Stephen Pidgeon: People give to people - not charities

Unlike fundraisers in New Zealand, most UK charities have long ago learned to ask for money for the cause, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

The last time I wrote an opinion piece, I questioned charities that consistently treat their agencies badly and had a go at the whole pitch process, which, in our sector, is an unnecessary waste of time.

It is often a power game where charity staff of doubtful competence fill in forms (in the interests of equality, apparently) to decide which agency is appointed. Agencies and charities need to be matched, but this process would be done better by discussions with other charities - that is the strength of our great sector - than by beauty parades.

So why am I raising all these issues again? I was amazed to find there were no comments. Hundreds of charities use agencies - does nobody have a view on the how they should be appointed or treated? Well, this time I'm going to question the fundraising competence of one of our country's charity treasures. Will anyone comment?

I'm just back from another trip to New Zealand: wonderful country, lovely people and fundraising that is 20 years behind the UK. It reminds me again that most UK charities are incredibly skilled at raising money from ordinary supporters. I believe we lead the world in this area. Certainly, there are fundraisers in the US who are, even now, earnestly re-evaluating their model of incentive-led, low-response appeals. Lots are floundering, while many charities in the UK are still using direct mail to recruit new donors at eminently viable cost ratios.

Many New Zealand fundraisers make a single error in their appeals: they break the cardinal rule that 'people give to people, not to charities' and spend the whole appeal asking supporters to give money ... to their charity. Most UK charities have long ago learned to ask for money for the cause; the charity is simply the vehicle to deliver its impact.

But I arrived back to find a mailing from the RNLI asking for a regular monthly gift. There are a series of dubious plays on words - "stormy weather ahead", "saving for a rainy day" - and the supporters are urged to "appreciate the importance of sensible financial planning". This appeal asks me to support the RNLI throughout. The heroes everyone admires and wants to support - the volunteer crewmen - are never mentioned, except obscurely, as "our lifeboat crews". I felt like I'd arrived home only to find myself in New Zealand again.

Even though direct mail brings in anything between 75 and 95 per cent of charities' non-legacy income from supporters, there is still talk of direct mail struggling. The talk is premature in my view - 20 years premature, though the exact timing might be a point of discussion. Certainly, direct mail has to be done well and linked to other media channels. But talk of struggling direct mail fundraising encourages too many people to avoid learning the basic art of getting it right, and the rule that 'people give to people, not charities' is a very good place to start.

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

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