What can we learn from Lord Grade?

July 17 2016 - Mark Phillips

Last week, I shared a few thoughts in Third Sector, about Lord Grade's views on fundraising. You probably read about his interview in The Sunday Times and may well have heard his speech at the IoF gala dinner.

What follows is a slightly more detailed piece on my take on his point of view and what we can learn from it. I've decided to share it here, because I received some very strong confidential emails thanking me for saying what I did – but no public comments.  I'm getting the impression that many people actually feel worried about speaking out against the current consensus, so I've added a vote at the end. If you'd like to share your view – completely anonymously – please take a few seconds to let me know what you think.

Because if you listened to the response around the IoF convention and on Twitter, you'll know that it reflected a less than positive take on his comments. "Unhelpful", "patronising" and "condescending" were some of the more diplomatic adjectives on offer.

But could there be something positive in what Lord Grade had to say?

Perhaps.

At university, I attended a few lectures given by Professor Sir Roland Smith, then chairman of British Aerospace. I took away a very important point that he made about communications: it’s not necessarily what people say that matters; it’s what they actually mean that counts.

The fundraising crisis that burst across our front pages last year was not a complete surprise. It was heralded by an increasing amount of negative feedback from donors that was eventually reflected in the media.

These weren’t complaints about grassroots work. Instead we saw a stream of dispiriting remarks, comments and articles about how charities were run.  About large salaries, high administration costs and aggressive fundraising techniques.

We took those donors at their word and responded by justifying those activities. Explanations were given about the need for competitive pay and how effective fundraising actually is. The "one bad apple" defence was employed (perhaps too often). And it was also suggested that all anyone had to do if they didn’t want to give, was to say "no thanks" or drop that appeal letter in the bin.

These responses failed to change anything, because they did not address the fundamental concerns of donors – that they are unhappy about how fundraisers treat them and make them feel.

It’s interesting that when Lord Grade highlighted this point by reminding us that donors were also consumers, his analogy was a Scrabble app that disturbed his enjoyment of the game by regularly flashing up ads. Of course, he could have paid for a version that was ad free, but perhaps he didn’t know one existed? Instead, he became irritated about the fact that the game developers used ads to try to earn a living from their work.

Could it be that fundraisers are facing a very similar problem? I think I’m safe in saying that we all want improved medical treatments, organisations to protect everything we hold dear and an end to poverty. But perhaps, as with Scrabble apps, people now expect these services for next to nothing?

But why has this happened?

I’ve long thought that the proliferation of repeated requests for gifts of £2 or £3 has significantly underpriced our work. Such small gifts make giving easy. The sums are so small that, to many people, they hardly matter.

The fact is, giving can and should be enjoyable. And anyone who thinks that the future of fundraising can be built with techniques that simply make it easy is dangerously myopic. The commercial world has known for a long time that everyone values better treatment. Even Michael O'Leary of RyanAir eventually realised he had to stop treating his customers so badly. They may have come for low prices. But they certainly didn't stick around to 'enjoy' the customer service.

And that’s why Lord Grade might have done us a favour. He’s reminded us that as consumers, we will pay for what we need and what we value. This is particularly important when payment is voluntary – as with his Scrabble app and with anyone’s gift to charity.

Our focus has to be on building relationships that donors actually want. And to that end, we must focus on making giving emotionally rewarding. Because, at the end of the day, that’s the type of feeling that people will actually pay for. The growing interest in mid-value fundraising recognises this very fact. But our goal should be to treat all donors like our wealthier ones.

I think Fundraising Regulator board member Lucy Caldicott summed it up quite well when she suggested that we’ll know we are doing something right when Lord Grade welcomes fundraisers knocking at his door with open arms.

I think she may well be correct.

  • Michael Hodgson

    I think it may be a bit of both. Because we don’t know how many of the complaints we read in the ‘press’ come from donors or come from people who will never welcome fundraisers because they do not and will not give….. (Or do we? )

    We need to get better at focussing on our donors, and showing them what their donations do ( and don’t) pay for, but we need to ensure were not wasting our efforts trying to please ‘consumers’ that will never be our ‘consumers’.

  • I’ve been out of the loop a while but always read Mark’s thoughts with interest. The one thing that springs to mind when I see discussions like this one (and opinions like Lord Grade’s) is this:

    ‘Donors’ aren’t one, homogeneous audience. Grade’s “consumers” point is right to the extent that most successful organisations would treat different audiences, well, differently…

    Consequently, I doubt there is one solution (although making donation enjoyable is a pretty good underlying principle) to change the negative perceptions of fundraising and perhaps it will take some strong and continued effort by influencers rather than charities themselves to get this message to finally sink in.

    For example, think about the result of the Daily Mail’s comments on behalf of the Brexit campaign. Isn’t it the influencers of an audience rather than the message’s original authors that really hold the power to mould opinion? If I were a charity CEO or perhaps a professional body for charities (you know who you are), I would be seriously considering a unified, co-ordinated, sustainable and prolonged communications strategy based around what fundraising and therefore charities, bring to the UK.

    From grass roots up. And that includes helping families to pay their bills as charity employees…