Refreshing your relationships with donors

Think tank Rogare says fundraisers should be paid according to how their donors feel about the charity

Charities should remunerate their fundraisers according to how satisfied they make their donors feel and help donors feel a greater sense of belonging. These are two of the recommendations that emerge from a new report by Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

Relationship Fundraising: Where Do We Go From Here? explores an approach to raising money that puts the donor, rather than the charity, at the centre of fundraising activity. The term relationship fundraising has been used since 1992, when the fundraiser Ken Burnett published his well-known book on the subject, but the report argues that the time has come for the theories behind it to be refashioned to remain relevant to fundraisers in the future.

The report, based on two literature reviews and a survey of 41 senior fundraisers about the direction relationship fundraising will take in the coming years, makes a number of recommendations on how all fundraising practice could be improved, although it says it is likely to take about half a century for these theories to be absorbed into the mainstream.

One of its most significant proposals is that fundraisers should set aside the existing system of evaluating performance in terms of short-term monetary metrics in favour of metrics that measure the commitment, trust and satisfaction of their donors. Their remuneration should then depend on how satisfied their donors are rather than on whether they meet or exceed annual income targets, it says.

"Re-orienting around longer-term metrics would make a massive difference to the way we practise our fundraising," says Adrian Sargeant, director of the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy and one of the report's authors. "Fundraising would then be about not just short-term revenue maximisation, but also about making sure we give donors a good experience."

Sargeant believes such a remuneration policy would lead fundraisers to invest more time and resources in their work and reduce the likelihood of donors becoming irritated or distressed by excessive numbers of requests. He warns, however, that unless satisfaction-based metrics become standard, short-term targets will continue to be the motivation for fundraisers and practices will not change.

He says that several charities have started measuring donor satisfaction, including the NSPCC, the British Heart Foundation and the RSPCA, but he does not know of any charities that pay their fundraisers according to their performance in this area.

Another of the report's recommendations is that fundraisers should help donors feel as if the charities they support are part of their identity. Citing academic theory from the field of social psychology, it argues that they should capitalise on the human need to belong by making donors feel as if they are part of a unique, distinctive group.

"Once people think they belong to a group, such as Greenpeace supporters, child sponsors, ActionAiders, they differentiate themselves from others into an in-group and an out-group," it says. "Fostering a sense of group identity, however artificial that might initially appear to be, could bolster longevity in relationships."

According to the report, the Australian Conservation Foundation employed this theory effectively - albeit probably unconsciously - when it encouraged its regular monthly givers to become campaigners for the charity and its campaigners to become donors. It also paid its local activists to work on global and national campaigns as well as local issues. The effect of this cross-promotion, combined with the charity's efforts to create a strong identity for supporters, along the lines of "we, the community, take on wrong-headed governments and companies", was to encourage donors to identify heavily with the ACF.

A third recommendation in the report borrows from public relations theory and urges fundraisers to engage in "genuine, two-way symmetric communications" with donors. An important aspect of such communication, it says, is "self-disclosure", whereby donors are encouraged to give feedback to charities. Many charities use surveys to ask donors to share their thoughts and ideas, but very few fundraisers elicit feedback about donors' feelings - known as "affective self-disclosure" - except during telemarketing calls. Asking donors how they feel about a charity could lead to more donors believing that their feelings are cared about, the report says.

The report praises the climate change charity SolarAid for giving donors the chance to make either affective or cognitive disclosures through a feedback form on its website that asks why people decided to support the charity. This, the report says, makes its online donation process seem like less of a transaction

Ian MacQuillin, director of Rogare, who co-authored the report with Sargeant and Jen Shang, professor of philanthropic psychology at Plymouth, says he hopes charities will use its findings to start integrating a relationship fundraising approach into their activities in a more systematic way. "To date, relationship fundraising has purported to focus on the needs of the donor, but it hasn't done that particularly well or applied a lot of theory," he says. "This is the theory behind relationships that fundraisers need to start looking at if they're going to make this work properly rather than in an ad hoc way."

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