Yesterday’s Trail-blazing and pointers for tomorrow. Listen up.

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

Sumption pamphlet coverYou’ll have to be my age or older if you know the name of Harold Sumption. And even then, you probably won’t. But you should. Harold was there at the beginning of modern fundraising. He practically invented it. Harold was the giant on whose shoulders today’s Fundraising Greats stood.

Harold was one of the first two honorary fellows of the UK’s Institute of Fundraising (then called the Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers), and a founder of the glorious annual International Fundraising Congress in Holland. He was the early fundraiser for Oxfam, ActionAid and Help the Aged.

Twenty years ago, a small pamphlet by Harold was published by his friends, shortly before his 80th birthday. So he’d be turning 100 around about now, though he died in 1998. Those friends included Giles Pegram, Ken Burnett, George Smith, and pretty much all the big agencies of the day financed it. Why did they do that? Because Harold knew a thing or two about fundraising. It was gold-dust, the essential truth and bedrock of their own work and thinking.

Twenty years ago, when I was a novice fundraiser at Oxfam, Harold came in to share his wisdom to a packed room. He was an old man, I didn’t know who he was, but he was enthralling, and I have always kept that booklet. I just dusted it down.

And guess what? It still is gold-dust, essential truth and bedrock of how we should fundraise. And a good read on early fundraising.

Here are some of Harold’s golden nuggets, and warnings, as true now as they were then (in 1995), and indeed, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Harold spun his magic.

Charity as the agent of the donor. As Giles Pegram summarised in the introduction, Harold Sumption “believed in the role of charity as the agent of the donor in bringing about change, and that fundraising is the process that brings donor and cause together”. I got a warm feeling reading that, as I’ve long championed charities getting out of the way – “it’s not about you”. And this is where it came from.

The danger of commercial marketing. What a timely reminder from the past, when, in the UK at least, fundraising has lost its way a bit and certainly damaged the sector’s reputation in the public’s eyes. Too big, too rich, too greedy. Too much chasing the money; not enough connecting the supporter to the good they make happen. Harold writes in his pamphlet that by the 1980s the demand for more income was bringing into fundraising more commercial marketing, and there was a danger of the donor getting lost. Touché. What on earth would he say now?!

“Keep the message simple: the need and what the reader can do”. Enough said.

“Quote supporters known to readers”. Of course, Harold doesn’t use the phrase “social proof”, but he was ahead of his time without the benefit of all the neuro-science we have at our finger-tips today. This was the origin of celebrity endorsement. If the public hasn’t heard of your charity, quote someone they have heard of. Today, no-one cares much about what celebrities think. They care about what “people like us” think. There’s no-one better known to us, than someone like us.

Grow grassroots local strength. “Never use paid staff if volunteers can do the job”. Now that’s a topical one. As national charities have necessarily professionalised, and grown to massive scale, there’s a lot that volunteers can’t do, and fundraising has become a profession. But we know the general public doesn’t like finding out about street fundraisers and telemarketers being paid at all. Or charity CEOs, come to that.

Harold’s point about building the grassroots is pertinent. I remember in the 90s when direct marketing really took off with high volume, regional fundraising operations were wound down as they were cost-effective. What a loss! Now, with the help of technology charities are all about building back that sense of community, through social media as well as closer to home. “Make co-operation fun”, he said, perhaps anticipating modern events and viral social media campaigns.

Sumption pamphlet Daily Mail OXFABTesting, testing, testing. Harold tells the story of Oxfam’s first door-to-door fundraising operation in the 1960s, recruiting volunteers to collect money, every month, from ten neighbours. They had 300,000 monthly donors without having the data on any of them (yes, my jaw dropped), and collectors who on average collected for over three years. But when he tried to recruit volunteers in the broadsheet press, they tended to give up after six months. Disaster!

Harold talks of the minimum acceptable ROI in press ad supporter recruitment being 5:1.That’s right – no worrying there about the break-even point. He says the best place for a charity press ad is next to the crossword. Anyone tried that recently?

“Just do it!” OK, Harold didn’t say that, but he did say “don’t get stricken with analysis paralysis”. Find out what you can, but can you use it?

Sumption pamplet Oxfam hates“Make public relations, press ads and direct mail all sing together”. What we’d call integration! In 1963 Harold launched Oxfam’s 20th Anniversary “Hunger Million Campaign” that even got The Beatles behind it. The £1,000,000 raised then would be equivalent to £18,000,000 today. A nice touch is that the Daily Mail, tabloid nemesis of the charity sector right now, ran a front page headline “OXFAB!” (Harold didn’t miss a trick – bottom right was an Oxfam press ad).

Campaigning. “This was no old-style ‘Lady Bountiful’ charity, running long-range soup kitchens for the deserving poor. It was, and is, out to change the world into a better place.” Just check out that Oxfam ad from the 1960s – “Oxfam hates hungry children”. Root causes, not just sticking plasters. That’s why we have a duty to speak out.

There you have it – stuff you know or should know. And why do you know it? Because Harold Sumption was the pioneer who did it first. It worked then, it works now.

If you don’t learn your history, you’re condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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


Ken Burnett · August 10, 2015 at 15:24

Ahh Matthew, well remembered! Pity for those who weren’t around to learn from Harold and his generation. Your readers might like to learn more about the man and his contemporaries, from George Smith’s review on SOFII. http://sofii.org/article/harold-sumption-guy-stringer-cbe-and-sir-leslie-kirkley-cbe

Well I remember doing the design and production for Harold’s slender tome. Those were indeed the days. You are so right when you say, ‘If you don’t learn your history, you’re condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past’.



    Matthew Sherrington · August 10, 2015 at 16:46

    Thanks Ken. We must get it scanned and up on SOFII where it belongs!

      Giles Pegram CBE · August 10, 2015 at 18:45

      Thanks Ken, and greatest thanks to you, Matthew, for getting it in the public domain once more.

      It should certainly be put up on SOFII. And Ken, and I, and others should blog about it,

      It is Genesis, the first chapter of the New Testament (or whatever is the equivalent in your religion) All fundraisers should read it
      It is not about marketing, it is about fundraising. Ken, I and yourself blog constantly about it. We should get prople to read it, and let the scales fall from their eyes.

      Thank you for re-discovering it.

KThiruselvam · August 10, 2015 at 17:45

Shared in my fb timeline.

John Watsobn · August 11, 2015 at 16:55

I knew Harold well and worked with him several times, not least on the establishment of the (now) Institute of Direct Marketing. But you didn’t mention his greatest – to me! – phrase how a fundraising mailing or ad should look : “…like it’s been put together late at night on a kitchen table by two old ladies…” I’m still trying!

    Giles Pegram CBE · August 11, 2015 at 17:19

    Hi John,

    Agree completely. For years WWAV (then run by you, who moved on to WPNChameleon) kept an old typewriter. It was brought out and used by the team to write our letter copy. (For those who have never seen a typewriter, it was avery old manual version of a keyboard) It is a great sadness that those days are gone.

      Matthew · August 11, 2015 at 18:54

      Do you know, a prized possession of mine is a 1915 foldable Corona. Hemingway used one. Sadly mine is for looks only.

    Matthew · August 11, 2015 at 18:52

    Thanks John! Yes, I’ve always remembered the kitchen-table design. Perhaps a bit dates though, now people have PCs and tablets and not jumpy typewriters! There were plenty of juicy lines I could have quoted, perhaps the whole pamphlet! We’re going to get it up on SOFII so people can read it all.

Laura Croudace · August 11, 2015 at 21:53

Hi Matthew.

I’m rarely envious- I’m a happy go lucky type, but I’m very envious of you, Ken and Giles. I would have loved to have known Harold, and learnt from him.

I firmly believe that we sometimes we get stuck by worry, or as you quote it analysis paralysis… (I’m going to use that name in future to get my point across on this very subject- what wise words….

“Just do it!” OK, Harold didn’t say that, but he did say “don’t get stricken with analysis paralysis”.

Can I please ask you something? Can you write a few more posts when you have time about Harold please? I’d love to hear more, and anything information on the late George Smith would be great- I’ve got his book, Asking Properly but I wondered if you had anything else?

Matthew, thank you so much for writing this post, I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve had the pleasure to read in a while, so much so I’ve read it three times in two days.

How lucky you are to have worked with Harold…

Best wishes,


    Matthew · August 12, 2015 at 08:02

    Thanks Laura!
    In my case, no such luck to know or work with Harold. I was just a newbie fundraiser at the time and was only lucky enough to hear him speak. But we’re going to get his pamphlet up on SOFII so you can read his own words. Some amazing stories in there!

Dan Sumption (Harold's grandson) · August 25, 2015 at 18:47

Thanks so much for puslishing this Matthew (and for the link to my page featuring Harold’s obituaries). I too still have my copy of that little booklet, and one of these days (I keep promising myself) I will scan it all and put it online: it makes great reading – not just for the fundraising advice but also for the snippets from Harold’s life story.

Matthew Sherrington · May 19, 2016 at 16:26

Harold Sumption’s pamphlet is now scanned and available in full on the SOFII website. Link here.

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10 Relationship Fundraising principles from the past | Stephen George's Blog · September 28, 2015 at 11:52

[…] and pioneer, and who founded the International Fundraising Workshop. There’s a great blog by Mathew Sherrington in 101 Fundraising with more pearls and wisdom. Whilst Ken reminded us that there are ‘no absolute rules and […]

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