Fundraisers seeking ways to start restoring the public’s trust should ask themselves this one simple question, says Patrick Murray
Something needs to change in charity fundraising, not just in its practices but in its whole culture.
When stories first broke last year about dodgy behaviour from outsourced fundraising companies, charities could be forgiven for hoping the media coverage would be short-lived.
But it wasn’t short-lived – far from it.
Instead, we have had eight months of headlines about aggressive cold calling, selling-on of personal data, misleading marketing, and plenty more. The drip-drip of bad news for the charity sector hasn’t abated, and there may well be more stories still to come.
The fallacy of blaming the press
Olive Cooke, it is rightly stressed, did not take her own life because she was hounded for money by charities. It’s a much more complex story. Yet that photo of Ms Cooke, her kitchen table heaped with unsolicited funding ‘asks’, has come to symbolise a system gone wrong.
Some commentators in the fundraising world have succumbed to blaming bad stories on the press. This is a mistake.
Frustration at pockets of bad behaviour tarnishing a whole profession is understandable; attacking journalists for writing the stories is another thing entirely. Even allowing for a bit of media hyperbole in those headlines, it would be foolish to pretend that real problems haven’t been exposed.
But criticising bad practices, or even despairing of them, is the easy bit. There is a more profound problem here, which goes to the heart of the relationship between charities and donors.
How to solve the fundraising dilemma
My colleague Rob Abercrombie wrote nearly three years ago – rather presciently, as it turned out – about the bind in which fundraisers find themselves, pursuing small, incremental income growth for their charities, while under too much pressure to explore different approaches.
That culture must change.
Charities exist to fulfil their charitable mission, and anything else is only a means to achieving this. The recent controversies around fundraising are so stark because the way some charities have raised money seems so at odds with the values they espouse in everything else they do.
This is why New Philanthropy Capital, where I work, has proposed quite a simple way for fundraisers to bring these values back into alliance again. I believe fundraisers need to apply a ‘Gran Test’.
This would be a rule-of-thumb for fundraisers, rather than something mandatory or overseen by regulators. But it would be a nudge in the right direction. Before a fundraiser picks up the phone or stops someone on the street or presses send on the latest batch of emails, they should ask themselves: Let’s say the recipient was one of my grandparents: would I feel OK about this?
This might mean that the tone of the communication doesn’t feel right. Or that a fundraiser feels unhappy with the quantity of literature already sent to that person. Or that the person on the end of the phone sounds harassed or anxious long before any donation is even discussed.
A simple step in the right direction
Thinking this through should be part of fundraising. There are often demands to change the culture of large industries when something has gone wrong, and raising charity cash is no different. The Gran test would be one way to try and start shifting that culture in a more positive direction.
The idea already exists elsewhere. The Care Quality Commission uses the so-called ‘Mum test’ where inspectors ask themselves “would I be happy if it were my mum receiving this service?” The principle is sound, and could help restore the trust and love that underpins the relationship between charities and donors.
Patrick Murray is head of policy and external affairs at NPC