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Note to trustees from fundraisers: we told you so

Note to trustees from fundraisers: we told you so

Last year, practitioners were asked what they thought were the biggest challenges facing relationship fundraising. Ian MacQuillin describes how one of their biggest concerns was the lack of support from their boards.

As we know all too well, the summer of 2015 saw what appeared to be the breakdown of relationships between the public and charities. Sir Stuart Etherington’s review of self-regulation blamed fundraisers for this breakdown, even though his review concedes there had been a failure of governance by trustees to oversee fundraising.

The tone of Sir Stuart’s review does rather suggest that it’s trustees who will now be the knights in shining armour, riding in to rescue fundraising from the sorry mess that professional fundraisers have led it into (the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report, published today, is rather more critical of the role trustees – claiming that it is their failure that “lies behind the causes of last summer’s fundraising scandals”).

But back to the NCVO report. Sir Stuart called upon charities to focus on building relationships rather than treating donors simply as sources of income. And for trustees to take the lead on this (even to the point of directly overseeing – and even co-writing – agency-produced fundraising materials).

So the focus is now firmly on rebuilding relationships with donors, as exemplified by activities of the Commission on the Donor Experience (although research we did at Plymouth University suggests that donors are very satisfied with their level of customer service.)

Yet fundraisers have long been aware of issues with their donor relationships.

At Plymouth University’s fundraising think tank Rogare we have just completed our review of the theory underpinning relationship fundraising. It’s a massive piece of work – co-funded by American organisations Bloomerang and Pursuant – with several focal points and many recommendations drawn from academic ideas in marketing, social psychology and a bit of public relations.

We also surveyed 31 leading relationship fundraising practitioners about what they thought were the discipline’s strengths, weaknesses and challenges. This was completed in April 2015. That is, before Olive Cooke took her own life and therefore before any of the events that directly followed from that tragedy. None of the comments we recorded was therefore a response to or informed by what happened last summer.

Some time before Sir Stuart spoke of the failure of charity boards to oversee fundraising, fundraisers – on both sides of the Atlantic – had identified this as a major barrier to implementing the very approach to building relationships that Sir Stuart has now called for.

Time and again, fundraisers told us they wanted to put relationship fundraising methods in place, but because this would take longer to break even than more ‘transactional’ methods (or worse, fundraisers didn’t have the evidence to show that it would actually raise more money than transactional fundraising), boards and finance departments would often not release the budget for put RF in place. Instead, they demanded short-term (usually annual) financial targets, which led fundraisers to employ mass-market transactional methods to meet those targets – almost universally derided by our survey participants as a ‘short-termist’ attitude among boards and SMTs.

Here are a few examples of what fundraisers told us:

‘One major weakness of relationship fundraising is that the governing board and leadership volunteers are not sufficiently engaged in the process. Most times, the fundraising process is invisible to the board until there is a shortfall of funds. Often relationship fundraising is left mostly for staff to fulfill and failures are aligned with them even though they [trustees] are responsible for the financial health of the organization.’

‘Trustees look at cash received on a monthly basis. They are not being convinced that they should be looking at long-term income, via donor satisfaction. This creates a great tension in the mind of the Appeals Director, who wants to pursue a philosophy of relationship fundraising.’

‘There are still far too many instances of short-term, transactional gain, taking priority over long-term investment in both the supporter and the charity. The high-volume, mass engagement models often place quantity over quality, stressing the need for a relatively rapid return on high acquisition costs…The challenge that fundraising directors must endure on a day-to-day basis is whether they can stick to their principles in the face of the acute pressures to meet monthly and annual targets.

It can’t really come as a surprise to anyone that sometimes, customer care takes a bit of a hit.

The solution proposed by our research participants is to engage with or educate their boards and senior colleagues by developing a ‘culture of philanthropy’ that embraces the entire nonprofit organization. If this can be done, then boards will understand the need to more away from transactional approaches towards more relational approaches (or they will make more informed decisions about when and why to stick with a transactional approach).

And having come to this conclusion, they will support their fundraisers to put relationships fundraising in place. They will provide long-term budget, stop setting short-term targets and understand they’ll probably be a drop in short-term income. They’ll authorise metrics and targets based on how fundraisers make their donor feel and reward them on hitting those targets.

The whole issue was neatly summed up by one respondent to the survey:

1) Fundraisers are briefed from the top with a simple: ‘We need more money, go and get it.’

2) The only way to break through this is education in fundraising for trustees and executive teams, across all departments.

3) Without (2) Relationship Fundraising does not stand a chance of even being tested, never mind rolled out.

Easier said than done!

Without a doubt, it’s the responsibility of fundraisers to try to make this happen, by reaching out to and engaging with trustees about what modern, professional fundraising is all about. In fact, how best to do this is something we hope to explore at Rogare this year. But the best relationships involve two-way communications. Fundraisers can talk and attempt to engage all they like, but if trustees are not listening, then the seeds of these cultures of philanthropy are going to fall on stoney ground.

It is a great step forward that both Sir Stuart’s and PACAC’s reports have recognised trustees’ past failures and future responsibilities to better engage with fundraising. But what should not happen is that trustees exercise this duty by actually excluding fundraisers even further from the process (as Sir Stuart’s recommendation for trustees to take direct responsibility for copywriting suggests they should).

For years, fundraisers have been calling for the budget to build long-lasting, mutually rewarding relationships with donors. If trustees are serious about rebuilding the donor experience, they need to let their expert professionals make that a reality, not try to do it themselves.

Fundraisers are professionals with professional expertise. Yet trustees too often treat them as if they are tradespeople, whose role is simply to do what they are told and hit a target, no questioned asked.

The irony, of course, is that if trustees had listened to the professional advice their fundraisers were giving them, a lot of what happened last year might have been avoided.

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Ian MacQuillin is the founder and director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. He has worked in fundraising since 2001 as editor of Professional Fundraising (2001-2006), account director at TurnerPR (2006-2009) and head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (2009-2013).

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