Stephen Pidgeon: Some fundraisers abuse agencies

Agencies are often treated unfairly by charities, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

A few weeks ago, there was an intereting cry from the heart from Joe Saxton on nfpSynergy's website. It had nothing to do with fundraising: he was describing the mauling his small company had received at the hands of PAYE inspectors. He had not misled them but had made assumptions they didn't share, and there is only one outcome to that. It was an expensive nightmare that lasted two years.

A similar experience of mine with HM Revenue & Customs had started with a most aggressive demand for five years' worth of personal bank statements. I had refused to comply, as was my right, but in squaring up to the officer in charge, I condemned my finance staff to three years of beggarly demands. In the end, HMRC got less than £2,000 of additional tax out of us.

I suspect the trials faced by supplier companies in our sector are of little interest to fundraisers. But I'm now far enough away from my days of agency ownership to mention another source of stress and say the unsayable: how badly some fundraisers treat agencies. They are often demanding and rude, and many commercial organisations I've dealt with are paragons of virtue by comparison.

The relationship between agency and commercial company is pretty straightforward. Fees are argued robustly but, once agreed, are rarely questioned again. Some charity folk whinge continuously about fees; they want a quality service but hate paying for it, which saps the agency's energy. If agencies don't make money, they go bust - and, sadly, there have been some high-profile examples recently.

As I warm to my theme, let me condemn the whole competitive pitch process. Even small jobs are put up for pitch, wasting everybody's time - pitching is expensive for both parties, and often produces the wrong result. Some fundraisers seem to want to penalise agencies - "make them work for our business". In our sector, no one needs to pitch - charities share information. If you're concerned about your agency's performance, talk to it. And if that produces no change, then ask around, get to know new agencies and try one or two with small jobs. Pitching rarely works.

As for the charities that pitch but never reach a decision, or pitch and fail to tell the unsuccessful agencies - well, that's just so rude, but it happens, regularly.

A colleague and I still have a number of clients for whom we do creative work. Last autumn, an overseas client loved a concept based on the 12 days of Christmas, but, after we had worked it up, insisted we replace it with the "10 days of Holiday" - the mention of Christmas being politically incorrect in that country. I no longer have the pressure of running an agency, so we resigned the account. Most agencies have to put up with that sort of rubbish.

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

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