The annus horribilis of fundraising

Fundraisers feel that some of the pressure to justify their activities has been unfair, reports John Plummer

It has been a difficult 12 months for fundraisers: they have had not only to cope with an economic downturn, but also to spend a great deal of time defending what they do.
The revised ‘solicitation statement', the new Institute of Fundraising direct mail code of practice and the arrival of the Fundraising Standards Board have all put the onus on fundraisers to justify their actions.
Yet there is scant evidence - if any - that people are unhappy with fundraising practices. Some feel the profession has become the victim of constant carping that is at best misguided and, at worst, downright unfair.
"Fundraising is getting the blame for doing what we are good at, and that's asking people to give," says Mark Astarita, fundraising director at the British Red Cross. "We are getting lumped in with estate agents. It doesn't help us attract bright young things to the profession. It's quite outrageous, really, and it's time we put it to bed."
Astarita is particularly scathing about the solicitation statement, which the Cabinet Office introduced this year. It requires street, telephone and door-to-door fundraisers to tell prospective donors how much they are paid.
The statement is supposed to help people make informed choices about donations, but Astarita is worried about its impact on fundraisers: "It means it can now be a criminal offence to ask for a quid in a bucket."
He says the FRSB, which fundraisers established to avert statutory regulation, could be more supportive and less critical of the profession. "I hope we haven't created a monster," he says.
Astarita warns that the profession's attempts to show how well it is run could result in something similar to the much-derided ‘cones hotline', which was set up by John Major's government in 1992.
Neil Henderson, campaign development director at direct mail company Brightsource, says: "People want to be seen to be doing something."
He believes it to be a peculiarly British characteristic. "Americans think UK fundraisers are willing to shoot themselves in the foot," he says. Direct mail, he says, regulates itself: "If people don't want it, you lose them."
Henderson says media attacks on charities for wasting paper on direct mail are particularly unfair because the sector leads the way in using recyclable paper.
But charities that use guilt-inducing tactics, he adds, should accept some blame for giving such a negative impression of what they do.
Paul Amadi, group director of fund­raising at the RNIB, who succeeds Joe Saxton as chair of the Institute of
Fundraising tomorrow, acknowledges that it has been a challenging year for morale. "There is an ongoing dialogue about trust in charities and some of the methods we use," he says.
Amadi says it is unfair, but understandable, that so much attention
has been focused on fundraising and not on other aspects of charities. "To the general public, we are the face of the charity sector," he says.
But he doesn't foresee any lasting problems: "I don't sense there have been any attacks - only debate. There has been debate about politicians, banks, the media... fundraising is not immune to it. The public is more de-manding about transparency. I would rather we talked about it than watched the slow decline of trust."
As for fundraisers, Amadi says
that they're a broad-shouldered lot. "We're optimistic by instinct," he says. "There's always a new donor around the corner, so we are optimistic about the future."

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