Stephen Pidgeon: Focus on why we raise money, and less on how

We've lost our confidence, writes our columnist, but we'll find it again by going back to basics

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

The annual Association of Fundraising Professionals International Conference, the US equivalent of our Institute of Fundraising's convention, took place in Boston this year and was impressive both for its size and the quality of its speakers.

What was evident was the joyous confirmation that fundraising is a wondrous business to be in. Americans and Canadians are pretty up-front anyway, but the contrast between their enthusiasm for the task and our current reticence was palpable. Their certainty that the public have a passion to give and derive much satisfaction from it is impressive, together with the sheer excitement at the new and old technologies they use to make it happen.

In the UK, we've lost our confidence. It's temporary and we'll find it again by going back to basics - blowing our donors' minds by showing them the impact that their gifts and emotional commitment have on our work. We're obsessed with techniques to extract cash, which grey people are now plotting to constrain. We must refocus our minds on why the money is needed, less on how it's going to be raised.

I've been reminded of why one charity, VSO, needs money. I'm a trustee of the international volunteering organisation, and three of us recently went to review some of its projects in the north of Rwanda. What an astonishing country. Just over 20 years ago it was wracked with the horrors of genocide. Now it's a country on the move with a clear vision and 25-year goals set to be achieved by 2020. That's just four years away, and most agree that a large percentage of the goals will be achieved. There's virtually no corruption - it's condemned as being un-Rwandan. People walk the streets because it's safe. And young people there are told it's unlikely they'll get jobs, so their task is to create them - entrepreneurship thrives.

In the villages, the schools are packed. Each teacher has about 70 or even more in their class. They start at 7.30am and finish at lunchtime, only to start again, with a different class, in the afternoon shift. For that they are paid just £40 a month, not a lot even in Rwanda, but their commitment is evident. VSO volunteer teachers are embedded in the schools and teacher training colleges in three areas. They aren't there to advise. Because they are volunteers earning little more than their colleagues (that's VSO's USP), the bond is close and they work alongside the teachers to improve techniques, creating their own materials and so on. The impact is astounding, with results, measured by national exams, soaring - and all because of donations made by people back in the UK.

We need to tell them about that impact, but while we're obsessing about opt-ins, donor permissions and other regulation, the danger is that we retreat to the minimum, simply demanding more cash. We must not do that. Our donors still need to know how they are changing the world.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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