“Because it works” is not a good enough answer. Here’s why.

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

success-and-failure-signWhat is success in fundraising? And what is failure? That might seem a ridiculously simple and binary question with a ridiculously simple and binary answer: it’s what works, and what does not.

And yet it isn’t that simple, is it? It all depends on what you’re measuring. Where you start. What your target is and what it might take to reach it. How you compare with others.

The trauma that’s hit fundraising in the UK over the last year has raised a lot more questions, many of which don’t have easy answers but still have a bearing on what success looks like. If you aren’t from the UK, don’t be complacent. This is something where we’re just ahead of you, which could easily jump borders. Our Brexit won’t protect you.

“What works”, taken out the immediate metrics of response rates, average gifts, net income and ROIs, now has to answer “for whom”? Because it’s clear that a lot of fundraising activity has got a lot of people rather disenchanted with charities, and once they realised they weren’t alone in feeling that, they’ve been vocal about it.

The media has been awash with stories confirming their negative experiences of excessive mail, intrusive phone calls, and irritating face-to-face fundraising. Trust has fallen quite dramatically. Just last week, the UK Charity Commission issued a report showing trust in charities has fallen 15%, from a score of 6.7 out of 10 in 2014, to 5.7 out of 10 this year.

Fundraising isn’t working for donors, or the wider public. Ah, but we’re still getting good results, comes the reply. Who cares? It’s working for beneficiaries, for whom we raise the money, isn’t it? But at what cost, I’d ask? Do the ends justify the means? Is there longer-term and wider damage? It’s hard to say, because we enter territory without too many metrics (though initiatives like the Commission on the Donor Experience are working on that). We enter questions around ethics and values, and have to think about public perception and the risk of brand damage. We have to use judgement, as well as raw evidence. I’ve written here before on this question as it relates to the representation of those we serve. Some speculative wishful thinking is in order until we know more about the full impact we’re having.

There’s a commercial example in the UK right now. Tesco, the largest supermarket in the UK, has been selling a lot of its fresh food – meat, fruit and vegetables – under fictional farm brands. Essentially, these take advantage of the whole ‘buy local’ idea, with people imagining they get better quality and support local farmers at the same time, Even though much of the produce comes from as far and wide around the world as it ever did. Tesco says it works, that it’s making a difference to their bottom line. But is that ok, when it’s pretending to be something it’s not? Doesn’t that just eat further away at credibility, authenticity, and trust?

Our fundraising faces similar challenges. What’s really got the UK fundraising sector thinking is the question of the cumulative impact of fundraising on individuals. As single charities, we all make our own rational decisions. Everything ‘works’ in our own little world of metrics. We look after ‘our’ supporters with a view on how often it might be reasonable to contact them. But we forget that generous people support a lot of charities, and that adds up to a lot of contact.

What we’re dealing here is an example of ‘the tragedy of the commons – that economic theory that explains how the rational decision-making of everyone in a community, can lead to the destruction of the common resource. (For example, pastoralists all increasing their herds of goats, leading to overgrazing of fragile land, and ecological disaster). Sixteen years ago, the UK fundraising sector set up a regulatory body to manage face to face fundraising, managing and allocating street sites in conjunction with local authorities, specifically to avoid a gold rush that would lead to the end for everyone. It really hasn’t done a bad job.

And now we are faced with whether we have been doing this with everything else. Is our fundraising activity sustainable? Is it ‘working’ for the sector at large? Is it working for our future, in terms of public trust, supporter relationships, and longer-term income?

Copy Copy CopyAll of this provoked a great debate recently about innovation and best practice: Joe Jenkins asked whether our sector’s culture of sharing and copying was contributing to the homogenisation of fundraising, a reduction to the lowest common denominator. Claire Axelrad responded, arguing that sharing and copying spread best practice that raised more money. A cry of “it works”? Maybe. I’ve complained on SOFII (“it won’t work here”) about fundraisers’ reluctance to learn and copy. Copying is the greatest form of flattery, and the quickest way to innovation success (as laid out in Mark Earl’s fun book, “Copy, Copy, Copy”, but the trick of course, is to adapt what you see and learn to work for you, and do it differently, as Derek Humphries nicely summed up (“Don’t cut and paste”). I think we’d all agree with that.

Joe’s is an important challenge, to think about how we forge new paths to keep things fresh and not destroy our ‘commons’ before their time. Claire’s is an important argument too. Not all charities have the resources to test and innovate, and rely on watching those that do, and copying what they hear is best practice. “What works”. It’s all part of our fundraising ecology.

Oxfam water pack outerWhich reminds me of my biggest direct mail failure, which I’m happy to share. At Oxfam we had a very successful direct mail pack for new supporter recruitment. It had been working for ten years, beating every new idea we tested against it. Determined to crack it, we put our agency on the case, with two creative teams and a whirl through their innovation hothouse. We deconstructed all we knew made a difference to results – engagement devices that were relevant to the brand story, and tactile, the latest on format design. We spent more time on it than on any other creative development. Whatever. God knows how we ended up with this. It bombed, as common sense should have told us it would. (We did beat that pack in the end).

Does my challenge that “because it works’ is no longer a good enough answer, change the importance of testing, learning and improving? No, of course not. It’s just that the question “what works?” has got a whole lot bigger, and we’ve all got to pay attention to that. It’s not just about the numbers. Public trust is our lifeblood, more than the money, for without it, the money won’t follow. Public trust is our common good, and that’s what we all have to look after. Including you.

As the Lorax said: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.

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Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


claire axelrad · July 4, 2016 at 22:18

Thanks for continuing this important, thought-provoking conversation. I’d amend “because it works” to include the imperative of the medical profession: “First, do no harm.” So it has to work and also not harm the sector as a whole. Before doing anything, I always try to ask “What will the donor think?” It’s not always easy to get this answer right, because working on the inside (within the NPO walls) leads to insider thinking. So the question has to be asked of outsiders as well. Which is why nonprofits should survey more, ask for feedback more (on social media, remit devices, newsletters, etc.) and really listen.

I’d still counsel charities to ask “What’s working out there?” followed by “How can we adapt that to make it work for us?” But perhaps this should then be followed by “How might this be harmful?” What works is always evolving. Just because it worked for Charity A yesterday doesn’t mean it will work for Charity B tomorrow. So, adopting any new strategy requires a mini SWOT analysis. It may be replete with strengths and opportunities, yet the weaknesses it plays upon and threats it poses may outweigh the good.

    Matthew Sherrington · July 5, 2016 at 00:30

    Thanks Claire. Yes, I like the ‘do no harm’ imperative. In fact I use just that idea in my earlier blog on representation and stereotypes, referenced here. The sad fact is that in the UK, the cumulative effect of high volume fundraising has done a lot of harm to public trust, and now to income and through to resources available for programmes. I think the questions will remain dependent on judgement, as harm will be subjective, and metrics elusive, particularly over the long-term.

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