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I am a Fundraiser

Interview with Sam Butler at Starlight

Written by Josh White

10/08/2022| I am a Fundraiser

In this series we will talk about our guests’ early days on the street, stand or door and how those experiences led them to building a successful career as a leading fundraising professional. We’ll also be sharing our thoughts on the opportunities in face-to-face and offer advice, hints and tips to any aspiring fundraiser who is looking to follow a similar path.

In this edition we welcome Sam Butler, Head of Public Fundraising at Starlight Children’s Foundation. As well as being a very respected and established fundraiser in the UK sector, Sam also happens to hail from the same (very) sleepy village on Dartmoor, Devon as me. After a few years into my own fundraising journey, I came to a realisation that the older lad that I used to play village cricket with, had also entered the fundraising world, and was making a pretty good go of it. Ten or so years ago, based in Bristol, I was looking to make that step from Team Leader to Coach level, and applied for a role at a F2F agency where Sam led the London section. It’s quite a random coincidence how two guys from the same rural village in Devon, fell into the same small niche industry, and crossed paths again years later in an office in London, but most definitely a welcome one. Although I didn’t end up working with Sam, it was the first-time we had crossed paths in a professional setting, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve kept tabs on each other ever since. Aside from the back story, Sam’s career path to date is a great example of what can be forged after starting out as a dedicated and hardworking F2F fundraiser, and certainly one that’s worth sharing.

Hi Sam, thanks for taking time out to chat and answer some questions. So from the top, tell us how and when you got into fundraising?

Community and understanding my part within it are important to me. As you know, I come from a very small village on the edge of Dartmoor, where everyone contributed something to village life, otherwise it did not really work for you or everyone else. When I left college and headed for London, I was looking for a job that allowed me the chance to work in collaboration with others, as part of a community, and use my communication skills when I was not acting (which was quite a lot of the time), whilst making a positive impact socially. I came across an ad in the Evening Standard for a F2F role one evening, on my way home from a temp job that I hated. F2F hadn’t been in existence that long in the UK as an agency model, so there was a freshness to everything and everyone, and a really entrepreneurial culture, and it paid £7.70 an hour. That was 2002 February. Twenty years ago! I know because I have a close ex-colleague who is still working in the sector today who started on the same day as me, and we still message each other about it on our anniversary to this day.

From my interview, through the training (we had two and a half days training in the office back then), to my first sign-up (more on that below), I instantly fell in love with the culture. The agency had been set-up off the back of the success of an in-house team at the RLSB, was incredibly diverse from the top down, and was alive with the belief that through a charitable cause, we could harness a movement for change. From homelessness and mental health through to the environment and overseas development, there was a magical power bestowed upon us to grow those movements through one human interaction at a time. I loved being part of that and achieving something every day with a small group of likeminded people.

Can you remember your first day or sign up?

I remember O’Neil street at 5pm being pretty daunting. This was 2002 though, so I wasn’t facing the apathetic hoards of commuters that have since developed a marmite love/hate relationship with F2F (first tip, just focus on the lovers)! I think the best tip I was ever given was from the team leader that day, a chap named Jay. He said that if “I didn’t keep smiling and keep believing as I asked people to stop, I had no right to believe that the public should believe in the charity I was representing?” Maintaining faith over that first hour paid off!

What did you enjoy about the job?

Initially learning so much. I was really hungry for information, especially on the political levels at which Charities influenced policy, and change through things like the Mental Health Act, or free school meals. The people I spoke with often wanted to feel they were joining a movement that they could identify and find a level of connection with - in terms of their personal values - and so being able to have an open discussion where we could find common ground was always key.

With my team members and the public there was always a discussion that came up in breaks or when travelling to sites that fed my curiosity. The training was so much more valuable back then (way before the days of scripts), and a sense of self-empowerment.

The most enjoyment I took was always around the people, friendships that I have maintained for over twenty years have been wonderful and enriched mine and my families lives. I love that I literally got to meet, support, and grow with such a brilliant and diverse group of people. I was recently walking down Kennington Park Road, and heard a voice shout “Sam Butler!” at me from across the road. It was a former F2F fundraiser that now ran his own florist and coffee shop stand. He said to me that the confidence he had gained from working with me and the team at the agency had encourage him to set his own business up. That legacy still resonates with me today. So many amazing people came through that agency, and I love that it had such a mutual benefit for charitable work, and their own personal journeys!

Talk us through your first promotion to where you are now.

So, I think I purely fundraised for about 9 months, and was constantly being asked to step-up into what was then called a Team Leader (TL) role by my peers from about two months into the job. But I felt that I needed to prove to myself that I had stamina for more than just the fairer-weather-months, and to others that I could maintain a high standard of fundraising. I did eventually go for a TL role and got it! I loved the nurturing and coaching element that it required. I Team Lead until April 2004, by which time, following an acting job that had taken me away from home for 3 months, and with my first child on the way, I decided an actor’s life was not for me. I wanted to be home and be part of the family my partner and I were planning, rather than an occasional presence.

I moved up through the management structure at the agency until 2006, when I was asked to go over to New York to start scouting for offices with an aim to set-up an arm of the agency group there, and meet with potential charity clients. Then boom, the financial crisis hit, and that expansion was shelved. I think from that point on I struggled. I still enjoyed the people and the work, but the lack of innovation and investment in the people and the businesses strategy, over profit margins took its toll.

Due to the demand, it all became about volume and expansion of the business into providing what had been sighted and marketed as a “recession proof” acquisition channel. I was frustrated with the cultural changes within the agency, and battled with those! I looked back to what the job had been like for me when I started, and wanted to recreate that same level of support and development for my teams. But it was an ever-increasing problem.

Then at the end of 2010 I sadly lost my best friend the night before his wedding, and this tragedy, coupled with having two young children, was a turning point. I needed to look after the relationships closest to home. There was a lack of understanding within the senior leadership team at the agency as I was the only parent among the Operational Management Team. Balancing the life of being a parent with a very demanding job (I was often in the office before 8am, and still making calls at home beyond 8pm) meant that I needed to move on. I had always intended to move to working for an internal charity fundraising team, and out of the blue received a call from a recruitment agency to work at St John Ambulance and manage their Door to Door agency. I was in that post for three months, before being promoted to the Individual Giving Manager role, and then had a period of 3 years and two promotions working with a wonderful team, being given the opportunity to learn so much about other fundraising disciplines, as well as understanding how High-Volume teams can work to support High Value teams. I had a great Head of Fundraising at the time who really supported me in thinking about going for a senior leadership role. Unfortunately, that opportunity wasn’t available at St John, so I moved to Tibet Relief Fund in 2017 in my first Director role. The first 12 months focussed more on operational infrastructure and governance, taking a lot of learning from St John, and again, I learnt so much from the CEO at Tibet Relief Fund, and their incredibly dedicated team, especially around innovation and digital. We grew their brand and awareness and developed some great fundraising products and campaigns. I am proud of the work that I did there, and still speak with them regularly. Then in 2019 I moved to Starlight.

Can you sum up your role as Head of Public Fundraising at Starlight Children’s Foundation?

So, Starlight had just been through a very focussed period of internal infrastructure and a governance review when I started. My role came with the remit to expand their High-Volume fundraising products, create content that would support the growth of audiences across social media channels and grow income, but most importantly develop a strong pipeline for the Corporate, Trust and Major Donor teams. I started at the same time as the current Director of Fundraising and Marketing, which was great, as it really gave the sense of there being a clear opportunity to do things differently.

We identified where we could establish some quick wins through investment into a new donation portal and website. We also wanted to improve the supporter experience through insight, so data and consent was going to be key in achieving this. We developed a strategy that would support growing an understanding of “why” our supporters chose to support our work. This project was supported by working with the agencies Donor Voice and Open, and with our brilliant team we set about testing our new brand, products and creative story-led content.

And doing all of this as the pandemic hit! Which meant we ramped up the digital product development and integration. The Senior Management Team have supported innovation and encouraged an interdependent way of working! Being focussed and agile is really important for Starlight, as it means we can react quickly to opportunities, and build a very strong case for support across all our channels. Starlight also recruited a new Head of Philanthropy and Partnerships in 2020 which completed the senior leadership team across our directorate. The current Leadership Team is such a great one to work with. I think despite the last 24 months being such a unique challenge for everyone, I really can’t imagine having had the success we have anywhere else. The culture is amazing here!

Do you think your experience starting as a street fundraiser has benefitted you on your journey?

Absolutely! You were always having to think on your feet and re-strategise on a daily basis. I have always believed that success is down to people and culture. If those two elements are not in place, everything else is a battle. From the start, F2F taught me to be a team player, get buy-in from the stakeholders you need, and move quickly. You need momentum to build on your successes and often charities get tied up in so much red tape, that they stumble. Creating strategies and processes that support the needs of the organisation are key. For anyone reading this connected to my past - and who spent a Thursday “Rota Day” in the office with me arguing about the amount of Springsteen anyone should be expected to listen to – they will confirm the amount of thought that went in to “who-went-to-which-site-on-which-day” to achieve the most they possibly could for the charities we served. Those themes linked with personal values can become so powerful when you understand those of your colleagues too. The behaviours of your organisation are literally saying “we get you, we understand you, and we can support you in achieving your best every day!” If you can take responsibility as an employee to strive to achieve that for one another, then I think you are always likely to come somewhere close to achieving your best. Starlight really encourages that.

What do you think Covid-19s impact on face-to-face fundraising will be?

I am amazed at the work that has been put in by the F2F community - globally - since the pandemic hit us all. I have maintained relationships with some key players across the industry both at agencies and at in-house teams. Initially I think people will be far more up for a chat and a bit human and social interaction. Spontaneity throughout the pandemic has been lacking for all of us, so I would expect our desire for that to be something that improves stop and sign-up rates. I also think that we have all seen the improved levels of altruism out there. As for door to door, I expect that there are now a lot more people at home, so that will improve the life of a fundraiser too!

What do you think the next big thing is for face-to-face?

Digital, data and supporter choice! Develop deeper relationships with your clients. Broaden the options for the supporter. Capture why each individual signs-up and wants to give. And how they want to be communicated with. That data is gold-dust.

In a post covid world do you think there are opportunities for individual giving teams to utilise the face-to-face channel and fundraisers in innovative ways?

Yes. See above, but also see it at as a channel for all fundraising teams not just IG. Every fundraiser I have spoken with since 2012 has talked about breaking down silos, yet we continue to establish them through the way we structure our organisations and plan and budget! It starts with us being brave enough to step out and explore and best ways in which we can make those changes happen, then inviting the agencies and partners we work with to partner with us in a way where the financial risks are shared and mitigated for.

What advice would you offer to face-to-face fundraisers starting their first role in the sector?

In a practical sense, it would be to learn everything you can about the cause you represent, develop your knowledge into the areas of work that the charity funds, and have a human case study for each one, along with some overall facts and stats that support it. Then when you stop a potential supporter, invest in finding out as much as you can about them. Give the conversation time. You are asking them to make an investment in the cause, so, talk to them about the areas of work that you know will resonate with them.

And really work on your resilience, and most importantly of all; “you must be authentic and honest at all times!”

After all this time, why are you still a fundraiser?

Because I want to change the world and I love trying to do it. Social investment in the is going to be key in tackling some of the biggest problem’s humanity faces, and as long as charities innovate and embrace change and constant evolution, we are the vessels required to solve them. Just look at the recent pandemic, and the tens of thousands of people that have stepped up to volunteer for organisations like St John Ambulance to help with the vaccination programme roll out.

Most fundraisers I have worked with are tremendously generous people, both in what they deliver to those their charity supports, but also for the organisation and the team they work with. At Starlight we have done a lot of work around our Clifton Strengths (this would be a brilliant tool for fundraising teams, and I wish I had done mine 15 years ago). It has helped me identify my strengths and link them to my values. My self-awareness has grown so much and provided me with a framework to understand others and how best to collaborate and work with them. A lot of what it is aiding the team at Starlight in achieving culturally, is that if we work together with complete self-awareness, and an understanding of one another’s strengths, we can achieve great things.

In the past I have suffered a lot from moments of self-doubt, and not feeling that what I had to offer was enough. In hindsight I can see that some of my impulsive reactions, especially in that last year at the F2F agency, when in a state of grief, I was not being fair to some of my colleagues. I was dealing with a lot of anger and blame. I think our sector is brilliant at supporting others, but at times it fears investing in ourselves. And it should not. We are the sector. It is nothing without the thousands of people that work and volunteer in it every day.

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