NEWS IN FOCUS: The battle begins to save fundraising's public image

Tania Mason

Face-to-face fundraising's reputation has been given a pounding in recent press coverage, fuelling the suspicion that charities are cheating the public. Now the sector is fighting back, as Tania Mason reports.

After wasting months reacting to public resentment of face-to-face fundraising by issuing petulant press releases objecting to the media's slant on the issue, it looks as though the voluntary sector is finally pulling its head out of the sand and preparing to launch a counter-attack.

Shelter's director of fundraising Alan Gosschalk is leading the charge.

He warns that if the current situation is left to fester, it could ripen into a crisis of confidence across other fundraising methods (Third Sector, 10 December). He wants charities to defend themselves against accusations that they are wasting money by paying fundraising agencies, with a public education drive spelling out the costs and benefits of the practice commonly denounced as "chugging".

The Institute of Fundraising agrees that the sector needs to face up to the criticism and has written to its 500 biggest members urging them to put their names to such a campaign. A meeting to explore the idea is being planned for January.

It's not difficult to guess what kinds of questions might be raised at this meeting. How should such a campaign manifest itself? What messages should it convey? What marketing methods should it use - advertising, direct mail, PR? Who should launch it?

Last week, 14 Scottish charities launched a marketing campaign to encourage people to donate at Christmas, in an attempt to reverse falling donations in the wake of two charity scandals over the summer. They managed to secure sponsors to fund the push.

But the fundraising campaign is unlikely to involve advertising. Gosschalk points out: "The danger with advertising is that people will just accuse us of wasting more money." Instead, the Institute's chief executive Lindsay Boswell predicts they will take a "relatively soft, below-the-line approach.

"Our campaign is fundamentally different from Scotland's. It's not about restoring public faith in charities, it's about maintaining current levels."

Gosschalk is declining to air his ideas for the campaign until after the January meeting, but Boswell is clear about what he wants. He believes the campaign should have several objectives, and embrace all forms of fundraising. He wants to send tailored messages to the charities themselves, their donors, the media, and even The Charity Commission, to get the SORP accounting rules for reporting fundraising costs tightened up.

All these messages have the same end goal - to educate the public about the true costs of fundraising in order to close the gap between the realities of the practice and public opinion, and thus end any perception that charities are pulling the wool over people's eyes.

"On one side of this divide you have hundreds of thousands of paid fundraising professionals, and on the other side you have this public perception that money suddenly finds its way to Africa by osmosis or something," says Boswell. "We need to generate publicity about that gap - the average person thinks x, the reality is y. Whether we can get that to make the news is another matter. But even if we can't scrabble our way on to the Today programme, the fact we have done something means we can at least defend ourselves by saying: 'hey, we are not hiding anything'. That in itself is a useful counter-tool."

Director of Geronimo PR, Karen Harris, suggests there are plenty of "classic PR tactics" that charities could use to mount an effective campaign to "crisis-manage public opinion. Quite simply, they need to be very transparent about how much it costs to acquire a medium to long-term supporter," she says.

Harris suggests that the Giving Campaign might be an ideal vehicle to deliver the public message, because it already has a high-profile and is used to running public-facing PR campaigns.

Such a collaborative approach is producing initial success for the Legacy Promotion Campaign, a consortium of 111 charities that began trying to increase legacy donations just over a year ago. The campaign hasn't sought to promote its cause under the Legacy Promotion Campaign brand, nor has it campaigned under the names of its members - though these sometimes appear in the ads if the creative execution demands it. Instead, director Theresa Dauncey has sought to raise the profile of legacy-giving using a single strapline - 'Everyone can leave the world a better place'.

"We are not trying to build a brand," she says. "We just want people to get the message."

Initial results suggest this approach is working. A MORI survey conducted six months after the strapline was first used found that one-third of the campaign's target audience (ABC1s aged 45-plus with a will) had heard of it. The number of people that were likely to include a charitable donation in their will has increased by 4 per cent to 27 per cent.

"Our research has shown that the public like to see charities working together, being resourceful and promoting their common causes," said Dauncey.

She supports the call for a public education drive for face-to-face, albeit with a vested interest. "If there are negative attitudes building up around fundraising now, then that could prevent people naming charities in their wills."

Boswell also wants charities to educate their donors better. "Christian Aid recently sent out a fundraising leaflet that stated their limit on fundraising costs. When people read that they think: 'Wow, I really trust those guys'."

Cancer Research UK tested a similar exercise a year ago to counter criticism of direct mail. A mailer with the heading "Junk mail works" told recipients that the money raised from the mailer helps the charity save thousands of lives each year. But though the mailer worked in financial terms, Peter Vicary-Smith, CRUK's commercial director, said the charity rejected it "because we want to focus attention on the cause of cancer research rather than the mechanics of fundraising".

CRUK is one charity that is unlikely to put its name to a campaign defending face-to-face, having rejected the method two years ago. Vicary-Smith said: "We believe this form of fundraising is undermining the general public's trust and confidence - which is a much bigger issue than the short term financial gain that face-to-face fundraising might achieve."

It's this attitude that winds Boswell up the most, and he is determined to change it.

"Far too many organisations have chosen to discount face-to-face on ethical or moral grounds or for reasons of reputational risk. It is one thing to decide not to choose this method yourself, but another to publicly slag it off."

- See Letters, p17, and Institute, p22.

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