Dawn Varley: It's not broken, so don't try to fix it

Recent comments by WaterAid fundraising director Marcus Missen, including that the existing model of fundraising is broken, have provoked anger from our guest columnist

Dawn Varley
Dawn Varley

I found myself outraged recently, in a way  I’ve not been before. The cause wasn’t Brexit, nor even the result of the US presidential election, but another professional fundraiser saying that the current model of fundraising, as used by "90 per cent of charities", was "broken". And this wasn’t an inconsequential commentator making the remark to a colleague in the pub.

This was the director of fundraising and communications at WaterAid, Marcus Missen, speaking from the stage at the International Fundraising Congress, and later reported in Third Sector.

My reaction was two-fold. First, as a professional fundraiser myself, and with approaching 20 years in the sector, I don’t recognise the landscape being referenced. Yes, things have gone wrong. Yes, organisations and key decision-makers within them have allowed poor practices to emerge, and pressure to get funds in an increasingly competitive area, perhaps combined with a culture of "they do it, so we can too", has seen standards slip. We’re through that now, with a new regulatory regime and revised Code of Fundraising Practice, and people should – yes, they really should – have accepted this and be moving on.

Second, I was angry as a donor. I have donated to WaterAid for more than 15 years, as a regular giver signed up with the "banker" insert the charity is lucky enough to have carried by the water companies in their annual water bills. It's likely that Missen didn’t think that he was speaking to donors when talking to fellow fundraisers at the IFC, but as a champion of data I know that we forget how donors have a habit of not operating in silos, even though we them that way within our charities.

So as a dedicated regular giver, I learnt that Missen believed the traditional "transactional" model of fundraising was broken, that terms such as "regular giver" were "banned" from WaterAid-speak, and ultimately that my support wouldn’t be needed past 2030 because the mission of WaterAid would be achieved by then. Did this mean that I, one of those transactional regular givers, was not valid? I am also a legacy pledger, so hearing what sounded like the slightly glib statement "WaterAid won’t be needed any more past 2030" seemed also to be a dismissal of the biggest gift I am likely to ever give to a charity.

I’ll admit that I am an ex-staff member at WaterAid, and was lucky enough to be  sent to Malawi to look at its work first-hand, so I’m perhaps invested more than most in the cause, but I believe the principle remains.

And it’s not just WaterAid. I recently heard Oxfam attempt to speak for sector fundraising in an unhelpful way, and the RNLI, while making a brave decision to take the opt-in route, then claimed through a worth-its-weight-in-gold half-page article in the London Evening Standard that it faced "missing money" because of the supporters it will lose. That money isn’t missing – the organisation itself has chosen to leave it behind becasue of its new approach and it should not present this fact in any other way.

Surely, at this point, we all need to agree to get our own houses in order, to work out our approach to supporters and/or donors, put that into practice  accepting any knock-on effect on income – and just crack on. If you don’t agree with what others do, then don’t do it. But don’t feel the need to speak for the fundraising sector as a whole – it’s unlikely that you do.

Dawn Varley is an independent fundraising consultant

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