Charities are churning out too many homogenised fundraising campaigns and have been "negligent" in outsourcing campaigns to external agencies, according to Ruth Ruderham, director of development at the Prince’s Trust.
Speaking at Big Questions Live, the opening event of Third Sector’s Fundraising Week in central London this morning, Ruderham said many charities’ fundraising campaigns were simply copies of successful campaigns run by others, even if the causes were different.
"There is far too much copying and too much risk-aversion," she said.
"I understand this isn’t the fault of fundraisers. This comes from right at the very top with boards that are nervous of trying more."
Ruderham, who will join Comic Relief in July as its new grants director, said many charities tended to "outsource our brains" rather than acknowledge that many in-house staff members had chosen to become involved in a particular cause, so they had more in common with donors than an agency.
"I just think we are negligent because we don’t do that thinking in-house," she said. "We pay an agency and say: ‘What worked for someone a bit similar or not similar at all, what got good results and can you dump my logo on it, not theirs, and do it again please?’ That’s our own fault and has led to this."
Ruderham argued that charities with different cause areas should be communicating different things in different ways.
Leesa Harwood, director of fundraising at the RNLI, who was also on the panel, agreed, saying the problem went further than just fundraising campaigns.
"I don’t just think it’s the ‘me-too’ fundraising practices either; I think it’s the ‘me-too’ business model," she said.
"That’s where it starts, because fundraising is downstream. If you go upstream to the root cause, how many charities have exactly the same business model, exactly the same governance model? How can that be when they do such diverse things?
"We need to take a good long look at each individual charity and figure out what is the best business model and therefore what is the best funding model to underpin that. Then we need to decide what is the best fundraising component within that funding model.
"That’s hard work, but that’s how you get out of that ‘me-too’ scenario."
But the fundraising consultant Matthew Sherrington, who was also on the panel, said that, at a time when many charities were struggling financially, it was sensible to emulate campaigns that had worked for others.
"There’s a difficult balance between cost-effectiveness and that shiny ball of innovation and cost-effectiveness," he said.
"It’s about seeing what works and copying what works. There’s nothing wrong with that if you do the right thing by adapting it to the right thing for you."
Sherrington said larger charities had more opportunity to innovate, but there was a danger in jumping after new shiny things "for the sake of it".
Ross Sleight, chief strategy officer at the mobile marketing agency Somo, argued that innovation could be achieved inexpensively and one problem was that agencies themselves had forgotten that part of the process of developing a campaign should be acquiring some new insight to base the campaign on.
Fellow panellist Anne-Marie Huby, co-founder of the donation platform JustGiving, said many crowdfunding campaigns were successful because they were able to give updates on the progress of the campaign and the impact of the donation.
"The idea that we have the luxury of choice between doing the industrial stuff really well while dabbling in some of the expensive innovation, that model is broken," she said.
"What would be profoundly innovative would be if charities could answer these questions: why us? What is it that we do?"