A bit less cosy, and a bit more challenging

What does the Institute of Fundraising National Convention schedule does it tell you about the state of the sector? Most sessions are about sure-fire 'how to' techniques or 'the seamless success story behind...'. It can sometimes seem a bit like the film The Stepford Wives, where nothing ever goes wrong and everyone is always happy.

We all need to learn, and it's good to celebrate success. But should a national convention be
doing something more? Shouldn't it be challenging and asking tough questions? Shouldn't there be a bit more Erin Brocko­vich?

I believe there is a dominant and unhelpful mindset around the sector that could be summarised as follows: "We need constantly to reassure donors or they get anxious." I'd like to change that to: "Tell donors the truth and challenge them."

Donor confidence is falling worldwide. Scandals play a part: Zoe's Ark in France, Unicef in Germany, Children in Need phone lines in the UK.

One lesson is that if you don't tell donors the truth as soon as something goes wrong, they desert you. But it's more than this. Charities should be more systematically transparent: stewardship is one part of it.
The ‘honesty through stewardship' approach helped the NSPCC. Its early admission that it messed up on the Victoria Climbié tragedy encouraged donors to stay on board despite the failings.

Fundraisers rang the notoriously PR-conscious corporate supporters to tell them the truth. Even they stayed on board with Full Stop.

It's almost seven years since the NSPCC introduced the stewardship approach. It began with a
training programme to change the approach of its fundraisers, but the payoff was changing donors' attitudes. The result is a loyal and generous donor base. But how many fundraisers would choose a stewardship session at the con­vention over a sexy one on digital media or innovation?

Telling the truth also means challenging donors. Instead of the crass "your £10 a month can save a child's life in..." - £10 doesn't do that, anywhere - why aren't charities asking donors if they are serious about changing lives in developing countries and requesting £100 minimum?

And don't tell me about the credit crunch. For many donors it means - what? Sourcing cheaper ciabatta or taking fewer car trips? We should be brave enough to ask donors to increase their gifts when times are tough for the poor.

So let's have a bit more Erin Brockovich at the convention and a bit less Stepford Wives.

  • Bernard Ross is director of the Management Centre consultancy

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