Fundraisers are dealing with a more competitive environment by tapping the potential of new technologies. But the main message is keep it simple.
It sounds like a plot from a particularly silly Hollywood comedy: your elephant Valentine sends you a card and a photograph to put in a frame beside your bed, while love letters drop regularly through your letterbox.
But the storyline is not part of a film script. Instead it is an idea adopted by a charity which is devoted to saving the endangered Asian elephant. Already the date-an-elephant fundraiser has generated more than £10,000 and the idea has so captured the imagination that this summer, the Selfridges store, Oxford Street, in London is hosting an event to publicise the charity.
Ruth Powys, head of fundraising at Elephant Family, says: "We are a small charity with a zero budget for publicity so we had to come up with something which sets us apart. People just love it. It's not our main source of income but it is the main way we reach out to the general public."
It is not only the new or smaller charities which are increasingly relying on innovative ways to boost their funds. As the number of UK donors shrinks the fundraising market has become ever more competitive.
Barney Tallack, Oxfam's deputy trading director and head of new income, says: "We are constantly looking to innovate, to do things differently, to keep things fresh." The Oxfam Unwrapped campaign, where people can support the charity by doing anything from buying a goat to planting an allotment, has been so successful that it has become a brand in its own right and has been followed by the Oxfam Unwrapped wedding wish list.
The charity's latest campaign, which encourages shoppers to take their old Marks & Spencer clothes to an Oxfam shop for recycling in exchange for a £5 M&S discount voucher, raised more than £250,000 in its first month. And the "Oxjam" initiative, where supporters take part in a fundraising music gig, has introduced the charity to a completely new audience.
"What's been happening is that people contact each other on social networking sites and talk about what kind of gig they are putting on and what they have learned," says Tallack. "It means we are reaching a whole new community around musical styles."
Social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook or Bebo and the use of mobile phones has created a host of new opportunities for fundraisers to reach the target 16- to 24-year-old audience. People can now add a charity logo to their profiles on social networking sites, and pass the message on to others through schemes such as the Royal British Legion's "virtual poppies" on Facebook, as well as making donations or supporting specific projects online.
Megan Pacey, head of campaigns and policy at the professional association, the Institute of Fundraising, says: "The MySpace generation has changed a significant amount of the thinking behind fundraising."
The institute hosts an "innovation zone" every year where it road tests or fine tunes new ideas. "The trick," says Pacey, "is not to be too clever and get sidetracked by the idea and lose sight of the key objective. If people can see, for example, that you've come up with something which is a bit like auction website eBay but with a charity twist to it, then they can understand what you are doing."
Murray Lindo is director of fundraising and marketing at Breast Cancer Care, which in the last decade has seen its annual fundraising income soar from £300,000 to £14m, a rise mainly attributable to the success of its pink ribbon campaign. While new technology may "facilitate" fundraising and help raise a charity's profile, Lindo warns: "I think you have to put human processes in first, before looking for a technological solution."
Simplify, simplify, simplify
Successful fundraising initiatives can also be extended in new ways. Last year staff from the credit card company, Capital One, ran the London Marathon on behalf of disability charity Scope, a partnership that led to the company promoting the charity in its mail drops as well as advertising Scope on its billboards.
Pacey admits that she would be a rich woman if she had a crystal ball and could predict what the next big fundraising idea will be. "At the moment innovation is all around the web and mobile phones. The danger here though is that charities do not have the infrastructure budget to support hi-tech innovation."
Her advice to charities looking for new ways of doing things? "In innovation, it's often the most simple thing which is the most successful."
Oxfam's fundraising director Cathy Ferrier agrees. The Oxfam Unwrapped campaign worked because it tapped into people's lifestyles, offering them an easy and fun way to buy Christmas presents and support a charity. "We have got to find innovative ways of thinking of things which fit into people's lifestyles so that supporting Oxfam is as simple as possible," she says.Debbie Andalo