With upwards of 100 others I attended last December’s ‘Summit’ meeting called by the UK’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) to explain the changes to fundraising regulation ushered in by the Etherington Review. The meeting’s second, though not necessarily secondary, aspiration was to alleviate the gloomy hand-wringing that’s arisen around them.
I won’t attempt to analyse the outcome of this gathering, though it was surprisingly good natured and consensual. You can see here some of the things that were said and watch NCVO’s film of the event online (see opposite).
One thing though seems certain from the dire warnings issued that day by the Minister for Civil Society, the chair of the Charity Commission, the new regulator et al. The upshot of the past horrible half year is that in future fundraisers are going to have to be a whole lot less persistent in asking. Which seems to suggest, logically, that we’re going to have to get a whole lot better at inspiring.
The message from the Summit was clear. Several speakers insisted this is UK fundraising’s last chance to get its house in order. ‘Don’t be under any misapprehension,’ said Rob Wilson, minister for civil society, ‘implementing the Etherington Review is absolutely crucial to the future of fundraising... Statutory force remains very much on the table. This is the last chance to show that self-regulation can work.’
So, we’ve been told. Whichever way you look at this, how fundraisers ask for money is bound to change. The cultural transformation that's being imposed upon us could scarcely be more profound.
The core failing highlighted by media, regulators and government is that fundraisers’ answer to the need to raise more money has consistently been overly simplistic – the belief that all you have to do is ask more people for more money more often and more vigorously. It’s this that donors, the media and the government are not prepared to tolerate any longer, particularly the notion that to do this charity marketing deliberately targets vulnerable people as most likely to say yes.
It would have taken a brave though foolhardy person to stand up at that NCVO Summit and insist this conclusion is wrong. Nobody did.
Hot on the heels of the national media’s seemingly endless accusations of fundraising malpractice has come a tidal wave of opinions on how we should address them. Some productive consensus is at last beginning to emerge. Worthwhile background on these issues and the surrounding debate can be found by reading the likes of Matthew Sherrington, Richard Turner, Jackie Fowler, Rachel Hunnybun, Howard Lake, Charlie Hulme, Rachel Beer, Mark Phillips and others – note these are not the old fogeys of fundraising, more the mature, responsible faces of the current and coming generation. Their takes on this massive subject can be found on The Agitator, UK Fundraising, 101 Fundraising, SOFII and on their individual blogs. It’s a discourse all fundraisers should actively engage with, as of now.
The job of the still forming Commission on the Donor Experience is to plough through all the above plus the accumulation of two decades of best practices and wisdom on donor-centred fundraising then evaluate and precis its most useful bits before shaping them for publication as the best available donor-based approach to the business of raising money. To achieve this then share the fruits of their discoveries as widely as possible the Commission needs patient understanding and consistent sector-wide support, plus a host of qualified and energetic volunteers. While learning from past mistakes the Commission will not look backwards in condemnation; instead it will be resolutely positive and forward-looking.
We could start by listening better
Fundraisers, the great interrupters, need to listen now like we’ve never listened before. Listen to the government and the regulator, of course. Listen to our publics too. Listen to what’s being said round dinner tables, in tearooms and bus queues across the land. Listen too to the new. While listening, maybe we should also learn to turn off the voice in our heads that constantly makes assumptions, judges the speaker and excludes his or her observations in favour of what we will say next.
According to Stephen Shapiro, an American who describes himself as an innovation evangelist, the first step to listening better is to recognise that most of the time you don’t listen well. He describes what psychologists call confirmation bias, the way our species is naturally wired to filter and interpret information that fits with our underlying belief structures. These beliefs, Shapiro says, cloud how we hear. We listen selectively, only taking in information that aligns with what we already believe or assume and disregarding anything that contradicts these.
This simply won’t suffice for fundraisers now. Understanding confirmation bias can have a significant impact on your ability to have effective relationships, says Shapiro. It can hugely diminish your success if you’re not hearing the true meaning of what your customers and potential customers are saying.
When we do listen properly two things quickly become evident – donors don’t like to be horrid to charities, so often tell them what they think they want to hear. And donors often give in spite of fundraising methodology as much as because of it. It’s quite possible to trust and like a cause but dislike how it raises funds.
Then, it’ll pay us to learn to be better at inspiring
The Commission will be working on a variety of ways of helping fundraisers to inspire better, some of which are listed opposite. But the biggest challenge of all will be to develop a new paradigm that replaces intrusive asking with effective engagement and consistent inspiration. It surely isn’t beyond our sector’s legendary creativity to find meaningful ways to welcome and engage donors that don’t depend upon interruption and persistent, repeated asking. We need to put a high premium now on finding alternative ways of getting donors to raise their hands and invite us into their lives. Maybe if we listen hard enough now, we might just hear of a few.
Better emotional storytelling is sure to be a sensible step – provided it’s informed by our listening. The five Fs – being famous for frequent, fast, fabulous feedback – would be a good mantra to start building into all your fundraising strategies. Better understanding of emotion and how the human brain works would be an investment well worth making. Finding your cause’s WHY and its emotional equation would pay off, big time. Listening properly will help us to always ensure we’re asking properly too. For sure the best starting point is learning to listen better.
Certainly this new year will be no less interesting than the year just past. But let’s make sure it ends more positively, with a raft of new and appropriate innovations that donors can welcome and applaud, that will deliver for them the delight and meaningful difference-making that always paves the way for good fundraising.
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Consultation documents and occasional updates from the Commission on the Donor Experience will be published from time to time on its website www.donor-experience.com. To register for your updates about the Commission and its progress please email Richard Spencer here.
© Ken Burnett 2016