Last week a group of fundraising folk had an open table discussion in London about the current mess UK charities are in and what we might do about it. Of course, this was far from the first such conversation fundraisers have had and will be a very long way from the last.
Although there was plenty of frustration about the position fundraisers finds themselves in as a result of a summer of unrelenting attacks from the right wing media and their political allies, the discussion focussed largely on what we all might do practically to improve trust in charities. There were lots of good ideas and many people have implemented positive changes to how they communicate with donors already.
However I did feel that, in a way, we were all missing the point. The natural response of fundraisers whose methods are under attack is to respond by either defending these approaches or to make changes to them. Or both. And that’s not wrong.
But the problem we all have isn’t really about methods of fundraising. It’s about public trust in charities. That has been declining for some time. Our fundraising methods may have contributed to this fall in confidence. Intense media scrutiny will certainly have.
If people don’t trust charities they are more likely to question our fundraising methods and everything else they generally dislike about modern charity. The amounts we pay our staff, for instance. Or paying staff at all. The amount of money that goes to the “cause” and so on.
But these are symptoms, not the real problem.
Nobody wants to hear charity staff or consultants talk about fundraising. Let’s face it, no one really likes fundraising or fundraisers. Sorry, guys. Who wants to be reminded that they only actually give to charity when someone asks them? So, if the debate is about fundraising, it doesn’t matter what we say. We lose.
So let’s change the terms of that debate.
The underlying issue, it seems to me, is that charities as a whole are not making the case for why we are essential to society. We need to remind the public of why charity is of fundamental importance to a healthy society. And remind them of the charities and the causes they love and why.
Those of us who were fundraisers in 2003 will remember the Scottish charity crisis if that year. A commercial company went bust after having raised raised lots of money for cancer charities but keeping most of it for itself. It was messy and horrible. Follow up stories in the media identified other charity scandals. Public confidence in charities fell sharply. By the end of the year, half of all Scots said they wouldn’t give to charity again.
This all passed. I bet very few people remember this crisis, even in Scotland and levels of public trust north of the border aren’t very different from the rest of the UK.
What happened? Well, partly, time. People forget and move on. But also Scottish charities came together to run a public campaign on why charity was important. You can read about it here thanks to the invaluable SOFII. How much this contributed to the restoration of public trust is hard to know. But what it definitely did was change the narrative. There was a clear turning of the media tide as large numbers of people, famous and ordinary came out to defend charity.
So, here’s an idea. Why don’t we do this?
Charities raised £12.5bn in the UK last year. Or thereabouts. lets invest 0.01% of that in helping make the public love us once more?
That’s £12.5 million. Funding this is easy. Let each of the top 25 fundraising charities put up £500,000. Don’t tell me they can’t afford it. Of course they can. (Might have to scrap a vanity project or two). They can’t afford not to do it.
And then get our greatest advocates to tell the story. The people we help. And our supporters who are most trusted by the public. The Stephen Frys, David Attenboroughs, Helen Mirrens. And bring to life the amazing, astounding, utterly irreplaceable work that charities do. In the most emotive way possible.
Those people who know me might find it deliciously ironic that I am now advocating an awareness campaign. I know..But this is different I think. We need to move the debate onto the terrain that works for us. That stops politicians and press from seeing us as an interest group to be squashed but as the embodiment of a civic society that touches everyone in the country.
So, CEOs of the top charities. Now is the time, I think we might all reasonably say, for some leadership. Get in a room. Agree a plan. Pony up the dosh.
And lets start changing the story.