Tobin Aldrich: We need a new fundraising practice

Many commentators agree that a more supporter-focused and long-term methodology is needed, writes our columnist in the third article of his four-part series

Tobin Aldrich
Tobin Aldrich

No one needs to reminded about how tough the last couple of years have been for fundraising in the UK. The number, range and scale of attacks on the practice of fundraising in this country have been unprecedented. And while much of the criticism has been distorted and unfair, few of us would deny that real failings have been exposed.

In some areas of fundraising there has been a culture that has focused on short-term income at the expense of long-term relationships, where volumes have been prioritised over value and where responsibility for the supporter experience has been abdicated to suppliers.

There’s been too little imagination, too much me-too. Programmes have become mechanical and repetitive.

There has probably been too much fundraising. Or, rather, specific channels have been quickly saturated by large numbers of appeals with too little differentiation. Supporters have been contacted in ways they haven’t liked and have increasingly felt that they have lost control over what they receive.

As I have said before, I don’t think the fundamental fault for all of this has been with fundraisers. It has been a strategic failing of charities thinking that simply sinking money into fundraising tactics would mean they could avoid tackling their core weaknesses of organisational strategy and case for support.

But fundraisers still need to take responsibility for their part in these failings, and we need to fix them quickly.

We are not short of ideas or guidance on how to develop more effective fundraising approaches. Almost all commentators agree that we need a much more supporter-focused and long-term methodology. We need to think about engagement, not just the ask, and of giving control back to supporters. Many people in fundraising have been doing this for years, particularly in the one-to-one relationship areas.

If anyone needs some ideas, a few of Ken Burnett’s blogs would make a good starting point. There’s no shortage of other wise words too, even a couple from me.

There are some great examples of what good looks like. From Charity: Water’s supporter focus to Oxfam’s new supporter app.

It’s not, then, really a question of not knowing what to do, but of how to operationalise it.

I think we need a new fundraising practice, a way of thinking about fundraising that will allow us to deliver the measurable, better supporter experiences that we should be aiming for. I think it consists of the following key principles:

  • Mission-driven: No one does fundraising for its own sake. We need to make sure that the mission of the organisation always remains front and centre. Decisions should always be taken on the basis of how the mission is advanced by the choice.

  • Long-term: We need to shift the focus of fundraising beyond the current year. We need long-term strategies that are meaningful and not abandoned at the first bump in the road. We need a view of supporter relationships that gives them the time to be effectively nurtured and developed.

  • Relationship-based: All fundraising is about relationships, and people need to be first in and central to any strategy. The relationships we need are based on supporters’ needs first and the charity's second. They are as properly one-to-one as we can efficiently make them, with real supporter choice, but still maximising the value that will be delivered for the charity’s mission.

  • Integrated: We need to build fundraising as a core activity through the whole organisation. Activities, campaigns and messages need to be co-created with the charity and delivered together. Integration should be the norm. We need to work out how to work in integrated ways and still deliver powerful and compelling fundraising.

  • Evidenced: Data should drive decision-making. In a rapidly changing, multi-channel world there is ever more data, available ever faster. We need the tools and the skills in analysis and interpretation to bring all the information together to make rapid and effective decisions.

  • Flexible: Fundraising, like the world, is changing fast. We need to be able to combine great tactical flexibility with a firm strategic focus. We can’t get mired in old ways of thinking or old ways of working. But we need to avoid chasing after every rainbow and make sure we are always delivering to the mission.

  • Brave: Change is never comfortable and the challenges fundraisers will face will be profound. We will need to be able to take hard decisions and what will sometimes feel like leaps into the dark. Truths will need to be told to power. Courage will never be needed more.

There’s lots of good practice already in our sector, and many inspiring people and examples to learn from. The task is to turn that into fundamental improvements in the delivery of fundraising across the market.

Tobin Aldrich is a fundraising consultant and chief executive of the direct giving charity the Misfit Foundation

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