Where now for fundraising?

Published by Ken Burnett on

When fundraising is seen as a public enemy, for sure it’s time to change.

To coincide with last Wednesday’s launch of the Etherington Review* the BBC published a poll revealing that 52 per cent of donors who give regularly to charity by standing order or direct debit feel ‘pressurised’ by fundraisers into increasing their donations. Eighteen per cent said they feel under ‘a lot of pressure’. The editor of BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, Joanna Carr, said, ‘We commissioned this poll to give us a better understanding of how much pressure charity-givers actually feel they are under to increase their donations.’

So how much pressure is appropriate to get someone to give to charity? Is it ever OK for any donor, anywhere, to feel pressurised into making or increasing a voluntary gift? When does fundraising move from comfortable, to uncomfortable, to unacceptable? And does it really matter all that much?

Judging by the ‘tsunami’ of critical comment that has filled the UK popular press these last several months, the viewing and listening public seems to think it does. The Government, shocked by the national outrage as the fundraising horror stories piled ever higher, demanded a prompt investigation.  On the day his review was published Sir Stuart Etherington, chair of the review panel, said, ‘I wish to be clear that charity fundraising has never been more important…This is why it is particularly crucial that we get fundraising right.

Fundraisers clearly live in interesting times.

It seems unarguable. It’s time to construct a better future, not dwell on a tainted past. Yet incredibly some fundraisers still seem to feel that the problem here is not the under-regulated misbehaviours of target-driven fundraisers, but a biased and vindictive media exaggerating the views of a vocal minority.

So this horrible summer of 2015 has to serve as a wake–up call for our sector. Reputation, after all, depends on perception. And anyone who doesn’t see that for huge swathes of our population their perception of charity fundraising has taken an unprecedented battering simply isn’t living in the real world.

Business as usual for the nation’s fundraisers is no longer an option. Which, for donors everywhere and for the future prosperity of our fabulous voluntary sector if we get the next steps right, might yet turn out to be a very good thing.

This week a group of senior voluntary sector figures backed by more than 120 fundraisers and concerned others have announced initial plans to set up an independent commission to report on and recommend, in detail, best practice that will put donors, not financial targets, back at the heart of British fundraising. The Commission on the Donor Experience will be formally launched towards the end of 2015 under the chairmanship of respected broadcaster and voluntary sector veteran Martyn Lewis CBE.

A lot of words have been employed to describe and dissect our current dilemma. Rather than rehash those now, I’d like to quote a comment from a much loved and respected senior fundraiser who was recently diagnosed with a life-limiting medical condition.

She wrote,

‘This year has been a tough one for people in our wonderful profession. The work we all do, the difference we make and even the role and importance of giving itself is being called into question. 

‘As a fundraiser, I always knew that donations change and save lives. And now, as a ‘beneficiary’,
I am seeing that magic from the sharp end.’

Liz Monks

The point is, for Liz and thousands, maybe millions like her, we fundraisers have a responsibility, a precious duty entrusted to us to improve forever the way large sectors of our public view fundraising in Britain.

That’s why the large group of fundraisers mentioned above has come together in this initiative and is asking all parts of the voluntary sector to join with them in making this Commission effective. Its purpose will be to define and improve how donors experience fundraisers and fundraising, to turn that experience, consistently and dependably, from often irritating and uncomfortable into a joyful, life-affirming way for anyone to make a tangible difference in a world of need.

What will the Commission on the Donor Experience do?

It will work in six main areas to turn a well-documented and accepted theory of donor-centred fundraising into consistent, sustainable practice. It will focus at least as much on what fundraisers should do, as what they shouldn’t. And it will consult widely and borrow heavily to achieve this.

  1. It will distil and define our best understanding of what donors want and how they feel.
  2. It will identify practical things fundraisers can do to ensure donors stay at the heart of all their actions.
  3. It will share and communicate that experience far and wide.
  4. It will ensure a better experience for new donors at and around the time of their first support.
  5. It will look at training and equipping all fundraisers to deliver the best practical donor experience. It will seek to define the skills, attributes and personal qualities they’ll need.
  6. It will consider not just the body of existing knowledge, but also what we don’t yet know – how we might innovatively reinvent the donor/cause relationship.

The ideas underpinning the Commission are supported broadly across the sector. Now all fundraisers and interested parties are invited to support, encourage and become actively involved in helping the Commission to deliver its goals. This Commission will work for the benefit of all donors, on behalf of the entire voluntary sector. So please, do get involved.

See also Giles Pegram’s blog, here.

Consultation documents from the Commission on the Donor Experience will be published on its website www.donor-experience.com as soon as possible. (NB the website is not yet functional, but will be soon).  To register for updates about the Commission please email me here.


(*) Regulating fundraising for the future: Trust in charities, confidence in fundraising regulation. Download here.

NB. in addition to publication on 101fundraising this article appears also on Ken Burnett’s blog and UK Fundraising.

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide.


david heyer · October 1, 2015 at 15:07

Fundraising needs visionaries like Ken. Great post, great initiative.

Richard Radcliffe · October 1, 2015 at 18:03

Having met more than 24000 donors it has been obvious that huge numbers of donors have been incredibly unhappy for decades. The Daily Mail and other media have done us a good service but it is a shame it takes such public publicity to get the sector to act.
Even in focus groups this afternoon donors are repeating to me what they have been saying for years: there is too much asking and too much thanking. This results in them not wanting a relationship. They just want evidence of change which most donors are severely lacking.

Stephanie Smith · October 2, 2015 at 00:28

I’ve read this blog 3 times and it seems like codswallop to me. Ok I’m tired and a bit grumpy, I’ve spent the evening with a group of fab hospice donors and I’ll be spending the next two days with my fundraising team, meeting supporters and showing them round our hospice during our Open Days. I just can’t imagine how a Commission for Donor Experience will have any real impact on the culture, practice and tactics embedded in many big charities. All I can foresee (and truly dread) is another round of lectures and presentations at the same old conferences by the same people. There is already more than enough waffle and theory on fundraising – it seems to me that very little has ever made it back into day to day fundraising operations, plans and decisions.
I also wonder if its really possible to meaningfully generalise about donor experience across the whole sector – we all have such different audiences for our causes. Its notable that there isn’t much in the blog above about listening to or engaging with donors. Anyway, I wish the Commission well and hope that whatever is produced manages to connect properly with the actual business of day to day fundraising.

richard · October 3, 2015 at 17:25

I agree with Stephanie

Charlie Hulme · October 3, 2015 at 21:53

I’m just glad someone is standing up for fundraisers, donors and beneficiaries. I only wish fundraising’s governing bodies could have shown the same initiative/backbone.

Fundraising ‘best practise’ has been publicaly dragged through the mud. No defense has been made (because it couldn’t be made. Let’s face it, the coverage has been vicious, biased and pretty damn accurate). But nothing has changed. The mentality which caused this problem is as entrenched as it ever was.

Of course I’m refering to the commoditisation of donors. The de-personalisation that takes place the second someone kindly donates. We refer to them as ‘donors’ but we treat them like data.

What does any charity know about the mass of names on their file? Yes they know the demographic they put them in. They know the amount they gave, when they gave and by which channel they gave it. They (sometimes) know the other interactions they’ve taken.

But they haven’t got the first clue why they gave (or why they stop). Instead they say ‘they give because we ask’ and use that as a license to bombard them – endlessly throwing shit at the fan in the hope something will stick.

Our failure to address the ‘why’ question (which by the way was answered a few years ago – see ‘Retention Fundraising’ by Roger Craver) has made our sector a nuisance and an irrelevance. Junk mail (and ‘mail’ is a cover all for every channel) only becomes junk if it’s not relevant.

There’s been a lot of changes made to fundraising. But all that’s actually changed is we’ll now be annoying and irrelevant to a few less people.

My understanding, and my hope, is this commission will bring fundraisers together to address the mentality that says volume rather than relevance is the answer.

    Derek Glass · October 11, 2015 at 02:50

    Charles, your surveys and Roger Craver’s book do not explain actual donor behaviour. What a donor tells you and how they actually behaviour are two completely different things.

    It is a bit suspicious that a bunch of guys who sell books on fundraising have self appointed themselves as the new arbiters of best taste in Fundraising. I sure hope it is not just an exercise in pumping up books sales, consulting fees, and commissions for various “surveys” like the ones you and Roger peddle. But your comments above certainly does suggest there’s wide scope for you, Roger, and Ken to profit quite a lot along the way.

Laura croudace · October 3, 2015 at 22:33

Thank you for writing this interesting piece Ken, it is very important for us to remember that as fundraisers we do need training and support.

I often wish that fundraising were better understood as a career by the public,not only so that I don’t have to explain to people it’s more than ‘shaking’ a bucket- as they seem to think… But also so that more people aspire to get involved in our sector.

I personally would love to see mandatory training for all trustees when they become trustees- as I think this would be hugely beneficial for all and would improve upon their excellent skill sets. They care so very much and I think that they too would get so much from training- whether that’s possible though is another question entirely.

Practical things that fundraisers can do to make sure donors are at the centre of everything we do- well, that is music to all fundraisers ears I bet! I’m often thinking of little things I can do to show that I care greatly about what my donors think and feel- and how grateful I am that they care enough to donate to our charity…. I am very excited to read more about that!

Thank you to all involved- it’s lovely to see so many people giving up their own time to make our sector even better.
Laura @alwayscolour

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