The transformation of fundraising

The launch of the Commission.   A slim piece, primarily about how the Commission reached its outputs, but including a discussion of how fundraising has changed in the last half-century.

Commission on the Donor Experience
The transformation of fundraising

Fundraising wasn’t considered a profession. No Institute, no conferences, no training courses, no fundraising books. Fundraising directors were retired lieutenant colonels.

In 1973, this was how fundraising was regarded.

I was a committed fundraising volunteer at school and at university. But with a degree in logic, it never occurred to me that fundraising might be a career. Not for one second.

I was offered a job with the charity Help the Aged, a junior management role. I had to think carefully before taking it, as opposed to a conventional ’graduate trainee’ role. It wasn’t an easy decision. I plumped for Help the Aged because it might prepare me for what my mother called ‘a proper job’.

The ‘professionalisation’ of fundraising

Since then there has been a transformation. I cannot over-state the difference between then and now.

Charities started to become more professional. In itself, this is no bad thing. But ‘professional’ is a double-edged sword. Fundraising should always be about connecting donors with the cause. Yet many professional fundraisers stopped being in touch with donors.

Fundraising as a technique

Sometimes managers were appointed who had no idea of the original concept of ‘charity’. Or the centrality of donors. The charity was now at the centre. It did good work. It needed money. So it employed fundraisers to raise the money from donors.

Fundraising became an activity to raise money for the charity, not a vehicle to connect the donor with the cause. Fundraisers were fundraising at people.

Within some charities, the fundraising process became mechanised. Fundraising departments became smooth, slick, operations.

There is also a fundamental dichotomy. Even though relationships with donors should be long term, fundraisers are judged by monthly performance against budget.

Donors became the means to the end.

And so the inevitable happened. Charities needed more money. Sometimes, pressure was put on fundraisers to raise more money. They then put pressure on donors. Ask. Ask more.

Ask more and more often.

Donors responded. But did they feel good?

The donor had been lost.

There was a crisis of confidence. And in 2015, much-respected charities suffered severe reputational damage.

Has fundraising been permanently damaged?

We need to start with a fundamental question. In the future, will donors no longer want to make a difference to society by giving money? At the same or even greater levels than before ‘Olive Cooke’? And so reversing hundreds, no, thousands of years’ of history, with many believing we are ‘hard wired’ to do good unto others?

I simply don’t believe that will happen. Short term, possibly, but longer term, no. Donors don’t primarily give because they are coerced, except in the very short term. Donors give because they want to fund solutions to meet needs. This is the whole essence of ‘charity’.

Fundraisers need to demonstrate that they are committed to donors, and to helping donors experience the joy of giving. And their role, as fundraisers, in facilitating that.


So turn thinking through 90°. Start with the donor. Talk to them. Why do they support your charity? Rather than another one? What is their motivation? What do they want from their support of your charity? What are their aspirations and their needs? What do they dislike?

From all this, infer how you might give them a better experience.

When Ken Burnett and I conceived the Commission over a lunch in early 2015, we knew we wanted to do something that would significantly improve the donor experience but we had no idea of the extent to which others would join us. You will read what actually happened later.

The aim of the Commission is to transform fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. And therefore this isn’t just about changing the way we behave, but also about changing the way we think.

We believe that a donor who has a good experience of supporting her charity will give more, give for longer, and be more likely to leave a legacy.

A donor should feel better after each communication with the charity than before it.

Many of the Commission’s outputs will seem obvious. Common sense. So obvious, people will say: ‘Of course we’re already doing that’. But don’t ignore the report. There is much that is totally new. Ideas many fundraisers haven’t even thought about, myself included.

How we got there?

This has been a quite extraordinary endeavour.

Twelve Commissioners, most enthusiastically chaired by Sir Martyn Lewis, the ‘good news’ newsreader. A CEO of a major national charity. An articulate 83-year- old regular giver, who travels to our meetings from Darlington. And asks questions rooted in common sense. And everything in between. Great interaction and debate.

They identified 28 projects, covering things like direct mail and community fundraising, issues such as the use of emotion, and key topics, such as the role of trustees, CEOs and SMTs, all looking at raising money from the perspective of the donor.

Some 28 project owners were drawn from the best fundraisers, but also the best people in the wider sector. Each had contributors, an independent reviewer, and a central quality assurance process. More than 300 of the best people in the sector.

With our one staff member, Richard Spencer, financed by our 42 sponsors, keeping the whole thing together.

Sometimes, a project owner would write a ‘best practice’ document. They had to be re-written, starting with the individual donor, and his/her experience. The project owners all got it. The difference between the two documents was quite remarkable. Indeed, transformational.

The Commission’s full report will be launched on Wednesday 5 July. At the launch, there will be a rich report, consisting of 28 chapters with short summaries for each, and with principles and recommendations (This all adds up to a total of 526 recommendations. We suggest that people start with what they’re most interested in or that is most relevant to their work. Nobody is expected to read all of them).

Each project summary will be backed up by a full report, documentation, case studies (some 250), and discussion. And there is a process of navigation that even I can follow, and which enables the reader to spend ten minutes or ten hours of reading and come away enlightened.

The report of the Commission will be utterly different from a manual of current best practice.

Let me tell you why I believe that.

It is about people, not activities.

This has never been done before. It is not another ‘best practice’ handbook. It has re-thought how charities might operate, not only fundraisers but trustees, CEOs, and indeed all staff working for a charity, by starting to re-think fundraising from the perspective of the donor, not the charity. And thus raise more money for the charity, and help more beneficiaries.

What gives me hope?

One able fundraising director, armed with the Commission’s outputs, could drive change at her or his senior management team. One CEO, who thinks about income longer term, could make his or her mark on the whole charity. One trustee, persistently asking the same questions, could initiate a transformation. One finance director, seeing measurement in a more diverse way, could actually become an enthusiastic advocate.

Then, the language will change. And the thinking and behaviour. Within the charity and within the sector.

This is all going to take time.

It starts this Wednesday 5 July.

(If you would like to come to the launch, a vigorous half hour at the IoF Convention at 12.30. at the Barbican, book your place. We would love you to be there.)