“I’d advocate not becoming too specialised in what you do at the expense of your ability to articulate how your skills might be repurposed as organisations shift and needs evolve.”

FIA Conference 2023 will bring together international fundraising thought leaders and local experts to further the professional development of Australian fundraisers. Key to the success of FIA Conference is the content — developed by fundraisers for fundraisers — focused on current issues as well as advanced practices. Conference 2023 is the largest gathering of fundraisers in the Southern Hemisphere and is relevant for everyone in the fundraising sector. 

Conference 2023 features keynote speaker Owen Valentine Pringle. Owen is a transformation specialist with over 20 years of experience at executive level, half of which he has spent working for purpose-driven organisations. Currently, he is a partner of Leaders’ Quest, a consultancy that helps organisations to align profit with purpose. He was recently Chief of Staff at ActionAid International and was recognised by the Financial Times in the list of the 100 most influential BAME leaders in technology. He is a business coach and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and is a Non-Executive Director of the Charities Aid Foundation.

You’ve made a professional career in the NFP sector and are clearly passionate about fundraising. What would be your elevator pitch to encourage someone to join the sector?

I’m passionate about breaking down the barriers we sometimes erect between disciplines, which I believe lies at the heart of addressing many of the big thorny challenges we face over the next decade. I’ve been mostly sector agnostic during my squiggly career, hence the reason I’ve worked in areas as diverse as news media, broadcasting, human rights, international development, arts and culture and leadership development. By this token, my elevator pitch might be a little unorthodox in that I’d advocate not becoming too specialised in what you do at the expense of your ability to articulate how your skills might be repurposed as organisations shift and needs evolve. At a macro level, I strongly believe that over the next 10 years, civil society organisations are going to be more essential to human wellbeing than at any point in their recent history. There has been no better time than now to work for purpose-driven organisations.

What exactly is a ‘transformation strategist’ and why is transformation so important for charities?

Transformation is really just a way of describing a state of increasingly rapid and continual change. For most of my working life, this has largely meant working in technology and/or international affairs. By this token, anyone who can help organisations to look outside of themselves and make sense of what this means does a similar thing to what I do. Charities work at the crossroads of people and wellbeing, two essential tenets of a functioning society, but society often changes faster than the elements required for it to function well, such as our livelihoods or the rule of law. For this reason, charities need to be able to analyse not only the effects of what has just happened, but also what might happen next and how it interplays with seemingly unrelated factors. 

Digital has played an increasingly prominent role in fundraising. What do you predict is its future? 

I’ve been working alongside technology for nearly three decades. The single greatest change I’ve seen in this time is the gap between what it is capable of doing and our ability to comprehend how. This will become even more pronounced as machines teach themselves and each other, creating something of a black box we no longer have full access to. This presents both risks and opportunities across the board, including in the fundraising domain. For example, opportunities in the sense that as emerging technologies, such as natural language processing and text-to-image or text-to-video AI, reach maturity, our ability to microtarget potential and existing supporters will far surpass our ability to do so today; where every single engagement, from its content to medium to timing, will be hyper-optimised to the individual and their peak propensity to act. 

The risk in this scenario might be that it crosses the ethical line in terms of what we, as civil society organisations, are prepared to do to secure a donation. Either way, the use of technology will become indistinguishable from the way we work, generally. It’s also worth remembering that the next 10 years will see the first wave of charity leaders who have only lived during the digital age, which will have a significant impact on the way we regard it.

Many charity CEOs and leaders don’t have a good understanding of the fundraising professional. In light of this, how do you consult to senior executives about successfully leading their organisations?

Fundraisers were amongst the first charity professionals to recognise their specialism as part of a wider engagement continuum and not a standalone discipline. The job to successfully consult to senior executives requires the same shift in mindset, albeit trained internally as opposed to externally. 

Senior executives are expected to see their organisations in 360 degrees, to see around corners that more vertically minded managers cannot, so we need to translate our interests into a language that makes sense across the business. They, on the other hand, need to recognise the opposing forces fundraisers are pulled in when trying to balance long-term strategic imperatives with short-term financial targets.

You’re delivering a masterclass in Melbourne on demystifying leadership. What can attendees expect to take away from that session? 

Stick the word ‘leader’ into Google Images and your browser will be filled with dire stock pictures of people doing heroic things, like wielding big flags and stewarding hordes of people to some kind of strategic salvation. And for some reason, there’s always this huge arrow. The problem is that leadership is often completely misrepresented, as something that can only occur in those who are at the helm of an organisation or business unit, but every one of us can recall a time when we were expected to lead, either professionally or personally. 

Leaders come in all forms, so I’d like to deconstruct the word itself, before delving into how it relates to the way we show up as individuals. How we can develop the mindset to lead through uncertainty. And how you can influence people without necessarily having the authority to make demands of them.

What role has professional education played in your journey and why do you believe that gathering people together at conferences such as FIA’s national annual conference is so powerful for fundraisers to develop, innovate and connect?

In every sector and geography, nearly two years of working remotely demonstrated how critical being in-person is to formal and informal learning, so it’s great to see how keen people are to get back to conferences like FIA 2023. 

Deep learning through experience is somewhat of a rubric and a methodology we use extensively at Leaders’ Quest. There’s nothing quite like a shared physical space for learning. Learning isn’t simply the sum total of knowledge, skills and understanding, which can be cultivated remotely, it’s also reliant upon attitudes, behaviours and values, which benefit from in-person peer reflection. 

We encourage all fundraisers to consider attending FIA Conference 2023, from 22–24 February in Melbourne, to begin your year with the skills and ideas that can directly improve your campaigns, your donor impact and most importantly ensuring the fulfilment of your mission. Early bird rates offer great savings and NGO Recruitment offer a scholarship from each state for smaller organisations with financial restrictions. Membership packages are also available to those considering joining FIA and coming to the conference. 

Visit the conference website fiaconference.org.au for more information and to register.