Stephen Pidgeon: The questions unasked by The Sunday Times

Mailing costs as a percentage of income is a limited measure by which to judge a strategy, writes our columnist

In 2009, when I was involved in setting the Code of Fundraising Practice, I was hauled in front of the minister for the Third Sector and told we needed to rid the market of charity mailings with enclosures - umbrellas, gardening gloves and the like. A trawling exercise ensued that involved the Institute of Fundraising asking its members to find mailings that breached the code. In the end, 17 were referred to the Fundraising Standards Board and they disappeared.

At the end of May this year, The Sunday Times ran an article based on data provided by the Charity Commission about 10 charities that rely heavily on direct mail for their income. It was refreshingly accurate, acknowledging for the first time that Olive Cooke's death was not directly linked to pressure from charities, and it exposed practices that were clearly not transparent. Of the 10 charities examined, most were hiding the full cost of their direct mail fundraising, making large proportions of it disappear under "education". Most of the 10 were UK subsidiaries of US charities.

The article - and, I assume, the briefing from the Charity Commission - dealt almost exclusively with one measure: direct mailing costs as a percentage of income, which, in each case, were indefensibly high. But there are many questions the article did not address, including why inappropriate US-based charities continue to fundraise here.

Mailing costs as a percentage of income is a limited measure with which to judge a strategy. Finding a new donor costs money and our top charities are probably spending up to 200 per cent of their immediate income to recruit someone new. And if The Sunday Times is outraged at such profligacy, I'd remind it that its Travel Magazine has just landed on my doorstep, a full kilo of glossy paper that goes straight into recycling. It is looking for new customers and its marketing people will be working to a defined allowable cost of recruitment.

The article naively expressed surprise that one of the charities mailed 714,000 letters in one year, but many charities in the UK send seven or eight-figure numbers-worth of mail a year and raise massive sums by doing so.

The charities named needed to be investigated, but this would have been more effective had it been done by someone who knew about fundraising. The institute's 2009 investigation showed that seven of the 17 mailings that failed the code were from one agency. Other past investigations have shown clear links between charity board members and those on marketing agency boards.

This stuff has been going on for years. The Charity Commission should investigate. Of the websites of these 10 charities, for instance, only one lists its trustees. Why is that allowed? And most of the 10 still appear to be using mailings that breach the code. Get someone who understands fundraising to ask the right questions. The market will be the better for it.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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