Are we really going to pretend it didn’t happen?

Our sector’s never taken the kind of media mangling it took earlier this month.

(For anyone outside the UK who doesn’t know what I’m talking about quickly Google ‘Fundraising in the UK’. You will see headline after headline tearing the sector to pieces).

The coverage has been biased, vicious and personal. But, when it comes to reporting how fundraising is widely practised in the UK (and around the world), it’s been entirely accurate.

Regular 101 readers know some of us have been warning for years this day would come. And now it has.

So what lessons have been learned? None!

First we had the ritualistic farce of fundraising directors claiming ‘shock horror’ agencies were doing what they were paying them to do. As if they honestly thought commoditising donors whilst simultaneously pressuring and under resourcing their front line was going to work out well.

Meanwhile agencies dusted off, or unveiled, pledges of good practise – tacitly admitting it isn’t feasible to actually adhere to them. There’s a dark irony to the fact that the only telephone agency which tried to work to the ideal suddenly being proposed went bankrupt a while back. There was no demand for their service!

So now investigations are underway, committees are being called and new rules and regulations are being proposed/imposed. But nothing’s going to change because the same entitled attitude towards donors that got us into this mess is the one being used to try and get us out.

Nothing so clearly defines our sectors total disregard for donors than its response to this crisis.

Instead of taking it as the rallying call to change the conditions that caused this mess, our ‘leaders’ (and I use that word in its loosest sense!) are trying to smooth off some rough edges and get back to business as usual as quickly as possible.

You’d think zero growth in over 10 years, horrendous retention rates and trust in the toilet would be all the evidence they needed that ‘best’ practises yield the worst results. But when the hot air’s been blown and the inks dried the only changes will a few extra exclusions to the database and a desperate scramble for volume via another channel. And then, before you know it, we’ll be right back where we are today. Because they’ve completely missed the point.

The fundamental issue is not that we ask for money but how we ask for it.

There are only two things we know for sure about donors:

  1. We want their money
  2. We have absolutely no idea why they’d give it to us

No one can disagree with the first statement. Some will be uncomfortable with it and dress it up into something less harsh sounding, using words like ‘connecting’, ‘inspiring’, ‘engaging’ and so on. But these ideals are just as impossible to achieve as are more tangible outcomes like donor retention and growth. And that’s because of the second statement.

If all you know about a donor is their transactional history, other interactions and demographic profile then you know NOTHING about why they gave or would do so again. So it’s impossible to write strategy based on anything other than guesswork.

Secretly this is what unites the most cynical and the most naive fundraiser – both know they know absolutely nothing about the people they ask money of other than they want their money.

The media accuses us of inundating people with way too much stuff, a.k.a. crap. And we do. But stuff only becomes crap when it’s not relevant. The very fact so much money, time and energy is spent creating ‘engagement’ pieces is an acknowledgement we’re not engaging! The irony of course being we have no idea what would engage people, so the very pieces sent to stand out from all the ‘crap’ turn into still more crap!

The tragedy is this entire mess was avoidable. The code to a better, cheaper and far more effective way to truly engage with donors was cracked several years ago (the pioneering work is covered in detail in Roger Craver’s ‘Retention Fundraising’).

Forward thinking charities that adopted this donor focused approach have been untouched by this latest media mauling. They know exactly what matters to and engages their donors, they continually seek and act on donor feedback and they radically improve performance, value and retention.

If your leaders won’t lead then it’s up to you to make a stand. Each of us is faced with a clear alternative; a tightened up version of the business as usual that caused this mess. Or listening to and acting on what our donors tell us; to deliver greater value to them that we may derive greater value from them.

In other words we can carry on marketing at them or start partnering with them.

Do we really need the shit kicked out of us in public again before we let go of something that didn’t work to begin with?

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