Charities have to be successful at fundraising if they are to survive. Read the articles below to help achieve fundraising success.
Click on the headlines of your choice.
“Scandal hit charities need a strong regulator.” – The Guardian, September 2015.
“Charity fundraising techniques ‘a scandal’” – BBC, Sept 2015.
“A sweeping crackdown on charity sharks who prey on elderly and vulnerable” – Daily Mail, Sept 2015.
This piece is not about charities’ moral obligations. Nor is it an assessment of the degree to which the above headlines represented a "just desserts" following charities’ actions, or an indefensible criticism of them. But there can be no denying that, reputationally, charities have had a bruising year. Irrespective of the justification for that battering, the charity sector needs to look again at the way it drives donations if it is to rebuild its reputation, and protect its income.
That change does not have to be painful. New research suggests that a less antagonistic, less guilt-laden approach is likely to generate sustained and improved results.
So this article poses a very simple question: if you change the nature of charitable engagement, can you change the nature of charitable giving?
Alternatively, to put it another way, if charities stop hunting their donors and start farming them, can they achieve better results and fewer adverse headlines?
What is engagement?
Steven Dodds of research group Harvest describes engagement like this: “Supporter engagement is any activity that causes a supporter to invest in a charity – cognitively, emotionally, behaviourally – so that their lifetime value increases.”
In August 2015, researchers Harvest and Boy on a Beach launched a survey, via CreateConvo and ResearchNow, of 1,000 UK charity donors. Each donor supported at least one of the UK’s top 50 charities (as ranked by CBI) and had given to charity in the last 12 months via at least two methods.
Donors were asked about their levels of engagement, their attitudes and behaviours.
What and how we give
In the survey, 9% of donors made 66% of all donations to charity. 91% contributed the other 34%. By far the most typical annual donation was between £10 and £50 (48% of respondents), while the second most prevalent annual donation (at 21%) was below £10.
Only 4% of donors gave more than £250 annually.
By far the most common way of giving was through a one off donation (71%), followed by buying raffle tickets (65%) and mail order catalogues (45%).
Less than half of the sample – and bear in mind that the sample consisted of annually active charity donors – donated by direct debit.
32% of supporters said that they had been supporting their chosen charity for more than 10 years.
If this doesn’t exactly sound like a bubbling cauldron of charitable excitement, that’s because, overwhelmingly, it isn’t. When supporters were asked how close they felt to their chosen charities, neutrality was by far the most dominant emotion (79%).
The neutral stance was one that appeared largely unaffected by charity type. Children’s charity supporters were 81% neutral. Supporters of health and medical charities were 77% neutral. Armed Forces charities fared better only in a relative sense, with 67% neutrality.
The cost of neutrality
The research shows that supporters’ closeness to their charities makes a dramatic difference to the amount they give. Annual mean donation amongst neutral supporters is £60.57. Among engaged supporters the annual mean donation rises to £91.53, almost 50% greater.
What’s more, engaged supporters are 10% more likely to give a greater amount next year, compared with just 3% of neutral supporters. When they do, it will be an increase on an amount that is already 50% better than their neutral counterparts.
Creatures of habit
The contrast is stark. On the one hand, we see a picture of donation almost by habit – a frustrating charitable Groundhog Day of giving with little change. Those who have always given continue to give, and next year they will give much the same again.
The survey did not explore the effect of recent headlines and their impact on donor intentions, but it is difficult to see how donations from neutrals could do any more than stagnate, at best, in the current climate.
In contrast, those donors who are engaged are already giving more, and are more likely to give more still.
Can we convert more neutral supporters to engaged? Doing so requires the fulfilment of two key elements:
- There must be a desire among supporters to become more engaged.
- Charities need to find better ways to engage.
Some encouragement for the first of these issues comes from the survey, where 37% of all supporters said they like to have a close relationship with the charities they support, and 59% like to feel involved in the charity's work.
Yet only 13% of survey respondents make a point of reading everything their charity sends them. And 46% say they hardly ever read it or didn’t want it. If the majority of supporters really do want to get involved, you might think they have a funny way of showing it.
Redefining the relationship
Charitable engagement, the research suggests, is built on two central pillars: reach and attention. A single point of contact, a newsletter, for example, is not enough to drive engagement in more than the narrowest band of donors. Widen the touchpoints and the ways supporters can interact with you, and you create an environment better built to engage.
In the survey, and compared to their neutral counterparts, engaged supporters were 94% more likely to have had an interpersonal relationship with the charity (ie have been to an event organised by the charity, or spoken to a team member on the phone). Engaged supporters were 78% more likely to have connected digitally, by visiting the website or following the charity on social media.
Redefining the language
The language of charities that engage is different too. Traditional campaigns have focused on problems, on motivating by guilt and cultivating a culture of dependence.
Yet the research discovered that campaigns which truly engage work differently, keeping the attention by shifting control from charity to supporter and bringing the beneficiaries closer, rather than preserving the traditional "us and them" of campaign language.
What succeeds, in terms of keeping supporters’ attention, is developing an affinity with the charity’s work. Donors are engaged by progress, a sense that their donation and the work of the charity in general are making a difference. Instead of motivating by guilt, engagement means a shift to personal reward and a notion of empowering the relationship.
So the way forward has to be a fundraising formula which uses ongoing engagement – the cultivation of long lasting relationships – as its driver for increasing donations. The following is suggested:
The effect of engagement
How do you spot progress in making neutrals feel engaged? The language they use is telling. The research discovered that, compared to neutrals, engaged supporters were 135% more likely to feel driven and 117% more likely to feel passionate about the charity. They were 60% more likely to feel involved with their charity, and 40% prouder of it.
Are you engaging?
Is your charity a hunter or a farmer? And if you’re the former, how do you start the shift to becoming the latter? The research identified the following traits as typical of "farming" charities. These are, in effect, the identifiers of the building blocks of engagement:
- Donors are real stakeholders in my charity.
- Supporter relationships are built on openness, involvement and control.
- Donors feel proud to support us.
- We understand the emotional value we give supporters.
- We know how and when to leverage it.
- Our digital/social touchpoints are fully integrated into the supporter experience.
- Engagement KPIs are embedded across the organisation.
- Our database and IT systems fully support the increased level of integration and personalisation support which engagement requires.
Most supporters want to be involved. When they are, their own passion, drive and pride create the virtuous circle that drives increased donations.
Even without the adverse headlines of the past year, this research into the value of engagement – of farming not hunting – would seem to offer a compelling reason to change fundraising approaches. In the current climate, a strategy that places relationship-building at its heart seems all but irresistible.
"Charitable engagement, the research suggests, is built on two central pillars: reach and attention."
"What succeeds, in terms of keeping supporters' attention, is developing an affinity with the charity's work."
I joined Kidscan, a children’s cancer research charity based in the North West of England, in January 2014. It was a crucial time for the charity. Kidscan had recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, the chairman of the board of trustees was preparing to step down, and the founder and scientific director, Prof. Alan McGown, had very recently retired.
Kidscan’s purpose is to fund research into new and improved treatments for children with cancer. Due to the nature of the charity’s work, Kidscan doesn’t benefit from statutory funding, but had managed to build up a healthy supporter base at a grass roots level, funding some excellent research projects in its first ten years.
When my time at the charity began, my vision, along with the board's, was to set even more ambitious goals for the next ten years. Now we are achieving this by building up a new donor base amongst corporates and major donors whilst still taking care of the loyal supporters who have been at the charity’s side since its beginnings.
Engaging the supporters
Keeping such a varied group of supporters in the loop is not a straightforward task, and our methods of contact have to be as varied as they are. We have a database of people who receive monthly emails from us with information about our research and fundraising initiatives, and we use social media to keep individuals updated on lots of the smaller things we are up to.
What I enjoy most, however, is meeting with people face to face and thanking them personally for what they do. It’s really important for us to have a presence at the events our supporters participate in. I also meet regularly with our corporate supporters. A key shift in relating to them has been to talk about the research we carry out, letting them know what their money is doing, rather than focusing on the fundraising work we are doing.
Fulfilling the role
Before I joined Kidscan, I had previously worked for a smaller charity in Wales. When I moved to the North West, I brought that knowledge and experience to Kidscan. Small charities face a lot of unique challenges, including having to be quite careful with resources, haggling for the best deals, and having to use a small team to carry out lots of different kinds of fundraising.
As a result of my previous experience, I am very hard-nosed when it comes to bargaining and have no qualms about negotiating – whether for Kidscan or a well earned holiday! – and I’ve got a good understanding of all sorts of income streams. Something that’s worked really well for us is making everyone’s roles much clearer.
Working with a small team can feel like being part of a family where everyone chips in to help with what needs doing. This can be great, but within a charity it often means staff cannot develop any kind of specialism in any one area of fundraising, and that can hinder professional development. Though we still work really well as a team, we have our own areas of fundraising responsibility which are tailored to individual talents and abilities.
All too often, fundraisers leave the sector due to burnout. Charity work at any level can be an emotionally taxing job, and part of the job is to know more than most people about our cause. This often means being aware of extreme suffering, and knowing a solution is not currently available. If we make our charity’s cause our mission in life, it can be very hard to manage that burden.
To be effective fundraisers we have to be passionate about our cause, but in order to do the job it is essential that a coping mechanism is put in place to allow you to remain in a professional mind-set and stay focused on achievable goals.
Personally, it is important to remember that Kidscan is not my charity. It doesn’t belong to me. This is why the board of trustees is such a vital part of what we do. It is easy for staff to get carried away with new and exciting projects, or for a charity to lose its focus, diversify into other areas, and become less effective as a result.
It is the board of trustees’ role to set out a vision for the charity, and to set parameters for how we work. I work very closely with the Board, and I then go away and plan based upon the work we do. Our board is closely involved with the running of the charity, so the trustees keep me in check and make sure we are meeting our overall aims.
We’re in the process of writing Kidscan’s first business plan at the moment. The final document will form the basis of all our decision making in the years ahead.
Working with the trustees
Whilst I have my own ideas, I have to remember that Kidscan’s trustees are the ones whose necks are on the line. Ultimately, they will answer for my actions, so it’s important I follow their guidance. Our board members come from all walks of life, and have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to share. I have always found it is extremely worthwhile listening to them.
One of the parameters I work to is ensuring all our fundraising activities are cost effective. When I first joined Kidscan, one of the main annual events was a bespoke cycle event. Despite the huge amount of work involved in the organisation of the day, and the large number of participants, the event barely broke even because it was so expensive to put on in the first place. It was a challenging decision to make, but we shelved the event in favour of other, more cost effective options which would better benefit the charity.
With things like this to deal with, it’s impossible not to remain challenged in my job. I am faced with a new challenge almost every day. In order for Kidscan to be more effective, I have to push myself to try new things, face daunting tasks, and always strive for innovation. If I don’t do these things, we will ultimately have to wait longer for the day when no child dies of cancer. That’s a pretty strong motivator for getting out of my comfort zone.
Aims and hopes
My hope for the long term is that Kidscan will be instrumental in making a childhood cancer diagnosis no scarier that getting the flu is today. One day, no parent will lose their child to this awful disease, and it’s organisations like ours which can make that a reality. The more money we raise to put into truly ground breaking research, the sooner that day will arrive.
Looking after the team
In the short term, I’m not only looking after the charity’s interests. Working with a small team means I get to know my staff really well, which helps me to look after them too. Through working closely with them every day I can find their strengths and offer opportunities to use them. I recently helped one staff member who was responsible for admin and finance to get involved with community fundraising - an area she loves and is naturally brilliant at.
The charity sector can struggle to retain good staff because the roles are so demanding, and small charities in particular can’t pay very much. It’s important for fundraisers to know the work they’re doing makes a difference, and to be given opportunities to improve themselves wherever possible. Being a charity, we can’t spend too much money on ourselves so we take advantage of any free training and conferences we can find.
A lesson I have learnt
Everything I have done at Kidscan has been part of a steep learning curve for me as a manager. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt might be obvious, but it’s been extremely important: communication. Most people in charity management roles will have a plethora of responsibilities, and it can be easy to get engrossed in your workload and forget to spend time nurturing and supporting staff.
I had to learn to talk to my team about what I’m working on and to share our progress as a charity with them as well as stakeholders on the outside. It’s a personal development I’m really proud of, and which has undoubtedly helped the charity move forward too.
My proudest achievement
One of the greatest achievements I have managed for Kidscan is enabling the charity to fund a new research project in 2016. We achieved this because my team met and exceeded fundraising targets in a year of really big changes for the charity. It’s wonderful to see how our hard work pays off in real terms, and to know that childhood cancer research is moving forward as a direct result of our efforts.