Joe Saxton: Much of the sector has been poor at building a major donor culture

Charities need to lift their eyes, notice new ideas and learn from others, writes our columnist

Charities face a raft of challenges: falling income from government, an ageing population, tougher fundraising self-regulation. If we are to be in a better place 10 years from now, we need new ideas and new ways of thinking. We need to shed our shibboleths: those long-held beliefs that are now outmoded or hold us back.

One source of inspiration should be the arts sector. It has been very good about spelling out to politicians why the arts matter. Here's a quote: "One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport. A billion a year in grants adds a quarter of trillion pounds to our economy - not a bad return." Which luvvie said this? George Osborne in his 2015 autumn spending review.

Darren Henley, chief executive of the Arts Council, expands on the benefits of investment in the arts in his new book, The Arts Dividend, which sets out seven ways in which the arts benefit us all. It is a powerful and compelling argument for why the arts, and government funding, matter. In the charity sector I am not sure we have even begun to marshal our arguments about why charities matter, let alone write the book and convince the Chancellor.

A second area where the arts could teach us a thing or two is major-donor fundraising. Arts organisations have done a fantastic job in persuading wealthy people to give multi-million-pound donations. It's hard to move in central London, for example, without coming across galleries that have a wing funded by and named after a major benefactor. The Clores, the Sainsburys, the Rothschilds and many more are all very generous, long-term donors to the arts. In return, the donors are handsomely recognised and often get something named after them.

The traditional charity sector - the parts other than arts and education - is pretty poor at building a major-donor culture and its corollary of naming things after donors. Can you think of a traditional charity that has named something after a donor? I know the NSPCC named its headquarters after the Weston family, but that's about it. I am pretty sure most of the saints after whom hospices are named were never donors.

The third area where the arts can teach charities a thing or two is engagement. Arts organisations and charities both tread a fine line between being driven by what the punters want and what the organisation itself wants. But arts organisations tend to win by innovating: they mix the crowd-pleasers with the new artists, the lucrative with the financially risky. What charities offer is too often homogeneous. Want to volunteer in our charity shop? Well, you can come Monday to Friday, so long as it's between 9am and 1pm.

I am not suggesting every charity is bad and every arts organisation perfect. But there are routes through the maze of challenges that faces charities that do not involve reinventing the wheel or hunkering down and hoping for the best. They involve lifting our eyes, noticing new ideas and learning from others who face many of the same challenges. Maybe the move of the Office for Civil Society to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could have long-term benefits after all.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now