What's wrong with fundraising today?" This was the question that hung in the air at the Institute of Fundraising convention in July, which came shortly after the Olive Cooke case and coincided with the Daily Mail's latest articles about telephone fundraising practices at the agency GoGen.
It was also the title of a session by Mark Phillips, managing director of the fundraising agency Bluefrog, which proved one of the most popular of the three-day event. About 100 people crowded into the room and others were turned away.
Phillips began by asking: "Who thinks this is a silly season thing and it will all blow over?" Almost no one put their hand up. "I tend to agree," he said. "I think we're living through times we haven't seen in recent years."
He started his analysis of the main mistakes he thought fundraisers made by looking at the methods he called "interruption techniques", which he said were perceived as highly irritating by the public.
Citing figures released this year by the charity research consultancy nfpSynergy, he told the audience that doorstep, telephone, face-to-face and text messages were considered the most annoying forms of fundraising, and that attitudes towards direct mail were not much better. "When we look at all that we're achieving from all these mailings, all these phone calls, it's almost like a merry-go-round," Phillips said. "There has been no real growth in the amounts given by individuals or the number of people giving since 2006. What are we achieving? We're just stealing from each other."
He said charities should not hold themselves in high esteem because of the amount of direct-debit donations they raised through these methods. The fact that the average family wasted £70 a month in direct debits that they could not be bothered to cancel suggested, he said, that low attrition rates among regular givers might not necessarily be attributed to positive perceptions of the charity or its donor recruitment methods.
Shifting the donor focus
Phillips said charities focused too much on acquiring new donors rather than nurturing existing ones through thank-you programmes and responding to feedback about unpopular recruitment methods. He said that by signing up donors to give between £2 and £5 a month to their causes, charities were securing large numbers of donors, none of whom were very committed. He said charities were forgetting that these small amounts were not only inconsequential to the people who donated them, but also inconsequential in terms of making a real contribution to a charity's work. "When you ask people for such a small amount of money that it doesn't matter, it really does not matter," he said.
Would a rebrand help?
Phillips told the audience that many charities thought they could reverse declining incomes by rebranding, but in fact organisations that changed their names typically experienced a loss in revenue of between 25 and 50 per cent; those that changed their cause areas experienced a 20 to 30 per cent decline. He cited the case of the YWCA, which rebranded to Platform 51 in 2010 before becoming the Young Women's Trust three years later. The charity's income halved between March 2010 and March 2014. "If you're going to do a rebrand, start by sorting out your fundraising," said Phillips. "Once that's done, rebrand away."
So how can fundraising get back on track? According to Phillips, charities should be seizing the moment to change their practices and create a culture of philanthropy rather than protecting their own income streams.
He said charities should stop trying to get donors to give small amounts and instead work together to encourage people to give a percentage of their income to the sector as a whole. He said the sector should stop "acting like a pound shop" and instead get people who earned more than £100,000 to increase their charitable giving to 2 per cent of their income. He said this would ultimately raise more money for the sector.
Other measures he advocated included the creation of a frequent-donors club - any member approached by a fundraiser could cite their membership number, allowing the fundraiser to see the number of direct debits the person had already set up with other charities. This would give them a way of saying "no" to fundraising requests without appearing ungenerous, he said.
He also suggested the sector should conduct a yearly audit of all active and lapsed donors, allowing people to rate how they felt they had been treated by the charities they supported, and that good fundraising practice should be celebrated through an awards ceremony that recognised charities' adherence to fundraising rules.
Phillips concluded the session: "I don't believe the problems are massively structural - I think we can deal with them quite simply, but we have to be bothered to deal with the small stuff."