What’s wrong with fundraising?

July 8 2015 - Mark Phillips

When the IOF were looking for speakers for this year's convention, I suggested that I’d like to talk about what I saw was wrong with fundraising.

I didn’t realise just how prescient my proposal would be.

I don’t blog that much these days, but when I do, it’s normally to highlight a concern. And one of the things I’ve been increasingly worried about is how a significant number of donors are responding to some common fundraising techniques.

I’ve been a fundraiser since 1988 and I have never known the antipathy that is currently directed at my profession.

Things have to change.

We really have to start putting the needs of the donor at the heart of everything we do. Aggressive techniques can – and do – raise money. But when we multiply the use of those techniques across twenty, thirty, forty or more charities, the pressure that some of our most generous donors are facing becomes unbearable.

The good news is that charities have been here before and recovered. In my presentation, I show that the criticism we are seeing is nothing new. But I also show that however aggressive certain elements of the sector might be, we aren’t raising any more money, recruiting any more donors or generating any more regular gifts than eight or nine years ago. It seems that all we are doing is encouraging donors to spread their philanthropic budget ever more thinly – hence the fashion amongst so many charities with expensively built brands to ask for 'just' £3.

That's because a significant number of donors struggle to say no when asked for such a small sum.

Repeated list swaps and multiple asks have driven charities to increasingly focus on people who can't refuse this sort of request for help. This appears to be at the cost of identifying donors who have a real commitment and connection to a particular cause.

The result is that a number of great donors are suffering. It’s a phenomenon known as pathological altruism.

I don’t suggest that I have the definitive solution, but it would strike me that we should introduce four changes that would make a huge difference to the sector's relationship with donors (and the media).

1. We need to offer donors a way of demonstrating they are already giving in the face of a request for support. Back at the beginning of the last century, when you gave to charity, you received a flag to pin to your jacket. It meant you didn’t need to feel bad when you said no to another collector.

Whether this is a badge, a sticker to go in a window or even a numerical code that a donor can give in response to a request for a gift from a telephone fundraiser, we need something that allows donors to say no without feeling guilty.

And while we are about it, why don't we replace the blunt objects that are the MPS and TPS with a means for donors to actually choose who can or can't contact them? Perhaps via a website where as well as getting a 'badge', people can also specify which charities or causes they actually want (or don't want) to hear from.  In reality, some people don't mind having their name shared amongst a few appropriate charities (please watch video 2 to see what I mean).

2. The richest 20% of the UK population give a smaller percentage of their income to charity than everyone else. We need to create a movement where we start promoting the idea that wealthy people should give more – perhaps, 2% of their income. The constant demands for £3 have encouraged all donors to think that charity is only deserving of our small change. This is a sector wide problem that only the sector can change.

3. We need a new type of audit. Each year, every charity should offer all donors (and a number of lapsed ones) the chance to say how they feel they have been treated.

Mailed too much? Called too much? Asked too much? No idea how your gift has been used? We need to agree a series of questions that every charity must ask and report on so we can start benchmarking performance across charities. This survey needn't be too expensive and can perhaps be included with a newsletter mailing  or email.

In these surveys we should also give respondents the chance to flag up charities who they feel have broken the Fundraiser’s Promise – a promise that all charities signed up to the FRSB have agreed to uphold.

This would give us an opportunity to see which charities need more 'direction and guidance' when implementing fundraising programmes.

4. Rather than the current range of mostly arbitrary awards, we need to start looking at rewarding great fundraising performance.

Awards should be given for real achievements such as: best five year net growth rate, lowest attrition, best ROI, lowest complaint rate and best implementation of the Fundraiser’s Promise. And when it comes to innovation, any award should be withheld for three years and only handed over when the great new idea is actually proven to work.

I believe that we have all the regulations in place that we need. We just have to start adhering to their spirit rather than the words. We also need a system to help us identify those charities that let the rest of us down. Hopefully these ideas might be useful in achieving those goals.

Many people who couldn't get in to the room asked for a copy of the deck, so you’ll find it below. Any questions, please feel free to add a comment or tweet me at @markyphillips.

 Video 1 – The Tragedy of the Commons

Video 2 – This morning, 1 July, 2015

Video 3 – Old Spice ad

  • Hi Mark,

    Great thoughts as usual.

    I’d like to add a few additional thoughts

    (1) While your suggestions task with each charity to put their house in order isn’t much of the hostility directed towards the cumulative ‘hassle factor’ of the sector. So as with the pay day loan industry or even the online betting industry, the issue isn’t necessarily the actions of a specific brand but the cumulative level of asks -that’s when the problems occur. Most charities when they ask their supporters measure very highly on satisfaction & commitment scores, but that doesn’t mean supporters feel satisfaction with the sector as a whole. So while I agree individual charities need to sort themselves out I’m not sure that will entirely solve the problem.

    (2) I think the sector has been too quick to adopt the use of premiums in packs – by which I don’t mean information on Alzheimer’s, Cancer or even tips on giving nature a home. I mean the ‘stuff’ that’s crammed into recruitment packs like stickers, notepads, bookmarks etc etc. Now I’m aware that it may be profitable for some charities but I think we haven’t properly understood the long term effects of appealing to extrinsic motivations rather than intrinsic motivations. Are these pack gimmicks not only causing hostility but also having the longer term effect of making people less altruistic! I think the recent work by Tom Crompton at common cause should be read by every agency and every head of individual giving. http://valuesandframes.org/the-common-cause-communications-toolkit/

    (3) When I speak to people outside the sector they get the use of emotive imagery and the way charities ask for support. What they can’t get their heads around is the list swapping. To them it just seems at odds with the sectors ‘homeland’ of integrity, honesty and ethical behaviour. Isn’t it time we all take a very deep breath and as a sector start to wean ourselves off this activity.