Matthew Sherrington: Sector leaders must take charge if change is to happen

To stop fundraising being an extractive industry, chief executives and boards need to lead, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

The world can’t take the burning of the remaining reserves of oil and coal without pushing climate change and the trajectory of global warming over the edge. With 99 per cent of scientists supporting that view with evidence, it’s pretty much a fact. There’s plenty of positive stuff going on with renewables, but that doesn’t stop the fossil-fuel die-hards pressing ahead to "drill, baby, drill" while stocks last.

There are obvious parallels with fundraising. "Old practices are no longer acceptable," Lord Grade, chair of the Fundraising Regulator, said last week, as the Information Commissioner handed out more fines to charities for breaches of data protection laws. "We're not here to stop people raising money," he added. "We're here to make sure they do it in a way that's not going to damage the goodwill of the British public."

While some might detect unwelcome heavy-handedness in our new regulatory set-up, or resent bigger charities whose industrial fundraising has been under the spotlight, who could argue that all fundraisers should have that as a goal? "We can’t treat donors as cash machines," fundraisers have long said, while doing just that.

As with oil and coal companies, if the alternatives aren’t things we know about, we risk carrying on doing what we’ve done as long as we can. And therein lies the paradox of the tragedy of the commons – each rationally operating in their own interests while undermining the interests of the whole community and collectively ruining the future for all.

Breaking out of that takes leadership from the top, nothing less than a culture shift, based on solid principles for everyone. What’s often passed over in the "tragedy of the commons" discussion of competing interests is that it’s the goats that die. In our scenario, it’s our supporter audience that is disillusioned and turned away.

The business adage goes that you manage what you measure, so you’d better be measuring the right things. But as Albert Einstein put it: "Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that can be measured matters." Nevertheless, we have to do our damnedest to do better, or else we are condemned to continue measuring the stuff that doesn’t matter, like overhead ratio or ROI.

And this starts at the top. How are trustees setting expectations when it comes to fundraising? What questions are being asked when it comes to fundraising and supporter experience and satisfaction? What metrics are on their dashboard, and what about the qualitative things that aren’t easily represented as a number in a profit-and-loss spreadsheet?

The culture shift we need to see has to "change fundraising for good", as the Commission on the Donor Experience puts it, a project that has involved hundreds of fundraisers in articulating a new approach that will "make donors feel great about their giving and the difference they make". It goes way beyond fundraising. Fundraisers might have lost sight of some important things in the chase for targets. But they have also been responding to the targets and expectations put on them.

Chief executives and their trustees have to embrace what’s needed to change our fundraising culture – and lead. Nothing short of public trust, people’s enthusiasm for giving and the difference that makes to the causes we serve is at stake.

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

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