The next big thing in fundraising is closer than you think

A few weeks ago at the Institute of Fundraising Direct Marketing and Fundraising Conference, the question was asked of the panel: What do you think is the ‘next big thing’ in fundraising? Their answer wasn’t entirely surprising, but was particularly refreshing.

They unanimously said that it’s better to use traditional direct marketing but to hone the skills so you’re doing it as well as possible. Sticking to what you know, but doing it better than it’s been done before, is more important than some fad.

Personally, I agree, but it’s interesting that in spite of no fundraising panacea, as a sector we still talk about ‘the next big thing’. And we’re still worried about jumping on the bandwagon too late. Take door-to-door fundraising. It’s been hugely successful for years for a number of UK charities, mobilising a core base of Direct Debit donors. It generates largely Gift Aid-able, predictable, unrestricted income from a large base of donors that can tend to absorb the effects of a bad economy. There’s strength in numbers.

But at every event, I hear yet another charity lament that they can’t get into door to door. The agencies are at capacity. Or they feel like they’re getting leftover scraps of territory or time. Some can’t even get an agency to return a call because they’re too small to make it worthwhile. There is such a thing as too late. Innovate or die is often the message we hear, and the temptation to be ahead of the curve is palpable. Every time we hear of the soaring numbers of charities and dire economic predictions, the answer seems to be to find something the other causes don’t have – a smartphone app that breaks new ground; a direct mail pack that replaces Amnesty International’s pen pack as the quintessential why-didn’t-I-think-of-that pack; a way of talking to new donors that makes face to face seem archaic.

We don’t know what it is but we only hope we’ll recognise it when we see it (and hopefully, be the first to do so). Interestingly, at this very same conference, Médecins Sans Frontières presented how they managed to increase web income by 40%. The real crux of the presentation, though, was how James Kliffen developed a fundraising strategy focussed on a core of regular givers and major donors. Their approach is non-intrusive. They don’t ask their regular givers for money. Their people in the field write the copy (so good is it, in fact, that skeptical and savvy donors remarked on how smart it was to get the copywriters to write like different people). They have developed a smaller scale, an authenticity- and quality-driven strategy that works for them.

WWF, on the other hand, has 70% of its income coming through its website. They are launching a new mobile phone app. They have high level of brand awareness, advertising space and a partnership with Sky, and a cause that resonates with younger people.

WRVS and Severn Hospice each presented on how prize-led marketing worked wonders for them, helping each grow its donor base remarkably over the past several years in spite of a host of different challenges faced by each, from having to start fundraising from scratch to having a very local message within a clear catchment area (and a new wing to fund, to boot).

National Osteoporosis Society founds its voice on the telephone, speaking to members and raising valuable funds while keeping in touch with its base. No two charities were the same. So why should their ‘next big thing’ be the same?

Yes, we can sometimes be a bit precious about our cause and perhaps underestimate the fluidity of our donor base (“That may work for them, but our donors would never respond to x”). Yes, we should be aware of what’s worked for our fellow charities and consider if or how it might work for our donors and our causes. And we should look at the results other charities are having before we say something won’t work. But really, what is any of the proposed ‘next big things’ but a way to remain targeted and relevant to our donors? And what is relevant depends most on who you’re talking to and what you have to say. As Polonius might have said to Laertes had he been a fundraiser:

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any donor.

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