Mark Phillips: Great fundraising is not just about leaky buckets

Charities should make their donors feel good so that they stick around if they bring in opt-in-only policies, writes the managing director of Bluefrog

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips

As a father of two young children, my usual methods of analysing what’s happening in the sector – reading Third Sector and poring over heavy tomes with the word fundraising in the title – have been rendered impossible by the never-ending clamour to build space stations from discarded packaging, hunting for pythons in the garden (there are none, I’ve checked) and coming up with appropriate voices for characters from the ten children’s books that arrive in the house each week courtesy of West Greenwich library.

Consequently, I am stuck in the post-intellectual world of trying to make sense of the latest round of charity regulations, fundraising ideas and innovations through the good offices of Sir Charlie Stinky Socks, Paddington Bear and even Bing (not Crosby  this one is a small rabbit). 

But last week, help was at hand through a book my seven-year-old son had chosen, Have you Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud. Its premise is simple. We all have invisible buckets that we carry round with us. The buckets have a single purpose. To hold the good feelings and thoughts we have about ourselves. When we have a full bucket, we are happy. When it’s empty, we feel sad. 

The tricky thing is, we can’t fill our own bucket. We depend on other people to do that for us, just as they depend on us to fill theirs. 

And you fill a bucket by doing nice things that make people feel special. You can also be a bucket dipper and empty one by making someone feel bad. 

In the world our children inhabit, people love bucket fillers. And the best bucket fillers have many friends, get invited to loads of parties and generally have a great time. 

That was my starting point for tackling a brief on how to create an effective opt-in statement. I’d been considering various options that comprised different levels of honesty such as promises to "update people on work" right through to the wholly more accurate, "we want you to give more" when I stumbled, metaphorically speaking, on the invisible bucket. 

As a fundraiser, if I want donors to look forward to my letters and phone calls to the point that they will actively opt-in to receiving them, I should really concentrate on filling their buckets every time I get in touch. 

After all, there’s no point inventing a form of words that might encourage someone to fill a box with a hesitant tick, if at the end of the day the reality of the stream of unwanted communications bears no comparison to the veiled promise in the opt-in statement. 

So, rather than simply print this new magical phrase on all the donation forms we can get our hands on – and then hope for the best – perhaps we should remember a simple fact. 

Donors actively want to have full buckets. 

But in the modern fundraising environment, they have to say ‘no’ far more than they say ‘yes’ – something that can cause them real discomfort. 

And that’s why getting a donor to opt-in is not just about writing a statement. It is about giving the donor a role in your charity where they can see what they achieve. 

And that is something that starts on the day you receive their first gift and should continue through the subsequent thank you, the appeals they receive and every communication that follows.

An opt-in statement should not be seen as a means to get someone to accept a series of letters, emails or phone calls that they don’t really want. It is actually a measure of how your donors value your organisation’s work and how you treat them. 

That’s why you should concentrate on filling a donor’s emotional bucket from day one. By doing so, you’ll ensure that should you ever introduce an opt-in communication policy, your donors will choose to stick with you.

Mark Phillips is the founder and managing director of the fundraising agency Bluefrog

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