Paul Vanags: Let's stop being the party bore

The sector has lost its way, writes our columnist, and needs to be more like the type of person you want to talk to at gatherings

Paul Vanags
Paul Vanags

The past month has provided many moments for reflection for us as a sector, as fundraisers came together at the International Fundraising Congress, the Fundraising Regulator published its first batch of complaints statistics and one of the sector’s most influential leaders, Mark Astaritas, retired from the British Red Cross. It all points to a moment in time to think about what kind of sector we want to be in the future.

The Fundraising Regulator complaints statistics make uninteresting reading for those who know the sector. People don’t like interruptive dialogue channels – door-to-door, street and telephone. They dislike junk mail, but they reserve a special loathing for direct mail stuffed to the gills with unnecessary inserts such as coasters, cards and pens. All of these are methods and channels that have built fundraising income over previous decades and are the "go-to" strategies of many who have worked in the sector throughout this time.

At the IFC I saw an excellent, provocative and well-attended talk from the Good Agency’s Reuben Turner on the need for fundraising to change. As we know, trust in the sector has taken a battering, and Turner provided a range of very sobering statistics to demonstrate this, while highlighting the way in which commercial organisations have been encroaching on the space that the "for-good" sector should rightfully own.

But I also saw a great deal of hackneyed and turn-the-handle, repetitive content on the usual things that regularly bulk out the fundraising conference agenda: storytelling, donor-centricity and so on. All of this is good, but it’s not new, and my main beef with it is that when you compare it to the way we’re actually seen and what the big charities actually do, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s conference-hall rhetoric, not a reality.

I’m left with the thought that we have rather lost our way. What kind of a sector do we want to be? At the moment, if we thought of our sector as a person at a party, we’d be the one everyone wanted to avoid. The one where you knew that if you were to get involved, you’d just get bombarded. They latch on, never let you go and never ask you any questions, but always talk about themselves. You do what you need to, to be polite, but get away as quickly as you can and afterwards share a knowing eye-roll with your friends.

I don’t want us to be that person. I want to be one of those lovely people who always asks you how you are. The type who remembers your name and the last thing you had a conversation about. Once I’ve reminded you how much I like you, I want to have interesting things to say, with a sparkle in my eye. I want the passion I feel for my cause not to leave us in a place of needy worthiness, but excited about the difference we can make together, and bubbling with new ideas.

Let’s aspire to be better than the "double-glazing salesmen" we were described as by the Public Accounts Committee in 2015.

We need to invest in technology – for marketing, but also for programme delivery. The world outside our sector is a bonkers brouhaha of chaotic innovation. We need to work hard to keep up.

We also need to remember that we are part of a bigger system and fundraising is only part of the solution in a global, connected world. So we need modern and relevant theories of change.

There needs to be less focus on selling products and more on having a clear vision of – and meeting – our supporters’ needs.

And we need to worry less about the short-term ROI and more on having a vision and doing the right thing.

As a sector we ought to be better at the "doing-good" business than Bill Gates, Facebook, Unilever or any other large global organisations. We’ve been doing it for longer, we think more about it, we’re clearer about it as our purpose and, ultimately, it’s what we’re here for.

So let’s stop being the party bore and start investing in our sector’s recovery. I’ll see you on the dancefloor.

Paul Vanags is head of public fundraising at Oxfam and is currently taking a one year sabbatical as co-director of People and Planet

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