Any historian will you that the trends we think are important today are rarely those which turn out to have biggest effect.
Proper historical judgements take time. Chou Enlai, Mao’s longtime henchman* was once asked what he thought the long term impact of the French Revolution had been, “it’s far too early to say” he said.
And it that vein, it’s definitely far too early to say what the long term impact of the 2015 “fundraising crisis” will be.
The tide of outrage will ebb eventually. It probably is already. The public have already moved on, by and large. And the right wing press are after their next victims.
So where does that leave us? Public trust in charities has fallen. How much does that matter? I’ve always been sceptical of any general statements about what people think about charities. The sector is so diverse for a start with over 166,000 charities in England and Wales ranging from local scout groups to Cancer Research UK. Any sector which can include Eton school and War on Want, Rotary clubs and the League Against Cruel Sports is well, varied. What matters I think is not whether the public have trust in an abstract sector but do they still trust individual charities. And the evidence seems to be they still do.
Fundraising regulation will change. Now I’ll stick my neck out here and say that when we look back from 20 years or 50 years in the future** we are pretty unlikely to say that the biggest event in 2015 was the demise of the FRSB. Has regulation in any form ever had much impact on how people give money or to whom? Not that I’ve seen.
That leaves us with the various proposed and potential changes in fundraising practice. My suspicion is that what will make a lasting impact won’t be any specific change in preference schemes or even the FPS, ill conceived as that is. What I think is a real shift is the move to opt in communications.
There’s a combination of things happening here. The existing Data Protection regime is becoming stricter as the Information Commissioner in the UK moves away from what’s been a fairly laissez-faire attitude to charities to something more assertive (the change of stance on the Telephone Preference Scheme is a key example on this). The Irish ICO has been much tougher than its UK equivalent for a while. Then new EU regulations are coming into force in 2016 which are much tighter in terms of moving towards an explicit opt in for most marketing communications.
This is going to be very challenging for charities who have, by and large, assumed they can talk to anybody who gives them money how they like unless the donor actively objects. Most individual giving programmes are based on acquisition activities which are loss making in the short term and are only profitable because of subsequent gifts from these donors. If people have to opt in to the follow up communications that produce these gifts, this will drive a stake through the heart of a lot of fundraising.
The battle to defeat the new data protection regime has essentially already been lost. And there’s likely to be very little political support for attempting to reopen the debate. Charities might not like the new regime but they’ll need to learn how to live with it.
And I’m not sure that I think that’s a bad thing. In the long run. A fundraising methodology which is built on broadcasting endless, only slightly differentiated, appeals to people who only intended to make a one off gift is intrinsically flawed. It has been working less and less well for years. Some donors, the Olive Cookes, have been bombarded and the public disgust that has resulted may have been whipped up by our enemies but was still genuine.
So stopping the excesses of “opt out” marketing was going to be essential anyway. What’s important is what we do now.
And I think there’s a real opportunity here. It’s the chance to have an actual dialogue with charity supporters. To listen to what donors say and do different things as a result.
Part of what we need to do is stop hiding what we do in the small print. We should be proud of our communications and donors should want to get them. This means, for most charities, nothing less than a revolution in how they talk to their supporters. Let’s face it, many charity communications today are distinctly underwhelming. Who really wants a “see how great we are” supporter magazine? Or, God forbid, e-newsletter?
It’ll be hard. Not everybody is going to be able to do this. Money will be lost, at least in the short term.
But we have the prospect of a much better relationship with our supporters. More honest and more reciprocal. More engaged on both sides. And that will raise money for the causes we all care about.
That sounds like long term impact to me.
*John MacDonnell will know who he was
**none of us can afford to retire, right?