Stephen Pidgeon: We are neglecting good opportunities - madness!

From shunning handwritten letters to ignoring those who donate goods to charity shops, fundraisers are not working hard enough at connecting with their supporters, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

A week or two ago, I was struck by two completely unconnected announcements in the sector press, which made me think that we fundraisers and campaigners have a long way to go before claiming we are professional at what we do. We simply don't work hard enough at connecting with our supporters, encouraging them to do what we know will bring them satisfaction.

Esther Foreman of the Social Change Agency suggested that if we really want to influence MPs, MEPs or the leaders of questionable regimes we should occasionally resort to writing letters by hand. She was bemoaning online petitions because they are too easy. I often sign up to right wrongs with a simple click, but my smug satisfaction is hardly warranted.

The people we're trying to influence know how easy it is to collect signatures online, so only a massive volume will have the same effect as a few well-crafted letters. Few campaigners now have the imagination or the experience to ask for letters and haven't thought to test which is actually more effective. That's pretty unprofessional.

The second announcement was the launch of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' online weekly lottery. Good news: thousands of charities, local ones particularly, will have a non-profit framework within which to build their own weekly lottery schemes. These things are difficult to get off the ground because the generous weekly prize needed to attract participants is unmatched by the number of players required to generate that prize. But working with the new Give and Win lottery, a charity could build its list of players before branching off on its own.

Generally, the marketing of these highly profitable schemes is still in the dark ages; they are one of the last bastions of amateurish fundraising, with financial colleagues milking them excessively, investing neither in bigger prizes nor better marketing.

And look at the desperate waste in charity shops. Years ago, Sue Ryder Care introduced the delicious concept of taking addresses from those who donated goods to their shops. It's now widespread practice. The money raised is offered back to the contributor, a move that makes that donation eligible for Gift Aid – provided it's not claimed of course.

But most charities then ignore those good people – no information, no encouragement, not even a request for more goods. Madness! These supporters have chosen your charity from dozens on the high street and proffered their addresses. They are your supporters, yet few charities ever connect with them. Worse still, I heard of one charity that planned to ask thousands of these people for gifts in their wills, having never written to them notifying them of the sale of their goods. You can't do that – it's rude and unprofessional. Yet these supporters would be a fine source of legacies if only they were treated properly.

Those are three examples of fundraisers and campaigners failing to connect with supporters. Three great ideas, all used widely, yet none of them applied with the focus on total customer value that any commercial company would deliver. Our supporters are our only asset; they want to contribute while feeling comfortable doing so. They could be encouraged to do so much more, but getting it right requires energy and commitment from us.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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