Unique collaboration for new donor model

By: Phil Lowther   |   CEO, Rippling   |   https://rippling.org.au/

Charities in Australia whose strategies focus on growth and revenue sustainability all have one thing in common: they rely on the generosity of Australians through regular giving programs for year-on-year growth and the provision of long-term sustainable income.

And as charities are effectively businesses that seek to maximize profit for purpose, sustainable revenue is incredibly important, especially where ongoing program delivery is critical.

Sustainable donor acquisition has been successful in the delivery of recurring revenue because it goes to the heart of great fundraising – one person speaks to another and inspires them to give to a particular cause. Brilliant in their simplicity, these campaigns have found no equal as supporter acquisition channels and, pre COVID, generated more than 300,000 new donors a year for charities in Australia.

However, for organisations using commercial operators to conduct these campaigns this has always come with challenges. The organisational cultures can be quite different.

Five years ago, Starlight Children’s Foundation and Canteen pondered whether there was an opportunity to work together to create a more effective and efficient means to fundraise in this space. What if something could be done to improve each organisation’s ability to achieve its sustainable donor acquisition goals and ultimately those of the sector?

Around this time, Starlight was considering a business case to bring its donor acquisition programmes in-house. They invited an MBA student to do a review, run the necessary numbers and create a model. This revealed that Starlight alone couldn’t achieve the necessary scale to make it work.

But what if a group of charities collaborated? Doing this could provide the necessary scale, reduce the commercial risk and provide an opportunity to share and develop the fundraising experience for the benefit of all parties and ultimately the sector.

Each of the founding members worked closely together to conceptualise a new type of hybrid organisation that sat somewhere between a commercial agency and an in-house team. A fundraising organisation that wouldn’t be driven by a desire to maximise profit but would instead be free to test and innovate new methodologies, whilst remaining focussed on delivering improved, long-term financial outcomes from donors.

Fast forward five years and, after a significant amount of work to develop a viable commercial model, Rippling was born.

This is a unique, world-first joint venture bringing four charities together. They are Starlight Children’s Foundation, Canteen, Médecins Sans Frontières Australia and National Breast Cancer Foundation.  Each organisation has one representative on the Rippling Board, so it was important to get an independent Chair. David Cartwright was duly appointed and has been a wonderful Chair to guide the organisation through this start-up phase.

In terms of why I was attracted to the project, simply put, innovative opportunities such as the Rippling concept don’t come along all that often.  Sure, the thought of working with four large stakeholder organisations - who would also happen to be my sole clients - gave me pause for thought. But ultimately, I knew it would be a source of major regret if I didn’t give it a go.  As it turned out, any initial doubts quickly disappeared once I arrived in post. Board colleagues were incredibly supportive from day one – and especially so when an unexpected crisis suddenly came over the horizon.

They say timing is everything, but nothing could have prepared me, or the organisation, for the sudden advent of COVID.

I arrived in Australia from England and started the job in February last year, only for the health crisis to become a major, immediate threat to the ongoing development of the business. Inevitably everything was put on hold until such time that the prospects for launching the business, wholly predicated on the face-to-face interaction between fundraisers and the public, became a little clearer. 

By November the situation looked sufficiently improved to warrant pressing ahead with the investment and the recruitment of the senior management team. The launch was planned for end of June in Sydney, but due to yet another lock down, was switched to Queensland once a fundraising licence was obtained. We finally launched in September.

Rippling always intended to launch in shopping centres due to footfall and better sign-up rates, but as we discovered, in the current environment, this came at a cost. Other channels may provide better outcomes, especially if more people are home based than before.

Now we are actively fundraising, every day is filled with learning and having to adapt to fresh challenges. Wearing masks for example, creates an immediate, unwanted barrier when it comes to creating a positive interaction with potential donors and building rapport. Supporting and managing new fundraisers, who are engaging members of the public across multiple sites, presents its own, unique set of challenges on a daily basis.

The Rippling business case is predicated on building scale over the next couple of years, both in terms of fundraisers deployed and sign ups/donor revenue secured. But even the best laid plans can be thrown into complete disarray by snap lockdowns in one or more states. The thought of having to move teams of fundraisers at short notice from one state to another is both problematic and expensive. Monitoring each fresh outbreak as the days go by and trying to second guess what each state is likely to do next, is something I could do without having to factor into my day-to-day business planning.

In a nutshell, we’re learning that to be successful we have to throw out any preconceived notions based on past experience. We have to remain agile, be flexible and prepared to take calculated risks quickly in this new, post-COVID world. We are being forced to discover new opportunities.

This isn’t the first time of course that these campaigns have had to deal with an unexpected global event, needed to adapt and evolve. The channel has proved to be remarkably resilient over the past twenty-five years and managed to survive all manner of crises. It always manages to confound the naysayers, recover, and bounce back. I expect the same this time around, with donor volumes returning to pre COVID levels within the next 6 – 12 months.

But Rippling was never intended to be a short-term project. The founding organisations wanted to create a highly innovative social enterprise to become the most cost-efficient sustainable donor acquisition option in Australia. We are now up and running. I’m excited to be part of the leadership team and looking forward to providing Rippling with a stable platform for future growth and expansion.


With thanks to founding board members @Louise Baxter, @Peter Orchard, @Jennifer Tierney, @Sarah Hosking and Rippling Chair @David Cartwright and Company Secretary @Linda Ferguson.

Congratulations to @Matt Brine @ Kate Burtt & @Phil Lunn for their contribution as part of the Rippling start-up team.

With thanks to @Jaid Hulsbosch and the team at Hulsbosch for designing such a wonderful brand for Rippling.

Oct. 14, 2021

Philanthropy Weekly Newsletter

Sign up to our weekly e-newsletter for sector news, expert opinion and resources.

Sign up here