Letter from the Land of the Rising Fundraising

Letter from the Land of the Rising Fundraising

The numbers from the Japanese Fundraising Conference are as raw as the delicious sushi and sashimi that sustained me during my recent four days sharing with my Japanese fundraising colleagues: record of 1560 conference attendees, 999 certified fundraisers and all built from zero in just 8 years.

Masa Uo, Japanese Fundraising Association CEO and his excellent team of staff and volunteers have made it all happen in a country when even the legal and constitutional status of a non-profit organisation (NPO) was not formalised until 1998 when lawmakers ratified the “Act on Promotion of Specified Nonprofit Activities”, known as the “NPO Law” today.

Culturally, fundraising and philanthropy has existed in Japan, like most societies has existed in some form for millennia, in the case of temples, monuments, cultural and educational institutes as well as in the family context. However, professional, organised and systematised fundraising is relatively new in Japan. When I started working in Japan in the mid-1990s with Greenpeace Japan there was only one exceptional role model to learn from, and that was UNICEF Japan.


It was then only an average UNICEF NatCom raising some $20m per annum from selling cards and gifts and cash collections. Once, veteran direct marketing fundraising expert Richard Pordes, also teaching at the 2018 conference, introduced UNICEF Japan to direct mail fundraising in 1992, something magical happened. The Japanese public responded to cold direct mail appeals sent from UNICEF HQ in New York, USA at an unbelievable 14%. Such impossible results anywhere else in the world catapulted UNICEF Japan to the top of the UNICEF fundraising charts. It has not looked back since.

Since then, only Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) both supported by Pordes after his retirement from UNICEF, have consistently had very significant success in securing mass philanthropic support from the Japanese public and consistently set the barrier for other national and international NPOs to aspire towards reaching.

What is holding Japanese fundraisers and fundraising organisations back from greater success? From the newly qualified Certified Fundraisers we celebrated at a special evening last Friday, to the highly engaged debates and mentoring sessions that my international fundraising colleagues Kyla Shawyer, CEO of the Resource Alliance and Alan Hutson, Monument Group participated in, its seems there are several interconnected factors at play.

The very fact that the conference began on a Friday evening and closed on Sunday evening and that many delegates had paid their own conference fee already says a great deal about how the leadership of many NPOs see fundraising and their fundraisers. Professional development is only permitted in fundraisers, very limited, free time and not something their organisation is inclined to invest in.

Public understanding of “what is an NPO?” and “what is fundraising?” is little understood in Japan by the public or even my most educated and internationally minded professional Japanese friends. Indeed, most people think that the national or local government provide all services they receive, that poverty does not exist in their country and even NPOs are fully funded by the state.

At the conference opening plenary discussion, I shared the platform with a retired, very senior and charismatic former Senior Executive of the Mitsubishi Corporation, who was now President of the prestigious Tokyo University, one of Japan’s oldest universities. He told me he was shocked how hard it was to raise funds for the institution, especially as the state was now cutting its funding and despite him having access to some of the most powerful business leaders in Japan!

“Empathy” was a core theme of this year’s conference and the need to build both mass public empathy for NPOs and donor/supporter’s greater empathy of the causes they donate to was high on the agenda. However, a secondary undercurrent was the need for greater “empathy” within the sector and profession. Over long working hours, lack of holidays, poor pay and conditions, lack of professional and managerial support/understanding and expectations by bosses of high levels of income with low levels of investment were cited as common ailments infecting the Japanese fundraising sector.

Furthermore, a certain culture of “fear of failure” in NPOs and the investment to test, fail, test succeed, learn and then follow through seemed to be a common challenge for fundraisers and hence the stifling of not only innovation but even the testing of already proven fundraising techniques and channels that were working elsewhere in Asian and beyond.

During our time listening to and discussing with fundraisers their concerns, it became clear that there was a desperate need for more mutual support and solidarity among fundraisers themselves through informal “special interest groups” where they could meet to share problems and find common solutions and for mentoring by more experienced fundraisers that had survived and thrived over the years.

What was truly inspirational for me as the Japanese Fundraising Conference 2018 came to a close was how completely multi-generational is the “new wave” of Japanese fundraising as high school children were awarded for building a major campaign to educate their parents and community of the importance and power of fundraising; how retired high level former corporate executive were gaining their qualifications as a Certified Fundraiser and how young, successful social media entrepreneurs were focusing their skills on supporting NPOs and fundraising.

Additionally, fundraisers need more access and awareness of how they can learn and be supported by the global fundraising community even though being more aware of websites and blogs such as SOFII , The Agitator, 101 Fundraising and the innumerable fundraising discussion groups on LinkedIn

Given the amazing energy, enthusiasm, hunger for knowledge, desire to succeed, passion, humanity and above all “empathy” that I and my international colleagues experienced from the fundraisers we met at the Japanese Fundraising Conference 2018 conference these last few days it is only a matter of time before that breakthrough moment happens for fundraising to truly take off and reach its true potential.

In Japan there is a very special collective hand-clapping applause that is used to close celebrations. I encourage all fundraisers to put their hands together for our Japanese fundraising brothers and sisters!

Daryl Upsall FInstF
Chief Executive
Daryl Upsall & Associates SL
Daryl Upsall Consulting International SL

DUA fundraising