Ian MacQuillin: Why do some people think fundraising is old fashioned?

A report says they want charities to be 'brave' in their marketing and fundraising, when in fact there are many examples of them using cutting edge techniques

Aside from being the greatest cocktail on the planet, ‘old fashioned’ means typical of or belonging to a time in the past, or adhering to styles and practices that are no longer modern.

According to new market research conducted by The Good Agency, Eden Stanley and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, many people aged between 18 and 50 think of charity as ‘old fashioned’.

Having conducted in-depth interviews with 26 people in this age bracket – none of whom had donated to charity in the previous three months – the Tomorrows’ Donors Today report unmasks perceptions of charities as cautious and outdated, and fundraising as monotonous, uninspiring, cheesy and poor quality (read the Third Sector news item here).

As the report says, this is a barrier to connecting with under-50s, and the consensus is clear – they want charities to be “brave” in their marketing and fundraising.

And yet… fundraising is not old fashioned. It is a modern profession that employs cutting edge marketing techniques. We can all point to excellent examples. 

The International Fundraising Congress and CIoF’s National Convention showcase innovative fundraising campaigns. Indeed, the Tomorrow’s Donor’s Today report is full of examples of brave fundraising. 

Why then, do the people interviewed for this research have an opposite view of what fundraising already is in many cases?

Asked to record encounters with charities in a 10-day period, none of the interviewees could recall seeing any charity communications (which I assume refers to direct mail, SMS, social media and DRTV) – their main encounters were with charity shops and ‘organic’ social media.

The report ponders whether this is because charity comms are unmemorable because of their lack of distinctiveness.

But if participants don’t remember seeing these, how would they know they were ‘cheesy’ and poor quality? What are they basing this perception on? It must be previous fundraising they have seen. But how long ago was this, and it what contexts?

Perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way round. 

If people perceive charities as old fashioned – especially compared with business, which, the report says, some people think are better placed to solve societal ills – then, through confirmation bias, they only notice cheesy fundraising, because that’s what conforms to their perception of an old fashioned and uninspiring sector. 

But better fundraising goes over their heads because this is not what they expect charity marketing to be. Maybe they even mistake it for commercial for-purpose marketing. 

In this case the report would be right: charity marketing is not sufficiently distinctive from commercial marketing to be noticed as something different.

It is, in fact, too good to be perceived as belonging to an ‘old fashioned’ practice.

As previously noted, the report says peoples’ perceptions of charity communications are barriers to connecting with them, and proposes six solutions to engage with under-50s that will overcome these barriers. 

These include helping donors ‘skill up for good’ by providing training related to the cause area, hearing directly from the people delivering frontline services, and receiving ‘doses of positivity’ that make you feel good about giving.

Donor-centred fundraisers – who facilitate a great donor experience so that people feel good about their giving and thus carry on giving – may well think there is little new about these ideas. But there is, and it’s a radical change.

The warm glow effect is well documented in philanthropy and the psychology of altruism (when it’s called the ‘helper’s high’). 

The ‘warm glow’ comprises the ‘doses of positivity’ you feel that accompany a philanthropic act. While some people may repeatedly give because they want to experience this helper’s high (which would almost be a pathology), for most of us, the warm glow is a very happy by-product of giving to charity. 

By offering something in return for a donation, and making the donation contingent on receiving these ‘products’ – the report recommends charities “productise [their] knowledge and expertise” – the solutions proposed in Tomorrow’s Donors Today change the act of giving into a market exchange. 

A warm glow is no longer a happy by-product of giving, it’s something you buy; in fact, it’s being offered for sale.

It’s also no longer charity, no longer philanthropy, and no longer fundraising.

Perhaps that is what this report really tells us. 

It’s not charities per se that under 50s find ‘old fashioned’ and uninspiring – they all thought of charities as a force for good. It’s the model of philanthropy itself, and the marketing that gets them to buy into this as ‘donors’. 

Although the report is called ‘Tomorrow’s Donors, Today’, the interviewees don’t actually want to be ‘donors’, and so maybe they never will be.

What they want to be instead are consumers, whose purchasing power (rather than donating power – recall that their main encounter with charities is via charity shops) helps make the world a better place, just as it does with the purposeful commercial brands they so admire. 

How the charity sector transforms itself to meet and fulfil this new consumer demand may be a brave new world full or productised knowledge being offered for sale through brave new charity marketing (I hesitate to use the word ‘fundraising’ in this context). 

This might well be the future that we should all embrace.

I’ve got to be honest though. The thought of it makes me shiver a bit.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the fundraising think tank Rogare

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