You are what you think; So just think big..

“You are what you think; So just think big, believe big, act big…”   the words of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish American industrialist and philanthropist. Dale Carnegie “you can make more friends in two months…” originally spelt his name Carnegey. He changed the spelling maybe because he admired the western world’s most revered philanthropist. The quotes of these two men conclude Fundraising:the Essentials for Success because they summarise the essence of successful fundraising- make friends and think big.

For a fundraiser the essence of the Andrew Carnegie quote lies in the words “You are what you think. So just think big, believe big, act big…”. No one gives to a cause that promises to do the ordinary. People want to feel they are contributing to something that is extraordinary, that it and they are going to make a difference- and the bigger the difference the better.

Donaldson’s College.

One of the first fundraising campaigns I took on was at Donaldson’s College, the National School for deaf children in Edinburgh.   The College needed £8 million (about £15 million in today’s terms) to keep this historic landmark weather proof and watertight and to make a number of other improvements. There are countless important historic buildings around the country in need of similar attention. Being historic is not in itself a reason to give. So why should this one attract donors?

A successful fundraising campaign needs a Compelling Case with a Big Vision and a Unique Selling Point. It’s a truism to say that it’s not about the building it’s about what you do with the building. The historic building proposition on its own does not make a compelling case and it certainly isn’t a USP. So what makes this one different? What makes it stand out?

This is where the Andrew Carnegie maxim applies. “You are what you think, So just think big, believe big …” The one thing you could not dispute is that Donaldson’s is a big building. It needed a big vision and history was on its side.

Donaldson’s History

The world’s first school for deaf children opened in Edinburgh, in 1760. The Braidwood School at Dumbiedykes demonstrated an enlightened and progressive attitude to disability- although perhaps the name didn’t! In 1851 Queen Victoria opened Donaldson’s Hospital as it was then called. Its purpose was to educate destitute children and the governors agreed, from its inception, that it would educate both hearing and deaf children together. Here was a model for integration a century and half before its time. Alexander Graham Bell, whose mother and wife were both deaf, taught there before emigrating to America. His invention of the telephone arose from his interest in creating a hearing instrument. By the 1990’s and approaching its 150th anniversary Donaldson’s was the oldest deaf school in the world still on its original site. It was a global icon for the deaf community: the visible symbol of an invisible disability.


The past needs to connect to a believable future. In the 90’s computers were making their impact. For the first time deaf people could communicate with someone who was not in the same room. Social attitudes to inclusion were transforming. The global community was becoming more connected. The concept of Donaldson’s College as an International Centre of Deaf Excellence was born.

This promised a new future for the building and new opportunities for its use: an iconic symbol creating greater awareness of deafness; a centre for research and expert conferences; a statement of inclusivity for Edinburgh; a tourism opportunity linking the historic role of the city’s concern for deaf welfare.

This is a very brief outline of some key elements in the construction of a Compelling Case. The important fact is it wasn’t about the building it was about what it could deliver. The most important point was that the big vision was believable and it raised the money. Fundraising: the Essentials for Success talks more about constructing a compelling case.

The subsequent history of Donaldson’s was a lesson to me of another essential component of fundraising, which will be the subject of a later blog. But the key thing I come back to here is that the Case is the Base of your success. “You are what you think. So just think big.”