What’s the point of copying if we all have different exam papers?

June 20 2017 - Mark Phillips

A few days ago, I shared this quote from the ad man, Bill Bernbach on Twitter (if you don’t know who he was, take a look at this).

“Imitation can be commercial suicide”.

I suggested copying was pretty normal for charities and I asked if this was one of the key reasons why we had negative growth in the UK fundraising sector over recent years. As UK Giving 2017 points out, individual giving had fallen by almost one fifth in 2015 compared to 2010.

Though some people suggested charities should copy more, others said that charities were copying the wrong things. The view was shared that the focus on copying popular “approaches” to fundraising had a negative impact as it had caused testing to fall by the wayside.

But throughout the conversations, on and offline, there was an ongoing concern that perhaps copying wasn’t necessarily the best fundraising strategy that a charity could adopt.

I can’t imagine many charities featuring the following in their annual report.

“As we approach 2018, the fundraising team look forward to seeing what’s happening in the wider sector and then copying some of the approaches as quickly as they can – even before they are proven!”

But it appears that this is not a million miles from the truth. I’ve sat in many meetings over the years where fundraisers (or trustees) say, “What we need is (insert current fashionable thing here).”

Those fashionable things have varied over the years. They include face to face fundraising, ice bucket challenges, facial hair growing competitions, the removal of make-up, text giving, the provision of hot beverages and various types of race. But they can all beguile fundraisers. Perhaps because they are suffering from FOMO or don’t have any ideas for themselves.

And that’s very dangerous.

Fundraising is like taking a really tough exam. But the problem is everyone has a different exam paper and if you start copying someone else’s answers you may well be in the same position as Ronnie Corbett in the following video. You can’t expect to be right when the information you are relying on is wrong.

For example, If you work for a healthcare charity, you need to focus on those people with the condition you are working to eradicate. They are your key constituency because they have a real connection to your work. At Bluefrog Fundraising, we’ve had some of our greatest successes when we’ve stopped looking to recruit people from face to face or TV or DM and instead focused on those families who have come to us through giving in honour, memoriam or legacies (and offered them more reasons to give).

It sounds obvious, But I have seen too many healthcare charities simply look to pour their recruitment budget into yet another campaign aimed at making the general public feel sorry for those with the disease or condition. The trouble with that approach is that it rarely recruits long-term, committed supporters.

But the connection approach won’t necessarily be appropriate for a charity working with children or in development. You are not going to be overwhelmed with high-value unsolicited gifts. You’ll get a few. But unless there has been some form of high profile news story that relates to your work, people won’t think of you. That’s why you have to put more focus on packaging your work in a way that inspires people and shows them how valuable they are. If you don’t, you’ll have low second gift rates and high attrition. And I always think that is nature’s way of showing you that you are doing something wrong.

So rather than copy what other charities are doing, stop and look at your own organisation and understand why people give to you and what they want from you. Depending on your cause, they will be motivated by very different things. I can’t recommend speaking to donors and asking them about their motivations enough – either on an ad hoc basis or as part of a formal research programme. The first job of any fundraiser when starting in a new charity should be to spend a day with the appeals administration team. Open up appeals, read what people write on their donation forms and pick up the phone. It doesn’t matter if it is praise, questions or a complaint. Every conversation is a chance to learn.

To be successful – even at the basics – you need to understand what your donors’ needs are and why they want to give to you. Only when you understand that inside and out, can you start looking around at some of the great ideas out there and make an informed judgment on whether they could be suitable for you. So rather than invest in copying what others are doing, invest in getting under your donors’ skin and ensure their needs become part of your brand’s DNA.

When you finally have that cracked, that’s when you’ll come up with great ideas of your own. And then you’ll be in the lovely position of worrying about others copying you!