Online comment: Fundraising has become an extractive industry, says Chris Norman

More sustainable relationships with donors can bring greater value from fewer people, he argues

Chris Norman
Chris Norman

As with all extractive industries, the more you take the less you have left. Renewable resources need to be nurtured and replenished to make sure they’re there for the future.

If you’re in the charity sector, you’ll probably be nodding along. These are well-worn arguments in industry and agriculture, but they’re just as relevant to fundraising – and unless we pay attention now we’ll be past "peak giving" before we know it.

The charity sector has had an easy ride because it’s doing things for good causes, but now we’ve lost that right. Our stock of goodwill has run dry in the dash for cash. 

The root of the problem is that we’ve ignored the fundamental rule of relationships – maintaining mutual benefit and respect. We’ve regarded people as wallets or bank accounts, not as human beings with feelings and values, needs and desires.

Charities could have an important role in fulfilling these needs and desires, but the way we’re currently going about it is failing. Most fundraising reflects what the charity wants from the supporter and very rarely reflects what the individual wants from the charity.

Charities want people to commit to them by setting up direct debits or other forms of regular payment, because it is efficient and convenient; charities want an automated programme of maintaining their supporters because it is efficient and convenient. But is this what people want? Judging by falling conversion rates, high attrition rates, longer and longer payback periods and the negative feeling toward high-pressure sales tactics, the answer is very clearly "no".

Commitment is a state of mind, not a contract. To change the direction of travel, charities must understand this fundamental rule of human nature.

The way we initiate and maintain a relationship will determine how committed an individual is to investing in it.

We’ve been advocating value exchange for many years, but people have misinterpreted the real meaning of the phrase. Charities and agencies alike think that exchanging an information leaflet for someone’s data gives them the right to bombard that person with phone calls and texts until they win the war of attrition and can put the victim on an automated maintenance programme to extract more money.

The current extraction approach to supporter recruitment and relationships is unsustainable. It’s killing the future prospects for the sector.

To be sustainable, a relationship needs to be based on enrichment, respect and mutual benefit – genuine value exchange.

The future of the charity sector is based on enrichment, where the individual feels valued and the charity generates value; and we believe that this means charities will generate greater value from fewer people.

There is evidence that the more enlightened charities are already adopting this approach. There will be some tough decisions to make in terms of structure, culture, brand, engagement and maintaining good relationships, but the future is a better balanced, more rewarding and enjoyable relationship for all – and most importantly an approach that’s sustainable and renewable. Not extractive. Because we know where that ends.

Chris Norman is director of the Good Agency

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