Debate: Should fundraisers be prepared to take notice of donors' demands?

Keep your donors loyal to survive the recession, fundraisers are told. But how influential should they be? Three experts offer their views

- Ian MacQuillin

"Donors do not consume anything from charities"

Modern fundraising has co-opted two adages from the commercial sector: "the customer is always right" and "give customers what they want". Fundraisers have convinced themselves that donors are customers, or consumers, so they should be accorded the same degree of customer care, service and protection.

But donors do not consume anything from charities. Rather, they are stakeholders in improving the lot of beneficaries or advancing the cause. As experts in the cause, fundraisers can provide leadership to donors. But by handing so much power to 'the customer', many fundraisers have diminished their authority to question, guide or even contradict donors.

Unlike companies, charities are not there to provide more of what their 'customers' want; they exist to provide more of what their beneficiaries - charities' real 'consumers' - need. The Fundraising Promise guidelines include a section on fundraisers' duties to donors, but no equivalent advice on their duties to their beneficiaries. Why?

Ian MacQuillin is head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association

- Ian Rowley

"Donors are looking for partnership, not stewardship"

Major donors are increasingly seeking not only an emotional relationship with the organisations they support, but also real involvement in the way their funds are used. Donors are looking for partnership, not stewardship.

Several years ago, a University of Warwick graduate offered to pay for a dozen students to spend a summer teaching mathematics in some of South Africa's more challenging schools. It wasn't in our plans, but the Warwick in Africa teaching project is now the centrepiece of the university's global corporate responsibility programme.

Where there is a fit, it makes perfect sense to work in partnership with donors to develop fundraising programmes of mutual benefit and interest.

Developing such partnerships takes time and effort. But organisations that are unable or unwilling to let major donors help shape the activities they support risk losing out not only on their funding, but also on the energy and experience of some of society's most successful and effective people.

Ian Rowley is director of development, communication and strategy at the University of Warwick

- Michael Naidu

"It can be tempting to change projects to access funds"

In a perfect world, all charities would be beneficiary-led and donors would be given clear information about how the organisation uses donations to make a real difference - not to mention examples of how it does.

If by 'donors' we mean individuals, then charities are rarely donor-led. Lower-value donations are mostly unrestricted, and when asking for donations charities showcase areas of their work they feel donors will relate to.

But major donors and grantmaking bodies require a greater level of evidence about need and impact, which challenges charities to match their work to funders. It can be tempting to change or create projects in order to access funds.

If a new project is still within the strategic direction of the organisation, this isn't a problem. But if the project is not based on evidence of need, it can lead to difficulties. The greater a charity's evidenced understanding of need, the less likely it is to become donor-led.

Michael Naidu is assistant director of fundraising, individual giving at Mencap

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