Are communications departments the enemy of fundraisers?

Published by Richard Radcliffe on

Call me stupid, dear friends, call me stupid but I despair of some big charities. I am about to call communication departments of some large charities stupid and I think for very good reasons. PLEASE let me know if I am wrong. Tweet your views to your heart’s content: be angry, be happy, be questioning but please do not just sit there saying nothing.

Let me tellyou some stories which are enough to make me angry or make me cry or lead me to the verge of violence.

Story one (please tweet – or re-tweet at the end of this story)

There is this international development agency – I will not give the name of the charity because I love the charity even though I hate the communications department). I met almost 200 of their donors – some of the most logical, honest and intriguing donors you could ever want to meet.


I sat down with them and after hearing many of their thoughts and insights I asked them how they wanted to be asked for a legacy. They were given every option you can imagine but they all wanted the newsletter. Why? Because they say they read it (I am not sure they read every word but they do love it) and it is more acceptable to have a legacy promotion which is not addressed to them personally so a newsletter is perfect. A direct mail shot was really not wanted at the moment. Some expressed real antagonism to many letters they have received.

The vision of the charity expressed by a field worker (they are practical and logical donors who like to see the people who “make the difference”).

We debated lots of story options and they clearly preferred:

A story, by the fundraiser, on how legacies have been used.

The tax advantages of leaving a legacy

So here I am face to face with the communications department telling them what their donors want: strong, tangible, logical and passionate stories.

First comment by Director of Communications (and if you are reading this blog and recognise yourself please consider leaving the non-profit sector as soon as possible – you are stupid and a waste of valuable money):

“You cannot have stories about giving a legacy in the newsletter, it is not a subject for publishing”

I will not go into the arguments I gave for the article but he has 10 pages of evidence to prove donor attitudes and desires to know the difference legacies make.

He said: “You can have an advertisement but not stories”

I reply: “Can there be an advertisement telling the stories?

“No. It is not right”

(not a great conversation so far).

I go on: “They want captions in photos so they can understand the context of the story. Can there be a photo with a caption but no story?



“Captions ruin the design of the magazine”

(This is getting silly but I am on the verge of a mental breakdown)

“OK, so if there can be an advertisement, can there be a simple response device so we can capture enquiry levels?”



(you guessed it!!)

“It makes the magazine unattractive”

(please note change of language from newsletter to magazine)

Now 101fundraising readers: please let me know your thoughts! Tweet now!

Story two

Now, dear readers, now please tell me this: do communication departments understand that supporter communications are both a cultivation and stewardship opportunity aimed at those who love your charity? Why do I ask?

Having met 83 donors and volunteers of a really big welfare charity I found their favourite communication is the quarterly newsletter. This printed document is loved by everyone aged over 65 – the prime legacy prospects to complete the donor pyramid and leave a legacy.

The communications department has decided to finish the printed version and decided to do an enews. Older donors now get no news in print.

The donors all tell similar stories:

“We would love you to save money and send us an electronic newsletter.

I respond: “Do you read emails from charities?

“Well”, they say, “not really, to be honest we will probably just delete it

My response: “But do you read the printed version?”. The universal response is yes they do!

“Also” says one great donor “I leave the printed version in the doctor’s surgery”

“Do you?”  says another “I leave mine in my church

“That’s funny” says another donor “I give it to my friends

I wonder how many donors they have each recruited over the years?

I wonder how many have left a legacy after reading about them in newsletters? It seems the newsletters triggered good thoughts about legacies.

Why do communications departments not understand the need for print for older generations?  Is it that really stupid argument: we do not see their money now?

Story three – donor behaviour

I have just met 124 donors who love the printed newsletter so much they even remember the stories they have read. WOW. And they want more.

But when I ask supporters if they have been to the website of the charity only 4% have – which, reviewing the last 2000 donors I have met, is very typical.

So why don’t you visit the website of “their charity” I ask?

“Because we get everything we need from the newsletter” is the typical response”

But when I ask if they would visit the website if they did not get a printed newsletter, they all say no. Why? They cannot be bothered.

So, fellow fundraisers, we have big communication problems.

Communication departments do not understand the information needs of donors to complete the donor pyramid. But we also have a donor problem: they are not interested enough to want more information.

This summarises the “legacy problem” beautifully:

We do educate donors to YEARN to know more so they are not inquisitive just boringly placid and nicely trusting  

We do not educate charity communicators to realise that if donors were given more information to spark a yearning to give, many more would give a legacy.

Tweet your answers now to @Richardradclif. Because this is just so stupid.

Richard Radcliffe

Richard Radcliffe is founder of Radcliffe Consulting, which helps charities to get more legacies. He is author of “Why legacies are brilliant for charities and how to get them,” recently published by Smee & Ford. He has almost 30 years’ experience in legacy fundraising and works across our globe.


Nick Allen · January 13, 2014 at 17:07

Brilliant piece, Richard. I’m an online fundraising kind of guy, but I know the enormous power of print, esp for older donors. Even if the newsletter just sits around on a table or in the loo, that’s more than an email or Web site does!

    Richard Radcliffe · January 13, 2014 at 19:06

    I agree Nick. Personally the loo is one of the greatest reading places for peace and quiet. Now…. Back to the kids

Ben Holgate · January 13, 2014 at 23:29

I know you are exaggerating for effect Richard, but I think you can make your point without effectively stating that all communications pros are idiots. I find the “fundraisers are saintly geniuses – brand/comms people are self-engrossed morons” meme childish and it’s the mainstay of all fundraising blogs. There are lousy comms people and great comms people and the same goes for fundraisers. In my charity I’m responsible for both and in effect comms works as a support function to fundraising; finding and developing the stories about our work that make the donor feel that their contribution is making the world a better place. However, it’s fundraisers who decide via what channel and in what format those stories will be told, based on their best understanding of the donors’ needs.

    Richard Radcliffe · January 14, 2014 at 10:17

    Hi Ben I entirely agree, there are some great communications peoople and some truly lousy fundraisers. We are all in the same business. But I sometimes, even often, feel that SOME communications’ departments do not realise that supporters want to be given the best opportunities to give and that we must make it easy for them to give in any way they want. you are obviously in agreat position but sometimes fundraisers seem ot be in a position where they cannot influence he input into communications to ensure ease of giving action.

@Charity_Scout · January 14, 2014 at 12:02

I sympathize. I worked with an ‘award winning’ marketing/comms team who had an obsession with branding and design that eclipsed good communications by completely ignoring content. For example, the annual report was beautiful – you could frame it and stick it on a wall – but it was unreadable. Not one member of the SMT could say what the four Key Marketing Messages were, even though they took six months to write and we were all supposed to use them. The result is that the charity looks slick and rich from the outside, but donors told me they didn’t really understand what it did any more. The charity is running a growing deficit and so will go into administration in a couple of years unless something dramatic happens (like a windfall legacy!) Very sad.

However, I also propose a possible solution:

nfpSynergy’s excellent report for Help The Hospices – Strength in Numbers, reported that “Many charities find silos between different parts of the organisations; the services team and the communications team; the fundraising team and the finance team to name but two. It is unusual to find such silos within the income generation teams.” This mirrors my experience too. Grouping these different functions under a ‘Business Development’ or ‘Income Generation’ lead may help unite the teams and cut out the internal competition which lies at the heart of these problems.

Politics prevented this from happening in my old charity but it may be a solution for others.

Robin · January 14, 2014 at 16:44

I love love love this article and often feel like I’m hitting my head against the wall when working with our Marketing/Comm team on our newsletter (which is why I play dumb and just brainstorm the stories, write the first draft and send it to my vendor before asking for help and review from Marketing/Comm. They can edit, but my boss and I have final say).

We’re a relatively large organization that is well established and well respected and has been around for more than 100 years and we are on issue FOUR of a print newsletter. Yes, you read that correctly. BUT the donors LOVE it. Three board members that are tough critics cannot stop talking about it. One even got worried at a meeting, when Marketing/Comm was presenting an “impact” document that they were worried it would replace the newsletter–don’t worry, not under my watch!

I have a question that is related to newsletters but sorta unrelated to the marketing/development battle over them: do people mail their newsletter to tribute (in honor of/in memory of) only donors ever? Sort of like an acquisition piece–see if they make a second gift, but if not, don’t add them to the regular direct mail pipeline? What about those whose only connection is something like a road race? Looking to increase our newsletter audience as those that receive it like it so much, but trying to figure out a cost-effective way of doing so. Any and all ideas are great.


    Richard Radcliffe · January 14, 2014 at 17:01

    Hi Robin in answer to your question I think the best brochure you can give any possible prospect is often the newsletter cos it gives outcomes …… Or should.

Jeff Schreifels · January 14, 2014 at 18:01

Love this, Richard. You are absolutely right.

Claudia Couture · January 14, 2014 at 19:10

Richard. Love your post. Most donors over 60 still like paper. Furthermore, it is a great tool to pass along and recruit new donors. I attended your conference last year in Montreal.

    Richard Radcliffe · January 16, 2014 at 12:27

    Hi Claudia hope Montreal is snow free and sun is shining. One statistic which still blows me away is the miniscule number of donors who look at “their” charity’s website. i think this is a truly fascinating challenge to fundraisers and communication departments. How can we change donor behaviour?

Laurence A. Pagnoni · January 16, 2014 at 13:39

Richard, may we re-post a shortened version of this at our blog called INFO? We have 3800 readers. See http://www.lapafundraising.com
We’d welcome you as a guest blogger. Please let me know.
Fondly, Laurence A. Pagnoni, NYC, Chairman LAPA Fundraising

    Richard Radcliffe · January 16, 2014 at 13:59

    If 101 are fine I am too! Happy to blog when I have time thank you richard

      Reinier Spruit

      Reinier Spruit · January 16, 2014 at 14:16

      Hi Laurence,

      You are more than welcome to re-publish 101fundraising blog posts elsewhere. If you do, please add that it “has been published prior on 101fundraising – Crowdblog on Fundraising” with a link to our crowdblog. If you want to make changes to the blog post, pls check with the author before publication.

      Thank you!

SarahatSelf · January 20, 2014 at 14:40

Comms and fundraising – it never seems to be an easy marriage. I’ve responded to Richard’s blog with a short post of my own, giving an alternative perspective. And yep, I’m a comms bod… http://www.selfcomms.co.uk/comms-is-not-the-enemy-of-fundraising/

Jcnougaret · January 3, 2015 at 14:28

Very provocative and challenging piece, but also a bit caricatural. There is no opposition between comms and fund raising. These two specialities have to work together and confrontation can also be constructive. If you look around you can as well find opposite stories of fundraising department that didn’t listen to comms and made mistakes…

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