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“Listen to their stories, learn about their lives, spend time with them.”

“Listen to their stories, learn about their lives, spend time with them.”



After reading about the devastation caused by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, which killed an estimated 280,000 people across the rim of the Indian Ocean, Ryan McCarthy felt compelled to lend a hand as a volunteer at Oxfam Australia.

“Like so many other people, I wanted to do anything I could to help, and for me the best way to do that was to volunteer. So I joined hundreds of others in lending a hand by answering phone calls from donors all around the country. Volunteers are the heart and soul of the organisation and have always been an inspiration to me,” says Ryan.

“At the time, I was studying in the theatre and working in book shops and record stores. In retrospect, these roles were quite instrumental in setting me on a path to relationship fundraising, though I might not have realised it at the time.

“Talking to people about books and music always led to fascinating and meaningful conversations, and I loved making connections and sharing stories.”

The experience soon led to a paid position on Oxfam Australia’s outbound calling team, where Ryan began his career as a fundraising professional. “It was the perfect role for me at the time because it gave me a chance to talk to donors from across the country and from all walks of life. It was great fun, because you really never knew who you would be speaking to next. I’d always try to find some unlikely degree of separation, a unique thing we have in common, a synchronicity of some sort.

“The results were often uncanny. We really are all connected. Hilarious and surreal conversations were par for the course, and could develop in weird and wonderful directions. Older supporters would often tell their life stories and share incredibly valuable and wise advice. It’s lovely when people open up and talk freely, it’s food for the soul.”


Just over two years ago, Ryan took on his current role, and since that time he has reinvigorated Oxfam Australia’s mid-value program. He’s implemented a number of new initiatives, such as a donor funnel to identify and upgrade the strongest prospects from a large donor pool.

The relationship fundraising position has seen Ryan build strong and lasting relationships with some of Oxfam’s most generous supporters, whether it’s face-to-face, on the phone, by email or in a handwritten letter.

“As far as the high-value program goes, it’s just me at the moment, servicing a very large and broad range of donors giving between $1,000 and $10,000 per annum – about 10,000 donors in total. Within this broader pool, there’s a caseload of approximately 300 donors I have a personal relationship with.”

Ryan says the biggest challenge he initially faced was determining the best way to use his time and effort and where best to direct his stewardship. “Regardless of their level of financial commitment, only a certain number of donors want a more personal relationship. Many are happy just to give in their own way without too much contact.

“When I began in this role, we had an established stewardship model, but it was locked into a value-band tiering system, which meant that a relatively small number of donors at the higher end were receiving the balance of my time and effort regardless of their preference for personal engagement.” Succeeding in the role meant  replacing

Oxfam Australia’s existing value-band model with a new discovery process in order to identify each donor’s capacity, commitment and willingness to engage. “It was necessary to modify our stewardship model to accommodate donors who identified themselves as being highly committed and wanting a higher degree of personal engagement,” says Ryan.

“After qualifying the best possible prospects through data analysis, surveying and contact through mail and telephone, I could reach out and meet with them in person and this contact has produced phenomenal results.

“It’s been an incredibly rewarding process and I’ve gained a great deal of fundraising experience as a result. I feel so lucky to meet with the most compassionate and generous supporters from all over the country, and I’ve always been shown such hospitality and kindness – it’s a constant source of inspiration for me.”

The new discovery model, combined with Ryan’s personal touch in reaching out to supporters, has yielded exceptional results. High-value income has grown from $2.092 million in 2015 to $2.505 million in 2016 and $2.653 million in 2017, delivering 26.8% growth over two years. “We’ve seen response rates of over 45% in the discovery group in our most recent appeal, along with a huge number of upgrades. Donors, who have been involved with us for the past 30 years and have never had contact with the organisation or a face-to-face visit, have responded with visionary once-in-a-lifetime gifts. Personal connection is the catalyst,” Ryan says.

“I’ve also been very lucky to have a very talented and committed team of story gatherers, graphics designers and copywriters providing amazing content that means I can connect the donors with the beneficiaries we’re working with.”


Donor fatigue and a lack of confidence are a concern across the sector, Ryan says. This creates the risk of donors being alienated from the causes they support, and makes personal contact vitally important – more so than ever.

“More organisations are investing in mid- value programs and even mass marketing is becoming increasingly personalised. But relationship fundraising means so much more than personalising appeal letters. It’s about spending time with people.

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