Valerie Morton: Honesty is the best policy for fundraisers

It's perfectly reasonable for charities to ask for donations, writes our columnist, but in the right place, at the right time, in the right way and for the right project

Valerie Morton
Valerie Morton

For many years I have had the pleasure of leading training programmes for people who are interested in changing careers and moving into the voluntary sector. These people are often already donors, trustees or volunteers for causes, or they simply might want to find out more about working in the sector.

Invariably, when the subject of fundraising comes up there will be a number of participants who clearly have negative feelings about their own personal experiences or express dislike of certain types of fundraising.

The ensuing discussion involves me offering an element of challenge by asking questions such as "would you donate to charities if you were not asked?" It then leads to an explanation of a key principle of fundraising: that everyone will give more if asked at the right time, in the right place, by the right person, in the right way and for the right project.

Here is the crux of the problem we are facing today: one person’s good technique is another’s manipulation.

I explain that no good fundraiser would ever use a "technique" to make someone give when they don’t want to or to give more than they can afford or to feel guilt tripped into donating. I explain that fundraising is all about making people feel good about what they have done, regardless of their motivations. I explain my personal experience of knowing that I would have given more to some causes if I had been approached in a different way and, yes, I would have felt good about it. I also explain the dilemma every charity has in trying to raise as much money as possible to support its beneficiaries when doing so requires investing in fundraising but donors want all their money to go to the cause. Donors want us to have perfect admin systems so they never receive accidental duplicate letters, but don’t want us to spend  their money on those systems.

I have a personal barometer that can identify the difference between a good technique (anyone receiving a personal invite to a champagne reception for a charity knows they will be expected to donate more than £25) and manipulation (phoning someone under the pretence of saying thank you when the prime motive was to get them to sign up for the next event), but I think the margin between the two has become blurred in the minds of many fundraisers.

I do not believe we will ever change public attitudes. Charities will always have a unique place in people’s hearts and a role in society, but we have to accept that many people feel donating to charity is as different from buying baked beans as going to church is from visiting the cinema. We know there is a core of brilliant people out there who understand charities, value the work they do and are delighted to give support, but the voices that speak louder are those who use words such as "manipulate", "con", "bully" and "harass".

So what can we do? I think it is quite simple: we need to be honest. Always. Without exception. When people are listening and when they are not. When we are writing our strategies and when we are reporting to trustees. When decisions are being made and when we are managing staff. My old school motto was vincit omnia veritas: truth conquers all things. I cannot think of a better principle to follow.

This means that if you plan to ask someone for a donation after they have texted to receive an information leaflet, you make that clear from the start. If you invite them to a fundraising event, you tell them it is a fundraising event. Most of all, we should never display any behaviour or use any language internally or externally, at trustee level, management level or staff level, with volunteers, donors or the public that could in any way be considered as manipulation.

Many of the front-page stories we have read over the past year or so have one thing in common: they have been about fundraising that has not been at the right time, in the right place, by the right person, in the right way, for the right project. Perhaps if we can start getting it right all the time members of the public will not feel the need to use threatening behaviour and language back. There’s a deal to be done, though. If they still want charities to do amazing work, they will have accept that charities will always have to ask. Equally everyone asked has the right to say no. Politely.

Valerie Morton is a fundraiser and consultant

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