Why the fundraising model is broken (and why this couldn’t be a better time to fundraise).

The model that fundraising is built on is broken. It has been for years. Some fundraisers don’t like that thought. Some argue against it. Many just seem to block it out. After all, it’s uncomfortable. Fundraising is hard enough as it is.

The irony is, when you accept that it is broken, and take a little bit of time to understand why, then what to do to fix it is obvious. And not only that, you’ll see that the future is exciting. In fact I believe it could not be a better time to fundraise. By understanding why it’s broken you’ll also see what’s worth focusing your limited time and resources on. I think you’ll enjoy your fundraising more too instead of being increasingly stressed about it.

There is a tendency for people to think this doesn’t affect their area of fundraising, or the size of the charity they work for. Again I don’t believe that’s the case. In fact once you understand why the model is broken, you’ll see the opportunity that exists works for ALL areas of fundraising and charities of every size.

This is my first post in many months. I’ve been doing some reflecting, organising my thoughts and unpacking a new model that I believe works. Much of this is based on my five year experiment at SolarAid where I consciously began a different approach to fundraising. It has only been re-enforced and refined by hearing what is working for others. Over the coming months I’ll begin to share the areas I believe we need to focus on, and give examples of best practise from speaking to fundraisers leading the way.

So what’s broken?

It’s really simple.

Marketing is built on the basis of interrupting a target audience. This works if attention is plentiful. Now attention is scarce.

The dominant marketing model is built on the basis that you target the many and get a response from the few. It is often depicted as a funnel. You find an audience you can interrupt and target them with your message, such as a mail shot landing in their hall way, standing on the street, or calling them on the phone. This used to work when information was hard to come by. Marketing used to provide useful information. Now I can find out what I want, when I like via the internet. Stopping someone on the street, adding to their unwanted post, calling them by phone just annoys people, especially if you push for a sale or donation. We now like to do our own research, so by the time we are ready to buy we’ve made up our mind. It’s one way we can filter out the noise.

In short, in the UK people increasingly dislike being interrupted. Marketing used to be the art of interrupting an audience. That needs to change. It no longer works in a market where attention is in short supply. Much of this thinking I’ve borrowed, and translated into our world of fundraising, from thought leaders like Grant Leboff and David Meerman-Scott. Read their books – it will help you adapt your mindset.

Evidence for this is the sliding results in direct marketing – falling response rates and rising costs. Years ago many, including myself, attributed this to the recession, when actually there was something far more fundamental at work that affects our behaviour. Around 2010 is when the use of technology really started to take off. That’s when attention started to become scarce. So what did some do? Dial up the volume, interrupt more to make up for the shortfall! This all led to the start of a stream of adverse media coverage ion 2015 that was a kick back against fundraising by charities in the UK.

The first 3 steps to fix fundraising

So what to do about it?

1. Admit it’s broken

First admit it’s broken, otherwise you’ll just be trying a variation of what you have done before. You can’t apply the same one to many broadcast style approach to digital – digital doesn’t work like that. If you dial up the noise and shout louder it just won’t be tolerated now. Carrying on as before, rolling out mail packs that seek a financial response, or churning out trust applications, or spending vast amount on building your brand is just doing more of what isn’t working.

Ah – but the area of fundraising I deal with is separate to mass marketing‘ you may say as a major donor or corporate fundraiser. That may be the case, but it is clear that the consequence of sticking with an interruption based model is impacting all areas of fundraising. That’s because a bad experience can easily be shared now. Before it didn’t matter, but now everyone has a voice and they can share their bad experience, and that can damage your charity’s reputation. Your reputation is what counts now – your reputation is your brand.  There are also benefits that you are missing out on, unless you apply a different approach.

If you understand the root cause rather than react to the symptoms you can tackle the problem with the fundraising model.

2. Understand the root cause

So the second step is understand the root cause.

Again its really simple. The root cause is the simple fact that we are all now channels. Many to many means of communication is now possible because of the internet combined with convenience of mobile devices. So we are drowning in the noise. More interruption is just more unwanted noise! We cope with this by filtering from trusted sources – think Amazon reviews, Trip Advisor, recommendations from a friend. We no longer trust the marketing directly coming from the suppliers we are seeking to buy from.

The introduction of GDPR is just an extension of this. If you have a mindset of creating content that people want to receive then you’ll easily make the transition. If you are still in the mode of ‘how will we interrupt people to target them?’, then you’ll continue to struggle. You’ll continue to be responding to the symptoms rather than dealing with the root cause (and putting it to your advantage).

3. Figure it out yourself

The third step is to fix it.  The good news is you can start to figure it out for yourself once you’ve taken the first two steps – you accept change is needed and you understand the root cause. Think about it and it’s obvious! The reason that the fundraising model is broken is also the secret weapon you can put to use.

If you don’t understand the root cause you’ll be missing the opportunity staring you in the face.

Everyone is a channel. 

Everyone is now a channel. This includes you and your charity. You are a channel and so you need to think how you can use that – especially if your role is building relationships with volunteers and supporters.

Your charity is a channel. What content does it create that people enjoy watching and sharing that connects them to your mission? Your charity now needs to think like a media owner.

And of course your supporters are a channel. And if you’ve got lots of them you’ve got more potential channels – but only if you treat them well. They can be a lifesaver too – did you see the rallying messages of support from Oxfam donors during their recent crisis?

So we need to use this new force for good.

You don’t know who people know in this increasingly connected world.

It gets better. We are clearly better connected than ever before. In our world someone you have tagged as a “one-off cash donor” could open the door to a foundation or a corporate partner. I’ve seen this happen again and again. It gets even
better. Your story is actually stronger coming from someone else. It’s more believable. Of course this means you need to be good at telling inspiring stories that others will share. And not just the fundraisers too – all your organisation needs to be good at storytelling because that will feed your fundraising programme. Staff are a channel too.

This is why you need a golden thread that unites all your stories – the reason you exist – often labeled ‘THE WHY’. This can take some focussed work to determine, but I promise it’s there, in the depths of your organisation (no matter your size or complexity). You’ll know when you find it because a strong WHY is emotional. You’ll feel it.

Think of it like a ripple that emanates out. If you have lots of ripples saying the same core message you are constantly reenforcing what is out there.

All your fundraising benefits

Here’s how all areas of fundraising benefit.

Individuals who have a story to tell can now do it for themselves. But you need to let go of your brand, and encourage and enable people to do this. When the extraordinary Songaminute Man fundraiser (see link if you haven’t heard it) from a supporter went viral (with over 4.5 million Youtube views) the Alzheimers Society had inbound calls from trusts wishing to fund their helpline, as well as raising several hundred pounds on JustGiving (just on a story). The story was more powerful coming from the supporter.

Inspired individuals will recommend you to their company. I recall how an individual who bought a solar light from SolarAid championed the charity in her company with colleagues to secure a 5 figure donation.

Other organisations that believe what you believe, can be channels to help you reach audiences they have the attention of. That’s how SolarAid struck up a partnership with the Big Issue – we both believe in ‘business based solutions to poverty’.

If you’ve pinned down your why your charity almost certainly has a huge gap to bridge, because why would you exist if you only needed a little bit of money to solve a problem. Companies love this – not what you do but what you can’t do without their help. This is where long lasting corporate partnerships form – helping you ‘bridge the gap’ to achieve something remarkable. This is why the likes of Fever Tree and Nandos are supporting Malaria No More in their ambition for us to be the “generation that ends the oldest and deadliest disease in human history”. What matters is the mission – your WHY – it’s not about what you do.

Major supporters, including individual donors, want to help you overcome the obstacles in your way that are stopping you from fulfilling your dream. So focus on your dream and the obstacles in the way of achieving them that their support can solve (not what you do).

This works throughout your entire fundraising mix. Community fundraisers can build relationships by engaging supporters and getting them to share their stories and reasons for supporting your cause. At the IoF Yorkshire Conference this year I heard how an inspiring relationship fundraiser at GuideDogs has set up a professional facebook profile to engage and connect supporters to each other, and share their content. A simple but effective example of a fundraiser as a channel and enabling her supporters to be channels too.

The good news is adopting this mindset makes the supporter experience strategic – as a great experience is something people talk about.  Investing in delivering a great experience will only add to the possibility of people recommending you, and possibly even remembering you in their will (I’ve some stories to share in future posts that illustrate this).

This mindset helps you focus on ways to engage supporters rather than just target them. If attention is now scarce you need to think of ways that attracts it and keeps it. Attention is now precious. WaterAid’s latest ‘Untapped’ appeal focused on providing engaging content rather than asking all the time. The result? Their best appeal to date.

Get those whose attention you have, to spread your message to their networks on your behalf – because your message coming from them is more likely to attract the attention of their contacts. This is an environment where campaigns which people will spread for you, like End the Silence run by Hope and Homes for Children last year, will thrive. The campaign asked people to choose their favourite childhood song and contribute to their mission of ending institutional orphanages – places where babies don’t cry because they know they will not be picked up. Hence ‘End the Silence’. So powerful and taps into the emotion we all have with music. Check out it’s story on SOFII – the Showcase for Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration.

Now your advertising and marketing can begin to work to support this approach rather than work against you. How can you re-enforce the story your supporters are spreading?  Have you spotted the fantastic campaign by Missing People called “Find Every Child” to help bring missing children home? It is rooted in their WHY and so helps on their mission and their fundraising.

And then when you have an opportunity you can really make the most of it. The Mines Advisory Group achieved one of the best amounts raised by the weekly BBC Radio Appeal 4 last year. A key part of their strategy was focusing on “people that talk” so word spread by their supporters to get people to turn that radio on and listen to it. They built an audience rather than relying on interrupting one.


There has never been a better time to fundraise

I truly believe there has never been a better time to fundraise. It is simple – but it is not easy. It needs some effort, such as getting real clarity on the reason you exist. But at least you’ll be going in the right direction. And, as the examples above show, there are so many you can draw inspiration from once you know what to look for.

Applying this way of thinking will start to make up the shortfall as you switch from an interruption based model and mindset that pervades, to one that attracts attention, builds an audience and gets them to spread your story. It will provide more sustainable income and stronger partnerships from people and organisations that feel involved in your mission. It will also deliver mission related benefits above and beyond just money.

So, if you haven’t already, take the steps above and a deep breath. This will give you courage and inspiration to start adopting a different approach.

I’ll be doing my best at highlighting organisations doing it right to help show you the way. And if you are one of them I would love to hear from you. And if you’d like to be one of them I’d like to help you!

4 thoughts on “Why the fundraising model is broken (and why this couldn’t be a better time to fundraise).

  1. Pingback: Fundraising Friday | July 6, 2018 | Pamela Grow

  2. Pingback: To change fundraising you need courage | ifundraiser blog

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