Matthew Sherrington: Look to the US with care, not envy

Fundraising might be in crisis in the UK, but our cousins across the pond don't necessarily hold the answers, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

So 2016 ended no more happily for fundraisers than 2015, but at least with more clarity. There were more bad headlines in the Daily Mail about chief executive salaries in a double-whammy story that attacked international aid, and more off-piste pronouncements from the chair of the Charity Commission in The Sunday Telegraph. And there were fines for a couple of large charities for breaches of data protection. But with that came clarity that a few long-standing stalwarts of fundraising practice, used effectively if erroneously, were now off-limits.

List-sharing "with like-minded organisations", as the opt-in phrasing went, is one. Another is tele-matching, involving the appending of contact data from third-party sources to enhance contact and communication. Then there’s wealth screening, a core activity of major-gift fundraising, researching for indications of wealth and interest to better tailor approaches to individuals (and to avoid random cock-ups like this £100,000 appeal letter).

These are all activities that from one perspective should help target and tailor communications to those most receptive to them and not waste money irritating others. Since people tend not to give spontaneously but need to be asked, these activities have enabled charities to reach people more effectively to do just that and give them the opportunity to give.

From another perspective – the legal one – it’s all a big misuse of data and one that charities have got away with for too long. (It is also something that has been overlooked by the Information Commissioner with its permissive guidance over the years.) But now we know – that’s that.

So what’s left for an honest fundraiser to do? Well, all these things are still possible to do, if you have proper supporter consent, which is the rub. That’s going to take time to sort out, and many fewer people will give it. We might have hit "peak fundraising" for the bigger charities, where this type of activity has mostly gone on.

"Time to get my hat," joked rather ruefully one fundraising director with whom I chatted at the end of the year, "or move to America".  Because in America, these fundraising techniques are deployed on an industrial scale, enabled by freedom of information laws and protected under freedom of speech. It’s where the UK learned them from in the first place. As a fundraiser in the US, I remember being shown a wealth-screening product that consolidated information on individuals from the volume and value of their share transactions to a Google Maps satellite image of their home, all publicly available.

But the grass isn’t necessarily greener over there. I wrote six months ago about the more distasteful side of "churn-and-burn" direct mail activity in the US, with a donor-list market I described as "pimping". At the peak of fundraising hostility in 2015, it was rather shocking to hear a US consultant argue that UK fundraisers should fight for what he considered to be First Amendment free speech rights, much as a gun-toter might fight for the Second Amendment, with no reflection about the impact on others.

I’d like to think the awakening for supporter rights we’ve experienced in the UK will spread around the world in due course. The UK’s fundraising sector remains influential in its depth, variety, thinking and innovation, and a new era of regulation and emphasis on supporter experience will stimulate that.

But we must keep an eye on the US, as the worst excesses of fundraising there will be used to bite us. Last summer’s media exposé on fundraising costs featured the dodgy practices of US charities operating in the UK. And the Daily Mail’s recent chief executive salary story featured organisations in the US, not UK charities, where the salary market is very different. Mud sticks, and 2017 has to be a year of leading by example when it comes to best practice.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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