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Welcome to the Happy Bubble
ActionAid’s What a Feeling campaign should cheer us all up, even on the darkest, most depressing day of the year.


Ken Burnett, writer, publisher and occasional fundraising consultant.

I declare an interest here. ActionAid was my first fundraising employer back in the late 1970s. And I was on their governing board for 13 years. So I’m thrilled when they show a courageous lead.

However, this campaign has created a lot of controversy because some people, for reasons I can barely comprehend, seem to have imagined that it would work as a donor acquisition campaign. Obviously it would not. It shouldn’t ever have been conceived as anything other than a donor development initiative worth testing.

As donor development and relationship building it could have succeeded. Even if misguided, it was a brave try.


‘Last year we talked to lots of supporters. They told us that supporting ActionAid made them feel amazing. So now we want to share those feelings with the world!

The happy bubble is our way of celebrating all the supporters who've felt excited, outraged, warm and fluffy, or inspired, over the last 35 years.’


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Jan 17th is Blue Monday – officially the most miserable day of the year. But I’ve just heard of an initiative from a favourite cause of mine, ActionAid, who today have launched their What a Feeling campaign. As this coincides with a point I’ve long been trying to make, I’m trumpeting it now in the hope that we can share the joy; that some of the warm glow that they and I are feeling today might spread to you too, dear reader.

My rant today starts from concerns at what I see around me as a fundraiser, after 34 years of preaching and pontificating upon the merits of carefully-constructed donor relationships. Back then I thought it was simply a matter of time; that if we all did what even then was blindingly obvious we would, by now, have the world at our feet.

Not so.

Regretfully, as 2011 starts to unfold, we’re not yet quite masters of all we survey. Far too many things are going wrong for us to allow ourselves the smallest comfort of self-satisfaction. If anything, things are worse now than they were back in the fundraising Dark Ages.

  • Last year was a stinker. One of the toughest on record, for most fundraisers.
  • Fundraising gets harder and harder; 2011 will be no picnic.
  • Costs creep up relentlessly while responses seem to fall faster than the euro against the dollar.
  • Donors don’t like us. Well, most of them at least, not much, anyway.
  • We’re only marginally more popular than bankers, yet have infinitesimally smaller bonuses. We’re seen as less socially valuable than badger-gassers.
  • We fundraisers can rarely even mention our occupation in polite company, lest we are heaped with scorn and retribution.
  • Fundraising is now considered a high stress career, with low rewards.
  • It’s all getting worse, not better.

Depression almost everywhere is on the increase. And it seems that smaller fundraisers suffer most (see illustration, below right).

So, on this darkest of days, I want to focus in a light-hearted way upon a deeply serious and important subject – celebrating the delights of being a donor.

Simply put, we have to stand alongside our donors and help them celebrate the joy of giving. I fear that if we don’t, if we can’t persuade our donors and would-be donors that supporting our causes is actually a pleasurable, worthwhile, fulfilling, meaningful but above all an enjoyable thing to do, then I fear that sooner or later – and I think sooner – we are all doomed.

More doom and gloom on this dismal day is too much to handle. How heartening then at this drabbest of times that the ray of sunshine mentioned in my intro has arrived from a former employer and favourite cause of mine – ActionAid. Their What a Feeling campaign featuring the Happy Bubble event struck me so forcibly I just had to share with you their enterprise, initiative and sheer joyful optimism.

It’s about time someone made a public noise about the joys of being a donor. Some are even suggesting that we should make sure donors understand how generous we are to them, in allowing them to give their hard-earned dosh to our wonderful, world-changing causes.

Be that as it may, I fear that unless we are able to convince our donors that giving to us is a real and tangible pleasure, our slender remaining grasp on what vestiges we still claim of that great intangible – future prosperity – will fly out the metaphorical window.

Why is ActionAid building a bubble full of happy feelings?
See opposite, and click this link to visit the bubble and here to go to the What a Feeling site.

While there may still be some way to go, I’m entirely with them in spirit. Hooray, ActionAid! The approach (described above left) on ActionAid’s Happy Bubble site may seem a bit warm and fluffy. I’m not saying it’s 100 per cent right. Nor is it the full story, or the only way of doing this. But it’s a big step in a good direction. It’s active, participative, engaging. It’s deadly serious, but it’s still fun.

ActionAid’s What a Feeling site features an interactive quiz, data collection initiatives and all the usual paraphernalia of donor acquisition marketing. A key feature of the telephone calls ActionAid will be making for this campaign is the move away from traditional scripted calls towards callers specially trained to have a conversation, to let the person they’re calling take that conversation in whatever direction they like.

Although it has targets to generate regular donors and committed campaigners, Andrew Robinson, project manager for the What a Feeling campaign at ActionAid, is aware that this is an experiment and that its outcome can’t be solely measured in immediate cash results. ‘Some people won’t get it’, says Andy, ‘but many will. We’ve been thrilled by so many donors telling us such positive things. And we know others are out there who could share these happy feelings; the great feelings so many of our supporters get from being an ActionAid donor. 

‘There can only be one potential bad outcome from any of our calls and that’s if a donor says she never want to hear from us again. Anything else, we’ll consider a result.’

Your money now shouldn’t be our only perceived message
There will be detractors. Their big accusation will be that this idea won’t work, by which they mean that it won’t work in terms of immediate income now. I refute this on three grounds, all of which require that we take a longer-term view with our donors. We need to think of donors in terms of their lifetime value, not just their latest gift, we should learn to measure not just money now but a host of other important if intangible progresses, such as building trust, commitment, future intentions and giving pleasure, and we need to stop always asking for money. What kind of a friend always asks me for money? We need to appreciate, sometimes, that less is more.

I expect this initiative from ActionAid may not make January’s cash income look better. But it may well be a significant step in building real and durable lifetime values from ActionAid’s happy donors. And it may improve how they acquire donors because from now they will be offering people a valuable benefit that most folk really don’t expect from us – the tangible pleasure of being a donor.

Hopefully initiatives like this will help us to get over our current obsession with only measuring immediate income now. There is so much more to a healthy, durable, mutually beneficial donor/cause relationship that we should be monitoring and developing but currently fall far short on. So ActionAid, (with the caveat above left) please go for it. Good for you.

© Ken Burnett 2011



Fundraising in three words – communicate great feelings. Visit the ActionAid Happy Bubble site here and their What a Feeling site here.

We suspect six out of seven donors are not happy either. Maybe more. But not, it seems, at ActionAid. Maybe worth checking them out...

NB. Some observers, even some in ActionAid, seem to have interpreted this initiative as designed for donor recruitment. That is misguded. This is a donor development initiative. Any confusion on this point would lead to disappointment, for sure.


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Ken Burnett is a director of the Clayton Burnett consultancy firm, The White Lion Press Limited and he’s a former chairman of the board of trustees at ActionAid. He’s author of several books including Relationship Fundraising and The Zen of Fundraising and is managing trustee of SOFII, The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. For more on Ken’s books please click here.