Progressing your career in corporate fundraising with Sara McCullough

Ashby Jenkins

Before joining the dark side of recruitment I was a fundraiser and corporate was my specialism, nowadays I love all income streams equally (I promise) but it’s always lovely to catch up with a fundraiser who has a background in corporate fundraising, Sarah McCullough, Deputy Director of Development at London’s Air Ambulance is no exception.

Sarah’s background

Sarah joined the charity sector after a career in advertising sales, it was in this role that she was inspired by a corporate fundraiser and after going travelling (and after battling through many interviews) she gained herself a role within the Diabetes UK as a Corporate Partnerships Officer. Despite loads of commercial experience, Sarah took a drop in seniority and salary because the sector was her passion. Working in a larger organisation was a great first step for her, she was able to learn in an established programme and from talented, professional fundraisers. During her time at Diabetes UK she went out of her way to learn more about the different income streams and pushed herself into working on cross-organisational projects.

Knowing that she had to expand her experience to cover more corporate fundraising mechanisms (at the time Diabetes UK mainly had corporate donation partnerships) she moved onto JDRF as Partnership Manager, because of the size of the organisation she worked closely with trustees, developing her senior stakeholder influencing skills and due to the international set-up she actively sought out learning opportunities from their US team. After 2 years she put together a business case for a Head of Corporate Partnerships role to be created, by demonstrating the need for more strategic focus to be put into corporate fundraising and a greater level of resource. Through leading the team, the charity won it’s first ever staff vote COY and ran a successful engagement campaign with Ford. At this time she spotted a number of charities building corporate volunteer boards and went about building JDRF’s first ever corporate volunteer board. In total Sarah was here for four and a half years, growing the team to four people and doubling income.

London’s Air Ambulance and learning curves

Sarah’s next role was with London’s Air Ambulance as Head of Corporate and Events, she chose this role because it also added special and challenge events to her remit, providing her with a development opportunity. Sarah knew that broadening her experience in income streams would help her career progression in the long run. However, this meant leading people who had more experience in events than she had, she was honest about her experience at the interview, demonstrating a self-awareness often only present in great leaders.

After three years at Head level, Sarah again took her development into her hands, laying out a business case for a change of role to Deputy Director of Fundraising. Following her experience of leading multiple income streams, she is now a big advocate for one budget for all income streams, in her opinion, this has led to the collaborative working enjoyed at London’s Air Ambulance.

Her enthusiasm for learning meant she was embraced by her team and was able to lead them to deliver an uplift in income from £385,000 to £600,000 in two years. After being in this role for two years, she went on maternity leave and upon her return was offered the option to take trusts and major donor fundraising into her reporting line. Another exciting challenge and steep learning curve, again Sarah was honest with her team of experienced major donor and trust fundraisers, sitting down with her team, actively learning from them and empowering them to be the experts in their area. Making it clear that she was there to support them, she secured their loyalty, now leading a team of 10 to raise £1.9m this financial year.

Sarah’s tips for ensuring your progress and successful leadership

  1. A personal brand is important and that you should be mindful of this at all stages of your career. It’s a small sector and other people’s opinions of your work are important
  2. Making sure you get coaching and training, build a network of inspiring people around you and help others
  3. Get experience of working with trustees directly, the more exposure you can get to senior volunteers the easier it will be for you to progress
  4. Ask for promotions internally but make sure you can back up your demands with achievements
  5. Ask for and take advice, be mindful of what you don’t know and be honest about what you need to get there
  6. Stay in your role for a good period, in relationship fundraising, you can’t see results before 18 months