Alumna interview: Lucy Blythe’s story – over 25 years of fundraising

Lucy BlythLucy Blythe is one of the outstanding fundraisers of her generation – having held the most senior roles at a number of leading arts and cultural agencies including the RSA, The Victoria And Albert Museum and Kew Gardens. Across these agencies she has led a number of successful high-profile campaigns and projects.

She is currently the Founder/Director of Philia International working with a wide range of national and international agencies including CERN in Switzerland. As a volunteer she serves on the board of Philanthropy Impact and the Reekimlane Foundation, and advisory group of The HALO Trust.

In this interview with Anna Esslemont, =mc marketing manager, she reflects on her career, on the impact of the national arts fundraising school 25 years ago, and on the state on contemporary fundraising. 

  1. How did you get into arts fundraising?

In 1994 I was the Development Officer, at Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums, Brighton

I had written a few successful grants and led fundraising at a medium-sized museum for a brief stint in the US before I moved to the UK in 1992, but it was still early days, and I had a lot to learn – mostly about my own attitude to the work. I attended NAFS as a quick way to get my head around the UK funding environment and best practice in cultural and arts fundraising.

  1. Tell us what you remember from the School… Any standout moments?

The light bulb moment – and one that every fundraiser will have before they can be truly successful – was understanding that this work is not begging; it is an honourable practice offering people an inspiring chance to do something amazing and wonderful for humanity. It is not about the money.

I confess that I was particularly impressed by Bernard’s sense of humour and complicity in our learning journey, and his use of rich metaphors to make a point. As a potent symbol, he gave us bags of tulip bulbs to grow, and to remember our time learning to be cultivators of support.

  1. Since then what have you gone on to do – any major career moves?

Within 6 months I joined the RSA as their only fundraiser, focusing on the Student Design Awards, but lobbied for and ultimately set up a central development department working on lots of fascinating programmes and capital developments. I was then headhunted by Moira Doyle (who deserves credit for spotting and developing a lot of talent within the sector over the years) to the Victoria & Albert Museum as Development Director, where we delivered the £31million British Galleries Campaign.

At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, during my tenure as Chief Executive of the Kew Foundation, I grew the team and strategy to transform fundraising from under £1million/year to over £12million/year income and making possible lots of wonderful features, including the Herbarium extension, the Jodrell Laboratory extension, and my personal favourites, the Millennium Seed Bank, Davies Alpine House and Sackler Crossing.

Royal botanical gardens Kew

In all my in-house jobs, I was fortunate to have fantastic colleagues who were hard-working, creative and productively challenging. We learned a lot together.

Developing an expert and enthusiastic team and an effective board at the Kew Foundation enabled the later delivery of the £103million Breathing Planet Campaign under my successor Michael Murphy. We have to remember as fundraisers that sometimes the most effective work we do is building great teams, and institutional capacity-building; we may not see the full outcome of our work, but if we can put the building blocks in place, we will have made the most significant and sustainable impact to achieve the mission.

It was a tough decision to leave Kew – beautiful place, wonderful interesting people – but I needed challenge and disruption, and I knew I was leaving the Foundation in capable hands. I agreed to join the search firm Bird & Co as Partner to establish their not-for-profit and public-sector practice. This was illuminating and prompted the decision in 2009 to set up my own consultancy specialising in board development.

For over 20 years I had worked in and observed many different organisations where it seemed to me that one of the invisible magic ingredients was the governing board. Good boards enable organisations to thrive. Lack of board diversity, ad-hoc recruitment, unclear responsibilities and expectations for trustees, and a lack of resource and support for their work were widely limiting factors, often severely disabling an organisation in carrying out its mission.

I was asking myself that mid-life question: how to apply my talents? No-one at that time was thinking much about boards. But the Kids Company scandal and greater transparency in the sector has since focused many minds on the importance of good governance, and I am delighted that many other entities – from the Charity Commission and NCVO, to consultancies, head hunters and funders – have since been contributing to the effort to build better and more diverse boards.

  1. Any major successes in fundraising? Anything from School that helped you in making this success?

NAFS confirmed that arts fundraising is not fundamentally different from other forms – people are people, motivated by the same crazy variations of reasons as the ‘caring’ charities. Perhaps it helped us appreciate what great advantages we had in the major gifts area at the time, with beautiful facilities, and interesting experiences and people to offer as part of supporters’ involvement.

Clarity on the different needs of individuals, trusts and foundations, and some of the technical aspects of sponsorship were very helpful to me in my work. NAFS also exposed me to resources which I later found useful, including key thinkers like Ken Burnett (Relationship Fundraising).

  1. Please give one thing in particular, which you learnt on the School that has remained with you.

That fundraising is about enabling great things to happen – NOT about begging. In how many other professions can you help people give their own lives meaning and to help others at the same time?

  1. Would you recommend the School to others – if yes, why?

Yes, of course. I’m a great fan. The content is excellent, and it is valuable to have a cohort of fellow practitioners.

I have to assume that NAFS has kept its ability to cater to people at different levels, like a really great children’s book or film that works on a child’s level but also entertains the adults with more sophisticated content (I saw Ferdinand over Christmas with my five-year old granddaughter, and have not laughed so hard or so innocently in a long time – very refreshing!)

  1. Please sum up the School in three words.

Inspiring

Purposeful

Useful

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