Cathy Pharoah: Giving campaigns will fail if they do not set targets and reward the donors

The success of Comic Relief contains lessons for all charities, says our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

If there is to be a new era in giving, donors need to know what is in it for them. Why do we currently see charitable giving as problematic? Surely the fact that the level of giving has remained remarkably steady through three decades of social, economic and technological change is something to be celebrated.

Furthermore, those people who do give are more generous than they used to be. The charitable impulse has apparently held up well in the increasingly competitive consumer environment of the past 30 years.

So is the plethora of sector responses to the government's Giving Green Paper an attempt to provide solutions where we don't have a clear view of what's wrong?

The key issue for charities is that they would like to get more money from donors and, in the current environment of government spending cuts, that need has been exacerbated. But that is not the same issue as believing that donors are not generous enough, or that their generosity is seriously inhibited because of barriers such as the complexity of Gift Aid or lack of access to new media opportunities.

There is very little evidence, if any, to show that dealing with these barriers would unleash significant new waves of giving. It's not even true that giving is simply not an attractive enough consumer option.

The Comic Relief appeal provides donors with huge opportunities to participate, emotional rewards and enormous entertainment. It is highly successful at achieving a short-term, specific earnings target - namely, to beat its own annual record for fundraising. Information on progress towards the target is fed back continuously during the event. The deal with the donor is always clear. Such specific and achievable goals are fundamental to all successful campaigns.

Perhaps this explains why previous giving campaigns have failed to make a lasting dent on giving behaviour. There have been several attempts - the Payroll Giving Supplement, the Giving Campaign, CAF's National Giving Week, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' What Do You Believe In campaign. More campaign ideas are in the pipeline, including Better Asking and the work of the new Philanthropy Review. Will they, or the government's forthcoming white paper, do any better?

Any campaign directed at changing individual behaviour needs to have specific targets and set out clear benefits to the target population. Previous generic, national giving campaigns have failed to address any of these issues adequately. They had open-ended financial goals, set scattergun targets and were cause-neutral. This left donors with little sense of tangible outcome.

If a new campaign is to be effective, it needs to tell donors what's in it for them and why or how they need to change their giving behaviour. So could government kick off the hoped-for new giving era by sponsoring a competition to come up with the best idea for the new donor proposition?

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