The call came in late morning and I wasn’t expecting it. The PM programme on BBC Radio 4 – one of the BBC’s flagship news programmes – wanted to interview me that afternoon, at 5.00pm. They were looking for someone to respond to the latest round of shock horror critical press commentaries supposedly exposing the shadier side of how fundraisers ply their trade. Just before this, the Daily Mail had featured the story opposite (their words, not mine).
I’m often critical of others for not standing up for fundraising. Now, I was on the spot. So with some trepidation I headed off to New Broadcasting House.
After a nerve-testing 30-minute wait in the Green Room (which isn’t green and really is more of a corridor) I was soundlessly ushered into the darkened studio of the renowned Eddie Mair, programme host and top-notch interviewer. In the shadows to his left and my right his assistant sat silently. I found my seat facing Eddie and donned the wordlessly proffered headphones. The darkness felt unexpectedly reassuring, then the light beside my interviewer sprang on, an eerie green. As Eddie made his intro his face glowed and eyes shone across the dim tangle of paraphernalia that separated us. Then from inside the headset I heard him frame his first question.
We were off.
Earlier, on the train to the studio I had scribbled down some key points that I should try to get across (other than, sound cheerful and speak clearly). Here’s a version:
- Our voluntary sector is a national treasure. Like all fundraisers I’m appalled to see it attacked in this way. So are most donors.
- Fundraising is more about inspiration than persuasion. The public doesn’t have to ‘put up with’ fundraisers. The virtuous ‘end’ on offer doesn’t justify a hassling or overly persuasive ‘means’.
- Fundraisers should put their donors, not their financial targets, at the centre of their strategies.
- Fundraising is a difficult job because it’s not about getting donors to give money, it’s about getting them to feel good about giving money.
- If fundraisers revisited and practiced some of the established fundamentals of fundraising, media horror stories wouldn’t happen.
- Guilt is a negative emotion, so is not a good basis for starting or forming the relationships fundraisers want.
- Contact with a fundraiser has to be win/win for both parties. You don’t fundraise by irritating people. Donors recruited uncomfortably won’t stay.
- Giving is voluntary. So ‘no’ means just that. Donors will only keep giving if they enjoy the process.
- Donors should be asked to give to the top of their comfort level, not beyond.
- Fundraisers have the best stories to tell and the best reasons in the world for telling them very well.
- People are very tolerant – perhaps too tolerant – of the charities they support. The recent media frenzy shows, the worm is about to turn.
- People don’t just give to need, they also need to give.
There was more, and I only partly succeeded. Six minutes isn’t enough to do justice to what we do, or at least, what we should be doing.
Still, I did get feedback following my broadcast, all positive too. Many fundraisers (how come they’re listening to the radio at that hour of the afternoon?) contacted me saying things like ‘measured and constructive, defending the sector, making donors feel good is what #fundraising is all about’ and more in similar vein. I was thanked.
So, here’s the conundrum.
How does my six and a bit minutes on what fundraisers are doing wrong get to be interpreted as a defence of the sector?
I want change. I think fundraising as routinely practiced in this land is nowhere near good enough. And given the importance of what we do, even ‘good enough’ wouldn’t be nearly good enough. For many, even most donors, their experience of interacting with professional fundraisers and their organisations leaves much to be desired. We have to do better and I’m sure we can, but only if we accept the need for change and radically improve how we define and deliver the kind of experience that every donor should be able to count upon when dealing with charity fundraisers.
How does the level of dissatisfaction described in my recent five-part series The future of fundraising get to be described as a defence?
The answer is simple. We all know change is needed. And we don’t need the sensationalising media to tell us.
We all know that fundraising, at its best, is truly great. We also all know, it’s too often operated at much less than its best. And that it’s too often unsupported, badly structured, imperfectly understood and inadequately resourced, even by those who supervise and depend upon it.
But as yet we’re not doing enough to change it.
Fundraising has to change. I’ve said before, someone should do it and that someone, frankly, shouldn’t be anyone but us.
Fundraisers, and friends of fundraising, when it comes to defining and improving the donor experience, will you be the change that your donors need to see? Your cause, and your donors, are depending on you.
The time for change is now. It’s the best defence fundraising can have.
© Ken Burnett 2015