Time for charities to stop feeling like victims, writes Susannah Birkwood

In June, Charity Commission chair William Shawcross said that the charity sector was in a crisis after the outcry over fundraising that followed the death of Olive Cooke.

Many in the sector vociferously denied this was the case at the time, but at the International Fundraising Congress last week, I couldn’t help thinking that fewer fundraisers would disagree with him if he made the same remark now.

For many non-UK fundraisers who attended the IFC, held every year in the Netherlands by the Resource Alliance, it was the first time they had heard of the problems of their British counterparts.

For UK practitioners, it was a chance to confer with others in the sector: to lick their wounds, to be with others who had also been under attack – or who hadn’t but were on their side – and to take time out from fighting fires - something fundraising directors of the most heavily criticised charities are said to have been doing non-stop since July.

The fundraising director of one of the charities featured in the Daily Mail investigations this summer was there because he wanted to be among friends for once, according to a colleague.

There were two main schools of thought at the conference as to how fundraisers should handle the issues they currently face – and they couldn’t have been more different.

The first view was that there’s nothing wrong with fundraising. It’s the politicians and journalists who have the problem, and the best way to tackle that is not to change fundraising practices, but to fight back. This was the perspective of the US fundraiser Geoffrey Peters, who spoke of how he’d told several charities they should challenge the UK government at the European Court of Human Rights because it was interfering with their right to speak to their donors, and by the fundraisers I worked with during a session on fundraising ethics.

They were asked by the session leader, Ian MacQuillan, director of the think tank Rogare, to consider the ethical issues involved in persuading someone to switch their donation to their charity from another one they were already donating to: none of them could see any such issues.

The second view became apparent in a session that in the conference programme was given a title replete with regret: "Moving on from our mistakes". Here a group of about 25 fundraisers, mostly from the UK and several from charities that had come under fire from the Daily Mail, spoke about their frustrations with current fundraising strategies, and what they felt needed to be done to address bad practice.

They were talking on the understanding that they would not be quoted by name, and it was eye-opening to see that many of them were saying the same things the outside world had been saying about them. They weren’t denying there was a problem and they weren’t blaming those who had criticised them; they said they knew that if they didn’t take action to rectify things now, they’d be having the same conversation at conferences in years to come.

"It feels like the mission has become the charity," said one participant. "We’re too focused on keeping our organisations going, on keeping the lights on, rather than whether we’re really solving the problem we were set up to solve in the first place."

Almost all the fundraising consultants in the session appeared to have worked at a charity earlier in their careers but left because they’d become disillusioned with short-term financial targets, the pressure to send out too many fundraising requests or the lack of emphasis on thanking supporters who donated small sums.

Those who were still at charities were also despondent: "We’ve got to stop being victims and feeling like we’ve been misunderstood," said one. "Some organisations need a reality check – they should look at themselves with a very big mirror." Another said: "The sector has become institutionalised and formulaic." A third: "There’s too much fear and envy among us."

The session concluded with every fundraiser writing a pledge as to how they would bring about changes in fundraising at their charity or agency.

My favourite quote was about how fundraisers needed to focus on reaping rewards in the long term rather than on short-term gratification: "We need to change our metrics – not to lose sight of return on investment in the long term. We’ve got to realise that perhaps you can’t sleep with every girl on the first date - you may need to plan a campaign leading to marriage."

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