Give the hat back!

October 19 2015 - Mark Phillips

Following my last post, I've had a few discussions with fundraisers about professionalism and what it actually means. As a result, I thought it might be of interest to expand a little on my thinking.

As I understand it, professionalism is undertaking a task with skill and good judgement. But in fundraising, I don’t think that is the case at all.

Instead, professionalism for many people, has become short-hand for copying what goes on in the commercial sector.

It means mission statements, reputation management, cost reduction, a focus on profit and the creation of strict brand guidelines that tell you exactly (amongst other things) how to position a logo.

We’ve imported all these business ideas – and more – over the last decade or so. And many charities have employed commercial marketeers and communications professionals to help implement them (either directly or through the use of agencies).

But we’ve been so enamoured with the power of these dark arts that we’ve forgotten to ask one important question – do these people or organisations actually know anything about fundraising?

In reality, we’ve been so caught up with the idea of professionalism, that many charities have turned their backs on the key elements of great fundraising practice.

I’m talking about treating donors like people, linking them to the work that they care about, recognising that they are more important than we are, showing them how they are making a difference, giving them a chance to do something more than sign up to a direct debit or run a coffee morning and at the end of their lives, memorialising them.

The fact is, fundraising isn’t marketing.

Fundraising isn’t advertising.

It’s fundraising!

It’s a skill that can’t just be imported from the commercial sector. Of course, just as in any industry,  there are some elements that are transferable. But all should be judged on one key criterion – will this give the donor a better experience? Because that’s the only thing that matters.

The one benefit of the fundraising crisis is that it has given us an opportunity to see more clearly what we should be aiming to achieve.

There's a great piece that illustrates this rather well. It written by the Kent and Middlesex batsman, Ed Smith in The Economist's, Intelligent Life magazine. He recounts an interview with the former director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, John Kay.

Kay speaks about the financial crisis, which as we now know, was partly caused by an excessive faith in the professional expertise of the banks' quantitative analysts. As he says…

“Banks persuaded themselves that risk management could be treated as a problem that was closed, determinate and tractable. We, and they, learnt that they were wrong. We opened the door to much unscientific nonsense. The pursuit of a mistaken kind of rationality has in practice produced wide irrationality. It’s a question of having the judgment to say ‘This feels unstable.’ The bogus professionalism proved deceptive.”

It is the ability to make that type of judgement that makes a great fundraiser. And as we re-build fundraising, that is the ability we need. The focus on the tools of the mercantile sector must take a back seat and our commercial colleagues who want to work with us, need to put in some serious hours learning about why people give before they take charge of how we present ourselves to the public again.

Or as the young sorcerer found in Walt Disney's Fantasia found, things might start getting a little out of control again.

  • Priscilla Hon

    I have been mulling over this same problem for a while now and I am glad you said it. Fundraising is not marketing and it shouldn’t be. A fundraiser’s job is not just to find the money but to be able to turn around and ask “is the money even going to make a difference?”