t feel particularly helped. The mistake that we learned was that we weren’t specific in our ask: they offered their help, when really we needed their money instead.

Becoming targeted in our ask has transformed the way the School of Hard Knocks operates and it’s beginning to have a financial impact. For example, the University of Glasgow has researched the psychological efficacy of the School of Hard Knocks, which has transformed how we’re able to tell potential sponsors about what we do and why it works. We’ve also had Millharbour Marketing report on our corporate partnerships – how we’re doing and if we meet our partners’ expectations.

We’ve even had a team of creatives from Penguin Random House create a playbook, or strategy, for our future fundraising plans. Ultimately, I’d suggest you ask specifically for what you really want – rather than just making a general plea for help. Doing so has been game-changing for us.”

4. Be brave when you speak to corporates

“I’ve had to completely change the way I speak to corporates. In the early days, my default mentality was to approach corporates with something of a ‘cap in hand’, asking-a-favour mindset. It soon became clear however that corporates see a clear business benefit in supporting, so I soon learned to speak more courageously and position my ask as being for a partnership – offering a good proposition for them – rather than a favour.

For example, we discovered that we have a very wealthy donor database: 37 percent of our database comes from the top two economic groups, compared to 7 percent of the national average. Bearing in mind that we also try to focus in areas where rugby is a major sport, we have partnered with Heineken (sponsor of the European Rugby Cup), which has meant we’ve had a year’s worth of courses paid for so we can set up in Edinburgh. We also co-created some social media content with Heineken, which just in a few days created 230 million impressions. That’s gold for organisations such as them.

So, in summary, I’d recommend being just that little bit braver: think of it not as asking for something, but giving something back.”

5. Start your revolution

“It’s important to think about the future and aim to be sustainable. For example, we’re recruiting our first-ever campaign coordinator because we don’t have an established income from regular donors and we’ve spotted an opportunity. Two million people follow rugby, and we just want 5,000 of them to give £3 a month, which would equate to £18,000 monthly, allowing us to invest in more fundraising positions.

We’re finding the people who love us and ‘get’ us, and for us that’s the rugby people: we’re currently looking for 100 club ambassadors who are going to be our evangelists and fundraise for us. So, I’d suggest you think about what opportunities there are for your charity. Find the people who love you and get you, and together you’ll change the world. Good luck!”

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“SOHK delivers life-changing programmes across the UK. We change the lives of children and adults using rugby, boxing and strongman courses, supported by a curriculum of powerful life lessons. We work with unemployed adults to find and sustain employment; and with school children at risk of exclusion to help them reengage with education. Please help us to reach more people in need of our services by donating today. We spend at least 87 percent of every donation directly on frontline work.”


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