The recent report by the Commission on the Donor Experience has been received by both applause, and a thread of concern. Reassuringly, it represents a powerful endorsement of good donor-centric fundraising practice, and potentially a route to more successful income generation for charities. However, it also states that ‘fundraising charities [should] firmly fix as their topmost priority the interests, convenience and positive experience of their supporters’. This statement risks elevating the donor experience above beneficiary needs, and inadvertently champions a donor-led approach.
I should be clear that, in many ways, the report is a valuable resource for the sector. It rightly argues for creating a culture that enables thoughtful, responsive and relevant donor cultivation and stewardship. It recognises that donors should feel valued by a charity, and value their relationships with the charity in return. In addition, it highlights how charities should inspire their donors by sharing information on impact. All excellent things.
However, the report fails to adequately address the fundamental principle of fundraising, namely that it is first and foremost a mechanism to enable activity in support of service users and beneficiaries. In sharing a clear message, the report lacks nuance, and risks advocating a donor-led approach which places the voice and needs of the end user in danger of being neglected.
Charities that end up being donor-led, either through necessity or lack of direction, experience problems on a number of fronts. These charities may:
- Be more likely to end up pursuing programmes outside their core remit, and potentially beyond their field of expertise.
- Expend a disproportionate amount of effort on managing the donor relationship.
- Ultimately end up cross-subsidising tangential activities with valuable unrestricted funds which could be better deployed elsewhere—creating reputational risk along the way.
We know from our recent report Charities taking charge that charities increasingly recognise the power of ‘user voice’ and that many are making efforts to involve the voices and views beneficiaries in strategy, governance and operations. However, this can be easier said than done in fundraising, especially for charities on the brink of survival. The fear of losing a donation can inhibit fundraisers and create an unbalanced power dynamic in the donor relationship; fundraisers may find it difficult to push back on donors who have their own opinions of need, or whose motivations seem to be more weighted to personal interests than those of the charity.
This is where establishing an honest and open dialogue, backed up by clear and demonstrable impact data, is vital. We know from our work with funders, and our research, that donors really care about impact. Charities should therefore actively seek to communicate the impact of their work in a compelling way to donors—something which the Commission rightly highlights.
What the Commission fails to draw out, is that charities should also be gently robust with their donors. They should have a clear strategy and defined programmatic, campaigning and organisational goals that are set in consultation with their beneficiaries. With these things in place, it should be easier for fundraisers (with senior support) to help donors understand how their money helps the charity to meet its strategic objectives.
In turn, funders should have the benefit of full buy-in from the charity, the knowledge that their contributions are supporting the charity to work in its area of greatest expertise, and the security of knowing that their funds are helping to address the most pressing problems. It is this kind of sincere, transparent and mutually rewarding relationship that will ultimately result in committed and increased support for the sector—not something built on donor interests alone.