Ed Aspel interview: I wish I'd come up with the gamechanger

Rebecca Cooney joins the outgoing director of fundraising at Cancer Research UK to look back over his time at the charity and forward to the future of fundraising

Ed Aspel
Ed Aspel

As Ed Aspel plans his retirement in November after four years in the top fundraising job at Cancer Research UK, the country’s biggest fundraising charity, he says he has just one major regret. 

"I’d have loved to have come up with that one radical, transformational change that is different from the traditional model of ‘give, do, buy, pledge’," he says. 

"We’re doing a lot of our own innovation, but nothing that was a transformational new way of raising funds – I think that’s the big challenge."

Like many fundraisers, Aspel argues that low consumer confidence after the Brexit vote, changing attitudes and evolving consumer behaviour among young people mean the existing fundraising model might no longer be sustainable. 

And CRUK’s latest accounts are among many recently released by large charities that would seem to bear this out. 

Donations to the charity fell by £12.4m to £184.8m over the year to 31 March 2019, but its fundraising total was boosted by a rise in legacy gifts and events income, so rose by 2 per cent (£7.7m) on 2017/18 to £430.8m. 

It’s a tribute to CRUK’s broad portfolio, Aspel says, that the fall in donations did not affect the charity’s income overall, because legacies increased by £7.1m and income from events rose by £8.2m over the same period, helped by the charity’s decision to open up its flagship event, Race for Life, to men for the first time this year.

Trading income also increased by £4.7m and income from charitable activities went up by £23.1m, so that the charity’s total income actually rose by almost £37m last year to £671.9m, the second-highest total in its history. 

So despite the challenging landscape faced by many in the sector, Aspel is able to depart on a high and says he’s pleased with the results his fundraising team has secured. "Given how hard and tough times are, to get the boat to go faster and have managed 2 per cent growth in those circumstances is really brilliant," he says.

But he warns that achieving big growth in the future will demand some substantial changes.

He says: "I think the days when you might see huge jumps in the overall market in the UK are over, so we need to come up with different ways of motivating people, different ways of getting them to support you."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he says the biggest change in the market concerns social media platforms and giving. Both Facebook and Instagram offer users the chance to make donations to charities directly through the platforms, often at the request of friends.

"What we’re seeing is peer-to-peer giving, rather than giving straight to the charity," he says. 

"In the old days, charities were able to manage the supporter journey very carefully. You could have direct relationships with supporters, but where it’s peer-to-peer and within platforms we have less control."

Charities might just have to learn to live with that, because it is how donors want to give, Aspel says, and if they want to thrive in a digital world they should be considering how they market themselves to potential backers

"If we see a shift towards social platforms in giving, brand becomes all important: what you stand for and the impact you deliver," he says. He adds that with people choosing the charity they want their friends to give to, those with the best brand awareness and reputation are going to have the greatest cut-through.

This is why CRUK has done relatively well from social media giving so far, raising £2m between signing up to receive donations via Facebook in November and the end of the year, Aspel says. 

"The fact that we’re communicating this in a way that is tangible and emotional is really important because then people recognise that it matters to them," he says. "That's key."

One of the predictions that is being made about the future of fundraising is that smaller, agile charities with an ability to adapt are more likely to be successful than their larger counterparts. So what does this mean for a behemoth such as CRUK?

"The organisation is not going to restructure itself radically and throw everything up in the air – that kind of change isn’t going to happen," Aspel says. 

"But agility is about whether you can take advantage of changes that are occurring."

The charity has the ability to devolve and empower teams to behave in a more agile way, he says. He cites its response to Facebook’s donations function and its fundraising event Stand-up to Cancer, which was launched in 2012, as examples of its willingness to adapt

During his time at the charity, the biggest change he’s seen within the organisation has concerned the move to opt-in ahead of the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation. 

"In terms of the financial impact that it’s had over the past few years, it’s really difficult to drill down and find out what that is," he says. 

But he adds: "I’m convinced it was the right thing to do in terms of shifting the way we thought about our supporters."

The way CRUK thinks about its supporters has become much more nuanced than just treating them as a pool for donations since the switch, he says. 

"So we involve patients, people with cancer and supporters a lot more in developing the work that we do, not just on the fundraising side but in the science and policy work as well," he says. 

"They can give us their money or their time or their voice – and some people give us their bodies to go through clinical trials."

This has led to much stronger collaboration across the organisation than there was before, he says. 

As he enters his final months at the charity, Aspel says the thing he’s nost proud of from his time there is the team he works with. 

"I can’t think of a better job or organisation to work for," he says. "Given where we’re at and the performance in the team, it seems like a good time to go."

He’s not planning to go and work for another organisation, he says, though he wouldn’t rule out the odd trusteeship.

Aspel married just over a year ago and, in retirement, plans to spend more time with his wife, Jenny.

"The one thing we keep saying to each other is that we wish we’d met earlier, and I thought: ‘Well, let’s do something about that and spend more time together’," he says.

"Life is short, and this place really teaches you that, so let’s make the most of it."

More of this interview, including discussion of Aspel’s infamous tattoo, will be available on the next episode of the Third Sector podcast, out at the end of the week.

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