Stephen Pidgeon: If we don't upset people we won't raise any cash

Fundraisers send out emotional messages to stir compassion; they must be brave and take on those who disagree with them, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

Our commitment to high standards in fundraising is renewed and enhanced, but I now see fundraisers desperate to avoid any complaints at all. We must guard against sacrificing what we know motivates thousands of people to give just because a few don't like what we say.

Fundraisers deliver emotional messages designed to stir compassion. These are bound to upset some people. Social media means that people can now complain with little effort, so it's not surprising pressure groups that want you to lobby your MP ask you to put the message in your own words. The numbers signing an existing set of campaign words have to be enormous now for MPs to register public disquiet.

There was a backlash against Macmillan Cancer Support's Brave the Shave. It asks supporters to shave their heads to raise money and "stand alongside men, women and children with cancer". I was pleased to see the charity robustly defend the campaign - it had done its research with fundraisers and those affected by cancer. It's a hugely emotional message, so it's bound to upset lots of people. But it's also deeply satisfying for the 22,000 who have so far participated this year, and for their sponsors. If an appeal is so anodyne that nobody complains, it will raise no money.

And for the first time we have an independent adjudicator, the Fundraising Regulator. One complaint about the campaign has been tabled. The Advertising Standards Authority has been making such judgements for years, based essentially on public morality and taste. Many complaints are "not upheld" or only "partially upheld". Whichever way a regulator's decision goes, we now have clarity about who judges fundraising.

But actually we don't, because the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has begun putting its oar in on donor permissions. Last year's Etherington review included a clear call for charities to adopt an "opt-in only" system for their communications. A committee was set up with the apt name the Opt-in Steering Group, so there should no prizes for guessing the outcome will be the one Sir Stuart Etherington was looking for. Its irrelevant recommendations are expected at about the time you read this.

We are currently witnessing "opt-in only" in all its desperate fragility. As an RNLI supporter, I received a letter months ago asking if it could continue to write. I said no. Two more such letters will have gone to existing supporters before the end of this year ... then nothing. After that, supporters who've not opted-in will never be written to again. No wonder the RNLI is running a significant advertising campaign to persuade supporters to "tick the box" to opt in. My guess is that it will lose permission to write to 85 per cent of its supporter base. Come clean, RNLI, and tell us how big a disaster you're facing. I promise you, I'd love to be proved wrong.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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