Andrew Bennett: Donating my mother's estate showed me some charities are letting down their donors

The responses - or lack thereof - to the donations reflect a dismal level of organisation on the part of many UK charities

Andrew Bennett
Andrew Bennett

When our mother died in spring 2018, my sister and I decided to donate a proportion of her modest estate to UK charities. We both work in the not-for-profit sector in, respectively, Australia and Canada, so it was a small step to contribute to organisations associated with our mother.

Four of the donations were for £500 each, the other three were more than £4,000 and all the gifts were made according to instructions on the charities’ respective websites. The donations were made between the end of 2018 and the start of 2019.

I am not a professional fundraiser, but I am involved in that field and I know some essentials for doing it well. Make it easy to donate. Administer any gift professionally and swiftly. Thank the donor sincerely, authentically and personally: whatever the circumstances of the gift, your thanks might be the start of a further contribution.

And, on behalf of the whole sector, make the donor feel confident that they have done the right thing by contributing to your organisation.

One of the larger amounts went to the Friends organisation supporting the district hospital where our mother received excellent palliative care. Upon attempting to make the donation, I was directed to BT MyDonate to make the contribution. I noted at the time that MyDonate would cease to operate in June 2019, but that was several months ahead.

Apart from a routine acknowledgement from MyDonate, I received no reaction from the Friends after donating and, when I subsequently wrote to the organisation it took two months for it to check that the money had arrived.

It turned out that MyDonate did not inform the charity about who had donated to them, let alone supply contact information. I eventually received an apology and thanks. But the Friends’ website still shows MyDonate as the only way to make a donation.

Another large gift went to a major national animal welfare charity. The only option for donations was by credit card, but the amount was larger than my UK credit card limit. I contacted the charity to make a bank transfer and this was expedited, including a promise of a letter after receipt of the gift. Six months later I chased the charity to ask whether it had received the gift and thus extracted an acknowledgement and eventually a cursory letter of thanks.

The third major gift was to the local branch of a charity concerned with fair trade, which supplied bank details for a transfer, but then could not access its own bank account for some months. At least in this instance I received some creative ideas for the way that the gift would be used, though promised updates regarding the projects have not since materialised.

A national organic gardening charity issued a terse acknowledgement email, with the unpromising note that "our reference for this donation is: **". A pet therapy charity generated an automatic response through PayPal, but nothing more. Donating to another national animal charity involved printing and completing a donation form, but at least that elicited a letter of thanks, albeit posted a month after the donation was received.

My experience might have been bad luck, but I can’t help but feel it reflects a dismal level of organisation on the part of many UK charities. In my own organisation, such incompetence and apparent indifference would simply not be tolerated.

There was one exception among the charities that received donations from my mother’s will, which I shall duly name: Lofty Therapy Horses takes miniature ponies into hospitals and made a great impact on my mother in her final days.

In this instance the money transfer was easy and the reaction from the tiny organisation behind that work was effusive, positive and personal. I knew immediately how much our small donation was appreciated and would be put to good use, and as a donor I felt a warm glow associated with the gift.

Shouldn’t that be normal, not the exception?

Andrew Bennett is the executive director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Canada

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