Steven Coleman is the first to admit he’s no expert on fundraising, yet the RSPCA NSW chief executive officer has revolutionized the organisation’s approach to funding, discovers Greg Johnson.

Steven Coleman is the first to admit he’s no expert on fundraising, yet the RSPCA NSW chief executive officer has revolutionized the organisation’s approach to funding, discovers Greg Johnson.

When bequest income at RSPCA NSW took a hit in 2004, a gaping hole was exposed in the animal welfare organisation’s funding model. Bequest funding had always been strong at RSPCA NSW, yet the nonprofit landscape was becoming more competitive and the organisation didn’t even have a marketing department, let alone a robust, multi-channel approach to fundraising.

The fall in bequest income was exactly the catalyst Steven Coleman needed to spark change. “It struck me that our organisation had a level of relaxation – I’ll say it that way – around income,” says Coleman, who became chief executive officer in 2007. “I was faced with a lack of understanding as to why we needed to be a lot more aggressive. When the fall in bequest income happened in 2004, it opened the gates for me to go back to the board with recommendations.”

Those recommendations have turned RSPCA NSW’s approach to fundraising on its head. The board allowed Coleman to grow the resources dedicated to income generation from two staff to six, laying the foundations of a department which now employs 20 staff.

Unconventional wisdom

At 42 years of age, Coleman has already been CEO for five years – but if you believe what he says, it was destiny. Coleman started out as a rank and file inspector at the RSPCA in his early 20’s, but says he knew from an early age that he wanted to lead the organisation one day. He took various steps over the years to achieve that, including completing an MBA.

Another major achievement is that despite being at RSPCA NSW for almost 20 years, and therefore becoming “part of the furniture,” Coleman has been able to throw off the shackles of organisational culture and introduce radically different ideas and directions. “I probably am a bit of an agent of change,” he concedes. But more on this later.

Trusting the experts

Coleman is no fundraising expert, a point he’s quick to make. That’s why he specifically lobbied the board for funds to employ people who are, and also why he’s adamant about assisting, not interfering, with his fundraisers’ efforts.

“If someone has an idea, my job is to support them, make sure it fits the plan and then do my level best to create the resources to pull that off,” says Coleman. “It draws those people closer to the organisation because they’ve got some ownership over that idea and some tangible results as a result of their effort.

“The fundraising or marketing team will involve me in challenges or dilemmas they’ve got about a particular idea, and that’s my expectation that they do that, but by and large they’re capable people and I let them do their job,” adds Coleman.

Marketing and fundraising manager Paige Gibbs says Coleman has a high level of trust in her team. He’s comfortable with allowing the team to take risks, providing they’re well calculated.

“He’s incredibly empowering,” explains Gibbs. “He’s also very supportive when things don’t go as well as expected.”

The major donor challenge

It’s no secret that some CEOs struggle when it comes to cultivating major donor relationships. Coleman was no different initially, openly admitting that he was anxious and uncomfortable with those first phone calls. Coleman, however, took that on as a challenge and now sees it as a great opportunity not just for fundraising, but also to share ideas and experiences with the organisation’s supporter base.

“It was pretty obvious that I needed to help the team in drawing out these major donors,” explains Coleman. “I’m enormous on team effort, enormous, and I really felt like I was letting my own team down by not stepping up to the plate as CEO and getting over that fear and anxiety.”

Coleman’s willingness to take risks and focus on team effort has already paid huge dividends. By taking the plight of its rundown Yagoona shelter to the media earlier this year, Coleman and his team secured $7.5 million in capital funding from Barry O’Farrell’s government to rebuild the facility.

His work in the development of major gifts has earned Coleman the praise of RSPCA NSW board members, like Sarah Cruickshank, the joint managing director of communications giant Ogilvy Earth.

“Steve has a really good idea of how you can balance not taking away from the value of individual supporters but also actually making sure that you pull out the capital opportunities that are there for the organisation as a whole,” says Cruickshank.

Striking out in new directions

Fundraising isn’t the only area Coleman has overhauled, he’s also completely revised the way RSPCA NSW approaches its mission. His five-year plan to build no more capacity in its shelters and create no new inspector positions has been a hard sell to some. By explaining the move is to focus on prevention rather than reaction, Coleman has slowly gained the support of the organisation’s board, staff and supporters alike.

“It’s somewhat hypocritical that here we are, the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and yet our traditional approach has only ever been about band aid work. We’ve never properly invested in prevention,” explains Coleman.

And as part of this vision, Coleman was a chief instigator in establishing the organisation’s first-ever “Care Centre” – essentially a retail outlet in a suburban shopping mall selling abandoned pets to the public.

With Coleman at the helm, it seems RSPCA NSW is destined for change and more change.