Yesterday’s Trail-blazing and pointers for tomorrow. Listen up.

You’ll have to be my age or older if you know the name of Harold Sumption. And even then, you probably won’t. But you should. Harold was there at the beginning of modern fundraising. He practically invented it. Harold was the giant on whose shoulders today’s Fundraising Greats stood.

Harold was one of the first two honorary fellows of the UK’s Institute of Fundraising (then called the Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers), and a founder of the glorious annual International Fundraising Congress in Holland. He was the early fundraiser for Oxfam, ActionAid and Help the Aged.

Twenty years ago, a small pamphlet by Harold was published by his friends, shortly before his 80th birthday. So he’d be turning 100 around about now, though he died in 1998. Those friends included Giles Pegram, Ken Burnett, George Smith, and pretty much all the big agencies of the day financed it. Why did they do that? Because Harold knew a thing or two about fundraising. It was gold-dust, the essential truth and bedrock of their own work and thinking.

Twenty years ago, when I was a novice fundraiser at Oxfam, Harold came in to share his wisdom to a packed room. He was an old man, I didn’t know who he was, but he was enthralling, and I have always kept that booklet. I just dusted it down.

And guess what? It still is gold-dust, essential truth and bedrock of how we should fundraise. And a good read on early fundraising.

Here are some of Harold’s golden nuggets, and warnings, as true now as they were then (in 1995), and indeed, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Harold spun his magic.

Charity as the agent of the donor. As Giles Pegram summarised in the introduction, Harold Sumption “believed in the role of charity as the agent of the donor in bringing about change, and that fundraising is the process that brings donor and cause together”. I got a warm feeling reading that, as I’ve long championed charities getting out of the way – “it’s not about you”. And this is where it came from.

The danger of commercial marketing. What a timely reminder from the past, when, in the UK at least, fundraising has lost its way a bit and certainly damaged the sector’s reputation in the public’s eyes. Too big, too rich, too greedy. Too much chasing the money; not enough connecting the supporter to the good they make happen. Harold writes in his pamphlet that by the 1980s the demand for more income was bringing into fundraising more commercial marketing, and there was a danger of the donor getting lost. Touché. What on earth would he say now?!

“Keep the message simple: the need and what the reader can do”. Enough said.

“Quote supporters known to readers”. Of course, Harold doesn’t use the phrase “social proof”, but he was ahead of his time without the benefit of all the neuro-science we have at our finger-tips today. This was the origin of celebrity endorsement. If the public hasn’t heard of your charity, quote someone they have heard of. Today, no-one cares much about what celebrities think. They care about what “people like us” think. There’s no-one better known to us, than someone like us.

Grow grassroots local strength. “Never use paid staff if volunteers can do the job”. Now that’s a topical one. As national charities have necessarily professionalised, and grown to massive scale, there’s a lot that volunteers can’t do, and fundraising has become a profession. But we know the general public doesn’t like finding out about street fundraisers and telemarketers being paid at all. Or charity CEOs, come to that.

Harold’s point about building the grassroots is pertinent. I remember in the 90s when direct marketing really took off with high volume, regional fundraising operations were wound down as they were cost-effective. What a loss! Now, with the help of technology charities are all about building back that sense of community, through social media as well as closer to home. “Make co-operation fun”, he said, perhaps anticipating modern events and viral social media campaigns.

Testing, testing, testing. Harold tells the story of Oxfam’s first door-to-door fundraising operation in the 1960s, recruiting volunteers to collect money, every month, from ten neighbours. They had 300,000 monthly donors without having the data on any of them (yes, my jaw dropped), and collectors who on average collected for over three years. But when he tried to recruit volunteers in the broadsheet press, they tended to give up after six months. Disaster!

Harold talks of the minimum acceptable ROI in press ad supporter recruitment being 5:1.That’s right – no worrying there about the break-even point. He says the best place for a charity press ad is next to the crossword. Anyone tried that recently?

“Just do it!” OK, Harold didn’t say that, but he did say “don’t get stricken with analysis paralysis”. Find out what you can, but can you use it?

“Make public relations, press ads and direct mail all sing together”. What we’d call integration! In 1963 Harold launched Oxfam’s 20th Anniversary “Hunger Million Campaign” that even got The Beatles behind it. The £1,000,000 raised then would be equivalent to £18,000,000 today. A nice touch is that the Daily Mail, tabloid nemesis of the charity sector right now, ran a front page headline “OXFAB!” (Harold didn’t miss a trick – bottom right was an Oxfam press ad).

Campaigning. “This was no old-style ‘Lady Bountiful’ charity, running long-range soup kitchens for the deserving poor. It was, and is, out to change the world into a better place.” Just check out that Oxfam ad from the 1960s – “Oxfam hates hungry children”. Root causes, not just sticking plasters. That’s why we have a duty to speak out.

There you have it – stuff you know or should know. And why do you know it? Because Harold Sumption was the pioneer who did it first. It worked then, it works now.

If you don’t learn your history, you’re condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *