Charlie Hulme: Fundraisers have been treating donors like widgets

The managing director of DonorVoice argues that the industry is paying the price for turning people into commodities

Charlie Hulme
Charlie Hulme

The shock-horror reaction of fundraisers to the latest round of undercover reporting at a call centre is, frankly, ridiculous. Yes, the coverage was biased. But nothing was reported that isn’t in every fundraiser’s job description. The only people shocked are either those so unengaged that they never show up to brief the agency people they pay to represent them, or those who read the stories through the blind eye they turn.

At least four independent call centres have been exposed, so it’s not as though a sinister rogue operator has been caught out; that’s the norm. And it’s entirely our fault. What else could possibly come out of an environment where the pressure is high and the costs low?

This is what happens when we commoditise donors. We buy and sell in bulk, often referring to them as units rather than people or individuals. We’re reaping the inevitable result of treating donors as widgets on a production line.

This mentality pervades the entire sector, driving strategy across every channel: street and direct-mail fundraising have had their fair share of media bashing, and it’s only a matter of time before digital and mobile get the same.

The limp response we’ve offered is an implicit admission that, as a sector, we are bang to rights.

How did we get into this mess? Short termism. We chase short-term targets as though any of the issues we exist to tackle were going to be dealt with in the short term.

I do not believe there are many, if any, perpetuating this mess who do so with anything other than the best of intentions. I believe they believe they are doing what’s right. But clearly they’re wrong. As a sector, growth in fundraising is stagnant. Retention rates are catastrophic. And fewer and fewer people like us, much less trust us.

So now we’re in the grip of a reactionary panic, worrying about new rules and legislation, either self-imposed or externally inflicted. But whichever way it lands, no new rules and regulations will address the big problem we have – relevance.

What do we actually know about the people we systematically bombard with requests for more money? We know their transactional histories and their demographic profiles. But knowing who gave, what they gave, when they gave and how they gave tells us absolutely nothing about why they gave or would give again.

The big complaint against us is that we send too much stuff, aka crap. And we do. But "stuff" turns into crap only if it’s irrelevant. If we knew why they cared we could deliver greater value and derive greater value. We just don’t care enough to find out.

The argument that "we do good work" does not entitle us to be a nuisance. There are at least 180,000 registered charities in the UK, all of which have noble purpose and intent. But knowing why you want someone to give is not the same as knowing why they would want to. If you don’t know the latter you’re just rattling another tin.

The vogue for sending "engagement" communications (ie those that don’t ask for money) is a tacit admission that we’re not engaging. The irony is that these comms only make the problem worse because we don’t actually know what would engage people! But our assembly line mentality is such that we truly believe  ticking the thank-you box now and again makes everything OK (despite zero supporting evidence).

So here we are, right in the middle of a mess of our own making. It shouldn’t have taken another media bashing for us to recognise there’s a problem. Did anyone honestly think we were doing well before these latest attacks? Can anyone honestly say that’s what’s been reported, though biased, isn’t entirely accurate?

Our jaded, complacent, timid sector is mired in bad business and bad ethics. Bad business because, despite the rhetoric, we do nothing to change a set-up that, by definition, precludes the concept of donor-centric fundraising from being anything more than a buzzword. Bad ethics because this stops us growing and making the slightest dent in mission.

Good ethics and good business go hand in hand. Charities that have switched to a truly donor-centric model not only lower costs but also grow net income.This is not a fluke – it’s just what happens when you care enough to find out what your donors care about.

How many more headlines will it take before we decide we can do better?

Charlie Hulme is managing director of the experience and relationship company DonorVoice

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