Who is responsible for the ‘current crisis’ in fundraising in the UK?

A short, but very well read, assessment of the situation in the UK.   The positive role of the Daily Mail, in my, unpopular, opinion.   And my assertion that some fundraising is fundamentally rotten.   The litmus test: “Did the donor feel better as a result of the communication, than they did before it?”   Often, the answer would be ‘no’.

And the core responsibility of CEOs and Trustees for this situation

Who is responsible for the ‘current crisis’ in fundraising in the UK?

Fundraising is at a crossroads. Since Ken Burnett’s ‘Relationship Fundraising’ was published twenty-four years ago, we have all professed to be relationship fundraisers, but my view is that don’t have a great track record of making that a reality. (I am working with Ken on what we can do to change that.)

I say this with some experience. I first got involved in fundraising when I was ten. Apart from the side issue of ‘A’ levels and a degree in Logic, I have been a full time fundraiser for my whole life.

Either we are ignoring bad practice in fundraising, or we are colluding with bad practice. The expose by the Daily Mail put us in defensive mode, but we should be working together to make that bad practice unacceptable. How many of us go into meetings with our staff and agencies, talking about how we can maximise income? Some people respond by writing fifteen ‘asks’ in the first page of an appeal letter to donors. “It tested well against our ‘banker’ control.” But how did donors feel as a result of the mailing. How does it affect their likelihood of making another gift? We don’t know, and so we perpetuate the idea that we ‘churn and burn’ our donor file. It produces results, which make our ADs, CEOs and trustees happy. Now that stewardship is all the rage, we might put a couple of non-ask mailings into the ‘supporter journey. But fundraising is about asking. Hard.

However much we might have found the Daily Mail articles distasteful, personal, and vindictive, they illustrate that part of fundraising is fundamentally rotten. If I were an appeals director of one of the charities implicated by the recent articles, I would have done what one major appeal director did. I would suspend all external TFR agencies until I was sure they were working in a donor centred way. And then apply the ‘Daily Mail’ test to all of our fundraising.

There is a litmus test. ‘Did the donor feel better as a result of the communication, than they did before it?’

Every letter, email, newsletter, telephone call should move the relationship on. There are far too many fundraising managers carrying whole books of spreadsheets under their arms, rather than letters of inspiration from donors. And there are too many fundraisers who are responding to the call: “are we on budget?” There is little focus on the donor experience.

There is a fundamental dichotomy. We believe that our fundraising should be donor focussed, but in practice we are judged by our monthly performance against budget. That is an oxymoron, a contradiction in itself.

Fundraisers want to be donor focussed, but their bosses want results. The very walls of our offices whisper ‘budgets’.

So who is responsible for the current crisis? Not the fundraiser working to two incompatible tasks.

The real responsibility lies with CEOs and trustees who have created this oxymoron, don’t understand fundraising, and perpetuate the contradiction between monthly income, and long term donor relationships, which are proven to increase life-time value.

I don’t think that CEOs and trustees are aware that short term targets are at odds with cultivating life-time relationships. Nor do they see themselves as responsible for the current media storm. They are wrong.

The focus of the current media storm should not be directed at fundraisers. It should be directed at the CEOs, FDs and trustees, who see fundraising as an income generating machine, and focus on monthly targets. If they are from a commercial background they would see this immediately, but they put their business sense on hold when they consider their role as a charity trustee.

Our sector needs to take a long look at fundraisers and fundraising through the eyes of the donor, to ask what donors want and what is most likely to inspire them to give over a long period. And this shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of fundraising. It should also challenge CEOs, FDs and trustees.

Appeals directors should be working with CEOs to create a common strategy for the donor experience. Fundraisers should have clear objectives. With long term objectives having the same weight as short term ones.

CEOs and trustees need to recognise that donors need to be seen as partners, not an ATM.

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