Mark Phillips: Lord Grade is right - donors are unhappy

Fundraisers may not have liked the comments from the chair of the Fundraising Regulator, but he might have done the sector a favour, writes the managing director of Bluefrog

Lord Grade, chair of the Fundraising Regulator, kicked off something of a storm last week. First with his description of how he dissuades fundraisers from communicating with him and then in his speech at the Institute of Fundraising’s gala dinner.

The response around the IoF convention and on Twitter reflected a less than positive take on his comments. "Unhelpful", "patronising" and "condescending" were some of the more diplomatic adjectives on offer. 

Maybe fundraisers were justified in their response? Or could there be something positive in what he had to say? 


At university, I attended a few lectures given by Professor Sir Roland Smith, then chairman of British Aerospace. I took away a very important point that he made about communications: it’s not necessarily what people say that matters; it’s what they actually mean that counts. 

The fundraising crisis that burst across our front pages last year was not a complete surprise. It was heralded by an increasing amount of negative feedback from donors that was eventually reflected in the media.

These weren’t complaints about grassroots work. Instead we saw a stream of dispiriting remarks, comments and articles about how charities were run.  About large salaries, high administration costs and aggressive fundraising techniques. 

We took those donors at their word and responded by justifying those activities. Explanations were given about the need for competitive salaries and how effective fundraising actually is. The "one bad apple" defence was employed again and again. And it was also suggested that all people had to do if they didn’t want to give, was to say "no thanks" or drop that appeal letter in the bin.

These responses failed to change anything, because they did not address the fundamental concerns of donors – that they are unhappy about how fundraisers treat them and make them feel. 

It’s interesting that when Lord Grade highlighted this point by reminding us that donors were also consumers, his analogy was a Scrabble app that disturbed his enjoyment of the game by regularly flashing up ads. Of course, he could have paid for a version that was ad free, but perhaps he didn’t know one existed? Instead, he became irritated about the fact that the game developers used ads to try to earn a living from their work. 

Could it be that fundraisers are facing a very similar problem? I think I’m safe in saying that we all want improved medical treatments, organisations to protect everything we hold dear and an end to poverty. But perhaps, as with Scrabble apps, people now expect these services for next to nothing? 

But why has this happened? 

I’ve long thought that the proliferation of repeated requests for gifts of £2 or £3 has significantly underpriced our work. Such small gifts make giving easy. The sums are so small that, to many people, they hardly matter. 

The fact is, giving can and should be enjoyable. And anyone who thinks that the future of fundraising can be built with techniques that simply make it easy is dangerously myopic. 

And that’s why Lord Grade might have done us a favour. He’s reminded us that as consumers, we will pay for what we need and what we value. This is particularly important when payment is voluntary – as with his Scrabble app and with anyone’s gift to charity. 

Our focus has to be on building relationships that donors actually want. And to that end, we must focus on making giving emotionally rewarding. Because, at the end of the day, that’s the type of feeling that people will actually pay for.

I think Fundraising Regulator board member Lucy Caldicott summed it up quite well when she suggested that we’ll know we are doing something right when Lord Grade welcomes fundraisers knocking at his door with open arms.

I think she may well be right.

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