Is fundraising broken?

images (14)Until this weekend at least, it had been a quiet summer so far for news in the UK.  We know this because the press have devoted a lot of front page space to stories about charity fundraising.

It’s nice to be noticed. Unfortunately when the right wing press* runs stories about fundraising, they aren’t about all the amazing things in the world that have been achieved with the money we’ve all raised.  No, of course they are all about fundraising practices and how evil they are.  Even, completely falsely, accusing fundraisers for having caused the death of an elderly charity volunteer.  Along with familiar attacks on  telephone fundraisers, direct mail and there’s no doubt a Mail or Express “journalist” (I use the term loosely) preparing their next assault on face to face fundraising as I write.

This is all both very familiar and vastly exasperating. We get the same charges reheated which basically come down to there being too many charities, asking too often and, in any case, everyone should work for charity for free.

People, fundamentally, don’t much like being asked for money, feel bad when they don’t give and blame the fundraisers for asking. All of whom, know at the root of the being, that if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

There’s a strong temptation for those of us in the sector to simply hunker down, weather the storm and write blogs saying how unfair and annoying this all is.

And yet…

I really loathe the right wing press. I think much of what is being written about fundraising is a concoction of half-truths, wilful misrepresentation and outright lies. I despair at the reticence, bordering on outright cowardice of the people, the charity CEOs and board chairs whose organisations only survive by fundraising who are nowhere to be found when it comes to defending it.

But and this (as Mel Brooks would say) is a big but…I think there is a problem with fundraising as we are currently collectively practising it . As I’ve written before, there’s strong evidence that our current fundraising approaches in the UK, in particular those focussing on recruiting new individual donors are suffering from diminishing returns. Response rates are falling, attrition is increasing and the result is that fundraising costs are rising.

The reasons for this trend are more debatable. But in my view, part of the problem is that there are, indeed too many charities even if that means me agreeing with the Scum or the Daily Blackshirt (sorry, once a student Trot..).

I don’t think there are necessarily too many charities in total. Even though in England and Wales alone there are over 166,000.  (I couldn’t think that’s too many because I am setting up a new one myself).

But what there are too many of are charities appealing to the general public for funds. Using the same channels. With too little differentiation. With propositions that are too weak.

What I think there is too much of, in fact, is bad fundraising. Some of this is the stuff that the papers are complaining about, over-mailing, poor list quality and so on.  But mostly it’s much more fundamental than that.

Bad fundraising comes from organisations that want voluntary donations from the public but aren’t prepared to pay the price. And I don’t mean being prepared to pay for fundraising activities that cost money.

I mean paying the organisational price. By having very clear, compelling and truthful reasons why people should give money to this charity in particular. By ensuring that voluntary donations are used in the most effective way possible. By telling donors exactly what has been achieved with their money. (Or not achieved, because there will of course be failures as well as successes).

It’s bad fundraising which is cluttering the giving landscape. Organisations who can’t answer the question why should I give to you, specifically and what concretely will be achieved if I do, shouldn’t be asking for money at all.

Lucy Gower wrote a perceptive blog recently about charities dying being “the next big thing”. This may well be right and wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea.  Actually I think we could do with losing the dead wood, not the good work that is being done but the incapable or just plain inefficient or organisations responsible.

We all have a responsibility to drive out bad fundraising.  Not, in my view, further regulation, whether self-administered or otherwise, I think we have the rules and structures we need.  We don’t need to panic and kill whole areas of fundraising activity. What we do need, though, is better practice.

A group of us have set up the Misfit Foundation to fight bad fundraising with better fundraising.  To try and raise the bar, to showcase and encourage fundraising which gives a really excellent donor experience. That we would be proud to do and donors proud to be part of. We will shortly be launching the first fundraising campaigns for our partner charities which will showcase what we consider to be good examples of what we mean. And highlight of course, lots of good practice that already exists and we think should be better known.

We’ll be launching our first campaign soon, I think it’ll be worth looking out for.

*for non-Brits that’s basically all the press. Except the Guardian.

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