Opinion: Charities are still not getting donor care right

Fundraisers must learn to understand the importance of developing relationships with donors and making them feel valued.

It should be easy to name a UK charity that delivers good supporter care. Many of the conference sessions I give feature great ideas from CRUK, Oxfam, the NSPCC and a host of others. The trouble is, few of these great ideas concern making donors feel cared for and valued.

I donate to many of these charities. Do I feel cared for? Not in the slightest. Most treat me with studied indifference. Is there any evidence of mailings, emails or telephone calls that are responsive to what interests me or reflect the relationship I want? Virtually none. Once a month I receive the same unbelievably dull email, which I inevitably confine to the trash folder.

Nearly three decades after I, and others, started talking about real, responsive and innovative supporter care, virtually no UK charity is yet offering it. Some are investing a reasonable amount of money in it, and there are individual examples of good practice: the Dogs Trust, for instance, has hit the spot by offering supporters online access to photos of and regular updates about dogs they choose to sponsor. Its understanding of its supporters is a delight - sadly, it is almost unique.

As an absolute minimum, I want to be given some control over how often a charity contacts me and what I receive from it. To my knowledge, only the Camphill Family has ever given donors a say in this, yet it is the absolute basis for a balanced relationship.

Then I want at least the illusion that the interest I'm showing is being noticed by someone. And I want to be excited by the work I'm paying for. So congratulations to Diabetes UK, which sends out occasional home-spun letters with magic words in headlines such as "exciting research news". And it is not even asking for money.

Why is great supporter care not happening? Because fundraisers have only a certain amount of energy and their focus is on hitting income targets for their individual campaigns. The message is clear: "make your budget first, then we'll worry about that other fancy stuff". As a result, few charities are looking after their supporters anywhere near as well as they could. So relationships are eroded, opportunities pass unnoticed and budgets are not made. Oh, the irony.

This stuff is not difficult, but it requires people with a passion for good supporter care; people who see the long-term benefit of asking for their supporters' opinions; people whose raison d'etre is to develop ongoing, mutually beneficial and hence profitable relationships. And they need strong backing from the top brass, too. My fear is that few charities in the UK are recruiting such people.

With tougher times upon us, charities that have lived off the goodwill of supporters by blanket mailing practically anything with a pulse will be the first to struggle. If donors abandon charities in droves, we have only ourselves to blame.

On that note, I pledge to donate £100 to the first charity that can demonstrate a strategy that delivers great supporter care.

Stephen Pidgeon is chair of marketing firm Tangible Response

5 MORE THINGS...

Donors increasingly have a consumerist attitude to charities: they like to shop around and often lack trust in one organisation, according to a study released in June by marketing firm Bluefrog.

Interim results of an online survey by fundraising agency Relationship Marketing have revealed that fundraisers have no fixed definition of stewardship, the term often used to refer to donor care. Descriptions varied from "just being nice to people" to "relationship fundraising".

In a test campaign carried out in July for the Thistle Foundation by Relationship Marketing, donors who had received a call to thank them for their support in advance of a direct mail campaign were 5.4 per cent more likely to upgrade their giving than those who had not.

Charities should contact donors 10 months after they sign up to increase retention levels, according to the 2008 Attrition Survey by the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association.

Disability charity Livability has launched a test campaign to find out what interests and engages its donors most. The results will be used to devise a fundraising appeal in the spring.

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