#165 Navigating the Waves of Philanthropy with Natalie Fée, Founder of City to Sea

Feb 05, 2024

Natalie Fée joins us to share her experiences as a nonprofit leader who is an experienced fundraiser. She talks about her best and worst experiences with donors so that we all can learn to show up as our best selves. Natalie emphasizes the importance of positive, constructive conversations between nonprofit leaders and donors. 


Episode Highlights:

  • Challenges in fundraising 
  • Lessons learned and advice to donors


Natalie Fée Bio:

Natalie Fée is an award-winning environmentalist, author of How to Save the World for Free and Do Good, Get Paid, and speaker, and founder of City to Sea, a UK-based organization running campaigns and behavior change initiatives to stop plastic pollution at source. Natalie set up City to Sea in 2015, and it's gone on to become one of the UK's leading environmental organizations combating plastic pollution at both grassroots and government levels through award-winning campaigns such as Refill and Rethink Periods.




If you are a nonprofit leader and you have a best or worst story with your experience raising money for your organization that you’d like to share, please fill out this form for a chance to be on Sybil’s podcast - https://forms.gle/buDnkCPcNUKYWh869 

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Natalie, this is so great. Thank you for being on my podcast. 

Natalie, you have just been such a supporter of my program that you do your good as a nonprofit leader, and you've told me some really interesting stories that I think link into the theme of my season three podcast, so I appreciate that you're interviewing with me today. 

Essentially, you have stories for me as a nonprofit leader about where donors did wonderful things and didn't. 

Now, all your donors out there, I want you to know that we will change the facts around a bit because we have no interest in putting anyone on the carpet. Anything like that, right? This is all a conversation to support everyone in a positive way to be better donors. Philanthropists, and so that's what I just want to say out there. 

Natalie, while discussing this, I know we want to honor confidentiality. So, the facts will be just mixed up a little bit. 

So, folks can't connect the dots to who people are, but the experience you had in these best and worst scenarios with funders, I just think, will be helpful for my listeners first before we get into that; that's like the teaser that's like people can't wait I'm sure to hear all this because you have some amazing stories about terrible and wonderful things people did.

Before we go there, you just tell my listening audience who you are, what you're doing, and what. It makes you passionate. Get up in the morning and work on all these great things you do.

Thanks. Sybil. Well, yeah, first of all, it's just a huge pleasure to be here because I've enjoyed being part of your membership and learned so much, and it's just so rare to be in a position where you can talk to someone and learn from someone kind of on the other side of the fence. So that's been helpful for me. 

So yeah. I'm Natalie Fée. I'm the founder of City to Sea. We focus on stopping plastic pollution sources, and we generally focus on stopping the ten most commonly found items on beaches and rivers worldwide, so that's how we choose which items to focus on. They're doing pretty well and taking them off over the last 8. Years and for me? 

I mean, I'm motivated to keep doing the work we're doing because I see some improvement in some areas. Currently, plastic production is still set to triple by 2050. Plastic pollution in our oceans is also set to triple, so I want to create a better legacy for future generations. I love nature. I am a nature lover and spend as much time as I can outdoors. It hurts me to see that kind of disconnection that we have from nature and the impact of that not just on, you know, how it looks but also on marine animals and our wider ecosystem, so that's why I'm motivated to. Do the work that we do. 

I'm also an author, so I love writing, writing, and communicating, which is how I got into environmental campaigning. So I've written books on well-being and how to save the planet on individual action and say what? People can do to play their part. I wrote a book called  Do Good Get Paid, which advises nonprofit leaders and campaigners wanting to get funding. Although it's still a challenge for us, we are eight years in and still have a team of 15 people doing good work worldwide. 

So, we've tried to share. Our learnings, and yeah, as someone working in the environmental space, my mentor, my teacher, is nature. So, I am currently in the middle of a slightly crazy project where I've decided to meditate under a local oak tree every day. We knew where I lived near Bristol in the South West of England for a year. 

So yeah, I'm pretty rooted this year, let's say.

Literally we did! And we'll have links to the books in the show notes. The books and any other information you want to share, but you also are working on some music, right?

I am. Yeah. I'm working on my first. EP, I think. Or maybe it's an? It's an album I'm working on. I have a label in London and am writing my sort of singer-songwriter, folk songs with nature, very much inspired by nature. So yeah.

That's so great. Yeah. Let me know if we can add it when that comes out. The show notes for the. All right, so now let's get into the nitty-gritty. The reason that I have you on this show, well, of course, I have you on the show for all those reasons we discussed. You're—just an awesome person. 

But let's now talk about the best and worst of your donors and your experiences fundraising with donors so that donors and philanthropists can get your advice about how to show up at their best with their best foot forward in the future. 

So first, let's talk about the good stuff, like some of your best experiences. Donors, as you've tried to fundraise for your nonprofit on plastic pollution.

I think, and I'd say our best experience was maybe around four or five years ago, and probably around five years ago, Dana got in touch out of the blue, which has always been the dream. Then you ever happened once and got in touch and said she was keen to do something about plastic pollution and was very committed to changing that. She decided to fund two roles in the organization for two years and us—our core campaign work. It is people; it's people. That is there. We are raising awareness by creating content that is getting in touch with the government that is running the petitions you know are called work by our campaigners. 

So, for someone to come and say I will fund two of these roles for the next two years. It was a real game changer for us because we could forward plans. We knew that. Their roles were secure, so they could fully plan their content and have a bit of a campaign budget, which has been a bit of a luxury for us to do.

So, let's break that down a little bit. Here are some of the key reasons. Components that made you feel good about that donation: it sounds like the first is a person who had done their research on your own. I found you called you. It felt like it came out of the blue, but I'm sure that person. I'm guessing that person did research about you before. They called you out of the blue and didn't ask you for a whole ton of extra from your organization; they said, hey, I see the gap; I want to fill it. And you've been so clear at articulating that, Natalie. 

In terms of the information you sent out already, the donor knew they wanted to give that. To you so they could give you. Funding. They didn't micromanage, and you could accomplish much with that funding without stressing about all the details, like ensuring there's not a lot of paperwork. There's a lot of extra stuff you can focus on to accomplish your goals. Did I say that right? Or not. 

Did I miss something or not? How good? That's what I heard you say about how great that daughter was, but I want to check in.

Yeah, that. That summarizes it, and for us, it was so key. She said she wasn’t. She just wanted us to do our best work, and she saw that. We were doing good work in the world. And it was just … what's the best way I can? Help this, and I think what was also. Helpful. 

So yeah, there weren't long impact reports, like there wasn't a big reporting process. We could have a conversation with her. There would be, you know, times when she might want to. If there were a particular issue that she was keen on, she would talk with us about whether we could focus on that. But she just trusted that we would get on with it and do the work, and I'd say it was like a kind of progressive philanthropy experience for me of her not micromanaging. We trust and champion us. What happened later was that she facilitated introductions to other donors, invited us to networking events, and championed us with other people.

OK, that's an important addition too. And I also don't want to forget this piece you brought up: she talked to you. She leaned in. It's not like she just gave you the money and disappeared, but it felt like you could discuss it with her. She's like, well, what about this idea or that idea? You could adopt it, or you could not adopt that idea. 

But you guys had a really good solid relationship where the power dynamic almost felt like it wasn't there where the donor says X, and you have to do Y. That's not what happened. Like, the donor had money. They put it into your campaign, and then you discuss things. With them. Is that right? There were, like a colleague, A colleague.

I wouldn't go as far as to say a colleague it. 

  1. Thanks for that pushback.

But it was, it was definitely like. You know, she wanted to. Know that we were doing what we said we would do, but ultimately, she liked it. You know how we were going about things and were confident—and trusted us to get on with it.

That's great, and let's also dig into the last comment you made, which was that the donor then championed you and helped you with fundraising with colleagues or other things, is what I heard you say. How did the donor go about doing that? In a way, that was effective in your mind. 

Inviting so one example is when she created a networking event for donors who fund high-net-worth individuals in the environmental space and are then invited. Three charities she had supported in the past, so there weren't loads of us there and some startups and people looking for investment, but it was a sort of…. I would say a kind, very proactive approach to the kind of women supporting women. It was female funders that She brought it together with. 

Some of those connections and relationships have gone on to provide funding to the city to see some of them with advice through Do Your Good membership.

Yay, I'm so glad that my advice has helped you. That's important to me. I just want to help.

Yeah, it certainly has. So yeah, I think that kind of advocacy is a huge part that the donors can play. Because I think like that, I don't come from a wealthy background. I didn't go to school with wealthy people. I haven't had a natural set of high net-worth individuals or major donors; I can just reach out to them and have dinner parties. With or build. Those relationships with so to have a donor. Who has had? Has donated to you previously and has confidence in you to go that extra mile because they might not want to fund you for the next ten years. 

Still, they can do, you know, huge amounts of work by introducing you to other people hosting like dinners; you know, hosting. Awareness-raising events around your issue so that you can come in and shine so the nonprofit can come in and shine and tell the story. I think those kinds of things are invaluable.

OK, I love this. I love unpacking this with you, Natalie. And I knew it would be fun for a podcast because it's the kind of stuff I love to geek out on all the time. I know you do, too. 

OK, so now, let's talk about it. I want to remind you of the more challenging situations you've had, and for my listeners, we're changing facts around a little bit. And a lot so that you really can't connect the dots. We have no interest in putting anyone. Out on the mat for this. We want to discuss Natalie's mistakes or challenges to have that as a learning opportunity for the future. All right, Natalie. 

So, with that qualification, let's talk about some of the challenging interactions you've had with donors and your thoughts on how we can, as donors, maybe not do that and do those things in the future.

Sure. Say one example was a family trust, a new family fund, and they wanted to focus on plastic pollution. So, the person who was managing their fund. Reach out to us and say, you know, there's an opportunity. We're exploring potential nonprofits in the plastic pollution space. And we'd like to kind of, we'd like you to put in an application so, you know, tell us what kind of things you need funding. 

So we did that. And sort of almost like a first round, and then the person that was, you know, the head of this family fund was then sort of say, well, actually, I'd like you to focus on, you know, this ex-campaign. And this is what I would like to fund. 

So, could you write up a full proposal? For this one, so. We wrote up a full proposal for that one. And then it was like, OK, I need some more, you know, drilling further into the details. So we did that, and then it was like an in-person meeting, which, you know, I felt it went well. But there are pretty extreme power dynamics going on in that meeting. Yeah, it was. It was quite extraordinary.

It looks that out a little more. Of course, anonymously, add different facts that people don't know, but talk more about your feelings about that power dynamic and being extreme.

It was a bit like sort of presenting to royalty. You know, in that kind of. There was no kind of like. I didn't feel like there was an understanding from the donor of how I might feel in that situation, like any how important that meeting was to me, be like the power they had to make kind of or break, you know, an organization. It's interesting. You know, I can. I can always feel an emotion when talking about that with you because.

Yeah, I can see that your shoulders are tense in your body. Even just right now.

I mean, God, sibling, it sucks to be in that situation that you know it's hard asking for money. It's hard not to be recognized for your work in the world and in that situation. It just would be. It's really lovely for donors to be like, look, I know this is, you know … I've got the—power in a situation. Shall we just talk about that? I do love what you're doing. It doesn't mean I can fund what you're doing—just some kind of like acknowledging the power dynamics. I think it would be refreshing.

Because I think it does take a lot for—fundraisers to put themselves in that position.

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I think that's helpful for what you just said. 

Any other examples of challenges? Yeah.

Yeah, well, also kind of on that one, which wasn't the. End of it, kind of… OK. Keep going. It's just kind of like this process. I loved it. This process lasted. I kid you do not like it between nine months and a year.

This is before you get any funding.

Before we got funding, they decided they wouldn't fund us.


They didn't give us any feedback, and we worked out. We'd spent about £16,000 worth of staff time throughout those 6 to 9 months, or I can't quite remember the time frame, and we even just at that point said, thank you, the opportunity. But would you mind covering our costs because you came to us, and we've put our heart and soul into trying to make this work? Would you consider it? Just you know. Covering the staff time that this took for us. And they did, so that was tough, 

I mean, the good idea again, probably because, you know, you kind of have to when someone comes to you with the offer of some significant funding then you do have to. Please give it a go. Sadly, it didn't work out, but it was a painful process. 

Do you have any ideas? Right now, do you know what your advice would be to that donor? Maybe they how, how? How do you think they are? I could have done it a little bit better. You said one thing: Maybe they could have funded some of your time if it exceeded a certain number of hours. What other ideas or advice do you have for that situation to make it? I think it would be better.

You know, if we could prove that we were having an impact doing the work that we already did and if they wanted to. Please support our work, then. Then, the best way of doing that is to be kind. Of asking us the. Questions like What is? You know. It is one of your organization's three key pinch points, and you know it will happen in the next six months. And you know how We can …. They're looking to sustain the organization, if they're very much. You are looking for a one-hit kind of campaign; I understand that we can focus on that, but I think asking the question, you know what? It will be game-changing for you.

And also that Question of, like, what's going to be your fishing rod-like, you know, donors can keep pouring fish on the table, but if they ask an organization, like, what is Going to enable you to continue fundraising from here on in or what is going to help you sustain yourself after my donation has finished like. 

That kind of kind of questioning relationship and then trust from the donors, I think, is what's most helpful. If I were, you know, in that person's position, I would have done it completely differently. I could imagine that. Suppose I had a. Significant amount of money to tackle. An issue that I wanted to focus on for the next few years. For each organization I'd contacted, I would say, " Look, I'm just going to give you all 10K. I want you to, you know, really put some time into working with me to come up with this proposal. But just so that you know. Like I am going to. Give you some cash. Just to your core funding like from. As an organization our size, like even someone saying I'll give you 10K. That covers most of our office costs for the whole year. 

So that's a bit like, oh OK, cool, that's helpful. You've recognized that our time is important, and we're probably already quite under-resourced. Just to kind of say I'm going. To give each of you 10K. And then we'll look at how we work out.

I like that it's like a threshold question. So, as a funder, if you're thinking of funding an organization's core operations, that's fitting exactly what you want, and you're essentially augmenting the work they're already doing. That doesn't. You don't necessarily need to do extra funding to help the organization develop a grant for that because you're already totally geared up to do that. But if you're a donor, that's either going to Put a ton more money into a smaller NGO, so they will have to restructure a little to accommodate that. 

Or you're a donor who is asking an NGO to stand up a whole new arm or a whole new program. That's where you might want to say, OK, and we might put a little bit of cash upfront to help you develop this with some partners. And maybe even give you some money for a facilitator or a professional who can spend the time doing the writing—things like that. So I like that; how are we parsing that out, Natalie?

Yeah, me too.

All right. So, let's talk about another—example of the challenges that you've had.

Oh, this one is this one this. One is also painful.

And I'm bringing up all this trauma for. You. I appreciate it. And it is trauma. I've been there when I was a Fundraiser, too. You care So much about your cause and… So yeah. Yeah, so we heard.

I think we had someone that had it, and this one was more like.

It's a relationship issue, sort of.

We had a founder who. Initially, we didn't know. They would turn out to be a fairly significant funder, and they came from the tax base. We wanted to support a particular project that we were doing and related to our app because we have an app that shows people where they can eat, drink, and shop with less plastic. 

And The thing is, this person has the most incredible super brain. They just they. Go at like 1,000,000 miles. The hour is super connected. Understand the tech industry. I saw the power of our project and decided to put in a significant amount of funding to support a pilot.

At the start of this, that person sounds amazing, like a great partner.

They are amazing. You know, I still, you know, they are an amazing person. I think the problem started to emerge when my team was also made up of amazing people. Still, we're a plastic pollution campaigning organization with some people who've upskilled in the tech industry. We are not a tech startup. And quite quickly, there was this visionary, almost like CTO type person with the potential to take our like it's a business and kind of super-size it. We moved the team, and we also had another funder involved. We'd agreed on project parameters already with this other project partner who is also giving a similar amount, a little bit more. 

And so, on the one hand, we had a project that we needed to deliver our way. And we had this, like, Super Brain going, but. I don't think you're doing it. Right, I think you need to do it like this and like this, and then that's when the problem started to come in because the donor could see that our way perhaps wasn't going to work, but it was going to. It would work in our city in our way, and it was, so that was just kind of an I-it. I wouldn't go so far as to say a clash, but a kind of a mismatch. You know the donor wasn't happy for us to do it our way because they ultimately wanted us to succeed. But we needed to do it our way because of what we'd already agreed with the other funder.

That's so interesting. That's so interesting. There is. You had a project, the app, and two different donors with different visions. And then you had staff who were implementing their vision. So that's a recipe for a challenge, that's for sure. What was the outcome? Do you still have your app? I mean, how did you, how did you end up threading that needle?

We still have the app, but we. I don't have the donor. So yeah, he kind of walked away saying, well, if you're not going to do it my way, then I can't work.

With you, I mean it to me. I love this story because you are not alone in this story, right? So. Some people have become very wealthy because they're super successful. Businesspeople are used to profit. Metrics in how the for-profit and nonprofit worlds work have some similarities but major differences. And so sometimes those two can clash, right? 

And so if you're a donor coming to a nonprofit with the mentality of ROI. And a, you know, a business for profit kind of thing. And I can see how your app could have crossed over to that, right? 

So that's something to think about as a donor. Are you approaching the nonprofit with a business ROI mindset for what you want to fund? And if so, is the nonprofit ready to embrace that thinking?

Yeah. And I think like if a Donor is coming. Into a charity with that sense of like. We can help you develop your business dream so that you are less reliant on grants and trust. That's an awesome thing to have support with, but perhaps it's about creating that—multi-year commitment to helping the nonprofit GO on that journey. 

So, in our case, we're going to fund the CTO. Like a chief technical officer who can transform your app over the next three years. And here's the funding needed for that person to be in that role for the next.

It's Like that would have been, you know, incredibly helpful.

Yeah, really good point. I love that. I just thought this has been such a fun conversation. Is there anything else you want to share with my listeners now that you've had this conversation? Like what are the top-level things and words of advice to donors you have given your experience fundraising?

I think it would be like. For me, perhaps that Cash, you know, while you know, everyone will always say, core funding is the most important, But I would say. After that, it's.

The relationships and…

I understand that the donors might not have time. To build relationships with them. With all of their grantees. But it makes the world go round: having fun and trust. And dare I even say, love, for me, the most exciting thing is building relationships with people where we can be excited together. Elevate the impact that we're having to get.

That is, again, well said, Natalie. I knew there was a reason I wanted You on the Podcast; I just wish you the best. I wish you luck in everything, and I know that our journey as friends and colleagues will continue, so I wish you the best of luck with everything you're doing.

 I can't wait to hear your record when it comes out. I'm so old, I say record. Still, but you know, I own that.

Thank you so much, Simba, and I love the work that you're doing in the world. 

So, thanks for getting our message out to the world and, yes, to all the donors out there. Thank. You and keep on giving.

Thanks, Natalie. Bye.