Stephen Pidgeon: Be direct and ask - or it's just a waste

A recent Barnardo's advert that failed to include an 'ask' is using an outdated approach, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

A week or so before Christmas, I received a text from my student daughter. "Dad, have you seen the TV ad from Barnardo's?" she asked. "It's amazing." And then she added something that thrilled me: "I know exactly what my donation would achieve."

Now, I've not subjected my youngest to the recurring theme of my lectures: namely, that nobody is interested in what you do - only in what you achieve when you do it.

Yet she was moved instinctively to give because, in this advertisement, which depicts a successful young father morphing back to a troubled childhood, she could see the problem and the charity's solution to it.

She knew what her gift could help to provide.

But she gave no donation because the advertisement didn't ask her for one. Instead, it simply asked for her "support". That seems to be as far as the charity's communications department and its ad agency, BBH, are prepared to stoop in this vulgar business of fundraising. What an appalling waste when the work is so magnificent. Why is Barnardo's the only major charity still prepared to run advertisements without an 'ask'? How can it be so outdated, its fundraising apparently so unimportant?

I received my daughter's text in Auckland airport, heading home after a fortnight of teaching and working with charities in New Zealand. Two things struck me about fundraising there. First, I was aggrieved to hear of charities bringing crass Australian telephone techniques into the country: low-paid Filipinos cold-calling people to engage them in a survey and following up with a request for a monthly gift. The reputation of these charities must be in tatters. New Zealanders are like us - very polite and unused to these more rumbustious techniques.

My second observation is that, though entertaining brash and inappropriate fundraising, New Zealand charities are either not using direct mail or are doing it so badly that it doesn't work. Many still put a large image of their chief executive on the front of a single-page appeal letter. In this young and vibrant country, they seem to have forgotten their older people (the ones with the money) and assume that everyone uses Facebook, is connected by mobile and wants to give by that means. And of course, they don't: direct mail is the main source of proper money.

We should remember this in the UK. I am outraged at Barnardo's frittering donors' money away with awareness advertising, and at other charities that claim "donor fatigue", but can't be bothered to learn the basics of direct mail fundraising.

Obsessed with social media, they don't use mail and can't understand why anyone would. And they don't let the fact that less than 10 per cent of UK charities' income comes in online persuade them that they need to understand how direct mail works. Why are some charities still so crass?

Stephen Pidgeon is a trustee of the Institute of Fundraising, a consultant and teacher

Update: Stephen Pidgeon has posted a comment under this afticle after Barnardo's introduced a call for a text donation on its TV advertisement

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