Stephen Pidgeon: Give donors more digital feedback

Charities must tell people what their donations achieve, says our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

Two things make me return to a theme that is fundamental to the way we treat our supporters these days. The first is a phrase in a creative brief I've heard about from a major international charity - it's the North American branch of it, though apparently this part of the brief is common to all its fund-providing countries.

The phrase in the brief relates to the donation ask and is, no doubt, beloved of financial directors and chief executives alike. It goes like this: "What is very important to note on all pieces of correspondence is that the word 'could' must be used, instead of 'would', 'will' or 'can'." In other words, the donor is sold a story and is moved to respond, yet the only assurance that their donation will actually go to that project is summed up in that mealy-mouthed word 'could'. That's outrageous!

Then I read in Third Sector a well written piece by Craig Dearden-Phillips, who argued that if you view our small sector in comparison with the public and private sectors, a lot of it still seems pretty murky. He described "the dance of deceit on outcomes ... that is still going on". The brief I've just seen is a perfect example.

I've just come back from the huge Association of Fundraising Professionals conference in North America, held this year in Vancouver, Canada. The current conference fad is a plethora of sessions on story-telling, and some are pretty good. But so many conference sessions nowadays simply explore new techniques to screw more donations out of supporters. Few sessions describe fundraisers demonstrating to their donors with absolute clarity what impact their kind donations are having on the problems portrayed.

Efforts are being made, notably among adoption charities. I am currently watching World Vision UK's experiment with techniques to deliver individual stories to donors about the impact of their support. It is doing it through both email and digital printing. You need both, mind, so don't dream for a minute that email works on its own - it does not.

But why can't we be more inventive in this digitally-enabled world? I donated to a wonderful Save the Children campaign last autumn to build three maternity clinics. And I've been sent a postcard with a picture of the first baby delivered in one of them. It's sweet, but pretty unconvincing.

Why am I not given access to a webcam showing the clinic being built? Why can't I see a video of a local dignitary cutting the ribbon on opening day? Fundraisers will say that's too difficult. Rubbish, I say; and I say 'rubbish' to briefs preventing fundraisers from saying "your donation 'will' achieve ...". I'm bored with bean-counters, service providers and, worst of all, communications folk who haven't learnt that donors demand feedback in exchange for support.

Your efforts, fundraisers, pay the salaries of these colleagues. Stand your ground. No promise of feedback, no money.

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

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