Relationship Fundraising – Get Real

Published by Meredith Niles on

Let’s call the charity in question Mr. Big. After all, they are a household name, and I am sure you’d know them, but I’ve made a promise never to kiss and tell.

carrie-bradshaw2We got off to such a promising start. Introduced by a mutual friend (she responded to Mr. Big’s request to share a campaign; I followed her lead), we communicated by text at first. The charity let me know they cared by sending me a small number of regular updates. Personalised to me, referencing the campaign I had supported, these little messages made me feel like I was part of something bigger.

After a few months of courtship, Mr. Big decided to take things to the next level. A member of the in-house team rang me to ask me to step up my commitment and make our relationship official. The caller was knowledgeable, friendly, passionate, and seemed genuinely grateful for my support. I happily agreed to set up a regular gift.

And then things went off spectacularly off-track.

The next time I heard from Mr. Big was a letter saying they were sorry I had cancelled my direct debit, asking me to reconsider. Problem 1: I hadn’t cancelled it; I contacted my bank, and they had no record of ever being contacted by Mr. Big. Was Mr. Big really Mr. Too Big – as in “Too Big to Notice Me”?

Problem 2: the tone of the letter didn’t in any way match the tone of my previous communication with Mr. Big. There was no reference to my previous engagement, no mention of the great work that they were doing and why my support mattered, no thank you. It was cold and impersonal, 100% focused on process.

It was like I was dealing with a totally different person. (I was, by the way — I was now dealing with the “Supporter Care Team” as opposed to the campaigners and fundraisers who had recruited me.)

I tried contacting Mr. Big to try to set up my direct debit again, but I didn’t manage to speak to the correct person, and I never got a call back. How I wished to speak to the Mr. Big I had gotten to know over the last few months! But alas, the only number available to me was that of the Supporter Care team, who did not return my love.

Within a week, however, I had a chance at redemption: a mailing from another organisation included an invitation to take part in Mr. Big’s lottery programme. I could start seeing Mr. Big regularly without having to go through the Supporter Care team (and it came with an opportunity to win a prize as well — a mini-bonus!). I returned the paper direct debit mandate and crossed my fingers that this time our relationship would be consummated.

My wish was partially fulfilled. The direct debit mandate went through, and I was now contributing financially. But the next round of communications I received was enough to make a girl’s heart sink.

One day, a letter from the Supporter Care Team confirming the direct debit had been established. Same cold, impersonal tone, 100% focussed on process, 0% joy and delight. The A4 letter committed so many cardinal sins of charity DM: huge amounts of blank space, no emotional engagement.

But the worst sin was this: dear reader, Mr. Big appeared to have forgotten my name! The letter was literally addressed to “Dear “. Dear BLANK!!

Even worse! The next day, another letter — this one from a different member of the (ironically named) Supporter Care Team. This letter confirmed my enrolment in the lottery and gave me my unique number. Same cold tone. No thank you. No mention of the work. Same waste of space. Just process. Why this seemingly mandatory process notification couldn’t have been combined with the one I received literally the day before is beyond me. At least this time Mr. Big managed to remember my name, but still!

I felt so used — it was clear that despite all the lovely talk at the beginning of our relationship, I am just another notch on Mr. Big’s belt. Once I agreed to go all the way, Mr. Big was just going through the motions. If I wasn’t already pretty invested, I’d be breaking up with this charity by now.

I couldn’t help but wonder: fundraisers spend so much time talking about the importance of relationships, but do they stop to think about how their communications would sound if they were put in the context of an actual human relationship?


This is a true story of my attempt to grow a relationship with an actual charity. Offline, I have provided their Supporter Care team with some direct feedback, which I hope was taken in the spirit in which it was intended.

Like many women in my generation, I spent way too much time following “Sex and the City,” hours I now wish I could reclaim. While the show was entertaining at times, I was constantly dismayed by how terribly many of the male characters behaved and by how willing the female characters were to put up with their bad behaviour and keep coming back for more. On reflection, I think it was because the women were so forgiving that the men felt entitled to behave this badly. How depressing. But when I think about the quality of “relationship” that many charities offer their donors, it’s hard not to be reminded of the sorry state of affairs on offer Sunday evenings on HBO.

relatioshipThe moral of this story for me is this: don’t lead your donors on. If you say you want to have a relationship, then follow through! Our donors are hopeful – they are in love with the idea of making a difference, and they are reaching out to us to make that dream come true. Yes, we might be able to get away with shoddy service because donors have become so conditioned to being treated poorly, but is this the kind of relationship we want to have?

I’m not saying it’s easy. My own organisation is working on improving in this area all the time. But if we really want to have meaningful relationships with our donors, we need to base them on mutual respect. We need to invest as much of our thinking and resource into how we follow through as we do into how we initially cultivate donors. We need to remember anniversaries and honour commitments. Otherwise, like the characters in a dated sitcom, we’re just headed for a series of mutually unfulfilling one night flings.

Meredith Niles

Meredith Niles is the Head of Fundraising Innovation at Marie Curie. Prior to joining Marie Curie, she worked as a grant maker and advisor to high-growth charities with Impetus – The Private Equity Foundation and as an investment banker in New York, Frankfurt and London with Goldman Sachs. She lives in London with her husband and three young sons. She writes here in a personal capacity.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *