Stephen Pidgeon: Acquiring and keeping are very different skills

The way donors respond to an ask depends on the balance between their need for privacy and for affiliation and connectivity, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

Fundraising was given new focus and energy in January with the publication of a seminal review of the concept of relationship fundraising by colleagues at Rogare, Plymouth University's think tank in the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. Ian MacQuillin, with professors Jen Shang and Adrian Sargeant, took Ken Burnett's 1992 concept and reviewed the academic literature behind those two simple words. It took a three-volume report, but the result is our guide star for (in their words) the next 50 years.

By way of contrast, I watched on BBC1 this morning another cheap attack on fundraising, once again blaming Olive Cooke's death on charity mailings and featuring the son of a vulnerable father blaming charities for over-mailing. All the mailshots shown were commercial. But instead of speaking robustly of the massive changes that have already been made to fundraising, a spokesman for the charity chief executives organisation Acevo and the chief executive of a major charity resorted to bland platitudes and fawning gratitude to the giving public.

So we have a battle on our hands, but here is a report that can serve as a key driver of change. It is complex and academic, first reviewing the relationship marketing practices that preceded Ken's pivotal book. But in volume 2, fundraising and relationships are subjected to academic review and the results are, almost literally, breathtaking.

Thinking through the implications for fundraising of self-verification theory and self-enhancement theory, and the implications of a communal relationship compared with an exchange relationship, is pretty challenging. But the report gives lots of examples of fundraising materials that could achieve specific developments in the relationship between donor and charity by addressing key theories at key moments in the relationship.

What drives loyalty is a donor's satisfaction and commitment. As an illustration of the detailed thinking, it is clear (and logical) that the process of acquisition is different - radically different - from the ongoing process of development. In acquisition, our colleagues argue, response to an ask depends on a balance between the donor's need for privacy and their need for affiliation and connectivity.

Having made a donation, "whether the donor chooses to build a relationship with the charity is then crucially determined by how rewarded the donor finds the charity makes them feel", says the report. For instance, the report reflects on the role of people's "higher" or "lower" need to feel that they belong.

Charities don't differentiate nearly enough between messages for acquisition and those for development. They treat appeals as linear transactions - donors would call them persistent demands. But that has to stop. Fundraisers have to look for new ways to engage donors - recognising, measuring, recording and understanding how each individual donor is changing in terms of the relationship as time goes by.

Daunting? Yes, very - but how exciting too. We now have no option but to get this right. It requires imagination and rigorous testing in all media. And then, what we do best - sharing our results. There's a massive financial incentive to get it right. Legacies will come from donors who are satisfied and committed, and that's serious money.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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