What an exciting time it is if you're a charity supporter

fundraising innovation fundraising training Jul 06, 2021

When a charity or CIC first starts up, its founders are fired up with a vision. The strategy is often clear, direction decisive, determination at its height. Those early investors – the first supporters – are often close enough to this vision to have whole parts of their lives touched by its glow. It’s a position fundraisers strive for, ever after.

The whole charity transaction is an interesting one, unlike any other product or service.

The buyer is not the beneficiary. It’s like buying a Coke and never getting to taste it. Again, simulating this vicarious sensation is bread and butter for fundraisers and we’ve traveled a journey on that mission: from the ’80s of the direct marketing explosion, where donors were often, sadly, treated as Cash Cows, to the point where these supporters have spoken out.

Aided and sometimes exploited by the media, they’ve set their boundaries. For any other product such low customer satisfaction would have caused them to vote with their feet. Charity audiences are different though. They want to support charity work. They didn’t want to be driven away. They’ve clung on, making excuses for their sometimes misguided partners, grumbling but still there. Even despite Covid-19, in the first half of 2020 public giving was still £800m up on the previous year (CAF, 2020). But we shouldn’t forget, they still said ‘enough’.

Over the past 30 years fundraisers have got ever better at trying to understand who they’re talking to. We’ve profiled. We’ve researched. We’ve tried to guess which of our projects and programs would be most appealing to our supporters. We’ve understood for example that a 45 or 50 year old woman may fit the typical donor profile. We assume, and perhaps confirm by research that, as she’s female and of a certain age, she may for instance be interested in children. So, we propose our children based projects.

That’s actually all great.

But perhaps we could do more.

The kickback from a dissatisfied audience is perhaps one of the greatest gifts to fundraisers and to the supporters themselves.

Although we’re trying to go deeper, our approach is still, in relational terms, shallow generalist and assumptive.

We spend months, years perhaps, tinkering with prompts, values and headlines in supporter appeals and digital communications. Yet, perhaps we could radically alter the foundations of our approach.

As well as asking, who are you? And what might interest you? We can ask, what do you really want to achieve?

And how can we work with you in partnership to help you achieve it?

The best fundraisers already do this to a degree for corporates, trying to anticipate corporate aims and desires . Community and events fundraisers who offer fun, community connection and fitness also, to some degree, do this too. We can take it further though. Imagine that 50 year old woman. Let’s call her Lucy.

What if we found out where she is on her understanding of these issues

What if we found out that what she really worries about is the safety of the youngsters in her own neighboring towns and cities – that things like county lines, gangs and knife crime play on her mind. What if we also found out where she is on her understanding of these issues and how they can be tackled? Maybe we discovered that her expectations for change are pessimistic in the extreme, that her own perceptions on life, her expectations, myths and misconceptions are standing in the way of her belief in change.

Then rather than simply talking about the project, the need for funding and the beneficiaries needs – all of which are important of course, we would see her as a beneficiary, too – and focus on her needs as well.

This would radically alter the way we engage with her initially and as the charity programmes progress. It would be a paradigm shift.

We’d find new and different ways to help her to understand the problems faced by youngsters in her area and what goes on in their heads: their hopes and aims; their common ground with her.

We’d share some of the challenges not for profit staff face in helping them.

As she became fascinated by these challenges and how we overcome them maybe she’d see the need for resources and specialist skills and instead of seeing charity waste would see phenomenal value for money. Another paradigm shift.

Likewise, we can find out about the worlds and experiences of Lucy and women like her – her life beyond the charity cause. We can think about how we can offer her real value in her life, in other ways – either directly through the charity’s own assets or through its unique power to leverage the assets of other organizations and companies that can also offer value to Lucy.

Research and data is good but what it boils down to is asking the right research questions, using the right data, interpreting it and having the creative talents to design a product or service that the supporter would truly value – to motivate not manipulate.

To that end, it’s also not helpful to silo off fundraising from product development or trading. There’s actually no reason to do so and for today’s supporter, a blend is often more appropriate.

So perhaps the boundary Stop sign which supporters held up to fundraisers is a good thing. Potentially, as several have already argued, the most committed remain, but in an environment where demand for services is rising we can’t rely on the few. We have to find ways to engage those on the edges of giving too. Critically, this is an opportunity to understand potential audiences and to design services and products which engage, thrill and therefore retain support, ultimately lifting income for charities and supporting not just their need to deliver but also their need to innovate. So yes, this is potentially an extraordinary exciting time for supporters.

This is potentially the time when those who are the interface between the twin beneficiaries of charities – the users of services and the buyers of services – help the latter to live their aims, to solve the problems they care about and to purchase value for other areas of their personal life.

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