Has fundraising moved forwards, or backwards, in the last 50 years? And where next?

Let me start with a short eulogy, then quote some of what I, and many others, believe are the wisest words ever said about fundraising, before leaving you with a question: How much of this is relevant now?

November 2016 marked the centenary of Harold Sumption’s birth. Harold was, without doubt, the biggest influence on a generation of British fundraisers, perhaps the first generation that was evolving into the new profession of modern fundraising. At the start of 2017 it seems appropriate that we review the implications of what he said and did on the next hundred years.

Ken Burnett and I were lucky enough to both work with Harold in the late 1970s and 1980s. We became friends because of the most profound impact Harold had on our professional lives, and of what Harold said. At the time, it was revolutionary. This was before the notion of “professional fundraisers,” before the Institute of Fundraising or the International Fundraising Congress. For many younger fundraising professionals, this will seem archaic.

The Commission on the Donor Experience (CDE) is as much about old thinking as new thinking. Many of its principles and recommendations are, even unknowingly, based on the work of Harold Sumption. By all means, ignore his thinking, but don’t miss it because you’re unaware of it.

Before I talk about Harold, let me mention one specific.

“Make a blind man see. £10”
One of his most famous press advertisements was an off-the-page ad which said, “Make a blind man see. £10.” In today’s money, that would be over £100. A newspaper ad with a cash ask of £100. Today, we wouldn’t dream of such a thing. Yet it was hugely successful. Today, we compete on price. One charity can let you help change the world for a £3 text. Another for £2. For those interested in meticulous analysis, I have just posted an analysis of this ad on UK Fundraising.

It’s still possible to learn from Harold’s words. Indeed, I would say, essential.

The charity is the agent of the donor.
The role of charity as the agent of the donor in bringing about change, and that fundraising is the process that brings donors and cause together. Like many of Harold’s aphorisms, both simple and profound.

Open their hearts, open their minds, then open their wallets.
All three, in that order. Present the need that your charity is addressing, the solution it is providing, and engage the donor in being part of that solution.

Present the need, powerfully, not to shock but to engage.
Charities have used shocking images, attracted media attention and defended them on the basis of the intensity of the problems they were tackling. But donors? They will recoil. Present the need in a way that viscerally engages the emotions of the donor by making them want to help. This is both acceptable and indeed good. Donors will feel they are making a significant difference when they give, so will have a better experience. Not just be shocked.

People give to people, not to organisations, mission statements or strategies.
People say they give to NSPCC: In fact they give to prevent a child being cruelly treated. Anyone who suggests your charity is more important than your beneficiaries should be shot.

People give more if they can relate directly to the practical result of their giving, and if they know exactly where their money is going.
Forget clever copy. Forget the successes of the charity and how many people have been helped. Harold’s words are precise and faultless. Keep the message simple: the need and what the reader can do about it.

Clever copy doesn’t work.
So much advertising today is “clever.” Puns, metaphors, allusions, ambiguities. People buying perfume may be inspired. Potential donors won’t be. So why do some among us still do it? Stop it. And stop your agencies doing it. Give sound reasons for commitment and you’ll get it.

Fundraising is not about money. It’s about important work that needs doing. If you start by asking for money, you won’t get it and you won’t deserve it.
I’ve nothing to add.

Success produces congratulations. Need produces results.
Tell that to your trustees when they ask why you aren’t presenting the great work of your charity in your fundraising. Money is the means to that end.

Produce ads that were made to look as if they had been put together by dedicated amateurs on the scullery table.
The ads looked far from prestigious: paper set, crowded with copy that anticipated the likely questions.

When I was first at NSPCC in the early 1980s, I worked with John Watson at WWAV, our direct marketing agency. Inside a cupboard, they kept an old-fashioned manual typewriter that they used for hand-typing our direct mail.

Of course the specifics have changed in 50 years and, perhaps, that wouldn’t be right, now. But the underlying principles haven’t changed. Think about the mind-set of donors when they receive your communication, and put that thinking at the heart of your communication.

Make public relations, press ads and direct mail all sing together.
How hard is it to ensure that thinking about public policy, services, communications, brand and fundraising are all joined up? Why was Harold so far ahead of the problems we are facing in 2017?

Harold Sumption was the pioneer who did it first. It worked then, it works now. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Making integration work sounds easy. It isn’t. It’s very hard work.

Those who give, give. Those that don’t, don’t.
This quote of Harold’s is often glossed over.

It deserves a blog of its own.

Many now believe that all the public are potential donors. Many of those back up their beliefs by figures from surveys. Harold’s aphorism made me question that. In research, “most” people claim they give to charity. That is what people tell us.

Of course they will say that: It’s what’s accepted. The interviewee wants to be seen as good. And then, we give the research much credibility. We accept it as the truth.

I don’t belief it and neither did Harold. There is a vast swathe of the population that doesn’t give to charity. Their reasons are the focus of debate and research. (See Ian MacQuillin’s excellent blog.)

The Daily Mail appeals to non-givers. It gives people reasons not to give. Appalling fundraising practice. Expensive headquarters buildings. CEOs’ salaries irreconcilable with my pension.

Leave them aside. You won’t convince them. Focus on the givers and on those who might be inspired to give. So often, in discussing research briefs, I hear “the public” confused with “charity donors.” A fatal flaw.

First and foremost, we shouldn’t waste time trying to convert the committed non-donors. Determined non-donors are not virgin prospects. They are a waste of time and money. And worse: They are potentially poisonous. They sow doubt in the work of charities, doubt to which we should constantly be providing contrary evidence.

Our focus on “committed non-donors” should not be about persuading them to give, but informing them fully and accurately, thus avoiding giving them the ammunition to spread poisonous counter-propaganda. Ian, head of the Rogare think tank at Plymouth University, is looking at the question of why people don’t give for his doctoral thesis. I look forward to what he finds.

The most important two words are thank you. Acknowledge every donation with a friendly, personal letter. Give larger donors special treatment.
This is a strong recommendation of CDE project 4, looking at “thank yous and welcoming.” Why would someone send you £5? Perhaps because she is a pensioner, who puts 50p aside each week, which she can hardly afford, to send £5 to your cause because she believes passionately that that’s the right thing to do. Of course she must be thanked. Both because it is morally the right thing for you to do, and because she could be living in a house that may be worth a small fortune, that might just come to you in a legacy, if you give her a good experience.

Share your failures as well as your successes.
When I was at NSPCC, a child died because a child protection officer falsified his records. We didn’t know what to do. So we wrote to our donors, told them what had happened, how we had responded and what steps we had taken to prevent it happening again. We asked for our donors’ support at this difficult time. The response was overwhelming. Our donors were on our side. They appreciated our honesty. And they gave an extraordinary amount. It wasn’t what we were expecting.

A complainant, well handled, will be your most loyal donor.
Someone cares enough to write to complain. Don’t fob them off with a standard response. “Thank you … we take all complaints very seriously … we will carefully consider your comments.” Bullshit. If they make four points, respond to each one. Be prepared to acknowledge your mistakes. Stand up for yourself if the complainant is wrong. Ask for their response. And prepare to be amazed.

Read donors’ letters.
And their comments on the donation form, where there is one. Grow to understand your donors and what they were thinking when they sent you a gift. You will be surprised. It is far more important that you understand your donors than that you spend their money getting them to understand you. Indeed, only consider doing the latter when you have thoroughly done the former. And then, go back to the writer’s comments.

Create feedback. To the very top. So that those who are making decisions about what to say to donors have listened to what donors themselves say.

And donors’ letters often contain great copy ideas.

Harold, the seasoned professional
Harold was not an amateur fundraiser. Although his obituaries talk mainly of his charity work, Harold was a seasoned commercial advertising professional. He enjoyed a key role at several innovative UK advertising agencies, including chairman of the fashionable start-up MWK in the late 1970s. He applied his great commercial experience to the world of fundraising.

He knew precisely what he was doing.

Harold Sumption was instrumental in the creation of the innovative fundraising that made Oxfam the largest charity in the UK. He believed in the role of charity as “agents” of the donor in bringing about change. And he believed that fundraising is the process that brings donor and cause together. He profoundly understood the motivations of donors but, as a highly professional advertising man, was able to develop sophisticated techniques to harness those motivations. As Harold himself said:

“Fundraising has to be the most worthwhile application of marketing skills, and one must learn all one can from commercial practice. What wonderful things charity can accomplish, and that the business is about people, families, and their lives and happiness, not just results and returns. It fired me to spread those values. Maybe it helped me write a few successful appeals in later years.”

Harold, the humble man
At NSPCC, each year we would elect about 15 people as honorary members of our Council. People who had made a great contribution to our fundraising. Always existing supporters, volunteers and company supporters.

I felt Harold had made such a significant contribution to our fundraising (not specifically NSPCC’s) that we should make an exception and recognise an outsider. I read the citation to 3,000 supporters at our AGM. I was proud. There was much applause.

There was a lovely certificate, with the Society’s seal. I had it framed. At IFC, I got a small group together, told them what had happened and presented the certificate.

Harold cried.

He was a man of great stature. The photograph of him that we always use makes him seem austere, quite grand and slightly distant.

But at heart he was a very humble, ordinary man. Who changed the world.

© Giles Pegram CBE

With thanks to Ken Burnett.

See also Mathew Sherrington’s blog

And Ken Burnett and Tony Aldrich on SOFII

Also on SOFII

The father of modern day fundraising: Harold Sumption

Harold Sumption the shy pioneer

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