The price we pay for losing sight of the donor

Published by Giles Pegram on

I have been somewhat dismayed at the flood of criticisms that are now threatening to engulf our great profession. In my fifty years of fundraising, I have never seen anything like it.

First, the sad death of Mrs Olive Cooke, last May. All the evidence is that she didn’t commit suicide because of the volume of appeals she received   Yet she touched a nerve. There has been a media storm that started with the Daily Mail, but also included the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and many others.

I have seen much response from the fundraising sector that says that the media are the villains. I don’t agree.   Fundraisers have no one to blame for this but themselves. Many say the commercial fundraising agencies are to blame. Again I don’t agree. These agencies surely were only acting on behalf of the charity staff that recruited them, who often choose the agencies that offer the lowest cost for recruiting a new donor. And who far too often don’t question the activities used by agencies.  I am embarrassed that in my thirty years as an appeals director, I only once visited my telephone fundraising agency.

This kind of activity has become a fundraising machine, which all too often loses sight of the donor entirely.

The job of fundraisers is to connect the donor with the cause. And to do that brilliantly.

Every communication or interaction with a donor should make the donor feel better after the communication than before it.

But too often fundraisers don’t do it. We judge an appeal on its results, its ROI, not whether the donor feels better than they did before the appeal.

Fundraisers who follow that simple mantra will have satisfied, committed, loyal donors who give because they experience the joy of giving, and don’t feel a sense or obligation. Their giving is a joyful experience, not one that is based on guilt or obligation. Which in turn will increase lifetime value.

That is why a group of fundraisers and academics have come together with the idea of a Commission on the donor experience

The Commission on the Donor Experience

The Commission’s objective is to increase both funds raised and donor satisfaction by appealing to the feelings, thoughts and desires of donors as well as emphasising the needs of the charity. The Commission will identify best practice and capture examples of it in order that these should become shared and common practice.

According to its draft terms of reference it will achieve this principally by…

  • …defining donor-centred fundraising as it should be and drafting a revised/new commitment or promise to donors.
  • …defining optimum culture and levels of customer service in charities.
  • …considering how the key drivers shown to increase satisfaction, commitment, loyalty and lifetime value among donors can become commonplace in the donor experience, plus how performance should be measured in all these areas in addition to measuring income.
  • …improving clarity and sensitivity in how fundraisers communicate and changing the way fundraisers think about and talk about donors.
  • …examining recruitment, training and retention of the right staff with the right approach, passion and commitment.
  • …considering how charities attract new donors and recommending restrictions or changes to techniques that might be seen as particularly intrusive, plus improvements that might prove more donor-friendly.
  • …defining ways to give donors useful and practical choices, particularly in how they are contacted and communicated with, plus providing guidance on how fundraisers should sensibly steward donors and potential donors particularly as they become elderly or infirm.
  • …considering how to alter the culture of fundraising as it applies to boards, CEOs and senior management teams including focusing on longer-term goals in addition to immediate income. And seeing fundraising costs not as an overhead but as an investment.

In showing firm resolve to place the donor at the centre of fundraising the Commission will be doing everything that those who are eager to promote the ‘proud to be a fundraiser’ campaign might wish for. The best defence of fundraisers and fundraising is to put our donors’ interests firmly at the heart of everything we do. Our aspiration is that every communication with or to the donor will make him, or her, feel good, as well as improving each donor’s lifetime value to the cause.

The Commission intends to consult widely and to access the best of current thinking and practice on donor relationship development. In writing this blog now I am inviting you to become involved… If you would like to receive updates and access to consultation documents please do register your interest by emailing Ken Burnett at ken@kenburnett.com.

UK Fundraising and 101fundraising are cooperating in a simultaneous publication to spread this news as wide and far as possible.

Please also see Ken Burnett’s blog on the Commission here.

Giles Pegram

Giles is vice-chair of the Commission on the Donor Experience, an initiative aimed at transforming fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. He is also a trustee of the Institute of Fundraising.


James Long · October 1, 2015 at 21:02

Giles, the commission is a wonderful idea and I’m sure I join many in thinking it’s long overdue. Speaking as someone who has had a fascination with the donor experience for many years, I hope that the commission doesn’t fall into the trap of many initiatives within the sector whereby they assume the solution lies in building understanding of the issues rather than concentrating on the implementation of what is already known.

We already know so much about the donor experience and it’s relationship to value – the academic literature for which is substantial.
I’d suggest the missing element isn’t so much the sectors understanding of the experience but the sectors inability to embed even basic hygiene factors within their communication plans and have the discipline to maintain them in the face of challenging financial demands.

From the bullet points above the balance between knowledge and implementation looks great – so my hope is that the balance is maintained and that it doesn’t get fixated on the pursuit of knowledge.

Best of luck

    Giles Pegram CBE · October 1, 2015 at 21:31

    Hi James,

    I couldn’t agree more. Ken wrote ‘Relationship Fundraising’ two decades ago. Everyone claims to have read it.. But it has not become common practice.

    We are only interested in knowledge as it affects what people actually DO. We want to find out what donors want, and what they don’t want.

    Unless this results in a change of behavior , our work, like so many others,will be in vain.



      Derek Glass · October 11, 2015 at 04:32

      Giles, everyone has indeed read Relationship Fundraising. For the past 20 years, it’s what’s been passed off for best practice in the UK, and look where it got you.

      Your so-called “commission” on the “donor experience” looks a lot like a way to sell more books, run up more consulting fees, and blame everyone else for the problem.

      Relationship Fundraising is the closest thing to a religion in the fundraising sector any one has ever seen. Not a soul working in the British fundraising sector has ever dared to question it.

      You and Ken carry just as much responsibility for the situation you are in as anyone one in the UK. I certainly hope your new “commission” is not just a promotional vehicle for Ken’s book sales.

        Giles Pegram CBE · October 11, 2015 at 19:49

        Hi Derek,

        Your posts to my blogs never cease to amuse me.

        Do you remember the first exchanges we had?

        Unfortunately although most have read Relationship Fundraising, very view implement it. The Commission, far from an attempt to sell more books, (Do you know my background? Do you seriously think I would commit myself to a book selling exercise?) is about making the ideas of Relationship Fundraising real. Identifying best practice, and distilling it, sharing it, and promoting it.

        If we succeed we will transform fundraising in the UK.

        Keep them coming!



          Derek Glass · October 12, 2015 at 06:20

          Giles, that book has been around for 20 years. The problem you are having in the UK is that nobody in the UK fundraising sector has enough of a spine to stand up to trashy tabloid journalists. You’ve let them hijack the debate. Going back and re-reading a 20 year old book isn’t the answer. Unless, of course, that’s the whole point — to get more people reading (and buying) that old book.

Henry Larry · January 22, 2024 at 09:42

Acknowledging the need for a shift in fundraising culture is crucial. Embracing donor centered practices can create a positive ripple effect fostering a deeper connection between donors and the cause.
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