Are we managing a fundraising decline? Only if we let ourselves.

“The Daily Mail is not inherently anti fundraising”, I recently and naively posted on a chat forum on Facebook.   The response was vigorous, and almost universally in disagreement.   I stand corrected.   But some of the language surprised me.

“Fundraising is currently being subjected to a concerted ideological attack by the state, certain sections of the media and even some from within the voluntary sector.”

“I’ve thought for a while that such nonsense will only stop when individual causes, or the sector, take legal action for loss of income resulting from reputational damage.”

“The Daily Mail is so blatantly, obviously, card-carryingly anti-fundraising.”

I responded:

“We need to get under their skin. They clearly believe much fundraising practice is (was) contrary to both the charity ethic, and the interests of the donor. Were they wholly wrong? Is there some way we could work with them to show we have listened, learned and changed?”

There was no take –up.

Is it generally accepted that there is, in effect, a conspiracy against fundraising?


Let’s look at what happened.

It started with the now famous picture of a 92 year old woman, surrounded by charity appeals.   Mrs Olive Cooke.   Because she supported many charities, and through the practice of list renting and list swapping by charities, she was inundated with cold appeals.   Some people claimed, wrongly, that this was the cause of her suicide.   The fact it was untrue is reassuring but not relevant.   It became a lightning rod for people’s subsequent disaffection with charity fundraising.   People began to ask: “What about my grannie?”

It seemed, to many, that we, the fundraising profession, had failed.

This was followed by several exposés of the practices of telephone fundraising agencies.   Appalling stories and pictures.   And not just one agency.   I am ashamed to say it now, but as appeals director of NSPCC, I visited our telephone fundraising agency only once.   I am quite sure I’m not an exception in this.   Negotiating contracts, and supervision, was delegated.   For many charity clients, agencies had to compete on price, not quality.   The only measures were low cost and high income.   The inevitable result was staff on the minimum wage, high pressure on donors, and low quality.   Was this the fault of the agencies, or their charity employers?   Why weren’t charities paying enough so that callers could be paid as much as their employed fundraisers?   The logic was flawed.

Then, similar stories appeared about poor performance by face-to-face fundraisers, and their agencies.   Again, not just one.

“Did the donor feel better after the communication than before it?”  is my fundraising touchstone.   In far too many cases, the answer would have to be, ‘no’.

The media over-reacted.  Over-reaction from the media is surely to be expected?

Fueled by their exposure of unacceptable fundraising practice, some went into overdrive.   Completely irrelevant and offensive pictures of an appeals director drinking champagne on holiday with his wife.   Details of their house prices.

Some papers continue to publish stories of fundraising wrong-doing, sometimes incorrectly.   They are pandering to non-givers, who are always looking for a reason not to give.   And they sell papers to them.

Why would we expect the tabloid media to be fair, balanced and impartial?

Who is at fault?  

In expressing donor anger, were the Daily Mail not right?   The fundraising profession had been exploiting their charity’s donors.   There was both smoke and fire.

I attend seminars where we are told there should be 15 asks on the first page of an appeal letter.   Because it works.   A triumph of technique and short-term results over donor experience.

These are not isolated examples.   Much of fundraising has been led by financial results, alone.   We did not ask what kind of experience the donor was having.

This is both a warning and a call to action.

I recently gave my annual talk to the fundraising MSc students at Cass business school.  Many smaller charities were up in arms.   “This doesn’t apply to us!”    Gerald Oppenheim, head of policy at the Fundraising Regulator, was also speaking, and was very clear.   Bad practice happens in small charities as well as large.

This is a problem for the whole fundraising sector.

Were there individual villains?   No, we fundraisers and fundraising directors got it wrong.   We created a fundraising machine that was not attuned to the desires and hopes of our donors.   We did it slowly, over decades.   We did it together.   We gave ourselves permission.   We knew best.   We were wrong.   And we were found out.

But, and I hear this often, many fundraisers seem to think that, at this moment, the media is the problem, and not us.

I don’t believe this is right.

We were the architects of our own misfortune.

 The reaction in government, and the voluntary sector

Of course, as everyone knows all too well, there was a reaction to all this.

The Minister for Civil Society was under pressure.   He didn’t start with the premise that we must solve this problem in a way that is in the best interests of charity beneficiaries, which surely should be his remit as Minister responsible for promoting a civil society?   His approach was to work to punish bad fundraisers; not the right starting point, but one that was probably inevitable.

Sir Stuart Etherington produced a carefully worded report that was, in most cases, balanced and sensible.   However, it would seem that Sir Stuart’s report was misinterpreted by some, as being more punitive than it was intended to be.

Several committees were set up to look at different aspects of fundraising.

The fundraising profession went into meltdown.

  • Many donors were unnerved, confused, and suspicious. They wanted change, but didn’t see it quickly and robustly.   How many fundraisers said ‘sorry’ to their donors?
  • Responses to some fundraising activities (by no means all) declined.
  • As a supposed antidote to fundraising’s ills new draft regulations to control fundraisers were hurriedly prepared.
  • Appeals directors are meeting and talking about managing a fundraising decline as a starting point. Several are downsizing fundraising staff.   Several are planning for worst-case scenarios.
  • Some charities are cutting their fundraising expenditure budgets, particularly on recruiting new donors. (A sure sign of a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
  • Some charities are experiencing or anticipating a considerable decline in income. Immediately, they blame the ‘Olive Cooke’   No longer do they ask to what extent management competence is a factor?
  • All the talk for over a year has been about what not to do.  Rules, regulations and standards.       And how to minimise its effects.   Negative.

Few are talking about what should be done.   Differently.   Better.   Positive.

 What actually happened?

We were very fearful.   But what has actually happened?  I would suggest the planned new regulation is much less restrictive than we feared.

  • List rental and list exchanges were stopped. (Thank goodness.   I hated them, and wouldn’t allow them at NSPCC.   A donor’s relationship with their charity is private.)   So, there should be no more inundated donors, like Olive Cooke.
  • The Charity Commission produced a new CC20 – ‘Charity fundraising: a guide to trustee duties’. The first draft was draconian.   The final version is very balanced and sensible.   It will enhance fundraising, not over-police it.
  • Many thought the NCVO would recommend that donors have to actively ‘tick a box’ to opt-in to future requests for money. Some charities have already anticipated they would.   They haven’t.   And it seems unlikely that the Fundraising Regulator will make mandatory ‘opt-in’ a fundraising standard.
  • ‘The big red button’. Donors will be able to ‘press it’, and no longer receive any requests from any of their charities.   Some talk of a 30% decline in donors/income.   I may be in a minority, but I simply don’t believe it.   A donor who gets satisfaction from making the world a better place by giving money to a charity or charities is surely not going to press a button that stops communication from those charities?
  • In my fundraising career there have been three front-page exposés of charity chief executives’ salaries. Each, at the time, seemed catastrophic.   None had a long-term impact on fundraising.

I am far from complacent.   There is much to do.   But let’s put it into perspective.

Where are we now?

We need to start with a fundamental question.   After the immediate uncertainties, 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?   Again, I simply don’t believe that will happen.   Short term, possibly, but longer term, no.   Not one iota.   Donors don’t 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’.


The principle that charities are the vehicle for donors to change lives is unsullied.   The fundamentals are unchanged.

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

But until we acknowledge the extent to which fundraisers got it wrong, come out of denial, and make changes, we cannot re-build donor trust.

What next?   Immediately. 

Two, quite different, things need to be done at the same time.

  • The fundraising profession needs to negotiate, to avoid over-reaction. It is doing this, and it is succeeding.
  • And fundraisers must also spend serious time looking inquisitively, ruthlessly and rigorously at all fundraising practices, operations and techniques. Can they defend them to the Daily Mail journalist?

Fundraisers need to change.   They must not just be defending themselves against external pressures, but shaking out bad practice, and replacing it with excellent practice.    Where did we go wrong, and what must we do to put it right?   Yes, fundraising is under intense scrutiny.   Why shouldn’t it be?   It must not continue to be found at fault.

The Daily Mail might say: “We will probe until it is right.”   Will this go on forever?   Is this what their readership actually wants?   The demise of charity?   Once again, I don’t believe it.

Compliance should move to become a ‘hygiene factor’.   Not the key talking point in the fundraising profession.  Everyone is regulated; doctors, plumbers, drivers.

If the fundraising sector does all of this, and does it well and thoroughly, it will, of course, emerge much stronger.  This will be good for longer-term relations with donors.   And for charity’s income.   And for beneficiaries.

What next?  The future.

At some point, quite soon I hope, we must change our mind-set.   We must start to focus not on the ‘don’t’, but the ‘do’.   Stop thinking about suing the Daily Mail, as suggested in one of the quotes at the beginning of this blog, and start to focus on what needs to be done, in our own organisations, to give donors a better experience.

It should be done everywhere.   Instead of treating donors as a homogeneous mass, our mind-set should be to rebuild the trust of donors one donor at a time.  This philosophy should be in 1:1 relationships and letters to a million donors, but written in a way that will engage each donor as an individual.

The Commission on the Donor Experience has received outputs from most of its thirty projects.   They need to be sifted and evaluated.   They need to be tested with donors.   But there are hundreds of suggested actions that, together, could transform the donor experience.   There really is the possibility for transformational change

We must stop feeling sorry for ourselves and think about inspiring our donors.   At dinner parties, we must stop having to apologise for being a fundraiser, and start, once again, to be proud.

Are we managing a fundraising decline? Only if we let ourselves.

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