Fundraising is part of the solution, but there’s more to boosting giving

Never tell a journalist what makes a good story; they usually know better than you. I learned that lesson over a number of years, not least through marriage to a journalist.

I nearly forgot the lesson earlier this week when I was surprised to see something I said in evidence to a parliamentary committee written up on Civil Society’s website. A call and article followed from Third Sector. My comments seem to have provoked quite a reaction, adding to my surprise. In my evidence I said that there was a dearth of good fundraisers in the UK when it comes to major donations and this contributed to our giving problems. This was not much more than an aside in my comments to the committee.

I thought my comments were uncontroversial and not especially interesting. I didn’t seek publicity for them, and nor did NPC. (For the record, I believe the more interesting stuff is about giving by wealthy people, including bankers, which I have written about before, and which was the angle chosen by the guardian).

The comments seem uncontroversial to me partly because I hear them echoed so widely within the sector. And I have made the same broad point on a number of occasions in various places.

The fact that Britain has stagnant levels of giving, a long-term decline in the number of donors and low levels of giving by rich people, all suggest there are problems with  fundraising. That does not imply fundraisers shoulder all the blame for these problems; it does mean we should aspire to make fundraising better.

Improving fundraising was a focus of NCVO’s Funding Commission, about which I wrote a blog last year. Implicit within the recommendations of their report was the notion that fundraising is not as good as it might be. In my blog I applauded the report’s focus on “increasing fundraising capacity and quality.”

The Times wrote an editorial some months ago on the need to cultivate charitable giving among the wealthy. The then head of the Institute of Fundraising wrote a letter to the Times, together with the head of acevo, saying that the government should do more. I would argue that responsibility is more widely shared, including within the sector, but I agree there is a problem which needs to be tackled.

The former head of the Institute of Fundraising created a furore in 2009 when complaining about the lack of academic research of practical use to his members. He took steps towards creating a ‘think tank’ for fundraising to help share and develop best practice. The corollary of this is, I would argue, that he believed fundraising could be improved.

Conversations in the sector invariably highlight problems of recruiting good fundraisers, the need to develop major gift fundraisers, frustration at donors not being thanked appropriately, few large gifts, and falling numbers of donors. They provide wide anecdotal evidence to support my contention.

One should be wary of making data the plural of anecdote. But the wealth of anecdote, opinions and actions of others indicates a problem with fundraising. Taken together with the aggregate statistics highlighting the ‘unholy trinity’ of problems, it is easy to conclude that fundraising could be better.

Although I don’t have the capacity to be a major donor myself, I find my own experiences of giving to charity support my ideas about fundraising. I recently gave a talk to an audience of senior management within a large charity. I told them that I donated to them and could comfortably give more but had not been asked to do so. The chief executive said this would change. No-one has been in touch. That charity is facing cuts and reducing services.

I also described in a blog in December how my favourite charity could get more out of me as a donor. They know me relatively well—I had lunch with the chief executive and chair last year. No-one has been in touch following that blog (or the lunch, for that matter). I love the work of this charity but it seems periodically to face funding problems. Maybe these could be lessened.

To say that we could be better at fundraising seems uncontroversial to me. And not newsworthy. I am clearly wrong in the latter. Fundraising happens not to be the focus of NPC’s work, nor my own writing on charities. The former focus on helping charities, either directly or by advising funders and donors. The latter has recently focused on lamenting low levels of giving, with a deeply held conviction that we could and should do better. That conviction won’t change. The most interesting question to me is what we do about fundraising, particularly at the high end. Accepting that there is an issue is a necessary first step.