Opinion: Oops, fundraiser, your strategy is showing

It's an accepted fact in fundraising that someone who supports a rival charity is a better prospect than someone with no record of giving.

So it is that charities will trade donor lists. And so it is that my own household, with a history of modest donations to a few good causes, receives far more appeals through the post than it can reasonably respond to.

One benefit, if you could call it that, is that all this unsolicited mail provides an insight into trends and fashions. And there seems to be a bit of a bandwagon rolling in the use of dubious market surveys. In the past few weeks, questionnaires from four big household-name charities have hit the doormat.

I say dubious because the questions don’t live up to the billing. To take one example, a mailing from the British Heart Foundation urges me to be among the first to take part in the nation’s biggest-ever heart survey. That’s quite a compelling message, but some fairly superficial questions about my health and my knowledge of heart disease lead inexorably to the real point of the survey.

Which is this. Do I know about the foundation’s work? Do I understand that it’s a charity and can’t continue without donations? Do I think it should continue? Am I willing to donate today?

Whoops, BHF, your strategy’s showing. And that’s worrying, because, as professional market researchers have been saying for years, consumers are now very astute at spotting the underlying strategy behind any marketing campaign – and they’re very cynical, too. Cynicism about their work is surely the last thing charities want to encourage.

I’m not suggesting the BHF won’t get any useful data from its survey, but the experts would surely argue that better results would emerge from more probing questions directed at a carefully selected, representative sample than from a sample that has self-selected.

The plus side about this technique is that it is very involving, so I’m guessing that a number of fundraisers, or their agencies, have concluded that dressing up an appeal as a piece of market research is a great wheeze.

But there’s an element of deception involved, just as there is in Shelter’s street-based campaign to get signatures on a petition, when the real aim is to gather personal details and follow up with a fundraising phone call (Third Sector, 2 May).

Both of these strategies need to be thought through. When they’re being asked for their input, consumers will spot that they’re really being asked for their money. They’ll resent it. What’s more, they’ll tell others.

Ken Gofton is a business journalist. He writes a monthly column for Direct Response

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