19 things you only know when you've worked in a fundraising agency for 30 years

19 things you only know when you've worked in a fundraising agency for 30 years

19 things you only know when you've worked in a fundraising agency for 30 years

My, how things have changed...

By Nick Thomas

I’ve spent the majority of my career in three prominent fundraising agencies, catching the ‘good cause bug’ at the pioneering Chapter One in 1986 before co-founding Target Direct with Stephen Pidgeon. Two years ago I set up the planning and creative specialist Campfire Marketing. It’s fair to say I’ve seen some significant changes in my time, and learned some important lessons about fundraising as a profession – here are some of the biggest ones. 

  1. How large charities have become. 
    In 1980, £100m causes were rare, now 25 in the UK have passed that number.

  2. The ‘doing it to change the world’ fundraiser is a dying breed. 
    The sector has been professionalised beyond recognition.

  3. Power has shifted away from the money makers. 
    In 1980 fundraisers had the muscle; now it’s the brand managers.

  4. Everything’s quicker. 
    Technology means we can react faster and take advantage of fast moving events.

  5. Everything’s slower. 
    However, as organisations have introduced more management structures, approval times have stretched. More worrying is the growth in the amount of people without fundraising in their job title who are given a say and the authority to fiddle.

  6. Charities are more afraid to convey raw need. 
    Possibly as a consequence of point 3, we are living through the age of the emotion-free, rational ask – a baffling and counterintuitive trend. More than ever the UK is ready to emote. I gave a talk on ‘finding your emotional sweet spot’ at this year’s IOF Convention. In the course of putting it together I learnt how the brain makes decisions. Emotion and gut feeling makes up a huge part of the process.To extract emotion is to suppress results, simple as that.

  7. We have not created the multi-generational, super-enlightened ‘age of giving’ we had all hoped for. 
    The people who gave in 1980 are still the ones who are giving; this nine per cent of the population are responsible for two thirds of all charitable activity (OMG, this probably means some of these committed altruists would have received hundreds of appeals from yours truly).

  8. Industry metrics have changed beyond recognition. 
    When I was a rookie fundraiser, cold response rates (actual donations, not Facebook likes) of between 3-6% were routine, with positive paybacks from those new recruits of less than a year. Today it seems acceptable to factor in a six-year return on investment for a supporter signed up for a direct debit.

  9. The importance of planning. 
    The non-profit sector has never been more populated or competitive. The need for forward planning, proper market intelligence, research and a distinct offer have never more essential.

  10. Proper donor journeys are still as rare as hens’ teeth. 
    At Campfire, we have made it one of our sector specialisms because they are so essential for effective fundraising. They are hard work and by necessity full of granular detail. We enjoy the challenge of putting them together for clients; looking around the sector it appears we are in the minority.

  11. The incredible is harder to achieve. 
    The 1980s and 1990s were exciting times for truly groundbreaking fundraising ideas. The journey for discovery for fundraisers back then always seemed to involve testing big things. Now, many seem preoccupied with changing just the small things. While charities often talk a big brave game today, sadly tougher times mean too many simply want uncomplicated, risk-averse, ‘me too’ fundraising.

  12. Where have all the fundraising pioneers gone? 
    See curmudgeonly comment above.

  13. We can no longer take the public’s trust for granted. 
    Despite some well-intentioned efforts, the sector (and its agencies) must collectively do more to fight our corner and explain the massive good we do. With the new Data rules and the likes of the rabid Daily Mail on our case, we need to be more robust with our detractors. Yes we’ve made mistakes, but being passive means the public confidence in UK charities we took for granted will be further eroded or even destroyed irrevocably. Incredibly, the general public still seem to have very little idea or appreciation of how charities work, why they need to ask for money in the way they do or even why people even need to be paid for working in them. For a sector with a value of over £19bn, this is an incredible state of affairs.

  14. How little fundraisers seem to see of the work they are fundraising for. 
    They really should (insist they) get out more. Seeing first hand the work they are responsible is often the cradle for effective fundraising.

  15. The rise of the portable career fundraiser. 
    It is unusual to see a fundraising director or manager hang around at a charity for more than two years before moving on. When they go, all their invaluable experience can walk out of the door with them.

  16. Digital and DRTV are brilliant tools for the fundraiser. 
    For conveying powerful, emotional content they have no equal. For a creative like me, they have provided wonderful new canvases to work with.

  17. How effectively digital, DRTV and direct mail get on together. 
    If you only integrate three things, these should be the three things
  18. A great fundraising proposition is still the most important asset for success.
    One of the best fundraising propositions I’ve ever seen was one of the first I was shown – “£10 can make a blind man see” for a Help the Aged (now Age UK) cataract appeal. A good indication of the strength of a proposition idea is the amount of people who say they created it - four people have claimed this one over the years! Creating a proposition should be easy to achieve: it is simply a value statement to prospective supporters, telling them what happens when they give. Despite this, thousands of appeals go out totally without a proposition.

  19. When you get everything right and bring home the bacon for a great cause, it’s still the greatest feeling in the world.
    I took some time out in 2014 thinking I could find a new career writing books and doing some travelling. Three weeks later I was back, looking for causes to get my teeth into. Yes, the business of fundraising is very different from 30 years ago, but it still offers creative souls a wonderful, stimulating and rewarding way to spend a life.

Nick Thomas is creative director at Campfire Marketing @CampfireM.

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