Charity Support, Advice, Impact Measurement, Philanthropy Impact – NPC

Fundraising risks: the long and the short of it

By Peter Harrison-Evans 28 May 2015

The tragic death earlier this month of Olive Cooke, the 92-year old poppy-seller from Bristol, has shone the media spotlight on charity fundraising. Many reports in the days following her death focused on the volume of letters and calls she was receiving from fundraisers asking for cash; more recently, Olive’s family have reiterated her love of charity.

This has provoked, among many things, some soul-searching in the voluntary sector. And quite right too: what charities want to do, and how they want to raise money to do it, should be scrutinised. Subsequent news stories leave little doubt that some people, including the most vulnerable, do end up feeling hassled and harangued by charities.

Particularly intrusive forms of fundraising such as cold-calling and ‘chugging’—the portmanteau word formed of ‘charity’ and ‘mugging’ which tells us everything we need to know about how the public view it—have long been criticised. But alongside moral arguments, is there any evidence that invasive approaches are actually more effective?

One can assume that direct marketing accounts for a substantial chunk of the £10 billion raised for good causes each year in the UK. If it didn’t work, fundraising departments would be unlikely to persist with it. But this ignores another question. Given the unpopularity of the technique, what are the effective fundraising alternatives which might replace it?

Fundraising is often governed by targets and cold numbers, but there is room for a more nuanced understanding of what motivates donors to give. While a cold call may elicit a donation, for example, it may be at the expense of the trust needed to establish a lasting commitment, and one which funds a charity long beyond the single phone call.

And trust matters a lot. NPC’s Money for Good research into donor attitudes found people were nearly three times as likely to donate where they had an existing relationship with a charity, compared to where they had had no previous contact. Building a relationship clearly pays dividends.

Meanwhile, we also found that personal ties were important, with recommendations from loved ones among the chief motivators for people to give (especially for the very wealthiest donors). A few bad experiences with cold-calling and those recommendations are going to dry up.

Like all healthy relationships, trust is also something to develop over time. Securing one donation should not lead to a ratcheting-up of demands (something singled out for criticism in this week’s press). Buried away in the most recent edition of UK Giving (which surveys people who gave money to charity in the previous four weeks), we find that a majority of donors agreed with the statement ‘I am worried that if I give I will just be asked for more’.

Fundraising models which emphasise lasting, mutually-beneficial relationships are clearly preferable to anything which leaves people feeling ‘guilt-tripped’ into giving. The moral territory is clearer, and there’s reason to believe that it can raise substantial money over a longer term.

There’s another way to cultivate these sorts of relationships: charities should provide evidence about the effect that donors’ money is making. As NPC has argued elsewhere, the public are pretty sophisticated about where their money is going and what impact it is having, maybe more so than charities give them credit for. Concise and clear evidence may be the missing ingredient in developing a virtuous cycle of trust, personal fulfilment and ever-widening networks of giving.

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.