The price we pay for losing sight of the donor

I have been somewhat dismayed at the flood of criticisms that are now threatening to engulf our great profession. In my fifty years of fundraising, I have never seen anything like it.

First, the sad death of Mrs Olive Cooke, last May. All the evidence is that she didn’t commit suicide because of the volume of appeals she received   Yet she touched a nerve. There has been a media storm that started with the Daily Mail, but also included the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and many others.

I have seen much response from the fundraising sector that says that the media are the villains. I don’t agree.   Fundraisers have no one to blame for this but themselves. Many say the commercial fundraising agencies are to blame. Again I don’t agree. These agencies surely were only acting on behalf of the charity staff that recruited them, who often choose the agencies that offer the lowest cost for recruiting a new donor. And who far too often don’t question the activities used by agencies.  I am embarrassed that in my thirty years as an appeals director, I only once visited my telephone fundraising agency.

This kind of activity has become a fundraising machine, which all too often loses sight of the donor entirely.

The job of fundraisers is to connect the donor with the cause. And to do that brilliantly.

Every communication or interaction with a donor should make the donor feel better after the communication than before it.

But too often fundraisers don’t do it. We judge an appeal on its results, its ROI, not whether the donor feels better than they did before the appeal.

Fundraisers who follow that simple mantra will have satisfied, committed, loyal donors who give because they experience the joy of giving, and don’t feel a sense or obligation. Their giving is a joyful experience, not one that is based on guilt or obligation. Which in turn will increase lifetime value.

That is why a group of fundraisers and academics have come together with the idea of a Commission on the donor experience

The Commission on the Donor Experience

The Commission’s objective is to increase both funds raised and donor satisfaction by appealing to the feelings, thoughts and desires of donors as well as emphasising the needs of the charity. The Commission will identify best practice and capture examples of it in order that these should become shared and common practice.

According to its draft terms of reference it will achieve this principally by…

  • …defining donor-centred fundraising as it should be and drafting a revised/new commitment or promise to donors.
  • …defining optimum culture and levels of customer service in charities.
  • …considering how the key drivers shown to increase satisfaction, commitment, loyalty and lifetime value among donors can become commonplace in the donor experience, plus how performance should be measured in all these areas in addition to measuring income.
  • …improving clarity and sensitivity in how fundraisers communicate and changing the way fundraisers think about and talk about donors.
  • …examining recruitment, training and retention of the right staff with the right approach, passion and commitment.
  • …considering how charities attract new donors and recommending restrictions or changes to techniques that might be seen as particularly intrusive, plus improvements that might prove more donor-friendly.
  • …defining ways to give donors useful and practical choices, particularly in how they are contacted and communicated with, plus providing guidance on how fundraisers should sensibly steward donors and potential donors particularly as they become elderly or infirm.
  • …considering how to alter the culture of fundraising as it applies to boards, CEOs and senior management teams including focusing on longer-term goals in addition to immediate income. And seeing fundraising costs not as an overhead but as an investment.

In showing firm resolve to place the donor at the centre of fundraising the Commission will be doing everything that those who are eager to promote the ‘proud to be a fundraiser’ campaign might wish for. The best defence of fundraisers and fundraising is to put our donors’ interests firmly at the heart of everything we do. Our aspiration is that every communication with or to the donor will make him, or her, feel good, as well as improving each donor’s lifetime value to the cause.

The Commission intends to consult widely and to access the best of current thinking and practice on donor relationship development. In writing this blog now I am inviting you to become involved… If you would like to receive updates and access to consultation documents please do register your interest by emailing Ken Burnett at

UK Fundraising and 101fundraising are cooperating in a simultaneous publication to spread this news as wide and far as possible.

Please also see Ken Burnett’s blog on the Commission here.

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