Rebecca Cooney: Thoughts on the International Fundraising Congress

Our reporter is impressed by the scale of the event and its refusal to shy away from controversial issues

Rebecca Cooney
Rebecca Cooney

As a first-time attendee of the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands, the first thing that hit me was the sheer scale of the event: the conference centre itself can hold 2,000 people, and more than half that number were in attendance last week.

The second thing I noticed was the tremendous energy of having so many fundraisers together in one space. Conversation was noisy, impassioned and lively, and at the disco-themed gala night the costumes were impressive and the dancing enthusiastic.

One of the big concerns for fundraising in the UK at the moment is the impact of the General Data Protection Regulation, due to come into effect in May next year. The legislation is EU-wide, so naturally many delegates heading to the IFC last week will have been wondering what their European counterparts’ response to it was.

The answer, it turned out, was "not much". In a session dedicated to exploring the effects of the GDPR, led by Ilja De Coster, fundraising data strategist at Amnesty International in Belgium, and Charlie Hulme, creative and managing director of DonorVoice, it was difficult to pick out a non-British accent among those asking questions.

An Irish fundraiser told me "there are some people who are panicking about it, but most people are hoping it will go away", and a Dutch fundraiser shrugged and acknowledged that there would have to be a few changes, but it wasn't really that big a deal. A German delegate looked amused: their data protection laws have been so stringent for years that the GDPR is, if anything, a relaxation of the rules.

Perhaps the Information Commissioner’s Office’s fines handed down to 13 UK charities in the past year have made the fundraising sector here more anxious than it otherwise would have been, but whatever the cause, it seems the UK is largely alone in its concern about the GDPR.

The theme of this year’s IFC was "Starting a New Conversation", and it opened that conversation with aplomb with the hip-hop stylings of Ahmen, an executive at a well-known American non-profit by day, rap artist by night, and a presentation by the plenary speaker Jeremy Heimans, chief executive of the US social consultancy Purpose.

Both presentations drew on the imagery of Black Lives Matter, the civil rights movement and the Suffragettes. Fundraisers, the speakers suggested, were part of the same tradition of seeking social change.

It was a bold claim but, in fairness to this year’s IFC, it didn’t shy away from bold claims or bold challenges to those claims. One of the most controversial moments of the conference came during the question-and-answer session at the end of the opening plenary, when a delegate called for the 1,000 strong crowd to "take the knee" – in other words, to kneel in solidarity with the American football player Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality towards black people in the US.

The suggestion, and the kneeling that followed, provoked mixed reactions among delegates and, during the closing plenary, four were invited on stage to share their reactions, both the supportive and those who believed in the cause but felt the gesture was self-congratulatory and unhelpful.

One idea that came up in those opening sessions and was repeated throughout the event was the notion that some charities needed to make changes in order to connect with today’s young, social media-savvy and hyper-connected potential donors.

The new conversation should not be about fundraisers convincing donors to hand money to charities to dispense, many speakers suggested, but about collaborations between charities and supporters, harnessing their skills, expertise and passion to choose the direction of change.

Perhaps counter-intuitively for fundraisers, the overriding conclusion of the new conversations at the conference seemed to be "it’s not all about the money any more".

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