Liz Henderson discovers the childhood ambition behind Alex Struthers receiving 2015’s Young Fundraiser of the Year award.
“Amazing … and humbling!” was Alex Struthers’ reaction three months ago to the possibility of being named Fundraising Institute Australia’s Young Fundraiser of the Year, honouring outstanding contributions from fundraisers of 35 years or younger. “I’m the quiet person who sits at the back and I tend to put my team up in lights for the recognition they deserve,” she says.
Ironically, it was her Make-A-Wish Australia team who nominated their head of individual giving for the award she has now won. Her calm guidance has led them to such achievements as lifting annual regular giving income in three years from $950,000 to over $5 million for granting wishes to seriously ill children, and establishing a Community Fundraising & Events department that by year two had raised $1.5 million.
“When I came to this organisation it had been in trouble,” says Make-A-Wish chief executive officer Gerard Menses. “We have now led the organisation out of that and a significant contributor to that journey has been Alex.” Not only have her analytical thinking and innovation impressed Menses, he says she has gained the board’s confidence for her knowledge of Make-A-Wish’s position and the latest trends in fundraising practice.
Driven by compassion
“I just want to make a difference,” says Struthers. She traces that back to her dad. “Instead of giving us Christmas presents he would donate to The Smith Family,” she remembers. “Eventually we started to understand why.” Even so, there were twists and turns in her path to professional fundraising. She studied a psychology degree to become a school counsellor but ended up at Queensland Newspapers in branding and marketing, and briefly worked at a medical association. Then in 2005 she became Australian Red Cross’s Queensland corporate relations manager and “I fell in love with fundraising.”
It’s enthusiasm the 34-year-old credits to her “incredible boss” at Red Cross and 18-hour days during the 2009 Victorian bushfires speaking with “amazing” supporters (she’s still careful to stay in touch with donors: responding to their e-mails, mail, calling them and encouraging her team to do the same).
In 2011 Struthers joined Make-A-Wish as community giving & engagement manager – via a business development role for CASE Europe, and managing a restructure project and regular giving program at the UK’s Marie Curie Cancer Care. In January 2013 she added membership of Fundraising Institute Australia’s Queensland executive committee to her busy schedule.
From deficit to surplus
Struthers’ highlight thus far at Make-A-Wish? “Being part of a team that really did change the way we operate in fundraising,” she says. “In 2010 we made the decision to diversify.” The outcome was “an incredible turnaround”: going from a $3.36 million deficit in 2010 to a $1.6 million surplus in 2013.
Personal growth – of her team and herself – is important to Struthers, too. One area where she has focussed is striving to make the most of her quieter leadership style. She also soaks up fundraising blogs and readings (Adrian Sargeant and Dan Pallotta are favourites), “then I make up my own mind once I have all the information.”
Her advice to fundraisers starting out is “take it seriously, if this is your chosen path. Learn what you can. And put a long-term plan in place to gain skills you need, they’re just vital … the more we can encourage that upskilling, the greater the sector will be.”
Liz Henderson is editor of Fundraising & Philanthropy Magazine.