10 Questions with Lesley Ray

1. You’ve said that this quote from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead - “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” – has guided and inspired you personally and professionally. In what way has the quote worked for you? Why does it still have resonance for you? 

I reference Mead’s wisdom to people who see a need in the world and set about to make change either through starting a movement or by finding an existing organisation that meets that societal need and contributing that way.

The contribution might be through individual philanthropy, volunteering, advocacy, lobbying or community fundraising, which can be a fun and social way to raise funds and awareness of a cause. Most charitable organisations are started because a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens saw a societal need that wasn’t being met and set out to make change.

2. How do you think that quote applies to fundraising?

The thesis has been established that people want and have a need to give and they want to give and be part of causes that serve the entire gamut of human and societal needs. Fundraising provides the platform or the action for people to engage with causes that speak to their values. As a fundraiser for over three decades I have so many examples of individuals who have come together to create change through their fundraising. At my own organisation, Mater Foundation, two of our most established and successful fundraising campaigns – Smiling for Smiddy and Chicks in Pink, were started by a few people who wanted to do something to raise funds for cancer research. Together these two campaigns have raised more than $20 million for cancer research. I also highlight our current campaign to redevelop the Mater Convent to create a specialised service to support mothers and babies with mental health illness. This $17.6 million campaign is being funded through the generosity of philanthropists – again, thoughtful, committed citizens who together will change the world for mothers with perinatal mental health illness.

3. Lesley, you’ve said the essence of fundraising is the relationship with donors. How do you initiate and then build that relationship?

Donors exercise their philanthropy with an organisation that serves the causes that is of interest to them (the donor) and it’s the fundraiser who is the conduit between the donor and the organisation.

There are a few ways of initiating the relationship – through the donor self-identifying that the organisation’s mission is of interest to them; introduction by a third party or an existing donor advocating for the organisation; or the fundraiser identifying people who may be interested in supporting the organisation. Part of the process for the fundraiser is to understand the person’s linkage to the organisation (is there a connection, such as benefiting from the organisation, or a personal connection to someone involved with the cause); their ability and capacity to give to the project; and what is their interest in the organisation – why might the cause matter to them.

The relationship that exists with a donor is built on trust and credibility and to ensure long-term donor engagement and donor satisfaction that leads to increased philanthropy, the fundraiser must understand the needs of the donor. The compact we have with donors is as follows:

  • Match their passions and preferences with the organisations’ funding needs and priorities
  • Thank them, report the use of gifts, and demonstrate wise stewardship of contributions
  • Explore the multitude of ways that they can be engaged and invested in meaningful activities and relationships
  • Build a relationship that is based on mutual respect and trust
  • Articulate with data and / or case studies the impact of the gift
  • Ensure that giving is such a joyful experience for the them that they will continue to partner with the organisation

4. What is the donor’s role in that relationship? Are there times when you’ve thought – ‘This donor doesn’t understand how this works’? What did you do about that?

The donor’s role in the relationship is whatever they want it to be – there really is no manual and donors will be as involved or engaged in the relationship as they wish to be. My experience is that donors love to see their philanthropy in action and it brings us (the organisation) the greatest joy to present opportunities for this to occur. As a fundraiser, it’s a responsibility we have, and it’s a privilege to demonstrate to donors what is possible through their philanthropy. We want donors to be close to our organisation. If a donor doesn’t understand how this works then it’s up to the fundraiser to explore what the sticking point might be, and this is easily managed through listening and asking questions.

5. Is there such a thing as an exemplary donor?    

Nirvana for a fundraiser is working with donors who in addition to supporting the organisation through their own philanthropy, they advocate for us; they introduce us to people who might be interested in supporting the organisation and they are proud of the relationship they have with us. We work with these donors and they are truly exemplary people.

6. And an exemplary fundraiser?

An exemplary fundraiser is ethical, curious, understands the art and science of philanthropy, practices highest level principles and practices of fundraising and manages and cares for donors to build relationships that last. They also know that fundraising is values-based and that values must guide the process.

7. We are in the midst of a series of profound international challenges. How much do all those external circumstances and demands for assistance impact on the capacity for local fundraising? Should funders choose – local over global? How can the two co-exist?

I don’t believe funders need to choose local over global and yes, the two can co-exist. People give to causes that speak to them, meet their needs, make them feel good about what they’re doing, and these causes are both at an international level and domestically. It is the donor’s choice – philanthropy is after all voluntary and will reflect what has meaning to the donor. My experience is that donors will respond to an urgent need, whether that is global or local, in addition to continuing to support the cause to which they are most aligned.


8. A recent Noble Ambition benchmark report on fundraising leadership found widespread acceptance of the importance of CEOs and boards being engaged with fundraising: for boards, the primary reason was leading by example. For CEOs, the two main reasons for being engaged with fundraising were to build trust and credibility with donors, and that the CEO is the public face of the organisation. What do you think about the role of boards and the CEO in fundraising? How important is it for a board to have someone with fundraising experience?

Ultimately the Board’s role is to provide governance and oversight of the organisation and with the CEO/Executive Director ensure there is a strong fundraising strategy with resources to operationalise the strategy. In addition, incumbent upon the Board is to be primary stewards of the spirit of philanthropy. At Mater Foundation we have a documented role description for Board members with both Key Responsibilities, and Desirable Responsibilities. One of the desirable responsibilities is that the Board member considers a meaningful donation, in addition to leveraging their network, advocating for the organisation and helping to identify personal and professional connections.

I believe that philanthropy and fundraising must be clearly understood by the Board and the CEO (beyond just the money) and that they are engaged and participate in fundraising. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Board or CEO need ask for gifts, rather, they become involved in cultivating relationships, they attend stewardship events, they thank donors, they advocate for the organisation and for philanthropy and they have “ownership” of the organisation’s fundraising effort.

A Board member with fundraising experience is a bonus however I suggest this really depends on the structure of the organisation. At my own organisation the Executive Director is a fundraising professional who works with Board and brings fundraising expertise at the most senior level of the organisation. The CEO is also a member of the Board and is deeply engaged in fundraising and philanthropy so again, the organisation’s structure might determine the necessity for a Board member with fundraising experience.

9. More generally, what does “fundraising leadership’’ look like?

I think the fundraising leader is more than just a great fundraising technician. They need to be strategic in their thinking, visionary in their leadership characteristics and can galvanize the team and their collective effort to achieving purpose. They will be aligned to the mission of the organisation and be the champion for fundraising and philanthropy within the wider organisation. I expect the fundraising leader to go beyond their own organisation in their service and be part of a broader philanthropic and fundraising sector.

10. You started Queensland’s first giving circle in 2014. How did it start? Eight years on, how have giving circles evolved? How do they fit in to the broader philanthropic landscape? And what will it take to have more giving circles in Australia?

Five colleagues and I founded ‘Women & Change’ based on the model that had been in place in North America since the 1990s. I had completed my master’s degree which researched giving circles and women in philanthropy, so we used the findings from this study to guide ‘Women & Change’.

Giving Circles continue to flourish around the world and while they were initially composed of women; they are now more diverse in race, age and gender, although women do continue to make up the majority of members. Although the number of giving circles has increased significantly, the key characteristics of them hasn’t changed, i.e. individual members pool and give away resources; members are educated about philanthropy and issues in the community; they include a social dimension; they engage members; and they maintain their independence from nonprofit organisations.

Giving circles are another pillar in the philanthropy landscape, providing a new stream of funding and new donors for charitable causes. Educating members about philanthropy and issues in the community is one of the central dimensions of giving circles and research tells us that giving circle members are knowledgeable about philanthropy, nonprofits and the community; they are highly engaged; and are giving more, and more strategically, to a wide array of organisations.

All it takes to have more giving circles in Australia is for a small number of like-minded people to form a committee and each person reaches out to a few others to join them. The number will grow quickly if there’s a plan in place.

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