Stephen Pidgeon: Why all the gloom about direct giving?

Direct requests and donor feedback pays off in the long term, says our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

I read a week or two ago that, for the first time ever, the income of the redoubtable Cancer Research UK had gone down, year on year, by 6 per cent.

It's astonishing that it has grown so fast for so long - we should be in awe. And actually, it was being hard on itself because, of the £32m decline, 60 per cent could be explained by unrepeatable one-off sums in the previous year. In practice, its ordinary income was down by under 3 per cent, mostly the result of a decline in the number of Race for Life participants.

But some of CRUK's income sources, notably direct giving, increased by about 5 per cent. You'll not be surprised to know that my heart soared: I'm a passionate advocate of this form of giving. And when this year's Poppy Appeal figures are published by the Royal British Legion, I'll bet the income will have (once again) broken all records.

Yet all around me I sense gloom about direct giving, linked with a rush towards replacing offline with trendy online. How come, when some charities are so good at direct giving. There are the two I've mentioned above, plus Macmillan Cancer Support, Dogs Trust, Save the Children and a few more (not many more!). Meanwhile, others spend their lives whingeing about attrition rates and donor fatigue.

Donor updates

Let me give you two statistics from the estimable Blackbaud, taken from its 2010 State of the Not-for-Profit Industry Survey. It asked charities whether donors were now asking to be updated on how their contributions were spent. Forty-four per cent said they were, but that figure was up from 25 per cent only the year before.

Similarly, it asked whether ordinary supporters were now asking for their donations to be restricted. Fifty-two per cent of charities said they were, up from only 22 per cent the previous year. In one year, the proportion of charities reporting donor demand for power over their donations had increased by 30 percentage points. It's not going to stop there.

If you look at the charities that are doing well, they are taking very seriously the increasing demand from donors to know what their money is achieving. And, with the proliferation of digital media, for the first time ever we have the means to satisfy their demands.

Wasted opportunities

For the rest, distractions rule. I understand we are about to be blessed with a worldwide rebrand for a major charity, a charity whose brand is already the stuff of gods. The rebrand will prosper fundraising little, anywhere in the world, but while this distraction reigns, its current income declines steadily. What a waste. What an indictment of a communications department looking for a role.

And where there are no distractions, there's short-term thinking that makes 'another appeal mailed to the whole database' more attractive than a more expensive but tailored approach to supporters who passionately believe in your cause and who will, one day, leave you a legacy.

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

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