Stephen Pidgeon: Take responsibility for the agencies you employ

The demise of Personal Telephone Fundraising was the result of charities behaving like sheep, writes the consultant

The face-to-face company Neet Feet went down in July, another in a long line of sector agencies that have been wound up, many of them after lurid articles appeared in the press. I don't think the sector has fully grasped the impact of losing at least nine major face-to-face and telephone agencies in the year since last summer.

The loss of that skilled capacity, the removal of donkeys' years of careful training, together with some honourable and committed management, is very bad news for a sector struggling to raise money for causes.

I sense complacency among fundraisers, a feeling of "that's what happens to commercial agencies" and even a mild satisfaction that the agency gravy train has hit the buffers. In the 20 years before Personal Telephone Fundraising went bust in February, its staff had raised £337m. Its demise was the result of charities behaving like sheep: a whiff of risk, everyone pulls out.

When The Sun exposed Neet Feet, five major clients pulled their work. Commercial companies can't operate without work. They are not like charities, with reserves to tide them over an unsuccessful appeal. Most agencies in the sector live hand to mouth.

I don't expect fundraisers to share my view, but I grieve for the folding of a thriving agency that was trying to keep the staff employed, trying to keep going with bland promises from clients that never materialised. Let me ask two questions: first, why did that cycle of tabloid exposure, the withdrawal of charity business and agency liquidation start? It started because charities rushed to "particularly effective" agencies and nobody stopped to ask why they were doing so much better than their rivals. That was naive. The sector has understood that and we've been thumped for our poor management of those relationships.

Second, why is it still going on? Charities using face-to-face agencies still seem to abrogate all responsibility. If the tabloid journalists can get jobs in the agencies, why can charities not monitor their agencies more closely? Where are routine reviews and the systematic and in-depth programmes of mystery shopping? The only monitoring that seems to happen is the weekly count of new donors. That's not good enough.

And the move to set up in-house teams, though welcome, is not straightforward. In 2013, Shelter created the Street Academy, an in-house team that worked with other charities, but it is not currently running any activities.

Face-to-face and telephone fundraising is real fundraising, good fundraising. Done well, it satisfies donors and raises a pile of money. Bodies such as the Public Fundraising Association do a good job, giving guidance and broad monitoring, but individual charities must take responsibility for this form of fundraising, as they do with others. Simply running away when things go wrong is a cop-out.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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