How to develop yourself with Alison Pemberton

We often see Directors of Fundraising from a high-value background and relationship fundraisers are more ambitious than ever so I wanted to catch up with Alison Pemberton to find out more about her journey into her current role as Director of High-Value Fundraising at The Stroke Association. Alison has headed up some extremely successful teams and has worked in the behemoth that is the NSPCC for many years, successfully navigating internal promotions and securing high-value gifts across both trusts and individuals.

Alison’s background is particularly interesting because she initially started working in the NHS as a Speech & LanguageTherapist (one of the reasons she was so attracted to her current organisation), she was able to successfully transfer into the sector with no income-generating experience but has gone on to secure millions of pounds for her employers. To transition, she homed in on her transferrable experience – strong relationship building and excellent writing skills.

She joined NSPCC in a trusts fundraising role and threw herself into learning as much about trust fundraising and the NSPCC in general, making sure she built strong relationships with the projects team so that she knew their projects inside and out, helping build her credibility across the organisation, she also sought out opportunities to learn about other teams and how different areas worked. After four years finessing her experience and growing her funder relationships she applied to take over leadership of a team of four in individual major giving. This was her first management role and included managing her former peers, she undertook a management training course, acknowledging a lack in experience and seeking out yet another opportunity to learn. When she took over this team they were generating £2m and this grew significantly after embarking on the development of a volunteer board. Alison managed to secure the Chair of the board, someone who had turned them down once before and recruited 14 others, the board went on to be NSPCC’s most successful generating £10m due in part to the strong relationship Alison developed with the Chair.

She was then approached to take on a much larger role managing Childline, going from managing four people to 25 including celebrity and corporate fundraisers (areas she hadn’t covered before). Luckily her strong understanding of the organisation’s work and the years she had spent building a good reputation across departments meant that her team took to her leadership, they overachieved all fundraising targets generating during this time. During this period she also oversaw a restructure and managed to keep the team achieving alongside this. After a brief stint overseeing all volunteer-boards she decided a change of scenery was due and moved to the International Rescue Committee.

International Rescue Committee

The main attraction of this role was the opportunity to set up the fundraising department from scratch, they had no database, and no fundraising strategy. This was a great learning opportunity for Alison and although daunting at times and extremely hard work in under three years she grew the income to £750,000. How did she do this? By asking for help from experts in her network, she actively grew her knowledge across different income streams from peers. Also, by having a strict hiring policy, she knew the importance of building a great team around you, with different strengths to your own. After building the IRC to this level Alison felt a desire to take on a new challenge.

Next steps

Alison’s next two moves to the Royal Society and back to NSPCC were strategic and both based on adding to her experience, for the first time she sat on the Exec board and gained this experience. However, it’s Alison’s current role that is so interesting and was really inspiring to hear more about.

Focusing on happiness

The reason the move to The Stoke Association is so great is that it was guided by Alison’s focus on her own happiness, strengths and job satisfaction. This is something I see so many people neglecting in their job search and, I believe societal pressures to constantly be progressing has forced people into roles they simply don’t enjoy.

Alison loves The Stroke Association, after choosing roles that broadened her experience or were strategic moves she is now led by her heart. She loves building relationships with high-value donors, she loves her cause and loves her leadership team. I think that in a time where more people are suffering from mental health issues in the workplace we can all learn something from Alison’s approach to her career, I was really inspired when I left our conversation and am now making sure that I’m focusing career advice I provide around what makes people happy. People can become very lost in a higher salary, managing people, getting to Director level but we should all focus on doing what is truly important to us.

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Alison’s tips for your career and experience:

  1. Ask yourself what makes you happy and let this be your guide, don’t force yourself into roles you don’t enjoy or you’ll burn out. Understand your needs and your motivations.
  2. Make sure you understand your organisation (programmes and other teams), this will help you build credibility and gain trust.
  3. Notice people who have traits/experience you’d like to develop and ask them to help teach you. Build a genuine network around you.
  4. Choose your boss carefully, they will have a huge impact on your time at work.
  5. Any funders/donors you meet ask for referrals to other funders don’t just rely on internal peer to peer asks