Stephen Pidgeon: Avoid a 'Neet Feet' by connecting with donors

Working with smaller charities who stay close to their donors has proved a refreshing change for our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

I spent most of one week in conferences surrounded by small charities: dozens of hospices and charities whose fundraisers number fewer than ten.

It was refreshing. These charities generally manage to remain close to the final recipients of their donors' kindness, and their treatment of the few thousand on their database reminds me of good old-fashioned community fundraising.

My job was to encourage more ambition in connecting with their donors - to understand that if someone has responded to two or three appeals, they must be made to feel special. If they respond that many times, it's obvious they like what the charity is doing. Stop treating them, I say, the way you treat a donor who gave once four years before.

As I laid out dozens of techniques to promote the pleasure of giving, I was conscious of the fine line between the application of good technique and the headlong drive to capitalise on the success good technique brings, at any cost. With the publication of the Fundraising Regulator's first adjudication, we've seen that line crossed by seven of the country's big fundraising charities. The regulator admonished them for "not employing all reasonable efforts to ensure that Neet Feet fundraised for them in compliance with the code". They didn't do basic monitoring and were caught out when the firm went down.

Not one of the platitudinous comments from those charities included an apology for messing with the country's donors. I was left with an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

I can't leave the subject of big charity fundraising without commenting (again) on the RNLI's headlong dive into "opt-in-only". I own up. I seriously underestimated the response the charity would get to its campaign to persuade donors to opt in to receiving appeals. In October, I predicted it would secure permission to write to only 15 per cent of its supporter base, but it achieved 42 per cent. Well done. I was wrong.

But let's not get carried away by the glowing reports of a tripling (to 32.8 per cent) of the response rate to its summer mailing to opted-in donors. Fundraisers at Camphill Family tell me that last Christmas, like every year, the response rate from those who opt to receive only one appeal a year was 55 per cent. If you treat your donors properly and honour their wishes, they respond when you ask.

The RNLI's average gift was £8.39. The Camphill donors gave about £60 on average. Net income from the RNLI's summer mailing was down 34 per cent. But with more than £400m in shares and "free reserves" - more than three years' running costs - it can afford such minor setbacks. Its huge surplus insures its against the risk of opt-in-only. Virtually no other UK charities are in this position. The RNLI strategy would devastate smaller charities as they struggle to connect honourably with their donors. Is this another example of a big charity "messing"?

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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