Stephen Pidgeon: Some flak is justified, but we still need rebel bees

Fundraisers are under attack, but we are indebted to the quirky members of our profession who ignore the waggle dance and set out on their own to find new pollen, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

Golly! We fundraisers are certainly beset by challenges at the moment. If we ask our wonderful supporters for a donation by mail, we now have to pay the government VAT on the postage. Soon we'll also be paying VAT on the design and print of these mailings. In effect, the government is taxing each donation by increasing the cost of raising it by 20 per cent. What a clever policy!

Last week, The Times, which was always, surely, an intelligent newspaper, told its readers that Olive Cooke died because she was harassed by charities, a claim denied by anyone who knew anything. And we have a minister who sees the excesses revealed in our sector as a means to establish his credentials.

I write this as "embarrassed of Cheltenham", because I chaired the Institute of Fundraising standards committee for six years and didn't foresee the outcome of unrelenting pressure on fundraisers to deliver increased funds. I should have done; we all should have done. We should have explained to our chief executives and boards the implications of the yearly demands for increased funds that we were required to deliver.

What a delicious irony it is that the body that represents charities generally, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, is now tasked by Number 10 with finding a solution to our excesses. The outcome of Sir Stuart Etherington's review will shape fundraising in the future. I look forward to it because, if the outcome is restrictions that result in less money being raised, then it's right that the NCVO is the body making that choice. At last, it is doing the half of its job it has hitherto ignored.

I'm pleased at the opportunity to consider again what fundraising looks like in the eyes of our donors. In a few cases, perhaps not too good, and I regret that, as we all do. But in the vast majority of cases our amazing donors still derive enormous satisfaction from their gifts; they wouldn't give them if they didn't.

I'm reminded of the recent IoF convention where the inspiring Rory Sutherland described the importance of rogue bees. When a bee highlights a new source of pollen to its mates in the hive with a "waggle dance", there are apparently some 5 to 15 per cent of bees that ignore the dance and instead set off in oblique directions of their own to find new pollen. Stupid bees, you could argue; but scientists have shown that, without these rebels, the likelihood of the hive starving to death radically increases.

What would we have done if Oxfam's fundraisers, trying to salvage the failure of one of the first TV advertisements, had not come up with the £2 per month ask? Or if Save the Children had not rediscovered two-step fundraising with its Enough is Enough advertisements in 2009? We try our hardest to develop new stuff and sometimes we get it wrong. Well, let's learn from that and move on. We have much to be proud of – a huge amount!

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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