Matthew Sherrington: Boards and chiefs must embrace fundraisers and encourage them to ask well

Fundraisers should not be hung out to dry because of a media furore, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

In recent months I've written about the thanklessness of being a fundraiser and the high turnover in senior fundraising roles, partly fuelled by a combination of the detachment of chief executives and boards from what fundraising involves and a relentless demand for more income at lower cost. Well, that got a whole lot more acute when the Daily Mail went personal on individual fundraising directors.

I've also warned against boards hanging their fundraisers out to dry. But that is what has come to pass. Perhaps not their own fundraisers, but certainly the fundraisers they indirectly employ – almost 600 telephone fundraisers who have lost their jobs as charities cancelled contracts in crisis-management, knee-jerk fashion.

Has there ever been a worse time to be a fundraiser? You know it's bad when the Prime Minister threatens to criminalise "rogue" fundraisers, and the chair of the Charity Commission takes to the front page of The Times to share his own experience of "falling prey" to aggressive fundraising and, as the newspaper put it, admitting to being "beguiled" by a "charming" fundraiser. Sounds a pretty good experience to me, but it seems he felt that it was out of order. Who's to define "aggressive" in the current climate?

What a tragic irony for charities to be considered as grasping as bankers by tabloid journalists and politicians, all of whom share low public trust. Yes, there have been examples of questionable practice, rightly condemned, and the sector has had its head in the sand about public disquiet over some fundraising. It's no surprise that complaints are mounting now the lid has been lifted; I've had reason to make one myself, but it was one incident among countless positive conversations with enthusiastic fundraisers, and was properly dealt with.

The question of sharing data with like-minded organisations needs to be examined, but it's nothing to what goes on in the US, where some charities actually advertise their supporter data for rent (something I once described as "pimping" to a fundraising conference there, which didn't go down too well).

It's a bit distasteful for trustees to keep fundraising at arm's length, viewing it as the proverbial necessary evil, given that asking for money is something UK boards are too often loath to do themselves.

For too long, happily detached boards and directors have imagined money grows on trees and demanded growth and higher return on investment at the same time. They see the money, not the supporters, forgetting that charities exist as an expression of their supporters' will to make a difference. No surprise that some fundraising has crossed the line of what's acceptable.

Recent research suggests under-35s have a strong desire to give and volunteer more. When research repeatedly tells us people's number one reason for not giving is not being asked, what should we do when asking is cast as anathema? People do not give spontaneously. Boards and chief executives must recognise that ceasing to ask does not help donor, charity or beneficiary. They should embrace fundraisers, and encourage and resource them to ask – but to ask well.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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