From Red to Blue Fundraising Oceans in Lao PDR

Mar 22, 2024

Institutional fundraising is a game – a competitive one with unclear rules, and a playing field that is far from even. To be in it, you’ve got to know how it works, and colour inside the lines. I’m not just talking proposal writing. Programme design, impact measurement, resource allocation. It’s all about ticking boxes and deferring to donor-defined mechanisms that trade hundreds of hours for the smallest chance of success.

This ‘Red Ocean’ style of fundraising can be a dangerous place to be. The waters are red because they’re bloodied by competition, and if you’re a smaller organisation, particularly one based in the Global South – the odds are not exactly in your favour (yes, that’s a massive understatement, and yes, I just quoted Hunger Games). But there is, as Keo Souvannaphoum, Country Director of CARE in Lao, discovered, another way. One that challenges us to explore an altogether calmer water. Because ‘Blue Ocean’ fundraising* isn’t about competing in a crowded marketplace. It’s about working in partnership to create your own unique fundraising space.

Finding Blue Oceans

It started with an email from a former volunteer who spent time in Lao four decades ago. This wasn’t just a chance to raise money. It was a chance for Keo and her team to step outside the world of institutional funding (95% of their total funding) and into the less-defined world of raising funds from wealthy individuals, companies, and foundations.

I’ll let Keo tell you the full story in the podcast episode. What you need to know is this: in the four years since the email hit her inbox, Keo and the CARE team have grown this opportunity from a single grant of US$69,000 to a multi-year, US$2 million commitment. Impressed? I am.

Of course, an investment of this size has unlocked some serious social impact, especially for some of the most marginalised communities in the north of Lao, and those affected by UXO (unexploded ordinance). That’s only half the story. As Keo talks, it becomes clear that this opportunity has delivered a whole lot more. An alternative to institutional fundraising, it gave Keo and her team a chance to explore beyond the Red Ocean. What they found is a space that is calmer and more collaborative, and a partnership that was entirely within the control of a relatively small country programme of Northern-based NGO.

Creating shared vision and understanding

Was it luck? A little. But it was also a result of Keo and her team’s approach. For the first time, they found themselves in a position where they could actually get to know their donor. It gave them an insight into their ‘why’, and meant that they were able to create a joint vision and shared understanding built on mutual trust and respect. As time went on, they could use this as a tool to facilitate (and manage) donor involvement in project concept and design. I know that this move isn’t for everyone. But Keo knew their red lines, and the trust and respect they had built meant that she was able to keep to them.

The result is a deeply authentic partnership that goes beyond anything they’d tried before. It’s changed their approach and expectations, and has shown Keo and her team what it really means to work in partnership and take ownership of the fundraising process.

Taking donors from Red Oceans to Blue Oceans

She’s keen to replicate this proactive, people-centred approach with Red Ocean funders. It matters, because Blue Ocean fundraising doesn’t just work for fundraisers, it works for funders too. In fact, there are a lot of donors out there who, for a number of reasons, are keen to build-long term partnerships with civil society organisations and causes (more on that in future blog!).

It’s great to see the CARE team reaching out to meet with local representatives of major funding institutions. They are working their networks, and raising their profile by getting to know their donors, building genuine, trusting relationships, and using this as a foundation create a space where they know they’ll be heard.

But perhaps most importantly, for Keo, at least – she’s discovered a way to fundraise that brings her joy. She doesn’t just work with donors anymore. She’s building real relationships with real people. As Keo puts it, “I keep thinking. When you want to establish a relationship – whether it’s with a donor or not – you need to be authentic and continue to engage. It can be formal, informal. But the relationship comes first.”

It’s a lesson we all need to learn. When it comes to fundraising, authentic connections are the key – not just to surviving the red waters, but to finding a way to move beyond them.

Want to find out more? Listen to the full episode here now.


I’m Craig, founder of the Fundraising Radicals, host of a podcast that imaginatively goes by the same name, and convenor of the award-winning Global Radicals: Fundraising Leadership Programme. Our aim is to turn the world of fundraising upside-down and explore alternative approaches grounded in experiences in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. We’re also a platform for global voices and perspectives, sharing diverse and new ideas and inspiration for fundraising leaders everywhere.

Find out more about us:

Follow me on LinkedIn:

*As much as I’d love to take credit for the brilliance of this idea, I’ve adapted it from Kim and Maurbogne’s “Blue Ocean Strategy”.  



Sign up to our newsletter and sharpen your fundraising practice!

We don't do spam, only relevant and interesting stuff related to high-value global fundraising.