I'm Mark Phillips, the founder and CEO of Bluefrog. After a decade working for both ActionAid and YMCA England, I decided in 1997 to create the fundraising agency that I had been searching for.
This is my private space where I share ideas, results, research findings and the odd thought on fundraising. I try to avoid looking at my belly button and concentrate on stuff that will make fundraising more effective. It should all be stuff that you can actually use.
If you want to know more, click on the About button below.
The More Partnership has just published a great (free) booklet that illustrates some important truths about giving.
The facts you'll find inside are based on analysing the supporter files of 33 British universities. That's a load of data. In just one year, it adds up to 161,000 donors, 1.1 million gifts, 3.8 million solicitations and £68 million worth of philanthropy.
Importantly, for fundraisers who aren't in the academic sector, many of the patterns they identify directly relate to giving behaviour we see amongst donors to traditional charities - particularly with reference to acquisition and retention.
We all know the importance of loyalty, but this publication points out what it can be worth.
Take a look at these selections and you'll see just how important higher value, long-term donors are in terms of overall income. I should point out that the term 'regular giving' has a much broader meaning in academic fundraising that covers both repeated cash gifts and direct debits.
We see these same patterns in traditional charity files. When managed well, donor generosity builds over time. The more a donor connects with a charity and the more they enjoy the relationship, the more they are likely to give – as long as they are asked for appropriate amounts.
As individuals, we all go through distinct life stages. First we acquire the material necessities of modern life – a house, furniture, a car and the general stuff that we all accumulate. Then we maintain and sustain what we own - upgrading (or downgrading) as we see necessary. Finally we reach a point, where our children are educated, mortgages are paid and we have enough for our lifestyle. It's at this point that many donors (particularly the wealthier ones) start thinking about spiritual matters such as philanthropy and how they want to be remembered. It's at this point that they first start to give significant sums to charities.
The key problem with this pattern is that if you don't demonstrate that you value donors when they are younger and have less money, they are unlikely to give larger gifts as they age and become more affluent.
The great thing about universities, is they have always focused on longer-term relationships which lead to large gifts. 41% of all million pound gifts given in 2014 went to universities.
So if you want to see what can be achieved by programmes that focus on engagement, download the PDF and compare More's figures to your own.
On Friday, we had the chance to see how the plans for regulating the sector were shaping up.
I watched online (it's here if you'd like to see it) and was pleased with what I saw. It was a pretty positive session where the concerns voiced over the last few weeks were addressed.
You can take your pick on which synopsis you'd like to read as Third Sector, Civil Society and The Guardian have all summarised events. There's also a detailed blog post from The IG Manager. But I thought it worthwhile to highlight a few points that relate to some of the more specific worries we've all been discussing.
First off, it was repeatedly emphasised that the end goal is an improved relationship between donors and charities. This, to my mind, is a great starting point. Some of the fundraising strategies that have been implemented over the last decade have been very short-sighted. It's got to the point where all some fundraisers appear to care about, is getting a telephone number so they can call and upgrade, call and upgrade and then, when they have exhausted that approach, call and upgrade again.
If it was just one charity, this wouldn't be a problem. But there are a number of organisations that have decided to go down this strategic cul-de-sac.
It's this short-term focus on immediate financial return that's helped stymie connection with the donors who support our work. Ken Burnett made an important point towards the end of the session where he pointed out (and as we have found with our internal research at Bluefrog) that though donors value the work we do, they don't particularly like the way we choose to interact with them.
But the main point we were interested in was what would the Fundraising Preference Service look like. This is what we were told...
The FPS was a work in progress which would be jointly created with the sector. George Kidd, as the new chair of the service, mentioned he was no advocate of the TPS. It was strongly suggested that the FPS would be designed to give donors a means to control their communications rather than simply switch them off - though this 'reset button' would always be an option.
Any service would have to take into account the fact that the needs of individual donors would change over time and older donors in particular, would require more than a website.
Pre-existing relationships weren't going to be ignored. And a distinction between fundraising and other communications would be part of any plan moving forward.
Consideration of the new European legislation would be incorporated in any regulation, particularly in relation to opting-in versus opting-out.
But, time after time, we came back to protection.
It was repeatedly pointed out that the new regulator was going to focus on ensuring the right ethical principles were adhered to. Lord Grade (who luckily knows what it is like to be regulated) summed this up. He recognised that a few fundraisers had got the sector into the current position and said...
"We all know what's ethical and what isn't ethical...undoubtably there will be all kinds of scams and activities and stuff that people will invent to get round it and we will have to be alert to them."
It has become obvious that when it comes to doing the right thing, some fundraisers have sailed pretty close to the wind. If they carry on trying to avoid ethical responsibilities by exploiting loopholes, then it is likely that the rules we all have to work within will become more and more restrictive.
That's why I think bad behaviour shouldn't be ignored. We can all help each other by questioning such practices when we see them, particularly if it's our colleagues who are responsible.
Fundraising obviously won't die, but it will change – though, if we are sensible, not for the worse. I think, if anything, we could find the long-term benefits of the Etherington Review will far outweigh the short-term problems we might face in adapting how we operate within the new regulations.
By focusing our minds on the protection of vulnerable donors and encouraging us to add donor satisfaction to the dominant KPI of income, Sir Stuart might just be pointing us down the path towards happier, more satisfied supporters who will actually give and do more for the causes they care about.
As the first part seemed to go down well, we can have a sequel. This time with a few suggestions from your side of the screen.
Thanks for sending them in. For many, it seems it was a chance to indulge in a little therapy and help put a few frustrations to rest.
I've re-formatted some of the suggestions to make them easier to read (and done a little re-wording), but that's about it. I was particularly pleased that Dick and Jane made an appearance from the other side of the Atlantic.
If you'd like to have a go, send me your ideas and If we get enough, we may go for a third edition. Otherwise they will go up on my Twitter stream. Here's a good selection of illustrations to use as base material. As before, Chatham House Rules apply.
Yes. That’s right. No matter how many years you’ve been working in fundraising, no matter how many books you’ve read or how many tests you’ve been involved in, your grandmother (or mum) is instinctively a better fundraiser than you.
She just knows that life is better for everyone if we all do three simple things.
1. Be nice
Be aware of other people’s feelings. Say thank you. Show that you’re grateful. Don’t keep asking for things.
I’m sure you’ve all heard those suggestions many times as you were growing up. But the fact is, they are also very important in building and maintaining relationships with donors.
We undertook a simple test for one of our clients recently where we assessed the impact of introducing a highly personalised thank you instead of sending a (good) computer generated letter.
The group that received the personalised thank you, gave 16% more over the subsequent 12 months than the control.
2. Tell the truth
Be honest about everything. Fundraising shouldn’t be about tricking donors into giving to you. If you only want a £3 gift, that’s great. If you want to call those donors up and ask them to give a direct debit, that’s fine too. But dropping people into a never ending upgrade programme based on the fact that they struggle to say no to multiple asks is questionable at best.
Yes, it may bring in more money in the short-term. But what impact will it have on how they feel about your charity and the sector as a whole?
And be very careful about value exchange devices. I mean the sort of promotion where you offer a booklet or something free if someone sends in a text or emails you. Particularly if, all along, you have the primary intention of getting their details just to ask them for a regular gift.
Be aware that some donors are starting to complain about these tactics. If the sector is still under scrutiny, I wouldn’t be surprised if this became a focus of press attention.
So, if you wouldn’t feel comfortable about justifying your strategy to a journalist, give very careful consideration before using this type of technique.
3. It’s good to share
People give to you because they want to solve a problem. They want to stop something bad from happening. They want to be part of a change in society. Remember this. Share successes with your donors like they are theirs - not yours. That’s how you build loyalty, reduce attrition and raise more funds.
And if you doubt me, why not ask your grandmother (or mum) what she thinks. She’s the only fundraising guru you’ll ever need.
If you'd like a copy of the image in a hi-res format for printing out, you can download a PDF by clicking here.
Ladybird books are a series of British books that were used to teach children to read in the 1960s and 70s. As anyone who has read one knows, they presented a very stereotyped vision of family life.
In 2014, artist, Miriam Elia spoofed the series with her edition of We Go to the Gallery. This created a fashion for re-wording the original pictures to poke a little fun at modern life. Even Penguin books copied the idea with their own publications like The Ladybird Book of the Hipster.
I'm part of a small group of fundraisers who have been emailing each other our own versions on this idea, based on the theme of how fundraising works. After some discussion, I've been allowed to publish a few as long as I point out that they should be taken as a tongue in cheek view of a few painful fundraising truths.
If you want to join us, why not add some of your ideas in the comments or email them to me. If these go down well, we have a few more we could share. Just google Ladybird books and your own favourite nouns or adjectives. You know how it works.
Update: Because everyone seemed to like it, you can find a few more examples here.
Back in 2009, Bluefrog undertook a huge qualitative research exercise to identify and highlight the reasons why donors stop giving to charities.
The paper we published at the time is as relevant today as it was then. So I thought it might be useful if we made it publicly available again.
It's called The Fundraiser's Guide to Lapsers and you can download a copy by clicking here (no sign up or email registration required).
It's broken down into three sections.
1. Why we did it and our methodology.
2. How the disengagement process works. That's if there was any sort of relationship in the first place (which is a massive part of the problem, particularly with the use of prospecting and interruption recruitment techniques such face to face and mobile).
3. Ideas of how you can stem attrition (which actually do work).
Hopefully, you'll find it interesting and useful. Happy for people to share, but we do ask that you credit Bluefrog wherever and whenever it is used (not just the name of the researchers).
The whole idea of a reset button that can shift people into a world where charities can’t communicate with them is pretty frightening.
Adrian Sargent summed up much of the sentiment in the sector where he pointed out, quite plainly, that such a button makes it acceptable for someone to say…
“Never tell me about the needs of others in my community again…ever…So what if people are suffering? I don’t want to know. Let someone else take care of it. How dare you waste a nanosecond of my time forcing me to bin a communication I’m not interested in. How dare you?!”
But who will the FPS protect and who will actually sign up to this sort of service?
Possibly – probably – not the people who are most committed to supporting charities. Perhaps not people like Olive Cooke.
I’m not sure if Mrs Cooke was signed up to either the MPS or TPS, but considering the number of calls and mailing packs she received, we might be forgiven for assuming that she wasn’t.
You'll see that a really fantastic charity supporter is interviewed. Her name is Jenny Phelps. Mrs Phelps has given thousands of pounds to charities over the last five years. And as she says in an interview in the Bristol Post…
“I get inundated with letters - usually about two a day. I can get a lot of calls each day as well. I’ve got about 50 to deal with at the moment, and that’s just from the past month or so.
“it’s definitely quite overwhelming – you start to feel very guilty. I constantly feel like I’m under pressure to keep giving – there is no end.”
On This Morning, Mrs Phelps was asked why she didn’t sign up to a service like the MPS or simply just throw the appeal packs in the bin. Her answer is very revealing.
Now I know you are busy and you might not watch the video (and it appears that ITV, in their wisdom, has blocked it) so this is what Mrs Phelps said…
She didn’t want to.
She didn’t want to because she wanted to help those in need. Even though pressure from charities was causing her distress, she didn’t want to stop helping. As you’ll see if you watch the video, she wanted to be able to control the number of charities that communicated with her – not stop them all.
It appears that she’d decided not to use the blunt object that is the TPS/MPS because she felt it would prevent charities that she’d like to support from contacting her. So she didn’t sign up.
So how is a reset button going to help someone like Olive Cooke or Jenny Phelps?
If we are really going to protect our most generous supporters. The ones who feel they are under too much pressure. We need to put them in charge of who contacts them and who doesn’t. We need to learn why the TPS and MPS failed people like Mrs Cooke and Mrs Phelps. That means that the FPS, if it has any hope of working, needs to give people the opportunity to stop certain organisations or charities working in a specific area of work from contacting them – rather than all of them. Otherwise the reset button will simply be too draconian for many people to use.
Or – and here's a radical idea – rather than set up a whole new service, why don't we just revamp the MPS/TPS to have this functionality. Because we actually need to remember that many people sign up to these services to stop silent calls and credit card mailings rather than charity communications.
But even then, the idea of a button on a website still won't work. If you know what older donors are like and what they want, you'll know any sort of preference service needs to be staffed by sensitive and intelligent people who can be spoken to on the telephone. Real people need to be there for Mrs Cooke or Mrs Phelps to help them make the decisions that will work for them. That will be expensive. But that is what is needed.
And then – perhaps more importantly – we need a complete sea-change in how charities go about recruiting donors in the first place. The prospecting model used by a number of charities has to change.
Let me give you an example.
I have a phone in my house that I never use that came with my broadband. I can't even remember what the number is and it isn't registered with the TPS.
Every day it will ring two or three times. I usually ignore the calls as they are often silent. If I do pick one up and someone is actually on the phone, I ask them to desist from calling my number again. The person on the phone is normally calling from a foreign call centre and rather than acknowledge me, they simply put the phone down. They actually play a nasty little game, where they ask you a question before putting the phone down so you are cut off in mid-sentence. It sums up their approach. To them you are in the way of them making money.
A few days ago, I took one of these calls and engaged with the caller.
They obviously knew my name, phone number and address. They explained the call was for market research and asked me to help them by answering a few questions. I agreed. They wanted to know all about me. They asked about my age, family status, who provided my phone, internet and TV service, how much I earned, what car I drove, had I had an accident. You know the drill.
Four of the questions were sponsored by charities. I was asked whether I would be interested in supporting three very well known charities and one smaller charity that I hadn't heard of.
I asked the caller about the charities and why they needed my support. He couldn't answer my questions so I was put through to his supervisor. He also couldn't answer my questions, but pushed me to say yes to receiving "mail, email and telephone" communications from the charities. I said I'd be happy to hear from some of them but repeatedly said that I didn't want to be called by anyone. He didn't seem to listen and told me I had now opted in to receiving communications. He had a very strong accent and I found it difficult to understand him. He assured me everything was OK and then confirmed again that I had opted in to receiving communications from a wide group of organisations.
That was it from him. Instead, a poor quality, high speed tape was played for perhaps twenty seconds that listed a long list of companies along with the names of some other very well known charities. There was no possible way to take it all in. At the end of this process, the phone went dead. I had seemingly agreed to being contacted by perhaps twenty or thirty different organisations and had no idea how I could redress the situation.
There was another call. I picked it up hoping it was some form of quality control call and I could explain what had happened. It was a dead call. I called 1471 to see who had called me and was informed that the caller had withheld their number.
It was an awful process. A call constructed to exploit, confuse and ignore the wishes of the recipient. I was angry at the end of it and actually felt foolish for engaging in the experiment. But the question remained, why in these incredibly difficult times for fundraisers would at least five or six very well known charities employ a company like this to find prospects for them?
And again – more importantly – would the FPS protect me from a call like this in the future?
It was not a call from a charity nor was it on behalf of one. And quite honestly, given the fact the callers had pretty much ignored everything I'd said, even if a FPS service had existed, I'd imagine part of the process would have been to get me to agree an exemption for the charities that were involved.
So what should we do?
First off, we all have to point out bad practice when we see it. I'm going to make sure the charities concerned know about my experience. Hopefully they will reconsider using this company again.
Whilst that's happening, can I suggest that you take a look at the back of the Etherington Report. In Annex 2, you'll see a long list of people and organisations who put in submissions - the stakeholders. Get past the charity CEOs, journalists and professional bodies and at the very end and you'll see that there were just 22 submissions from members of the public.
Let's repeat that – just 22 submissions from members of public. Regarding a story that has covered front pages for months.
I'm sorry to say this, but I'm not sure if there are too many charities that really understand what donors need. If there were, we wouldn't be in this mess. There is a massive amount of evidence that donors expect very little from charities and tolerate the communications they receive rather than welcome them.
In all Bluefrog's research, what comes through is that donors want to be valued, treated with respect and listened to. It would appear that the Etherington Report has failed to do this.
Rather than simply repeat the mistakes of the past and tell donors what they want, why don't we take this opportunity to undertake some of those focus groups that the government is so fond of and find out what donors actually do want from fundraisers?
I would imagine the findings would be a little different from the recommendations we've been presented with in regard to the FPS.
Bluefrog would be happy to engage in such a study, though nfpSynergy or Adrian Sargent might be well placed to undertake the task.
Because if we don't listen to the real stakeholders – our donors - the Etherington Report is unlikely to solve the fundamental problem it was set up to tackle. To my mind the FPS, as a reset button, will simply become a footnote in a long history of charities failing to respond to donors' needs.
Charity supporters don't need a reset button. They need control. And that's what the sector - with or without the help of Sir Stuart – must provide.
Keep your communications in the purple zone and you won't go far wrong.
Update: This little diagram has really taken off, so I've produced two higher resolutions versions that you can have (no registration required). They are suitable for printing out or dropping in to your own blogs or websites or whatever. And please make sure you click on the words beneath your favourite design.
Following my last post, I've had a few discussions with fundraisers about professionalism and what it actually means. As a result, I thought it might be of interest to expand a little on my thinking.
As I understand it, professionalism is undertaking a task with skill and good judgement. But in fundraising, I don’t think that is the case at all.
Instead, professionalism for many people, has become short-hand for copying what goes on in the commercial sector.
It means mission statements, reputation management, cost reduction, a focus on profit and the creation of strict brand guidelines that tell you exactly (amongst other things) how to position a logo.
We’ve imported all these business ideas – and more – over the last decade or so. And many charities have employed commercial marketeers and communications professionals to help implement them (either directly or through the use of agencies).
But we’ve been so enamoured with the power of these dark arts that we’ve forgotten to ask one important question - do these people or organisations actually know anything about fundraising?
In reality, we’ve been so caught up with the idea of professionalism, that many charities have turned their backs on the key elements of great fundraising practice.
I’m talking about treating donors like people, linking them to the work that they care about, recognising that they are more important than we are, showing them how they are making a difference, giving them a chance to do something more than sign up to a direct debit or run a coffee morning and at the end of their lives, memorialising them.
The fact is, fundraising isn’t marketing.
Fundraising isn’t advertising.
It’s a skill that can’t just be imported from the commercial sector. Of course, just as in any industry, there are some elements that are transferable. But all should be judged on one key criterion - will this give the donor a better experience? Because that’s the only thing that matters.
The one benefit of the fundraising crisis is that it has given us an opportunity to see more clearly what we should be aiming to achieve.
There's a great piece that illustrates this rather well. It written by the Kent and Middlesex batsman, Ed Smith in The Economist's, Intelligent Life magazine. He recounts an interview with the former director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, John Kay.
Kay speaks about the financial crisis, which as we now know, was partly caused by an excessive faith in the professional expertise of the banks' quantitative analysts. As he says...
“Banks persuaded themselves that risk management could be treated as a problem that was closed, determinate and tractable. We, and they, learnt that they were wrong. We opened the door to much unscientific nonsense. The pursuit of a mistaken kind of rationality has in practice produced wide irrationality. It’s a question of having the judgment to say ‘This feels unstable.’ The bogus professionalism proved deceptive.”
It is the ability to make that type of judgement that makes a great fundraiser. And as we re-build fundraising, that is the ability we need. The focus on the tools of the mercantile sector must take a back seat and our commercial colleagues who want to work with us, need to put in some serious hours learning about why people give before they take charge of how we present ourselves to the public again.
Or as the young sorcerer found in Walt Disney's Fantasia found, things might start getting a little out of control again.
One of my biggest frustrations is that in the drive to "professionalise" our sector, the need to actually learn about fundraising is often ignored.
Instead of focusing on what donors need from charities, too many fundraisers have adopted expensive and wholly unnecessary corporate style re-brands or leapt in to new technology without even thinking if it was going to enhance the donor experience. And don't even get me started on the newly arrived commercial marketeer who wants to 'break the mould' before they even begin to understand what it is.
The result is that we have pushed donors away from us. We have turned charities that donors once loved into organisations that they hardly recognise. The fundamental question that seems to have escaped the sector following this summer's crisis, is why have so few donors spoken out to defend us?
So whilst we await the Commission's report, can I respectfully suggest that anyone who works in fundraising or charity communications (including the brand team) will get a great head-start if they read the following books. I can assure you the ideas and approaches you'll read about really do work.
When I was child, we lived in a flat (that's an apartment or condo for my north American readers). Like any small boy, I wanted a pet. I'd have liked a dog or a cat, but the architectural restrictions we lived under meant this was impossible.
So instead I got a hamster. I called him Herman. Both because of the alliterative quality of the name and because I liked Fred Gwynne's character in The Munsters.
Getting him was far from easy. I only got the go ahead after an extended period of pleading and negotiations that meant I had to agree to a series of tough conditions.
I had to feed him and change his water, I had to make sure he received plenty of exercise and most importantly, at least in my mum's eyes, I had to make sure he didn't smell. That meant that I had to regularly clean out his cage.
I readily and excitedly agreed to every single one. And I kept to them too. For or at least the first month. It was then that my mother realised that I needed "support and encouragement" to ensure that Herman had the nice clean home and interesting life that he deserved.
So a whole range of privileges became dependent on how well Herman was treated. A request for a little extra pocket money was met with the suggestion that it might be forthcoming once his cage was cleaned. Asking for a bar of chocolate would generate a response that focused on me being asked when Herman was last given a good run outside his cage.
In short, I discovered that having a hamster wasn't like having a toy that could be put away and forgot about until the next time I decided that I wanted to build Thunderbird 2 out of Lego.
No. A hamster came with responsibilities. It was all well and good having Herman as a little playmate, but it was when my mum said that if I wasn't prepared to actually care for him, I shouldn't have asked for a hamster in the first place, that I actually started to understand.
Having a pet, was as much about care as fun. And the more care I put in, the better my relationship with Herman became and the more fun we would both have. We even developed a trick where he would climb up my trouser leg and finally emerge through the neck of my T-shirt.
So, what's this got to do with fundraising?
To get the most out of your relationship with donors, you need to look after them.
So many of the complaints that we've seen from donors over the last few months are based on the fact that many charities aren't bothering to build a relationship with them and instead are replacing engagement with repeated requests for a regular gift and upgrades.
The fact is, these techniques can raise significant amounts of income. But it's really hard to engage people recruited through these methods. I've written about my thoughts on the type of donors these routes can generate before.
A focus on them tends to build a file that is highly unresponsive to anything other then telephone calls. Cash appeals, legacy campaigns and newsletters struggle. The result is that fundraisers often give up and just focus on upgrade calling, keeping their fingers crossed that regulars givers won't cancel. It's got to the point where some charities are attempting to upgrade regular givers every nine months.
This sort of misses the point. Just because these donors aren't direct mail responsive, doesn't mean that they should be treated like living ATM machines. If they only respond on the telephone, use that to engage them. Ring them up and say thank you. Ask them why they support you and concentrate on that in your future communications – this is particularly important for healthcare charities.
As a sector, we are in danger of building a feeling amongst the next generation of donors that we don't really care about them.
In Bluefrog's private research we still find older donors tend to be very forgiving when it comes to charity communications. The fact is they actually don't expect that much from us. It's a far different situation with younger (middle-aged) people. They are much more likely to actually get angry when they feel they are being treated poorly by charities.
We need to remember that donors are not 'ours'. We share them. We need to consider the fact that we are all responsible for caring for them. A poor experience can hurt us all. And though an over-reliance on interruption techniques might recruit more donors for your charity in the short-term, that may well come at a significant cost to the sector.
Which might make all our good ideas, hard work and innovation a waste of time. When we look at the numbers, we'll see that we resemble a hamster on a wheel. No matter how fast we run, we simply don't get anywhere.
Which brings us to a little friendly advice from the Hamster of Fundraising Wisdom...
And if you are thinking of calling your donors with a thank you call, now might be a great time to start. Many telephone fundraising agencies are struggling as charities cancel their campaigns. I know that they would be glad of the business.
The fact is we don't have to stop using the telephone. We just need to use it differently.
Faced with the highly critical climate we are currently living through, it can be all too easy to forget that our profession is responsible for some of the most important work undertaken anywhere in the world today.
Fundraisers don't just raise money.
Fundraisers raise money for a purpose.
Fundraisers raise money to fight disease, stop cruelty, stamp out abuse, tackle poverty, confront injustice and protect what society holds most dear.
And though there are some fundraising practices and approaches that should be reviewed and must be changed, the need for charities – and fundraisers to power their work – is beyond question.
When the IOF were looking for speakers for this year's convention, I suggested that I’d like to talk about what I saw was wrong with fundraising.
I didn’t realise just how prescient my proposal would be.
I don’t blog that much these days, but when I do, it’s normally to highlight a concern. And one of the things I’ve been increasingly worried about is how a significant number of donors are responding to some common fundraising techniques.
I’ve been a fundraiser since 1988 and I have never known the antipathy that is currently directed at my profession.
Things have to change.
We really have to start putting the needs of the donor at the heart of everything we do. Aggressive techniques can – and do – raise money. But when we multiply the use of those techniques across twenty, thirty, forty or more charities, the pressure that some of our most generous donors are facing becomes unbearable.
The good news is that charities have been here before and recovered. In my presentation, I show that the criticism we are seeing is nothing new. But I also show that however aggressive certain elements of the sector might be, we aren’t raising any more money, recruiting any more donors or generating any more regular gifts than eight or nine years ago. It seems that all we are doing is encouraging donors to spread their philanthropic budget ever more thinly – hence the fashion amongst so many charities with expensively built brands to ask for 'just' £3.
That's because a significant number of donors struggle to say no when asked for such a small sum.
Repeated list swaps and multiple asks have driven charities to increasingly focus on people who can't refuse this sort of request for help. This appears to be at the cost of identifying donors who have a real commitment and connection to a particular cause.
The result is that a number of great donors are suffering. It’s a phenomenon known as pathological altruism.
I don’t suggest that I have the definitive solution, but it would strike me that we should introduce four changes that would make a huge difference to the sector's relationship with donors (and the media).
1. We need to offer donors a way of demonstrating they are already giving in the face of a request for support. Back at the beginning of the last century, when you gave to charity, you received a flag to pin to your jacket. It meant you didn’t need to feel bad when you said no to another collector.
Whether this is a badge, a sticker to go in a window or even a numerical code that a donor can give in response to a request for a gift from a telephone fundraiser, we need something that allows donors to say no without feeling guilty.
And while we are about it, why don't we replace the blunt objects that are the MPS and TPS with a means for donors to actually choose who can or can't contact them? Perhaps via a website where as well as getting a 'badge', people can also specify which charities or causes they actually want (or don't want) to hear from. In reality, some people don't mind having their name shared amongst a few appropriate charities (please watch video 2 to see what I mean).
2. The richest 20% of the UK population give a smaller percentage of their income to charity than everyone else. We need to create a movement where we start promoting the idea that wealthy people should give more – perhaps, 2% of their income. The constant demands for £3 have encouraged all donors to think that charity is only deserving of our small change. This is a sector wide problem that only the sector can change.
3. We need a new type of audit. Each year, every charity should offer all donors (and a number of lapsed ones) the chance to say how they feel they have been treated.
Mailed too much? Called too much? Asked too much? No idea how your gift has been used? We need to agree a series of questions that every charity must ask and report on so we can start benchmarking performance across charities. This survey needn't be too expensive and can perhaps be included with a newsletter mailing or email.
In these surveys we should also give respondents the chance to flag up charities who they feel have broken the Fundraiser’s Promise – a promise that all charities signed up to the FRSB have agreed to uphold.
This would give us an opportunity to see which charities need more 'direction and guidance' when implementing fundraising programmes.
4. Rather than the current range of mostly arbitrary awards, we need to start looking at rewarding great fundraising performance.
Awards should be given for real achievements such as: best five year net growth rate, lowest attrition, best ROI, lowest complaint rate and best implementation of the Fundraiser’s Promise. And when it comes to innovation, any award should be withheld for three years and only handed over when the great new idea is actually proven to work.
I believe that we have all the regulations in place that we need. We just have to start adhering to their spirit rather than the words. We also need a system to help us identify those charities that let the rest of us down. Hopefully these ideas might be useful in achieving those goals.
Many people who couldn't get in to the room asked for a copy of the deck, so you’ll find it below. Any questions, please feel free to add a comment or tweet me at @markyphillips.
Christmas is the time when fundraisers get excited about the sound of a man or woman trudging through the snow struggling under the weight of a sack full of gifts. Only for us, it’s the post delivery that gets our hearts beating a little faster. Not the thought of Santa Claus.
That’s because Christmas is the season of goodwill. It’s a time when we can expect our donors to be at their most generous. CAF in the UK have found that as Christmas appeals start dropping through letterboxes, the number of people giving rises to over 57% of the population (and to almost 80% of the over 65s).
But why does Christmas have such a big impact on our attitudes to giving? Of course, the celebration of Christ’s birth is hugely important, but in the secular society within which we live, is that explanation enough?
Not to my mind.
Christmas is far more than a religious festival. It is a multi-dimensional event that has happiness as a supreme goal - often defined by consumption. But to fully understand what constitutes a happy Christmas, we have to identify those factors that actually do make us happy.
They found that “Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them, such behaviour apparently contributes little to holiday joy”.
What mattered most was celebrating with close friends and family. And the focus on materialism did nothing more than distract “people from the true meaning of the season.”
This was particularly pronounced amongst older respondents who reported greater feelings of happiness largely explained by the opportunity of spiritual and physical reconnection.
And in my considered opinion, the chance to reconnect is why Christmas is such a powerful driver for giving to charity.
If you were brought up in a Christian country, you’ll have many memories of Christmas. And when any of us think about Christmas, we think about traditions. Not just national traditions, but, more importantly, family ones. Where were your presents going to be on Christmas morning? Under the tree? In stockings by the fireplace? In a sack at the foot of your bed?
What time do you open presents? As soon as you wake up? After breakfast? After church? After lunch?
Do you have Christmas dinner or lunch? Do you make a toast before you eat?
The list of traditions that families adhere to is almost endless and it’s very rare that any will be broken without good reason. Even though there’s obviously nothing stopping us from changing the way that we celebrate Christmas other than that profound and deep link to the past.
And as fundraisers we should learn from this. This need for tradition can be a very powerful driver for giving.
Let me give you an example.
For several years at Bluefrog, we have included a sheet of sticky gift tags with a Christmas appeal produced for one particular client. Though the appeals differ, each year the stickers are the exactly same. They feature old fashioned, cheesy images of snowmen, reindeer and Santa Claus.
A few years back we were asked to bring them up to date. We created a modern set that many of the younger people involved in the project loved. Luckily we tested them alongside the traditional design. The new stickers suppressed response by a significant margin.
Why would a new set of Christmas stickers have such a big impact?
The answer is simple. Many donors had incorporated the use of our stickers in their Christmas traditions for many years and by changing them we had broken a link with the past. The tags helped make the giving of presents a richer experience because they bridged the gap between the commercial and the charitable sides of the season. And the new design simply didn’t have the same resonance as the original version.
By responding to this need to reconnect with the past, we can create far more powerful appeals than those that simply present a request for help. We can actually offer an antidote to the commercialisation of the season that so many donors (particularly older ones) dislike.
So my first piece of advice is to pull out your archives and guard books. And use them to build an appreciation of how your donors have previously engaged with charities over the years. If you haven’t got an archive of your own, take a look at SOFII or visit this Pinterest board which features hundreds of ads going back almost two centuries.
You’ll see similar themes repeated decade after decade. Themes that when incorporated in your appeals, can significantly increase your income.
Take this advertisement from Barnardo’s from 1927 asking donors to play the role of Santa Claus and buy Christmas food for an orphan or destitute child. Alongside it is an advertisement from the NSPCC produced in the 1990s that has a similar message. It might not be particularly innovative, it might even seem boring to some, but it’s just what many donors - particularly older ones - find motivating.
Even now, the Salvation Army in the UK uses a similar technique. Each and every Christmas they ask their donors for exactly the same thing - to buy a Christmas meal or box full of food and toys for poor families. Just take a look at their annual report and you’ll see that they generate an ROI from their donors that puts most (if not all) big British charities to shame.
As I’ve already said, there’s nothing particularly clever about the technique. But it taps into, and helps satisfy, the donors fundamental need to reconnect to their past and the true meaning of Christmas. I am still surprised that it isn’t more widely used. But I’d imagine that there are few organisations willing to stick with an approach for the necessary number of years to turn it in to a tradition in its own right.
And that’s the problem.
There are many similar ideas just waiting to be rediscovered and developed. But your starting point when developing a new idea should be to reject the idea of producing different appeals each year. Instead I’d advise you to focus on developing a campaign that can underpin your Christmas appeals for a decade or two.
In my experience, the more you use an idea, the stronger it becomes. Yes, creative will need to be refreshed, but as long as the core approach and visual identity remain the same, it will grow and grow, year after year.
So as with shopping, start planning for Christmas 2015 early. As soon as you get back to work in the New Year, start to learn about what Christmas really means to your donors and find out what they feel it lacks. Then build a campaign aimed at giving them just what they want.
It won’t be easy. It will certainly require a great deal of hard work. But if you can develop an idea that cements your charity into your donors’ psyche as truly part of Christmas, you’ll be repaid many times in terms of extra income and engagement in the coming years.
It seems apt to leave the final word on this matter to Charles Dickens, who helped invent so much of what we take for granted about the season. He summed up it’s power quite neatly when he said,
“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!”.