NEW research on fundraiser-donor relationships: What part of ‘broken’ don’t we understand?

Published by Paul Vanags on

A new piece of research from Birkbeck/LSE highlights major issues with the “broken” contract between donor and humanitarian NGOs such as Oxfam, Save the Children and others. It asks big questions of fundraisers and calls into question the whole basis of our relationship with the public and with our supporters. It builds on previous work that claims that the “quick buck” approach taken by many is in conflict with the long-term aims of the sector — solving global poverty, eliminating preventable death of children, etc.

In a nutshell it says that the “hit-and-run” approach by these charities (and by my implication, others too) is destroying their relationships with donors and questions whether this leaves us with a “crisis of caring.”

As the report succinctly puts it, either:

  • People don’t know enough to care, or
  • People don’t care enough to know.

So this has been a constant noise in the sector for many years — why does it remain an unsolved problem? Let’s open it up a bit and have a look at the arguments.

What do academics say?
Present the issue of global poverty with a non-Eurocentric historical context (try this?), demonstrate the broader picture, avoid dumbing down, don’t just make it about innocent kids, win people’s hearts and minds before you go for the contents of their wallets. This particular report asks us to “reflect on current practices,” and more specifically to:

  • Rethink our view of the public — from sales targets to complex and sophisticated individuals who want a conversation about the issues;
  • Reduce our reliance on emergencies as the staple “hook” for new donors; and
  • Rethink our role from collectors of funds and dispensers of good, to a more facilitative role (see obligatory triangle model below!)

Essentially, they say, humanitarian NGOs need to do a bit less of this:

And a bit more of this:

What do fundraisers say?
They firstly will probably say, “When was the last time you did any fundraising?” Then they’ll say, “We know what works!” You need to show the need; people don’t give without it. And this is backed by science. Psychologists say that the anticipation of guilt drives giving, along with the pay-off of the “warm glow.”

Advertising research shows that emotion is king and in particular that feelings of sadness drive action more than feelings of happiness.

There is a important nuance here. The LSE/Birkbeck report does not say, “Don’t show images of suffering.” It’s not quite that simple, I’m afraid. It does say that emotions need to be “manageable” for the receiver. To quote, “People expect and accept to feel sad and upset by humanitarian communications, individuals need to be able to make sense of the upset and to feel it has integrity of purpose. If perceived to be manipulative and exploitative, it leads to desensitisation and resentment.” This forms part of their “3M” model for what good looks like with regard to communicating on distant suffering.

So in addition to the years of practical experience of fundraisers the world over, there’s plenty of very sensible things said by very sensible people explaining WHY this stuff works.

But we DO have a problem. The Gates-funded Aid Attitude Tracker (AAT) puts in sharp relief what I imagine we all see through our own tracking and research. Take a look at its “18 Actions” chart, which shows the public engagement over time with, you guessed it, 18 different actions people can take in support of a cause. All 18 of them are heading south —  it sure ain’t pretty.

So we understand why fundraisers do what they do (because it “works”) and we also understand that in doing so we are damaging the long-term health of the sector and our chances of bringing about the ultimate change we want to see.

How has fundraising ended up here?
Famous and clever consultancy firm McKinsey is very fond of an analytical technique called the “5 whys,” essentially a deductive reasoning tool framed with a handy, self-explanatory moniker. When you do “5 whys” on this issue, you’ll find that the crisis here is not one of caring; it’s a crisis of objectives. It’s a boring answer, I know, but I think it’s the right one.

As long as fundraisers have objectives that look like this (real example taken from my own team by the way, although not this year; numbers removed to protect the guilty):

Then we’ll have adverts that look like this:

To deliver the change the sector wants and needs, we need to be measuring the success of our fundraisers differently. It’s not complicated. Difficult, yes. Scary, yes. But not complicated.

What do we need to do to make it better?
We need to be able to balance responsible financial management and planning with a new set of softer metrics, structured not around cost-of-acquisition and response rates, but around engagement — both quantity and quality. Easy to say, hard to do. But we have to do it.

At Oxfam we’re moving in the right direction, albeit in small steps. We used to measure “net positive months,” i.e., the net movement of our regular giving base (which can go up or down, unfortunately!) each month. We still do measure that (it’s kind of important), but we’ve banished it off the front page of our KPIs and replaced it with a net monthly measure of engagement to focus management discussion on this. We are actively talking about what the right measures are, and 2017 will see our fundraisers’ performance measured and evaluated using much broader, softer measures (like supporter experience) than we’ve ever seen before. We’re working hard to bring the public closer to our cause with initiatives like showing real-time data on where donations are spent, our new app that allows donors new access to bite-size content and a way to control their giving, as well as trialling things like VR in our street fundraising.

Whilst brilliant and the backbone of many charities’ unrestricted income, the regular giving model has been an enemy not a friend here. The regular gift has set up a dynamic of hard-sell followed by inertia equalling a profitable model. How different would the world be if we had to ask and thank for every monthly donation – that’s the philosophy of Oxfam’s new app, designed to give the warm glow of giving every month for a donor’s lifetime, not just the day they signed up.

So we’re getting there. Undoubtedly we won’t be perfect, and I’m expecting lots of people throwing back a whole heap of examples to demonstrate that — great! My challenge to you is that if you’re really serious about the cause you work for, if you’re really serious, then you need to think about this stuff. Is your organisation brave enough to allow its fundraising team to relax a little, to experiment more? Can you try things that might not give an immediate return, but move the big goal a little closer?

A higher ambition for fundraising
We work for wonderful causes, with inspiring and important aims — long-term aims like ending poverty, eliminating child mortality, protecting animals from cruelty and so on. Why do we have such lowly ambitions for our fundraising?

Fundraising alone is not going to save the world. There — I said it. If I did an amazing job and doubled Oxfam’s income, it would still be a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the problem. I imagine that goes for most big charities with big goals.

Nelson Mandela said the ending poverty is not an act of charity, it is an act of justice. It points to the fact that poverty, like so many of the world’s ills, is a status created and perpetuated by political decisions. To help to change that, we need a movement of active, engaged people representing a forcible political will. And we‘re not going to get there by hit-and-run fundraising tactics.

Yes, first of all we need to engage and find those who care about the issue. If we want to engage large numbers and turn around this crisis of caring, we have to be open to people engaging on their own terms and values. That means showing need, it means talking about humanitarian emergencies — but not as the only discourse and not at any cost. The-long term health and future of the sector is simply more important.

In big organisations, objectives drive everything we do. Change them and we change the world. Let’s do it!



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Paul Vanags

Paul Vanags is the head of public fundraising at Oxfam. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulVanags or check out his new blog at thinkingfundraising.com.


Lee Patrick · March 3, 2017 at 00:02

Great article and thank you.
Their are two areas I believe are paramount.
1. That advocacy for the ‘sufferes’ in our causes has to be paramount, and on a flobal level. As this article explains – no matter how much is raised, its a drop in the ocean of need. Part of monies raised must go towards fruitful, in your face, honest advocacy that convicts the global community of neglect if necessary, or individual communities, families, individuals – as applicable. And we need to take action at a political level. Call our political representatives to acion. It is not ok that our most vulnerable remain unprotected for example when so much greed in people is sanctioned by the abuse of theose who are vulnerable.
2. We need to protect our women and children from being the ‘spoils of war’.
These two above can not be ‘fixed’ without a global advocacy aggressive approach across every commu ity affected.
We need to bring our donators of funds along on the journey. Don’t just show them the problems and ask for money, but actively engage our donators as advocates, as impactors – not only financially. Everyone can do something – whether its lick stamps, or stand fuard over some women and children, or write a letter to their political people – cook, clean, garden, build, sew, teach, nurse.
And it needs to be done in pockets – small areas at a time.
I could go on …
Donators want to feel like they are part of the ongoing process. Not just hand over the cash and get a piece of paper that says ‘ you are a great person’.

Yvette Petersen · March 9, 2017 at 10:57

I think you’ve made an extremely good argument for taking a good hard look at ourselves.

You don’t talk the relationship between between fundraising and programs teams in INGO’s but I think a number of the points you make are a source of tension. So, a new approach to metrics could also improve the way fundraisers relate to our colleagues in programs.

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