The charity sector’s response to the annus horribilis that was 2015 has in many ways reflected the seven stages of grief.
At first there was shock and denial, then pain, quickly followed by anger, blame and in many cases, depression and reflection. While there are some fundraisers who are still nursing their wounds and feeling quite demoralised by the whole state of affairs, others have been able to move on to the reconstruction phase and are beginning to take some real and practical steps towards improved fundraising practice.
First, some context. For those at the centre of the scandals, it was hugely difficult. Agencies went into administration, hundreds of people lost their jobs and dealing with such public criticism was more than a little difficult. Donor recruitment also suffered – according to the Managing in the new normal report from the IoF, CFG and PwC, acquisition rates were down from 37 per cent to 27 per cent, while organisations such as the RSPCA have reported that finding new donors has been harder than usual. Public trust and confidence has also been found to be in decline.
However, it wasn’t all bad. Attrition rates (the number of donors that charities keep each year) were positive with only a 5 per cent fall being reported compared to 17 per cent the previous year. This finding was reflected in Rapidata’s direct debit tracking report, which found that although there were some marked differences in cancellation trends, overall there was no detrimental long-term impact on regular giving – all of which indicates that those people who already support charities are happy to continue doing so, regardless of what the British tabloid media may say.
That aside, what the coverage did do was highlight some fundamental inadequacies within fundraising practice, which if left unaddressed, did have the potential to have long and lasting damage on income. Among these was the realisation that many charities did not embed their organisational values within their fundraising; that many of the techniques used were in drastic need of modernising; that trustees were woefully uninformed of fundraising practice; and that fundraisers’ relationships with their boards, their agencies, their comms teams and even their supporters had been seriously neglected.
We have heard much about sector-wide changes, such as the enhanced Code of Practice from the Institute of Fundraising (IoF), the launch of the new Fundraising Regulator, and the merger of the IoF and the PFRA. But how have individual charities reacted to the scandals and what changes are they making as a result?
One of the initial responses from those implicated in the coverage, either directly or indirectly, was to contact supporters to explain how and why they fundraise, and to invite feedback about the level of communications they receive.
“Asking supporters how they wanted to be contacted helped make them more loyal.” says Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising. “In a way, making yourself vulnerable by opening yourself up to feedback and the possibility that people may say they don’t want to hear from you, contributes towards making yourself trustworthy”
Other charities quickly launched reassuring statements and initiatives, such as Save the Children and its Supporter Promise, in which it presented new safeguards to ensure its supporters have greater control over how they give and are contacted. Among its list of promises was the commitment to never contact people if they ask the charity not to and a change to the opt-in and opt-out messages on its online form.
The impact of this was swift – leading to a rise in the proportion of supporters opting out of communications from less than 5 per cent to 60 per cent.
Since then, other charities, including RNLI, Barnardos and Cancer Research UK, have gone on to introduce ‘opt-in only’ policies – often at great risk to short-term fundraising income. The RNLI for example predicts that the policy will lose the charity £36m in income over the next five years (equating to around 19 per cent of its 2014 total), while Cancer Research UK (CRUK) also anticipates losing millions as a result of the change.
However, as Ed Aspel, executive director of fundraising and marketing at CRUK, explains, the short-term pain should be off-set by long-term gain.
“There is no doubt that when you move to opt-in there are fewer people to contact so it does have an impact. However, we believe that the greater level of trust and commitment we will receive will serve us well into the future,” he says, before confirming that already the charity is enjoying greater engagement from its face-to-face relationships.
“What this tells us is that if we can start to invest more time and effort into local activities and those personal connections, then there is real value for us,” he says.
It is high time that charities developed some new tools and techniques by which to reach supporters. As Joe Jenkins, director of fundraising and supporter engagement at the Children’s Society, noted in a recent blog for the fundraising think tank, Rogare, “…every time any charity creates a new approach, its concept is immediately imitated, replicated at scale, and oversaturated. Time and again, what initially feels fresh and remarkable quickly become stale, laughable and irritating. Like a rampant virus, every success quickly spreads across our sector – and suffocates its host.”
Grant Leboff, founder at Sticky Marketing and a commissioner on the newly formed Commission on the Donor Experience builds on this theme: “Charities are struggling, as are many commercial brands, to come to terms with a digital world. Customers identify with brands in a very different way to years ago. What this means is that as traditional interruption marketing has become less effective, charities’ response has been to do more, rather than change what they do.”
In his view, charities have got to stop interrupting people and start being more interesting. “We’re living in an experience economy, where marketing isn’t something that is done to you but with you. Click and share, we want to be part of it. That means you have to be much better at narrative and storytelling. It’s about providing value, not just about shouting at people.”
Since the Olive Cooke tragedy, this message has well and truly been brought home and many charities of all shapes and sizes are looking at how to provide a better experience. World Vision, for example, recently launched a pop-up “Story Shop” in London’s Westfield shopping malls, which offers shoppers the opportunity to interact with around 100 individual stories about World Vision’s work around the world.
Cancer Research UK too is looking at how to improve the supporter experience, having recruited new team members to focus on precisely this issue. It is also in the midst of developing new, yet-to-be-announced fundraising products and platforms that put the supporter more in control of how and when they want to offer support.
One of the many criticisms levelled at fundraisers was around the way in which they managed supporter data, and again charities have been busy adapting and amending their policies. Take the RSPCA, for example. It no longer shares supporter data with any third party, has improved its statements around its use of data, and has made it much easier for donors to change their preferences at any time.
“There is far more oversight, quality assurance and monitoring of the agencies that work on our behalf,” explains Julian Holmes Taylor, RSPCA’s assistant director of income generation. “We also apply the same enhanced rigor internally around the use of data, consent and managing outbound communications with our supporters.”
For the IoF’s Lewis, these changes are welcome. However, in his view there is something more fundamental that is needed than just altering statements and developing new products, and that is that charities absolutely have to put their core values at the heart of all their fundraising.
“The big lesson for me has been about the need to embed a charity’s values in its fundraising. Some charities had perhaps not focused on delivering their values through their fundraising in the same way they would do through their services and through their campaigns, and at a strategic level this realisation has been a big wake-up call,” he says.
“This means not just looking at fundraising from a legal perspective but from a values perspective as well. To a certain extent this is because trustees and CEOs have been more interested in delivering the charity’s work than they have in fundraising,” he adds.
Indeed, the lack of fundraising oversight afforded by trustees was another area that was singled out for criticism, and just as charities are now looking for ways to enhance the supporter experience, so too are they looking to strengthen the relationships between their boards and their fundraisers. Again, the RSPCA offers a case in point – it has put in place an Income Generation Committee, attended by trustees, to enable the board to have “closer oversight and understanding of our fundraising activity”.
However, there are some in the sector who feel that these relationships will not be as easy to build as one would hope. A review of relationship fundraising by Rogare, for example, found that most participants felt their boards would not back them in delivering long-term fundraising goals but would instead force them to focus on short-term targets. Only time will tell whether trustees have listened to what is needed from them.
Trustees are not the only groups of individuals with whom fundraisers are trying to build better relationships with. Perhaps not surprisingly, PR teams are another, with many fundraisers working more closely with their communications peers to identify both potential risks and storytelling opportunities – activity that is supported both directly and indirectly by the likes of the Understanding Charities Group and the Commission on the Donor Experience.
Quite rightly, relationships with fundraising agencies have not escaped internal scrutiny either. In the wake of the negative coverage, charities have reviewed the way in which they work with commercial suppliers. In addition, the Institute of Fundraising has recently issued new guidance, Successful partnerships for sustainable fundraising: A practical guide for charities, aimed at improving the way in which the two sectors work together.
Outlining the “fundamental building blocks and key considerations that charities and agencies should be thinking about when agreeing and undertaking fundraising with the public”, it covers everything from planning and preparation through to monitoring and evaluation.
Importantly, it acknowledges how both agencies and charities are susceptible to changes in the fundraising and wider political and media environment, and advises that agreements should include provision for unexpected issues, such as needing to suspend or withdraw a campaign.
“Be mindful of the impact for both the charity and the agency (in some cases redundancy, or even closure),” it states.
“It is really, really important for charities to have strong relationships with their agencies,” emphasises Lewis. “The current level of scrutiny is not going to go away. We want a high standard of fundraising delivered at all times. Close relationships should help deliver those high standards,” he says, adding: “Agencies need to be clear that if they can’t deliver the required standards and they don’t like what the charity is offering [in terms of fees and targets] then they shouldn’t take on the contract.”
It could not be said that fundraisers have not worked hard to address the issues raised by the media last year. But their work is far from over. The launch of the Fundraising Preference Service is looming on the horizon, as too are new EU regulations around unambiguous consent. Meanwhile, fundraisers are still waiting to learn more about the new commissioner at the Information Commissioner’s Office and any changes that this individual may be keen to see.
Likewise, there is a general consensus that the pressure and scrutiny placed on fundraisers is unlikely to go away, and that continual learning and improvement will be essential.
“As long as charities continue to improve and keep focus they will do well,” says CRUK’s Aspel, a view that is reiterated by RSPCA’s Holmes-Taylor: “It is so easy to give regularly without having a proper relationship with a charity. I think this may be the next change in the sector whereby charities will focus more on the inspiration of why people give.”
Just as the final stage in the grief process focuses on acceptance and hope, Lewis believes that it is vital the charity sector takes a more positive attitude to its fundraising. “To their credit fundraisers have done an amazing job over the last 18 months continuing to bring vital money to make the world a better place. But many people still feel bruised, so building morale is important.
“My message to fundraisers is simple. Keep caring about the cause you are fundraising for, do it in accordance with your organisation’s values and keep enjoying the changes you are making to the world.”
Becky Slack is a freelance journalist