Are we really going to pretend it didn’t happen?

Published by Charlie Hulme on

Our sector’s never taken the kind of media mangling it took earlier this month.

(For anyone outside the UK who doesn’t know what I’m talking about quickly Google ‘Fundraising in the UK’. You will see headline after headline tearing the sector to pieces). DM TM

The coverage has been biased, vicious and personal. But, when it comes to reporting how fundraising is widely practised in the UK (and around the world), it’s been entirely accurate.

Regular 101 readers know some of us have been warning for years this day would come. And now it has.

So what lessons have been learned? None!

First we had the ritualistic farce of fundraising directors claiming ‘shock horror’ agencies were doing what they were paying them to do. As if they honestly thought commoditising donors whilst simultaneously pressuring and under resourcing their front line was going to work out well.

Meanwhile agencies dusted off, or unveiled, pledges of good practise – tacitly admitting it isn’t feasible to actually adhere to them. There’s a dark irony to the fact that the only telephone agency which tried to work to the ideal suddenly being proposed went bankrupt a while back. There was no demand for their service!

So now investigations are underway, committees are being called and new rules and regulations are being proposed/imposed. But nothing’s going to change because the same entitled attitude towards donors that got us into this mess is the one being used to try and get us out.

Nothing so clearly defines our sectors total disregard for donors than its response to this crisis.

Instead of taking it as the rallying call to change the conditions that caused this mess, our ‘leaders’ (and I use that word in its loosest sense!) are trying to smooth off some rough edges and get back to business as usual as quickly as possible. Risk averse

You’d think zero growth in over 10 years, horrendous retention rates and trust in the toilet would be all the evidence they needed that ‘best’ practises yield the worst results. But when the hot air’s been blown and the inks dried the only changes will a few extra exclusions to the database and a desperate scramble for volume via another channel. And then, before you know it, we’ll be right back where we are today. Because they’ve completely missed the point.

The fundamental issue is not that we ask for money but how we ask for it.

There are only two things we know for sure about donors:

  1. We want their money
  2. We have absolutely no idea why they’d give it to us

No one can disagree with the first statement. Some will be uncomfortable with it and dress it up into something less harsh sounding, using words like ‘connecting’, ‘inspiring’, ‘engaging’ and so on. But these ideals are just as impossible to achieve as are more tangible outcomes like donor retention and growth. And that’s because of the second statement.

If all you know about a donor is their transactional history, other interactions and demographic profile then you know NOTHING about why they gave or would do so again. So it’s impossible to write strategy based on anything other than guesswork.

Secretly this is what unites the most cynical and the most naive fundraiser – both know they know absolutely nothing about the people they ask money of other than they want their money. Olive junk mail

The media accuses us of inundating people with way too much stuff, a.k.a. crap. And we do. But stuff only becomes crap when it’s not relevant. The very fact so much money, time and energy is spent creating ‘engagement’ pieces is an acknowledgement we’re not engaging! The irony of course being we have no idea what would engage people, so the very pieces sent to stand out from all the ‘crap’ turn into still more crap!

The tragedy is this entire mess was avoidable. The code to a better, cheaper and far more effective way to truly engage with donors was cracked several years ago (the pioneering work is covered in detail in Roger Craver’s ‘Retention Fundraising’).

Forward thinking charities that adopted this donor focused approach have been untouched by this latest media mauling. They know exactly what matters to and engages their donors, they continually seek and act on donor feedback and they radically improve performance, value and retention. Roger book

If your leaders won’t lead then it’s up to you to make a stand. Each of us is faced with a clear alternative; a tightened up version of the business as usual that caused this mess. Or listening to and acting on what our donors tell us; to deliver greater value to them that we may derive greater value from them.

In other words we can carry on marketing at them or start partnering with them.

Do we really need the shit kicked out of us in public again before we let go of something that didn’t work to begin with?

Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme

Charlie is MD of Donor Voice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, cause relationship strength and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention. Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising's National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101 Fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.


Laura Croudace · July 27, 2015 at 16:13

Great blog post there Charlie- when i saw it pop into my inbox I wanted to open it as I knew it would be honest, raw and a little bit prickly… I’m not sure that most people would be open enough to agree that what we have been doing as an industry is prickly, they brush things under the carpet and dress it up as you say.

I’d love for you to write another article about the charities you’ve mentioned when you say: “Forward thinking charities that adopted this donor focused approach have been untouched by this latest media mauling. They know exactly what matters to and engages their donors, they continually seek and act on donor feedback and they radically improve performance, value and retention. ”

Thanks for having the courage to say what a lot of us fundraisers have been thinking…. or, for what the select few have been thinking- who knows?!

Looking forward to the next one…


    Charlie Hulme · July 27, 2015 at 19:29

    Cheers Laura – check my series on SOFII ‘Forcing or Forging a relationship’ for those examples. Will be presenting more with Ken Burnett at IFC, will make sure to add them to next 101.

Simona Biancu · July 27, 2015 at 19:05

Great blogpost, Charlie. I have watched at UK fundraising “crisis” from a partly external point of view.
What I have noticed is a sector able to auto-reform itself in these tough times – I can understand your point about the fundamental issues missing by the leaders.
And I couldn’t agree with you more when write “We have absolutely no idea why they’d give it to us”. That’s the point, to me. The more we know our donors, the better we can understand the reasons why they are with us. But it is a high-spending way to fundraise, both in terms of money and time, even if it is the most effective way to cultivate them.
I think the questions you have written about in your blogpost are – and will be – among the most challenging issue for everyone related to fundraising and nonprofit in general.
We will talk about them again and again, I presume.

    Charlie Hulme · July 27, 2015 at 19:26

    Thanks Simona – there are answers to both questions. That research has been done (see Roger Craver’s ‘Retention in Fundraising’)
    The trouble is the answers force the sector to question itself and it’s approach. So far it’s answer to every question has been volume – pump more stuff out. It never stopped to look at relevance!

      ak insurance services · September 28, 2016 at 17:06

      wonderful post, very informative. I wonder why the opposite experts of this sector don’t realize this. You must proceed your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

Jun Hee · July 29, 2015 at 10:33

Thank you Charlie for the great blog post.

As a person who manages donor retention program in South Korea, I learned an important lesson about how we should see the donors. I think that’s where we have to start when it comes to donor retention. And that’s where we can truly identify “relevance”.

Well, I need to grab the piece written by Rodger and see how I can change the way seeing our donors.

Unfortunately, I can’t make it to the IFC this year, but will follow your future articles closely!

Jun Hee

    Charlie · July 29, 2015 at 16:07

    Great to hear from you Jun. You will love Roger’s book – makes very clear what the problems and solutions are.

    Good luck with your work!

    http://www.vegetarianminimeals.com/ · May 24, 2017 at 14:01

    Very good story! You have had interesting things hapening all your life! I like your attitude that it’s all part of a great adventure!Enjoy your blogs! Love, aunt Debby

James · July 30, 2015 at 10:54

I created a product 10 years ago at a large development charity which doubled the whole charities income over 10 years. In my two and a half years in place we more than doubled supporter value, reduced attrition and had regular events and happy correspondence with engaged supporters.

This was simply understanding our donors desires, providing to them in a friendly and non pushy way in recruitment and retention and researching who the audiences where and what they wanted. By personalising the communications and not being obsessed with short term marginal returns the activity was game changing for the charity. It is not rocket science but the “best practice” in the sector should not be to rinse donors today and not worry about the long term.

Derek Glass · August 15, 2015 at 04:47

Yes, sure Charlie,

You told us so, we as a sector have it all wrong, and now you’ve got a bunch of cheap tabloid newspaper articles to back you up.

Of course, you’ve also got a book for us to buy from your business partner, and your agency has all kinds of products and services to sell us that will fix this so called problem.

Grandstanding, self serving, shamelessly spruiking your wares on the back of an old lady’s suicide. What a brilliant marketing strategy.

    Charlie Hulme · August 15, 2015 at 17:17

    Oh Derek – I’m sorry you see it that way. I won’t dignify the accusations; there are more adult ways to disagree than sniping like that. I’m very happy to discuss any points you disagree with if you want to drop me a line? chulme@thedonorvoice.com

    On the assumption you don’t want to discuss these privately, but want the exposure of doing so publically, then I’d be interested to hear any evidence you have in answer to the two questions posed in this post.

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