Opinion extra: fundraising - Persistence can be fatal

Is repeatedly mailing every donor asking for a monthly gift the best way to build a long-standing relationship, asks former RNLI fundraiser Richard Mann.

A friend - I'll call him Mike - sent a donation to a charity. He'd been meaning to do so for some time after his grandmother died following a long and difficult illness. He wanted to support the research into the condition the charity was doing. So he wrote out his cheque for £100 and sent it off. Apart from dropping odd coins into collecting boxes, it was the first donation Mike had made to charity and he felt good about it.

And that's the end of the innocent part of this story.

A week or two later, Mike received a nice letter from the charity thanking him for his donation, telling him how important his support was and inviting him to give a set amount each month. It also sent him information about the charity's work.

Mike filed the letter in a sort of pending file on his desk at home.

Every so often he shuffled it about. He felt a bit guilty about not responding, but he didn't feel ready to make that level of commitment.

A couple of months later Mike received another letter asking him to support a capital project the charity was planning. He put this letter with the first and shuffled them both about for a while. Then he decided it was time to give his desk a clear out. Swallowing his guilt, he dropped both letters into the wastepaper basket.

Some months later, Mike received a third letter. This time the request for money was linked to a Christmas message. As well as his feelings of guilt, it started to occur to him how much the charity was spending on writing to him without getting any response. He succumbed and sent another donation. Shortly after Christmas, the charity wrote to thank him, enclosing more information and, yes, inviting him to give a set amount each month.

Motives

So far two motives are present in this story. On the one hand, Mike wanted to give a donation in memory of his gran, which he thought would do some good. On the other, the charity wanted to build a 'relationship' with Mike. This way it planned to get a lot more money from him over time.

In fact, it was hell-bent on it and its systems were geared to that intent.

In the end, the charity got what it wanted. Mike authorised a direct debit for a set amount each month. The charity sent him lots of information about its work, which Mike kept meaning to read but somehow never did.

Some time later, Mike's personal life hit a rocky patch. He decided he needed to review his spending and cancelled the direct debit. The charity wrote to him three times trying to re-activate him as a regular donor, but Mike had lost his feelings of guilt and binned each letter. As he did so, he felt a growing resentment at the way the charity was pursuing him and at the associated cost. He thought he'd done his bit. The 'relationship' was definitely over.

Perhaps Mike could have done things differently - not agreeing to a direct debit he didn't want, for example. Or contacting the charity to tell it why he had cancelled it. At the end of this skirmish (and it's hard not to see it like that) how do things stand?

In the short term, the charity probably got more money out of Mike than it would have if it had left him alone after his first donation. It might also feel that the exposure to its work could pay a dividend if, for example, Mike were to include a charitable bequest in his will. Almost certainly, its view will be that the transaction has ended in credit.

But how does Mike feel? The goodwill he felt at the outset has turned to wariness tinged with cynicism. If he sends money to a charity again, should he expect more of the same? And how much does all this persistent mailing cost anyway? Of course, there are things he could do to stop the mailing. But would he ever get around to it? Then again, does Mike really matter? Other donors, in similar circumstances, might still be happily paying their monthly direct debits. Perhaps Mike would always have lapsed and is just part of the planned attrition rate. Perhaps there's no need to worry about him.

Everyone knows how hard donors are to find and keep; the competition is fierce and the costs breathtaking. It might be worthwhile for charities to look at Mike again and start thinking less about what they can get out of him and more about what they can do for him. Like all of us, he wanted his gift to make a difference and he'd like to hear what that means: specifically, not in general terms.

Slower pace

A simple letter thanking him and explaining how his money will be spent would be fine. Later he can be reminded of what he has achieved and shown what else he could do. This way the relationship - taken at a slower pace - has a better chance of yielding greater rewards for both parties.

But whatever the outcome, the goodwill with which Mike made his first gift remains the primary thing - precious above all else, to be guarded and nurtured for all our sakes.

Richard Mann was head of national fundraising and communications at the RNLI until January 2004.

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