Interview: Richard Spencer, Director of the Commission on the Donor Experience

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Interview: Richard Spencer, Director of the Commission on the Donor Experience


The Commission on the Donor Experience was formed in response to criticism by the public, media and politicians of fundraising techniques and practices. How will the Commission drive changes in fundraising practice, and help change public perceptions of charity fundraising? Our editor spoke to the Commission's director, Richard Spencer, to find out


The commission aims to put donors back at the heart of fundraising. Where do you think the sector lost its way?


As demand for charities’ services has grown, so too has the pressure on trustees and fundraisers to deliver more resources and capacity, which means more income and more donors. To meet targets and objectives, charities put in place models and measures. It’s easy to measure volumes, response rates and average value and so these have become important, powerful benchmarks used by most charities. This has in turn driven practices that do not prioritise the ‘experience’ of giving. Rarely in the measures is there anything that asks, how do our donors feel about this? Is it good for them? It’s actually very difficult to measure this, and so has largely been ignored in favour of simpler measures that deliver short-term cash and that can sometimes leave supporters feeling more pressured than inspired.


How big a task does the sector face in changing the public perception of charities after the recent media maelstrom?


I think it will be a massive task to change the perception some people have that fundraisers are always after your money, that they’re pushy and persistent and that you would cross the road to avoid them. It isn’t something that’s going to change overnight. The response so far from charities to the recent media criticism has been good but piecemeal, and one of the Commission’s aims is to act as a centre of gravity, a hub to draw together people who are committed to changing the way things work now, people who have great ideas and insights and examples of best practice, to get enough people on board so that we can change things for the better.


Does the Commission represent donors, or fundraisers?


The Commission represents donors but will benefit donors and fundraisers. It is working closely with donors, fundraisers, agencies, suppliers to the sector, the regulator, industry bodies and others to deliver the right donor experience. First and foremost it represents donors. Fundraisers have been on the end of a huge amount of criticism of late. Through its work, the Commission will improve the experience for donors and at the same time help rebuild the reputation of fundraising as a profession.


The Commission’s first special project is going to be focused around the language of the donor experience. Do you have any predictions for its findings?


I will leave the predictions to the experts carrying out the study, but I’d personally hope and expect that language will move from focusing on the money and the drivers of money, and towards the donor experience. I think a lot of the words that are currently used acquisition, upgrade, segment, lapsed are associated with the wrong measures. As those measures are phased out, so too the language around them should be phased out. 


What do you think of the proposed changes to fundraising regulation?


The principles behind the recommendations are good, but the devil will be in the detail. The Fundraising Preference Service will be difficult to implement, and getting it fit for purpose will test us all. The recommendations around the role of trustees are also good in principle. I do have a fear that if the regulator asks for changes in fundraising – then all we might get are changes in fundraising. Charities will then be free to continue focusing on the wrong outcomes and measuring the wrong things, rather than focus on improving the donor experience. If the principles and recommendations start with the donor and put the donor experience at the heart, that could be something really powerful. 


Is it ever OK for a donor to feel pressurised into giving money?


No. Supporting a charity isn’t about money and it’s not about being pressurised. Supporting a charity is about being inspired, caring and taking action. A financial gift is simply a tool. It’s still right to talk about money of course, but anyone pressurised into giving most likely won’t stay. It’s counter-productive and an ineffective use of increasingly scarce charitable resources.


Does the donor-cause relationship need reinventing?


Charities unleash the natural charitable instinct that lies within each of us. The best relationships between supporters and charities deliver a powerful surge of ‘feel-good factor’; the biological driver of giving. Many charities get it right already, and it feels amazing when done well – we have probably all experienced this. So it’s not about reinventing, it’s about remembering and reminding, and then asking how fundraising can change so that it always creates those feelings of “wow, look what I’ve managed to achieve”. The trouble is that at the moment we don’t have a consistent and agreed description of what makes a good donor experience. We need to unpick that, understand it and then build it into how we work, putting new measures in place that focus on making the donor experience amazing. 


What do you think the future holds for the outsourcing of fundraising functions?


Outsourcing some functions is prudent and even inevitable for many organisations, but how charities manage outsourced services must change in many ways. If you get the right framework, the right measures, the right incentives, the right philosophy and the right contracts in place, then outsourcing of fundraising will also be a celebrated part of delivering amazing donor experiences. 


Do you have a message for our readers?


I have one question, and one request: Do you believe that fundraising must change? If you do, come and join us at

Richard Spencer is director of the Commission on the Donor Experience.

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