We talked to Rahul Bissoonauth, director of business development at Oaks, about fundraising for socially-minded startups, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rahul Bissoonauth: We’re getting by! My marriage has so far survived the 24/7 spotlight placed on it over the past twelve months, but like everyone else, we are increasingly desperate for a holiday, a pub, and at least a few days apart in a real office… other than that, we’re grateful to be healthy and keeping safe.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Oaks.
Rahul Bissoonauth: I work as Director of Business Development at Oaks Consultancy: we offer strategy and fundraising consultancy for socially-minded organizations, primarily within the sports, education, and social housing sectors. I was lucky that in my second year of university, Oaks took a chance on me as an intern in 2012. I had an intensive introduction to the non-profit world, which led to me working for the company full time before I’d even graduated. As the company grew over the next nine years, I then progressed from my initial internship through various roles, including Account Executive, Account Manager, Account Director, and now my current board position. I help shape our growth strategy and deliver on increasingly ambitious and demanding new business targets.
During my time at Oaks, I’ve worked with some incredible organizations. Most recently, throughout 2020, I took on the role of Executive Director for the UK operation of Magic Bus India Foundation, an award-winning international development charity. I am also Chair of a regional grant-giving trust and serve on the national grant-giving panel for the world’s largest sports charity: the Football Foundation. I can’t believe it’s been nine years since I first joined Oaks; I’m so proud of how much we’ve grown as a team in this time!
How does Oaks innovate?
Rahul Bissoonauth: As a strategy and fundraising consultancy, innovation is not just what we do, but what we sell. Working with our diverse client base, which includes charities, schools, and sports organizations, we’re constantly evaluating and exploring new ideas and solutions to help them become more financially sustainable without detracting from their ethics and values. What’s more, fundraising is an extremely competitive, challenging environment: as a result, we have to constantly adapt our approach, create new services, and break into new sectors to survive and thrive.
One of the key ways we have innovated successfully so far is by taking our expertise at Oaks into new sectors: for our first few years, we were solely focused on the sports industry, and while that is still a cornerstone of our business, we’ve adapted our approach to supporting those looking for strategic solutions in the education, social housing and charity sectors. Over the years, we’ve diversified our services and developed expertise in different fundraising areas, including corporate partnerships, individual giving, and business development. We’ve grown to become a multi-service, multi-sector agency in a hugely reactive way, responding to the needs we see emerge.
Our latest ‘reaction’ to the current social landscape was to create a first-of-its-kind digital community for organizations interested in fundraising amid the pandemic. Fundraisrs, a global virtual platform, was launched to bring together organizations and community groups from across our multiple sectors to network, learn from each other and develop great content and resources. Ultimately, Fundraisrs has enabled us to deliver our fundraising consultancy services in an accessible, digital format. We launched the platform back in February, and it is evolving every day to suit the needs of those in the sector.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Rahul Bissoonauth: Naturally, we were extremely nervous in March last year. We had hoped 2020 would be a year of investment and growth, but overnight it became purely about survival, the protection of our team, supporting each other, and helping our clients to navigate the crisis. We had a few early scares, but it soon became clear that our clients – many of whom were in the industries hit hardest by closures and experiencing a sudden loss of income – needed our fundraising support possibly more than ever. We were fortunate that the vast majority were financially able to continue working with us throughout 2020 and have continued to do so in the first quarter of this year. As a result, I’m delighted that we were able to come through the year with our entire team in place and that we’ve even been able to make some additional appointments in 2021. However, I think we’re all sick of Zoom and can’t wait to (hopefully) work together in person more this year!
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Rahul Bissoonauth: Our first and foremost priority was always to protect our team. We had to make small use of the furlough scheme – only when necessary – but managed to reduce expenditure elsewhere in the business (including no travel, marketing, or business development spend in twelve months!) to keep everyone secure in their jobs. Every single member of our team has pulled together and kept each other going through the last twelve months, and – whilst it’s not over yet – we’ve never been more confident about what’s to come.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Rahul Bissoonauth: It pains me to say it, but Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been lifesavers. Before the pandemic, all of our client interactions were face-to-face. We traveled all over the UK (and sometimes the world!) to facilitate workshops, catch-ups, and more with clients, and all of that has changed, possibly forever. We are now seeing our clients and partners more frequently than ever, which has enabled us to work and meet as small teams more regularly. Whilst I think we’re all looking forward to getting back into the office and having a bit less screen time, I can’t see our approach ever going back to the way it was before.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Rahul Bissoonauth: We have very few direct competitors, but we do keep a watchful eye on a few organizations in each of our sectors that we occasionally pitch against. With strong ties in the sports industry, it will come as no surprise that we’re a fiercely competitive team and hate losing, so I think we naturally are always thinking about how we can improve, develop new services, articulate our strengths better and drive forward growth and results. It’s never-ending!
Your final thoughts?
Rahul Bissoonauth: I think we’re nearly there! Just a few months now until we can all see each other again. Until then, do check out Fundraisrs if you’re interested in growing and diversifying income for your organization, or just fancy a chat – it’s completely free.
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