Peter Stanford: I had to eat my words on mass-participation events

This kind of event has become popular because they afford people real connection with a charity

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Charities are endlessly learning from each other. One organisation has a good idea, then others take it up and – as Simon Cowell says too often on The X Factor – make it their own. It is a virtuous circle by and large, and what in a business environment might be resisted as infringement of copyright is in our world shared between organisations with good grace. Part of the sector’s distinctive ethos, as it were.

Hence the proliferation lately of mass-participation fundraising events. Every charity of any size now seems to have one, all based on the same principle of lots of people getting together to do some exercise, often in distinctive dress, to boost their fitness and raise some funds for a chosen good cause.

My old charity, Aspire, has been running a Channel swim for years, with those taking part covering the distance between England and France, but doing it in bite-size pieces in local swimming pools, complete with branded swimming hats and costumes. And it has grown and grown. In its early days, the trustees would sit down and look at the projected figures for the next financial year and worry aloud if the Channel swim could keep growing. And we would carefully minute the need for succession planning – what would be the next big idea to replace this one when it ran out of steam, or should I say water?

All, though, to no avail, because such contingencies were not needed. The trustees were doing their job and raising the questions, but the fundraising team knew they were onto a winner. And, to be fair, they were working with us, adjusting and diversifying that core good idea to give it longevity. The chief executive even volunteered to swim the actual Channel, which I’m afraid is where the teamwork ended and volunteers to join him were in short supply.

There will be more scratching of heads around trustee tables in the coming months over our reliance on such large-scale fundraisers, given the figures revealed by the events management firm Massive. These show that the total raised in 2017 from the 25 biggest mass-participation fundraisers fell by £4m, a small shift in the context of the £135.5m banked, but still a reverse in what had been an ever-upward trend. And, for those trustees who see their role as reading the signs in the tea leaves, a warning of potential trouble ahead when it comes to agreeing next year’s targets.

My advice to those involved in such discussions would be: hold your nerve. This kind of event has become popular because they afford people a real connection with a charity, often over a number of years. That is win-win-win: money, profile, connection.

I speak as one who doubted that our Channel swim would endure. It illustrates an essential point about trustees being a critical friend. The role is not – as I have heard it expressed on occasion at board meetings – to be critical in the negative sense of the word, such as: "Mark my words, if you keep on down this road, we’ll all regret it." Think of yourself, instead, as a film or theatre critic: there to celebrate and encourage what is good, but duty bound also to point out when what is served up misses the mark.

To stretch the analogy, it means having your Mamma Mia moment. When the first film in what is now a franchise was released in 2008, the critics were negative, but the crowds loved it. The same critics weren’t much more positive about the recent follow-up, but there was at least a chastened tone in the barbs of their reviews.

Critical friends can and do get it wrong. I did, when predicting that the mass-participation fundraising event bubble would burst. And I have learnt the pleasure of eating my words.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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