Fundraisers in British charities have done an amazing job. Although there is evidence the amount given to charities has declined, especially in real terms, it was still £9.3 billion in 2011/12 (UK Giving). But, and it is a big but, they now appear to be on the horns of a dilemma.

At NPC we have been spending a lot of time talking to fundraisers at leading charities, as we work together to put the findings of our Money for Good UK research on donor motivations and attitudes into practice. These fundraisers are seasoned professionals who know their business—many of them command multi-million pound budgets, and they have consistently impressed us with their insight, ability to reflect, and broad perspective on their task. But here’s the problem: the fundraising techniques that still work well also undermine the brand of British charities. This is the dilemma.

At the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering last week, Lord Hodgson made the point that aggressive fundraising techniques are causing ‘public disquiet’, receiving quite a bit of attention in the sector press. He could be accused of generalising, and possibly exaggeration, but I think most people in the charity world accept his basic point. The public do not like many of the direct marketing techniques that large charities are routinely employing. In the long run it’s going to be bad for all charities, because it will undermine trust. Of course fundraisers know this, but it is not clear what choice they have, because, for all the bad publicity, these techniques continue to generate a decent response, and provide fundraisers with a return on investment. And the alternatives are not immediately obvious.

We know from the Money for Good UK work that donors care about the impact of charities’ work (more than 90% pay attention to evidence a charity is having an impact); and at the same time they don’t think charities do a great job of communicating it. This feels like an opportunity to me. At NPC our hope is that it is possible to develop successful fundraising strategies based on  the impact a charity has. If this can be achieved—and there are charities already making it work—then that gives me some optimism that there may be a way out of the dilemma. At least for charities who can demonstrate that they are making a difference.

The catch is that although donors say they care about impact, we also know that only a minority actually make giving decisions based on information about impact. This gap between rhetoric and behaviour is familiar to fundraisers, but I think it would be premature to abandon the attempt, because the stakes are so high. That is why we are continuing to work with major fundraising charities to conduct real experiments and tests using the Money for Good data, to see if we can’t find some clues as to how to get the sector off those horns. If you are a fundraiser and you’re interested in being involved, then please talk to us.

Rob will be discussing the impact of philanthropy at the CASS Centre for Giving and Philanthropy conference on Friday 10th May.

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