Richard James is a director of Jolly Good Communications, a social enterprise providing a full range of communications and public relations services to charities, social enterprises and other not-for-profits. They also work with start-ups and SMEs, helping them to operate in a socially, environmentally and ethically conscious way.
Competition for third sector funding has arguably never been as intense as it is today, with major challenges facing charities and their fundraisers. We are seeing the number of people giving decrease, yet with statutory income drying up the emphasis on individual giving as the most important source of income for charities means fundraisers have their work cut out for them.
Traditionally the focus has been on what charities and specifically fundraisers can do to improve any donor relationship, maximise engagement and ultimately, giving. But what about the donors in this equation? It may seem counterintuitive to place responsibility on the individuals giving their money but remember that regardless of the size of the charity, unlike commercial enterprises they are not selling you a product – they exist for the benefit of our society. So, at a time when fundraisers’ value to an organisation is increasingly clear, what can donors do to make their task a little bit easier?
The obvious answer is simply to donate more. But realistically, this isn’t something everyone can or is even willing, to do. However, there are two key things donors can keep in mind when they next interact with their chosen charity: trust and time. With enough of both, a good fundraiser can afford to focus on exploring new avenues for income to raise the vital money their organisation needs for its charitable activities, without compromising the charity’s existing support.
In the past few years, certain charities and the third sector as a whole has received its fair share of negative press. Whether it was the investigation into mismanagement and closure of Kids Company, the tragic story of Olive Cooke being linked to charity requests or Oxfam’s Haiti sex scandal, these high-profile stories all have an undeniable impact on public confidence in charities. Since 2014 the overall level of trust and confidence in charities has repeatedly fallen, with the Charity Commission reporting that ‘news stories’ is the most cited reason for this decrease.
Despite this trend, the majority of people still recognise the key role charities play in society today, so while trust may have taken a hit, all is not lost. Yet it certainly seems there needs to be something done to repair damaged reputations and forge stronger relations between charities and their most valuable asset, supporters.
Understandably the majority of the responsibility for this task falls to the charity and its representatives, but donors should also recognise their potential to play a part, too. One of the easiest ways to do this is by asking the right questions. Every donor should ask themselves what matters most to them. If the surveys are right, financial transparency and use of charity funds is the likely answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one. Yet whether it’s to do with money, governance or safeguarding, getting answers to the questions that matter will help build that all-important trust.
Donors who take an active interest in the workings of the charities they support can also actually help improve that organisation’s accountability. Difficult questions encourage fundraisers to double-down on their knowledge of other aspects of a charity’s operations, enhancing the clarity of their messaging, strengthening their future responses and subsequently their approach to donor relations.
There is one caveat here because while asking sensible questions can be a useful exercise for an organisation, it’s important to remember a fundraiser’s time rarely comes for free. Donors should expect their concerns to be addressed and contributions to be appreciated, but be mindful of the fact they are just one of many. The last thing anyone would want is for the time spent on conversations with them to cost more than they generate, so the onus is on donors to be clear and to the point, to ask what matters most and make a decision based on the answer received.
Connected to this point is the issue of judgement, namely trusting theirs. Of course, donors should ultimately have a good connection with what their money is being used for. But there are times when the more attractive, tangible funding areas are already fully financed, and what a charity really needs is to cover those core costs which make their impact possible. Once trust is established, if a fundraiser is clear about what they need funding for, then trust that is what they need. It’s up to donors how much they give for that purpose (or if they give at all), but second-guessing or offering alternative uses for donations is totally pointless. Not only can it waste time, but it can even challenge the fundraiser’s integrity, as the temptation to say ‘yes’ simply in order to secure the donation might be too much to resist.
Moreover, if donors are willing to trust a fundraiser’s judgement and give to their cause, they should commit for more than just the short-term. With around a quarter of fundraisers working on a part-time basis, time management is key to maximising return on the charity’s investment. Holding events to maintain engagement, investing in marketing campaigns and touching base repeatedly to elicit another donation; all of these take that most precious commodity for those charged with raising funds. Everyone knows that nothing is ever for certain and commitments can be broken, but with only 32% of giving received through Direct Debit, making a medium or long-term commitment means a charity can plan more effectively and invest in vital areas such as safeguarding, administration, staff training and of course attracting new donors.
Giving money to a good cause is no small thing, yet there is more to being a good donor than just coughing up cash either intermittently or on-demand. Taking the time to develop trust in the charities they support gives fundraisers more time, freedom and confidence, which can only be a good thing. After all, as the saying goes, time is money, and charities – especially small ones – need as much help getting it as possible.