Valerie Morton: Why I fear for the future of charity lotteries

Small charities that run lotteries could be squeezed out of the market by corporate competition and by larger charities, writes the fundraising consultant

Valerie Morton
Valerie Morton

From school and village fete tombola to prestigious events with "money-can’t-buy" prizes, games of chance have raised money for charity for decades. I can remember selling raffle tickets at my mum’s coffee evenings more than half a century ago.

When the National Lottery was set up in 1994, the amount of money put into newsagents' collecting boxes for my charity at the time went down by a third. Undaunted, we fought back and capitalised on lottery fever by asking companies to run the equivalent of "200-club" lotteries for their staff, and telephoned donors to encourage them to take books of raffle tickets.

Now charities of every shape, size and location have weekly lotteries as a key plank in their fundraising strategies, with participants paying by direct debit and virtual tickets becoming the norm.

So far, so good. Charities recognised that some people will happily buy a lottery ticket even if they would never consider donating, and existing donors are happy to take part as "top-up" support.

So why I am now feeling desperately worried about all of this?

It was never going to be long before other commercial organisations saw the opportunity in lotteries and began to compete. The message that "some" of the money goes to charity is used to give legitimacy to what otherwise could be called gambling. Commercial organisations can borrow money to invest at a level out of the reach of most charities. We’d like to think the pull of a specific charity cause will win out, but in reality their big marketing budgets and investment in infrastructure are bound to have an impact.

But that’s not my only concern. There is also a big difference in the level of investment, including marketing, that larger charities can make compared with smaller and medium-sized ones. There are rumblings that commercial operators want some of the limits and restrictions on lotteries to be lifted to allow them to grow their lotteries, and it is quite possible that some larger charities will feel they could benefit from this too – ironically, perhaps, to help them compete with the commercial operators.

So where does this leave other charities? They might have a core of dedicated lottery supporters, but is there not a danger that they will be squeezed out by corporate lottery providers on the one hand and large charities on the other?

One thing we have learnt from the spotlight that has been put on fundraising in the past two years is that we have to look at the bigger picture. Focusing on our individual charities in isolation is just not on. We must take responsibility for the impact we are making across the sector as a whole.

Regardless of any personal views we might have about gambling, we cannot risk this being the next exposé about the sector. If small charity lotteries start to fail because they cannot compete, it will be a disaster. And if we start hearing stories about people being sucked even further into the lottery treadmill because of big marketing campaigns, I bet we will not come out of it well.

It is time to remember why charities exist. We don’t need to be discussing whether charities should have corporate social responsibility policies. They should be in our DNA.

Valerie Morton is a fundraising consultant and trainer

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