Stephen Pidgeon: Our business is not about money, but connection

The key to payroll giving is improving the supporter experience, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

In August, Penny for London closed. It was the scheme, launched by Boris Johnson nearly two years earlier, that encouraged Londoners to donate a penny every time they used their Oyster cards. The Mayor's Fund for London, the charity responsible, had hoped to raise £25m a year. In 22 months they raised only £3,394.

The chief executive of the Mayor's Fund came out with the immortal words: "Despite almost universal approval from Londoners ...," it failed! As if "a jolly good idea" and some qualitative research endorsing it is all you need to raise money from people.

This was a scheme conceived by people who assumed that fundraising is about money. It's not; it's about the emotional connection between a donor and a recipient, and the pleasure the donor gains from it. The money is the symbol of that pleasure, with the size of the donation a product of the donor's liquidity.

But that connection between donor and recipient has to be nurtured and rewarded, which brings me to the more recent relaunch of the Geared for Giving campaign. Another great idea, this promotes payroll giving, which should surely be a pillar of our society. But it has consistently drastically underperformed, despite government incentives.

Significantly, successive governments have failed to make it compulsory for all companies over a certain size to provide payroll-giving facilities and to promote the scheme for their workforces. But that's not the real reason payroll giving has struggled and this relaunch again looks flawed. Peter O'Hara, the man behind the relaunch, believes "the UK is on the verge of a dramatic transformation" in employee giving because several big-ticket employers have pledged their support. What he means by "dramatic" is unclear because the starting base is low - only 6 per cent of staff give this way.

Is O'Hara making the same mistake as the Mayor's Fund? Having some big-name companies signed up is a start, but the key to payroll giving is radically improving the supporter experience. Donors should receive regular, top-quality, digital feedback on the impact of their support, motivating enough for them to pass it on within their organisations. The charity would become a company affair, for discussion around the coffee machine.

But there are problems that need solving first. Many charities don't even get the contact details of their supporters; a work email address is a minimum requirement. Once there's a thriving feedback network and the work of charities is discussed routinely by staff, our corporate fundraising colleagues would see payroll giving as a scheme they want to offer their corporate supporters, rather than something to be avoided at all costs.

It would certainly help if all charities offered their own staff payroll giving, and that doesn't even happen. O'Hara has a lot to achieve. I wish him well.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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