NEWSMAKER: Care without frontiers - Mark Asterita, Director of fundraising, British Red Cross

Annie Kelly

Mark Asterita thinks it's time for people to sit up and take more notice of the British Red Cross. As its new director of fundraising he wants to raise the profile of what he describes as the charity's "unique potential" to inspire and capture the hearts, and the wallets, of thousands of new supporters.

"We're already a strong fundraising charity, but we could have a more powerful presence in an increasingly competitive market," he says. "The next few years are going to be a formative time for our fundraising, and we're going to be making some pretty interesting changes which will force people to start re-evaluating their perceptions of where we sit within the sector.

"But we also need to start asking ourselves some serious questions," he continues. "Are we doing all we can with our shops? We run successful high-society events, but we should be engaging with more people. Our direct mail is good but could be better, and I'd like to double our donor base to 500,000."

It's fighting talk, but Asterita has already proved that he's more than capable of turning the fundraising fortunes of a charity around. At the National Deaf Children's Society he boosted annual voluntary income from £1m in 1994 to more than £10m in 2002, and increased staff from 25 to more than 100. He's proud of what he achieved, and proud of establishing a fundraising strategy at Prisoners Abroad, the charity that supports British people in foreign jails.

"To put it mildly, it's not everyone's first choice to give money to drug smugglers and conmen," he says. "But these people were living in the most appalling conditions, and at Prisoners Abroad we were genuinely helping people that nobody else would. We picked up everyone regardless of what they had done - basic human rights stuff."

Asterita believes that the success of all fundraising, no matter what the cause, rests on the attitudes of the people doing it. "One of the reasons we were successful at Prisoners Abroad and at NDCS is that we spoke and felt with real passion, and that's already something I've experienced here," he says. "For every beneficiary there is a group of donors who in some way feel inclined to help them, and it's your responsibility to find them and push the right buttons. In some ways that's been forgotten by the sector, but we all have the potential to go out and discover new territory."

The fact that he's working with one of the world's best brands will help.

He says working in a charity that's as recognisable across the world as Coca-Cola or McDonald's is a rare opportunity.

"The heritage and history of the Red Cross movement is unsurpassed. I don't know of another charity which is so represented at a local, regional, national and international level," he says.

He sounds genuinely in awe of the Red Cross's global reputation. He describes in detail the story of the founding of the charity, where Henry Dunant walked among the dead and dying after the battle of Solferino in 1865, and implored the local people to help him bring water and aid to those in need.

"And 140 years later, we're the ones to turn on the water in Basra," he says. "I've ended up working for the largest humanitarian network in the world and it's an amazing opportunity to be part of that."

But Asterita is also confident of his own ability to inject something new into the organisation.

"I'm a natural fundraiser and see myself as a social entrepreneur," he explains. "As a bridge between the beneficiary and the donor, you're selling people a little piece of heaven, and in this secular environment charities have actually replaced heaven for a lot of people and have become the way that allows people to do their bit in a complex world.

"You have to tell people it's not about the value of their donation, it's the actual act of contribution. A large part of a fundraiser's job is to inspire, and this is something we're well placed to do at the British Red Cross."

The charity is currently in a strong position, having recently cleared its £14m deficit and streamlined its regional operations to reduce overheads and improve efficiency. What it needs now, says Asterita, is the spark put back into its fundraising.

"We've entered a phase of stability but now we need to push through to a period of excitement," he says.

He's a great believer in the affection that the public has for the voluntary sector and dismisses the idea that public confidence in charities is at an all-time low: "I don't think there's a great deal of evidence to back that up. People are becoming more cynical, but we have to be careful that we're not trying to fix what's not broken."

What does concern him is that, as charities become more competitive, the sector has entered into a form of price war, resulting in the value of charity appeals plummeting.

"All this 'save a life for 75p' marketing isn't doing anyone any good," he says. "Five years ago we were asking for £15 a month. Charitable giving is not keeping up with the price of inflation, and encouraging people to give 50p is not enough to make a real difference to poverty or suffering."


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