Not much has changed in the fundraising environment since 1971

February 17 2018 - Mark Phillips

Recently, I had the chance to read a 47 year-old review of the UK fundraising market, produced by a long-closed advertising agency, Rupert Chetwynd and Partners. As I turned the pages, I found myself thinking that much of the content could have been written a few months ago, not in 1971 – a time when the Morris Marina was just starting to roll off the production line.

The paper focused specifically on the problems faced by (large) aid agencies and highlighted the fact that a significant sector of the public tended to associate them with bureaucracy and waste.

It identified an undercurrent within this group which viewed charity staff as self-serving rather than focused on beneficiaries. For example, at least one member of the public (who worked as a Covent Garden porter) reported the “fact” that senior staff of at least one large charity were known to “drive around in Rolls-Royces”. A claim that I’ve heard repeated in research over many years.

The report suggested some reasons for this sense of negativity which included (in no order of importance):

  • Fundraising by charities had increased both in “quantity and in quality”. This had generated a hardening of public attitudes to charities (leading the authors to conclude that the professionalisation of charities, with particular reference to their communications, had led the public to see them as perhaps “larger and more institutionalised…than is in fact the case”. They also recognised that more requests for help led people to feel under increased pressure to give).
  • There was a “large group of non-givers who seize upon any rumour as an excuse not to give, and proceed to disseminate the rumour further.”
  • Fundraising (for overseas aid agencies) had concentrated on disaster appeals and famine relief (rather than showing the need for longer-term projects) and there was a subsequent lack of understanding of the importance of “development aid”.
  • Overseas aid tended to run counter to the idea that ‘charity begins at home’ but was also seen as an area rife with “administrative difficulties, bureaucracy, politics and larceny.” There was also a concern voiced by donors that the world was becoming ever more confusing which created an increasing distance between donors and beneficiaries.
  • The loss of Empire meant people felt less responsibility for ‘international’ work.
  • The “whole immigration controversy had caused a backlash” against aid agencies as they held “a clear position on the issue” (remember that Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech had been made less than three years previously).

The report went much further than identifying barriers to giving. It also recognised there were a number of key psychological drivers. “Insurance” was highlighted as being important for healthcare causes, but “guilt” (in addition to “intellectual conviction”) was seen as a significant motivator for giving to overseas aid. From our perspective in 2018, we know that the use of guilt in fundraising can be a double-edged sword. It may well get people reaching into their pockets but it can also create a very different response where non-donors justify their decision not to give – even in the face of extreme need – by placing blame on the charity. Depressingly, then as now, some people described NGOs as undeserving, corrupt or perhaps simply incompetent, even where there was little or no evidence to justify such a claim (bringing us back to charity CEOs riding around in Rolls-Royces).

A particular group of donors was identified as being of importance to overseas aid charities. Members of which were described as people “whose lifestyle involves a high social awareness”. Interestingly, it was felt that it was impossible to classify them within standard demographic groups as they would be found in all strata of society. However “upper class groups and the middle ages groups…(with) a London and S.E. England emphasis where we find a greater proportion of the country’s wealth” were designated as the key target audience for fundraising.

In order to tackle the misconceptions about overseas aid, recommendations were made that donor communications had to do more than simply ask for funds. They needed to address misunderstandings and build loyalty. It was proposed that “progress reports, to encourage further involvement could be mailed several times a year”. These could motivate the donor to show interest in “another practical way – for example, by joining in or organising local fundraising activity.” Charity shops were seen to be a vehicle that could further ‘educate’ supporters about a charity’s work as well as tackling false impressions.

There was also a recommendation that this “educational work” could be expedited by improved thanking programmes which would both acknowledge donor generosity and explain in greater detail what the donor was making possible.

Consideration was also given to making “the raising of funds more meaningful”. It was suggested that featuring specific projects would help as “if the public believes the problems of Overseas Aid to be so large as to be insuperable, then this approach would counter this belief – a relatively small amount can fund a specific worthwhile project.” It was even recommended that a “man-on-the-spot” should check that “every penny is spent exactly as it should be”. He is “then requested to submit written progress reports on how the project is progressing. Thus, no room at all is left for the money to be ‘mislaid'”.

It was a fascinating read. But what surprised me most was just how sensible the analysis and recommendations were – along with the thought of just how many charities today could benefit from following Chetwynd’s suggestions. Take a look at my ten key take aways from their paper…

  • Don’t think that everyone in the country will give to you. They won’t. Focus on those with a connection to your cause and the means to support you.
  • Look at what donors think of you and address the reasons that stop them from supporting you – whether they are true or not.
  • Some people won’t support you and may even undermine you with rumour and gossip – don’t ignore them. Focus on getting the truth across before false impressions can fill the media void. Perhaps there might even be an argument for running regular ‘educational’ ads in some traditionally hostile publications?
  • The wider political narrative will change. Keep up with it and adapt your messaging accordingly.
  • Guilt is just one reason why people give. But on its own, it does not build loyalty.
  • Give donors an achievable goal. Focusing on an end-game of No More Poverty is too big and too far away for most people to appreciate.
  • Small worthwhile projects are much better at engaging donors than requests for very small or incredibly large donations.
  • Loyalty comes from showing people what they have achieved over the long-term through their gifts to you – not what the charity has done more generally.
  • Donors need to know that you value their gift. Evidence that you are spending it wisely should be a central part of your offer. Thinking about it, a Chief Financial Officer could well be a great signatory for at least one appeal a year.
  • Some people will give money. Others will give time. Others will engage socially through community fundraising. Have offers that allow people to support you in a way that works for them – and you.

Not bad for 1971 is it? If the sector had focused on some of Chetwynd’s recommendations during the last five decades I imagine fundraising would be a much stronger position that it is now. But there’s nothing to stop us from using their ideas moving forward. I have a few other research reports from back in time that I’ll be sharing over the next few weeks. They have some real gems hidden in them, so keep an eye out for those notification emails chums.