Ian MacQuillin: Fundraising was not and is not 'broken'

Fundraisers have simply done what they've been asked to do, but have been blamed for long-term strategic failures that were the responsibility of those way above them

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Four years ago this month the fundraising crisis was precipitated after a personal individual tragedy that everyone knows about and the details of which I won’t repeat.

The cry went up that fundraising was "broken". Understandably, people wanted to fix it. We had enquiries and commissions and working parties (I was on one), all looking at how to fix a broken system.

Yet in the rush to put a fix in place – and be seen to do so – hardly anyone took time to investigate the underlying causes of the crisis. Doing so would have taken too much time and, in any case, why waste time with such an investigation when the causes of the crisis were "self-evident"? (Hint: almost nothing is self-evident.)

The responses to the fundraising crisis changed the face of fundraising completely, some not necessarily for the better: there have been some bad and strange decisions and initiatives.

One has been the white elephant of the Fundraising Preference Service. It allows you to opt out of receiving all direct marketing (not just involving fundraising) from named charities, but hardly anyone uses it because it is not a targeted or proportionate solution to the problem at hand. This is because no one ever robustly identified and described the problem at hand so they could tailor the right solution.

And many charities took the impetuous decision to contact only those donors who had given their consent to be contacted – which many hadn’t. The result has been catastrophic for many charities, some of which can no longer contact 90 per cent of their (former) donor bases.

Everyone made the assumption that fundraising was "broken", then set about trying to "fix" what they decided wasn’t right.

But fundraising isn’t broken and wasn’t at the time of the fundraising crisis. Fundraising did precisely the job required of it by the charities in whose service it was deployed.

Basically, the role of mass-market acquisition and retention fundraising was to get as many donors as possible giving as much money as possible for the lowest possible cost (and that cost was often set very low indeed). This was measured against short-term targets, with little or no investment for longer-term, donor-centred relationship building.

Considering this is the job that senior management teams and boards required of it, fundraising did a brilliant job. Yes, of course it had unintended consequences that blew up in our faces, unintended consequences that could have been predicted. And some fundraisers had been well aware of these dangers.

The trouble is, few people listened to them until it was too late. And when those "unforeseen" consequences did come to pass, those same people who had set unrealistic targets for fundraisers and turned a blind eye to how they met those targets, then blamed fundraisers for everything that had gone wrong.

Fundraisers acting at a tactical, operational level were blamed for long-term strategic failures that were the responsibility of people way above the fundraisers’ pay grades.

Of all the enquiries investigating the fundraising crisis, the one carried out by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee understood this, finding that the blame lay with charity trustees for a "failure of governance".

Fundraising can’t be fixed in isolation from the organisational structure in which it is embedded. This means revisiting the crisis and looking for the structural causes. These might include investigating, among other things: the attitudes of boards and senior management teams to fundraising to understand their "necessary evil" mindset; whether some big charities had distorted acquisition markets with big volumes of activity, thus keeping costs low and acting anti-competitively; and whether forms of fundraising such as direct mail and telephone could be – and should have been – controlled and monitored in the same way as face-to-face.

Calls to "fix" fundraising tend to focus on changes to the way we actually do it at the coalface. If we think about this as fixing a car, fundraisers want to change the tyres to make it go faster. But boards and SMTs keep filling the petrol engine with diesel.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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