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A tale of complacency, starving children and the wisdom of twelve year olds…

Over the past couple of months I have been getting more and more enthused about the fundraising potential we are starting to see being unlocked via Twitter, Facebook and numerous other online activities.
This week, the national conference appeared awash with new initiatives and learning and despite the much mentioned ‘age of austerity” there seemed much to be positive about.
And yet just last night I was given a very salutary reminder that, in many respects, we still have a lot of work to do with the basic fundamentals of our fundraising.
I was running a Focus Group and amongst the participants was a very intelligent man (well he had been an aeronautic engineer, so cleverer than me certainly) who had been supporting overseas development work via a number of charities for more than twenty years.
In many ways he was an ideal donor. Loyal, committed, Internet savvy (he now runs a successful software company), direct mail friendly (he has Direct Debits and gives to cash appeals), and with a social conscience (all unwanted/disliked Christmas presents given to charity shops rather than exchanged or refunded).
However, despite all this, in the course of the evening he made a comment that stopped me dead in my tracks. While discussing motivations to give, he baldly stated “charities always rely on making you feel guilty to give”, and followed it up with “why else do we get the pictures of starving children with flies on their faces?”
Being frank, this is not the first, and nor will it be the last, time that I’ve heard such a statement. But usually, they come from people who are non-donors, never-will-be donors, or extremely set in their ways (aka stubborn fools).
Equally surprising was the amount of concurring nods from other participants (all active charity donors too) the statement got.
I know that none of the international development clients we work with use guilt or shocking images of this kind, and would never even consider doing so. The charities this donor supported certainly do not. I know because ten years ago I worked at one of them and the guilt-inducing ‘starving child’ approach had long been consigned to the waste bin.
So why did an engaged, committed and intelligent donor in his early fifties make such an ill-informed pronouncement?
The blatantly obvious, and obviously disappointing, answer is that he believed it to be true. The other (perhaps even less palatable) answer is that this was the most memorable message that had stayed with him over the past 20 – 25 years.
Despite our best efforts; the vast range of media now being used to get across our message, the positive language and the positive images, the PR and awareness raising, the tweets and Youtube videos, the events and editorials etc. etc. etc. we still may not be getting our basic messages and values across quite as well as we might like to imagine.
It certainly jolted me out of a perhaps overly complacent attitude. It also has challenged some of my long-held assumptions, and as we all know (and my twelve year old is so tediously fond of saying), “that just makes an ass out of u and me”.