Analysis: Susannah Birkwood on the hot topics in fundraising

Third Sector's recent Fundraising Week revealed some of the concerns of fundraisers and their leaders, including how to approach major donors, the promotion of fundraisers to top jobs and the tensions over street fundraising and collections at railway stations

Susannah Birkwood
Susannah Birkwood

Three conferences, two workshops, a big questions debate, an event for leaders and a drinks evening: Fundraising Week was an opportunity to find out what's on the mind of fundraisers at the moment. Here’s my round-up of some of the main themes:

A shortage of fundraiser chief executives

Fundraisers have long complained that not enough members of their profession go on to become charity chief executives. Examples of charity heads with a fundraising background are still scarce: Kevin Kibble of the Nurture Group Network, Chris Askew of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Sara Lom of the Royal Parks Foundation, Jeremy Hughes of the Alzheimer's Society and Martin Edwards of Julia's House are among the few that have broken the mould.

Lynda Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, and until recently the charity’s director of fundraising, points out that she was not considered for the top job until she had acted as interim chief executive when her predecessor, Ciarán Devane, left Macmillan. Her hope is that the increased importance of fundraising at a time when government cuts have hit many charities hard will lead to greater recognition of the skills fundraisers can bring to the chief executive role.

In the street, on the doorstep

Street and doorstep fundraising continues to divide opinion among charities. Some don’t use either method because of the reputational risks they perceive, but many fundraisers remain in favour of what they say are two of the most effective ways of attracting new donors. One chief executive said recently: "People complain to me, asking why fundraisers knock on their doors at 9pm when they’re trying to put the kids to sleep. And yet my fundraising team tells me it’s one of the most successful ways of recruiting people to the direct debit database."

Another subject under debate is whether no cold-calling stickers should apply to fundraisers. Most fundraisers don’t seem to think they should and, interestingly, a large proportion of the public don’t either. A survey by the Fundraising Standards Board – which has been calling for the Institute of Fundraising to clarify how fundraisers should approach the stickers – found that almost 40 per cent of householders thought the stickers should not apply to charities. The IoF is due to decide in June whether to have a rules about stickers in its Code of Fundraising Practice – but according to the doorstep fundraising agency Home Fundraising, the focus on the issue is unwarranted. Complaints from householders with stickers are extremely rare, they say.

What major donors want

The Sunday Times Giving List is due out this weekend, at a time when increasing numbers of charities seem to be targeting major donors as a source of funding. But what is it that major donors are looking for?

Charlie Mullins, the chief executive of Pimlico Plumbers, says he was first attracted to giving to charity because he saw it as a good PR move. Having appeared on Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire programme a few years ago, he has since been inspired by the energy he witnessed charity workers giving to their cause, but says he was discouraged from working with one charity when he realised that the former Dragons’ Den investor James Caan was already involved. He was also put off by another charity when it asked for more money than he was prepared to donate.

Both Mullins and Ram Gidoomal, a fellow philanthropist and chairman of Traidcraft, say they do not respond to charities that email or phone them asking for support without having established prior contact, and that they do not donate to charities that are outside the specific cause areas they are passionate about. They say they are far likelier to support a charity to which they were introduced by a friend or family member.

Child sponsorship

Child sponsorship still delivers better results for international development charities than regular giving, such as lower attrition and higher income over a five-year period; but it’s becoming more difficult to attract new supporters. Standard direct debit donors might initially agree to give £2 a month and then increase this over time, but the high entry points for typical child sponsorship plans – £15 a month with ActionAid, £20 with SOS Children’s Villages and £22.80 with World Vision – appear to be deterring many would-be sponsors. Some also dislike the model because they want to help communities rather than individual children.

This is proving a problem for charities in this field because increasing their income through other fundraising channels isn’t easy: many have low brand awareness because people are often more familiar with the process of sponsoring a child than with the organisations themselves. Nor does child sponsorship lend itself well to viral campaigns such as #nomakeupselfie and the ice bucket challenge, or crowdfunding, which is one of the reasons ActionAid has started branching into the sponsorship of mothers. The charity believes its Mums for Good campaign lends itself better to social media than its child-focused projects because of the sensitivities involved in sharing images and real-life stories about children online.

Fundraising at railway stations

The Fundraising Standards Board’s announcement last October, after an agreement with the Charity Commission and several rail operators, that charities must be FRSB members if they are to fundraise at about 600 train stations in England and Wales, has caused consternation in some circles. The FRSB maintains that the self-regulation of fundraising won’t work properly unless most (and preferably all) fundraising charities are signed up. But some fundraisers have argued that the measure is overly restrictive because it might prevent small charities that are not FRSB members from having a presence in their local community.

"Your local railway station is potentially somewhere where a local charity would collect and garner local support, and yet now it’s unable to because the FRSB’s got an agreement that means you have to be a member in order to collect there," says Louise Parkes, director of fundraising at the British Heart Foundation. The FRSB’s response is that charities already have to pay to fundraise at some private sites and the cost of membership to the regulator is negligible for small charities: its website says it charges £31 a year for organisations with voluntary incomes of up to £10,000. FRSB board member Lawrie Simanovitz says he supports the idea of membership becoming free for the smallest charities.

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