Daphne Clark is among those changing the way charities approach donors

An initiative to improve the process is under way, but how will it work?

Daphne Clark
Daphne Clark

When Daphne Clark appeared on The One Show on BBC1 in June 2015, she seemed an unlikely candidate to be involved in an initiative aimed at building public trust in charity fundraising. Eighty-two-year-old Clark took part in the show as a prime example of a pensioner fed up with receiving direct mail from charities. She helped the programme's producers draw up a letter that people could use to tell charities to stop contacting them.

But it was precisely because of this antipathy towards the sector that she could offer useful advice to the Commission on the Donor Experience, an initiative unveiled by the fundraising consultants Ken Burnett and Giles Pegram last September. The commission, which was formally launched at an event in London in March, aims to encourage charities to put donors at the heart of their fundraising.

Commission chair Sir Martyn Lewis, outgoing chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said at the launch that he was delighted to have Clark involved because she could act as a "conduit" for the concerns of other donors.

She is one of 12 commissioners selected by Burnett and Pegram to approve by the end of the year a series of recommendations to help charities change the way in which they raise money. Others on the panel include Tim Hunter, director of fundraising at Oxfam and Lucy Siegle, a journalist for The Guardian and The One Show.

The new guidelines will be drawn up in the first instance by groups of fundraisers throughout the UK who will be recruited at events hosted by the commission and by means of its web page. They will cover everything from how charities can involve their trustees in fundraising to how to incentivise staff by using longer-term fundraising metrics.

Two groups are already active. One is exploring the language fundraisers should use if they want to be welcomed and understood by donors, while another is looking at how vulnerable donors should be treated. The second is led by Martin Sheehan, interim director of fundraising at the Alzheimer's Society and Esther Jackson, group fundraising and marketing director at Age UK.

The commission also intends to establish a focus group of donors who will give their opinions on some of the fundraisers' recommendations. It will also ask organisations such as the University of Plymouth to carry out quantitative research into the mindset of donors

So will charities sign up to the commission's guidelines? Lewis believes they will, as long as the initiative achieves sufficient coverage in the mainstream media, as this will encourage charities to take it seriously.

A press launch held by the commission in March attracted only the sector press but according to Siegle, the initiative could start attracting interest from media such as The One Show once it gains more traction.

Richard Spencer, director of the commission, says that the recommendations may not be enforceable but many charities will be inclined to follow them if their staff have been involved early on in the process of compiling them.

But exerting such influence over charities will not be easy when they are having to cope with new rules affecting fundraising. Joe Saxton, founder of charity research consultancy nfpSynergy, says the issues the commission aims to tackle are not the most pressing for the sector.

A more relevant initiative might have focused on how to replace fundraising streams that have been affected by recent regulatory changes, he says.

"The time for a commission on the donor experience was probably five years ago," says Saxton, who declined to sign a letter endorsing the initiative to the fundraising sector last year. Saxton also questions why a commission set up to take care of donors' interests is collating the bulk of its evidence from conversations with fundraisers.

"It's not clear that the process they've outlined puts donors' experiences into the mix any more than they already are," he says. Spencer responds that the commission will represent donors first and foremost, but that some recommendations will require donors' input more than others.

Another question is the funding of the commission. Pegram, who is vice-chair of the initiative, said in October that the initiative had raised £25,000, some of which came from the agency Listen Fundraising. Listen was found by a Fundraising Standards Board investigation to have used high-pressure donor-recruitment tactics during a campaign for Oxfam last year.

Several people are understood to have expressed concerns about this connection, arguing that taking the money could damage the commission's reputation. Both Pegram and Spencer now say the commission received no sponsorship from Listen and that it has instead accepted funding from organisations such as the research company Blackbaud and the charity website firm Raising IT, whose chief marketing officer Laila Takeh has been appointed as a commissioner.

Many in the sector have welcomed the commission. NCVO chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington's review of fundraising self-regulation endorsed the initiative, while the new fundraising regulator plans to draw on its work to help inform its guidance on good fundraising practice. Twenty-three well-known fundraising professionals agreed to sign a letter announcing the initiative to other fundraisers last year.

One of these, Stephen Lee, professor of voluntary sector management at the Cass Business School, says he did so because of the potential it has to give charities a support mechanism to help them put donors' insight at centre stage in their fundraising strategies. "How good and how robust that support mechanism is, we will have to wait and see," he says.

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