Stephen Lee: Trust me, I'm a fundraiser

Twenty years ago I wrote a piece under the same headline. Much has happened since, not least in the past 24 months, but little appears to have changed in terms of practice – or has it?

My intention then, as now, was to try to unravel the apparent contradictions that impact donor trust and confidence together with the very different and necessary roles that regulators and sector-wide bodies, charity trustees and fundraisers need to play if both trust and confidence are to be effectively maintained and enhanced.

The key factor here is that each player needs to be clear about where they can have a positive impact and where their impact might be negative, if not disastrous. This recognition is important, nay, crucial, because while we often use the two terms interchangeably, trust and confidence as they relate to giving behaviour are actually two very different things, each in need of a distinctive approach.

Research tells us that confidence stems from control – when I feel in control I feel and I am more confident. It is largely mechanistic in character, scientific and predictable in nature, and best maintained and enhanced if the right context is set and observed for its preservation.

Trust, by contrast, is almost the exact opposite and exists (or is lacking) precisely at the point where there are no fixed grounds for confidence.

Trust is a normative construct, a complex mix of faith and belief rather than fact and mechanics. It is highly relational in nature and is always capable of imminent decline, being extremely dependent on continual reaffirmation through the experiences enjoyed (or not) by the recipients of our fundraising behaviours.

So, the two constructs are not as synergistic as their popular presentation might suggest. The problem becomes even more complicated because in charitable giving terms the two constructs are highly correlated – to put it simply, it is very difficult to unravel whether I feel more confident because I trust you or feel more trustful of you because I am confident.

How then does this play out in the contemporary fundraising environment and what might be the necessary role for sector-wide bodies and charities in best promoting trust and confidence in giving?

First, sector-wide bodies and regulators can have only marginal impact in promoting enhanced trust between any given donor and their charity of choice. Their focus must be on creating effective regulation and markers of best practice and in ensuring compliance with them. Indeed, if they dabble too much in matters of trust the net outcome is likely to be a marked decline in it because donors don't trust in the abstract – they trust because of the relationships charities foster between them and their causes.

Second, individual charities cannot take a sector-wide lead in promoting enhanced donor confidence. Instead they should focus on enhancing the confidence of their own donors by understanding and following the rules established for them by others.

Third, and most importantly, donor trust is born, maintained and developed through the quality of the relationship that each individual organisation establishes with each of its individual supporters – treat them well and they will respond well, treat them badly and they will abandon you.

Regulators and sector-wide bodies have a key and necessary role to play in delivering an effective infrastructure from which donor confidence can and will flow. The revised fundraising guidance from the Charity Commission, the guidance from the Institute of Fundraising on agency relationships and the creation and operation to date of the new Fundraising Regulator all point to a clearer and more appropriate demarcation of roles in this respect.

Trustees are pivotal in translating enhanced confidence in giving into greater trust in their own charity through their application and understanding of the rules governing fundraising and the practical realisation of this in the behaviours that their fundraisers engage in.

Fundraisers that protect that confidence and who then focus on enhancing the positive quality of the relationship that each of their donors have with their charity through their own behaviour and that of others, are the only truly effective means by which trust in charitable giving can be enhanced.

Gradually, as things begin to settle a little after the events of the past two years, each of these parties appears to be more focused where they should be. Trust me, I’m a fundraiser.

Stephen Lee is professor of voluntary sector management at Cass Business School

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