INSTITUTE OF FUNDRAISING: Ensuring our message is not mangled in the press

Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising

Anyone involved in the voluntary sector in Scotland already knows that life is tough. Last week's Scottish fundraising conference (which was nothing short of excellent!) set itself the title 'hard times ... new approaches'. The theme to be explored was set some considerable time ago and focused on the tough job of raising the £300m voluntary income that makes such a difference to so many causes in Scotland.

Since the programme had been set, life has become much tougher in Scotland.

Six months ago there was the high-profile case of Solutions RMC and vast amounts of allegedly missing money. More recently there is the ongoing investigation into the running of the Moonbeams charity.

While this appears to me to be more about governance than fundraising, the public see no such lines of distinction. Against the political backdrop of argument around the setting up of a Scottish charity regulator (OSCR), every MP north of the border has jumped on the bandwagon, resulting in massive press coverage focusing on soundbite allegations of poorly run charities. Fundraisers in Scotland are feeling badly bruised and hurt that one or two examples have been allowed to overshadow the fantastic good work of so many.

I have already heard one English fundraiser complain that Scotland needs to get its act together because it is damaging reputations in England.

The inference is that this could not possibly happen south of the border.

To believe that is to make a mistake so large that it almost guarantees trouble for the whole of the voluntary sector, wherever it may be within the UK. The irony is that one of the positives to come out of the current issues in Scotland is that finally we will get what everyone in the voluntary sector in Scotland has been urging for some considerable time - a better regulatory system.

The heart of the matter

But what lies at the very heart of the issue is ignorance. The general public does not understand the realities and economics of running a charity and fundraising in particular. Why should they - life is busy enough, isn't it? Vast numbers of people volunteer and give to charity under the general impression that all they do and all they give goes directly to the cause. Yes, I know there is lots of research showing that when you specifically ask about fundraising and admin costs, there is an acceptable understanding.

But most people just do not give it a moment's thought. Add to this mismatch between expectation and reality the ingredients of a cynical press and the increased profile of professional fundraising organisations, and you get a pretty explosive mix.

Last week's headline in English newspapers, following on from Radio 4's 'research' that screamed "Only 10p from every £1 goes to charity", is the result. This is nothing to do with Scotland specifically but if you fundraise outside of Scotland, then make use of the advance notice. So what can we do? A great deal - but it will require considerable effort and will.

We must start telling our supporters how we raise money - this needs to happen in each organisation through their relationships with their supporters. We must tell them the realities of investment and the benefits of carrying out a wide range of different fundraising techniques regardless of the relative efficiencies now. How investment now might only reap return over a number of years. How we reduce risk by outsourcing to PFOs. But we also need to link fundraising to the causes for which we raise money.

What was done with the money, what difference it made and how more money would achieve even greater results.

In addition to each organisation individually looking at how and what they communicate, the fundraising world actively needs to go out with a set of key messages. This is a major and very real task for the Institute.

If we rely on just countering ill-informed press comment then we will get nowhere. The messages we need to put across are not simple soundbites and therefore will never be heard against the "10p in the £1" type of debate. The challenge is getting messages about fundraising out there as a news story in themselves. The Scottish conference showed me just how vital it is that the Institute makes this a real priority.

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