Stephen Pidgeon: A lesson on true passion from the US

Our columnist has an epiphany on fundraising, US-style

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

A few weeks ago I had something of an epiphany. It doesn't happen often nowadays and I hope it's not a sign that I've become cynical as the years have gone by.

I had flown to Dallas to run a legacy marketing course with Adrian Sargeant. The 70 or so fundraisers in attendance were from public broadcasting TV stations - in effect, the US equivalent of the BBC. But they are funded by a mix of government, university and other statutory grants, so half the running costs have to be found from fundraising.

Legacy struggles

In practice, fundraising is having to provide more and more. There are about 350 such stations broadcasting radio, TV or both. Many of them, particularly the little ones, are struggling - hence their fascination with the UK charity sector's success in legacy marketing. Legacies form only a few per cent of the average station's income and most get little or nothing from this source.

The reason is simple - they tend not to ask for it. If they do ask, their pitch is usually pretty dire: lists of programmes they want supported and money for running costs to prevent the station going bust. There is no vision, no appeal to supporters' beliefs - even though, for decades, many supporters will have funded this rare source of excellent, advertising-free programming.

Admirable attitude

My epiphany was triggered by the overwhelming passion these fundraisers had for their work. I travel the world and rarely have I seen such commitment to the cause. They were drawn from all over the US, but they all had one burning passion - to crack the secret that would allow their charity - their station - to thrive.

I could barely name half a dozen UK charities with such zeal in their fundraising departments. Where it exists, the impact is palpable. So if you want to find such a charity, look at the ones that are expanding fast.

The zeal comes from a passion for the charity's work. These broadcast fundraisers believe it is their social duty and privilege to do well for their stations. How do you find this attitude, and how do you build it? For a start, look carefully at any fundraiser who drifts across a range of charity specialities. Surely they can't feel passionately for every one.

Make sure fundraiser induction programmes include significant time spent with the recipients of the charity's help. Every month, insist that all fundraisers, from the director downwards, spend a day where the money does its job - meeting people, getting their hands dirty and truly understanding the life-transforming impact of donations.

Fundraising zeal is rooted in this understanding. Without it, fundraisers will struggle. As for changing the world - forget it.

Stephen Pidgeon, a trustee of the Institute of Fundraising, a consultant and a teacher

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