Fundraising in hard times: How charities can succeed

watson2The looming recession and cost of living crisis are not unique events. Our economy goes in cycles: sometimes it’s boom, sometimes it’s bust, and quite often, in between times, it’s just a treacly sort of stagnation.

People who have been in fundraising for more than a few years will recall these cycles. In the good times (and the past few years have been, if not good, at least only mildly treacly), fundraising was not, frankly, that difficult. Households had money in their pocket and they could support their favourite causes.

Like commercial organisations, charities had money to spend on marketing. Brand and ‘comms’ rose up the pecking order. Money was spent on brand-style TV, on new identities, and with the gathering pace of digital fundraising, on ever more sophisticated web experiences.

The more gritty business of basic fundraising was not forgotten. But let’s be honest, for many organisations, it had become something of a poor relation and in some cases (driven now and then by the Daily Mail) even an embarrassment.

GDPR caused a lot of fundraisers to rethink their approach to acquisition, and then along came Covid and that favourite of the fundraiser, face to face, was suddenly removed from the scene.

But now the cycle is well and truly over. We are on the downward curve. We will be until 2024 when the imperatives of a General Election will cause the curve to turn back up again. So how can fundraisers succeed in this new world?

Note the word ‘succeed’. This is not the end of the fundraising world. The fact that donations are down pretty much across the board is not because the public has stopped giving. They have, though, become a lot more choosy. They are turning away from the Waitroses of charities and looking seriously at the Lidls.

Like the rest of the population, the donor is now looking for better value for their donation.

Make clear your cause and your ask
First, fundraisers need to seriously review their case for support. Is the cause clear? How vital is the work that you’re doing? How urgent is it? Long-term propositions, desirable as they are, are not going to work so well in the current environment. It’s going to be the things you can do now that appeal.

This makes big demands on the organisation, because the best way to prove the need for support is through real case histories. The ‘posed by actors’ and ‘this is based on real events’ was never a very satisfactory tale to tell, and in the downturn, the more realistic your story, the better you will do.

The real problems with telling real stories are not insurmountable. It is hard work and will cause quite a few internal ‘discussions’ but if handled with care and sensitivity then it can be done. Take a look at BBC’s Children in Need and the way it focuses on real case histories.

Second, a lot of fundraisers seem to have relegated the ‘ask’. Of course, the case for support is vital. But the case for support only works if the support is clearly asked for. In any communication, be it digital, direct mail, TV or face to face, the ask should not be the last thing that people see, but the first thing. No, this does not put people off! They are bright enough to understand that they’re going to be asked. It might feel like bad manners to dive in straight away, but the new world we’re living in demands a blunter approach.

Reframe the needs you are meeting
Third, you probably need to review your ask level, and, indeed, the way the ask is presented. In the commercial world, when times are tough, you see sales, special offers, free trials, ‘get the first one half price’ and any number of incentives to get people through the door, be it real or virtual.

‘Sales promotion’ is a massive part of the commercial marketer’s armoury – think about Black Friday. Yet these techniques are almost wholly ignored by fundraisers. It’s uncomfortable to go down this route. Many commercial organisations hate it. But commercial imperatives operate and it’s an unusual business today that isn’t making some kind of offer, especially in the digital space.

What can fundraisers do? Value exchange is one of the more obvious ones. But should you think about reducing ask levels, given the ease with which digital dialogue can upgrade at minimal cost? Should you think about time-limited donations, so that a regular gift is less burdensome? Again, renewing and upgrading is an easier process than ever.

The mechanics of the ask itself need thought. Giving options – digital wallets, voice, QR codes – are all available but in most comms are hard to find and (if you follow the logic of making the ask more upfront) really should be much more obvious.

Lastly, how you frame your appeal will need to become a lot more potent. This is not about becoming more aggressive in your marketing. It’s about becoming more confident in the needs you are meeting and the importance of the public’s support. It’s about how you put the message across.

Is your tone of voice more suited to times when life was easier? Do you need to review your messaging to make sure it reflects urgent need and good value? The donor is not going to admire any charity these days that looks as though it’s spending good money on elaborate TV productions, for example.

In this new world, the role of the fundraiser will become ever more important. Both voluntary and statutory income will be squeezed. Yet the organisations that embrace honest and urgent fundraising with clearly demonstrable need will survive in good shape.

The first step is to appreciate that times really have changed.

John Watson is chair and group chief executive of WPNC

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