Charities need a more honest relationship with donors, says Jake Hayman

Improved regulation is all very well, but does not address the underlying problem, says the social investment specialist

Jake Hayman
Jake Hayman

To start with the disclaimer: some charities in the UK fundraise excellently and engage with their donors honestly. But to get on with the article, most of them don’t.

Talk of a fundraising regulator is a distraction from a much bigger problem we have in the field – that we need to start educating donors about the complexity of our work. Every absent malaria net or failed student represents a breakdown of relationships or policy. Sometimes both. Not just a missing fiver.

The relationship between those looking for money and those who give it is under strain. It’s under strain because it’s built on common distrust.

The condescending individual or organisation making a donation worries that inefficient charities put all their money into this thing called "overheads". They don’t like helping "overheads"; they like helping kids. So the charity stops being an organisation that thinks, reacts and engages communities, stops understanding that relationships are at the heart of everything and engaging government as part of long term solutions, and repositions itself as an organisation that "fixes" people for a price.

So we as charities condescend back. These are not people we’re talking to; they are "donors", who couldn’t possibly undersand the complications of what we do. So instead we sell the idea that we work in these mythical lands called "deprived communities" or "developing countries", where one pill, programme or building is all that life needs. Everyone in the sector knows that £2 a month does not "save" anyone any more than £100,000 a year does. It doesn’t mean the money is less important; it’s just that life is complicated and even in the land of "deprived communities" people don’t flick between "broken" and "fixed" based on a direct debit or stuffed gala envelope. And yet we tell them what they need to hear to write in their reports or regale people at their dinner parties.

This non-malicious mutual simplification works for both sides. Until, of course, someone starts getting inundated with emails, direct mail and phone calls all trying to save the kid/class/country for the same amount of money.

All of a sudden, light shines on the fact that your £5 text donation is not £5 because that’s the amount needed but because that’s the amount we think you’ll give. Your £5,000 is not what the charity needs; it’s the maximum that donors in your postcode tend to give. Our materials tell you you’re making a difference, but our strategy undermines that.

So regulate or don’t regulate – but if we want to build giving over the next 10 years it’s going to take a new, more honest, more complex relationship with donors, not just less spam.

Jake Hayman is a social investment specialist and founder/chief executive of Ten Years’ Time

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