Interview: Adrian Sargeant

The fundraising academic, recently returned from Indianapolis, says UK fundraisers can learn from their US counterparts

Adrian Sargeant
Adrian Sargeant

After more than seven years working in the US, the fundraising academic and consultant Adrian Sargeant returned to the UK last autumn to take the post of professor of marketing and fundraising at the University of Plymouth, but will split his time between this country and the US, where he continues to work.

His decision to return was driven by a desire to be nearer to his family. "I have two young children so it's nice for the grandparents to see them," he says. But he is also keen to put the fundraising knowledge he gained in the US to use in the UK.

One key issue Sargeant noticed during his time abroad was the part governments can play in stimulating giving. In the US, the government has created a supportive tax regime that encourages donors to give to charity, he says, citing the example of the charitable giving vehicles that allow donors to hand over assets such as a building or their pension fund to a charity and continue to receive an income from that asset. In return, the donor receives a tax deduction.

"Often people don't need the asset - they just need the income from it," he says. "If you can create a way that someone can give over that asset but still retain an interest during their life, you encourage a lot more philanthropy."

Such measures are needed, Sargeant argues, because about 10 per cent of wealth is held in cash, with 90 per cent held in other forms. "Fundraisers don't want to be chasing the 10 per cent," he says.

Difficult sell

Offering such tax breaks to wealthy donors in the UK would be a difficult policy to sell to sceptical politicians, but he points out that donors are always going to be better off not making the gift to the charity in the first place. "You're creating a mechanism by which people can afford to give in the here and now," he says.

Sargeant says fundraisers in the UK can also learn about running large capital fundraising campaigns from their counterparts in the US, who have done them very well for a long time. But he contends that UK fundraisers lead the way with their direct response campaigns and how they manage and thank smaller donors. "In the US, 70 per cent of donors never come back again," he says. "They're very good at major gift fundraising, but not so good at giving donors at the lower end credit where it's due."

Sargeant says that fundraisers in both countries need to improve in the area of targeting the right donors. Charities currently use metrics such as return on investment and response rates to measure their success, which leads them to pursue a high number of one-off donors. He believes charities should use longer-term measures, such as the lifetime value of a donor, which would encourage them to find donors who will give over a sustained period.

"This approach pushes up the cost of donor acquisition, but it pays off in the medium term because more of those people will be better quality donors," he says. "Fundraisers often understand that all too well, but they're being assessed by their boards on a range of short- term measures."

Understanding motivation

Charities need to spend more time establishing what types of people give to their cause and what motivates them to give, Sargeant says. In particular, they should question what people are saying about themselves when they give their support to an organisation.

"If you understand where people are coming from, you can engineer a communication that makes people feel good about their identity rather than just giving feedback about the difference that their gift has made," he says. By understanding more about donors' identities, charities can push up giving by as much as 30 per cent, he believes.

But not all forms of fundraising meet with Sargeant's approval. He is particularly concerned about the proliferation of charity lotteries in the UK, which, he fears, might harm charitable giving in the long term. He says more research is required to determine their impact on charitable giving.

"I wonder what we're doing to philanthropy in the UK by investing so heavily in this type of giving," he says. "If people will give only because there's something in it for them, then I think you lose something of the essence of philanthropy. We might end up with a big blob of UK society that is trained to think about charity giving in terms of gambling."

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2012: Professor of marketing and fundraising, University of Plymouth
2006: Professor of fundraising, Indiana University-Perdue University Indianapolis
2006: Adjunct professor of philanthropy, Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies
2001: Professor of non-profit marketing and fundraising, University of the West of England

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