What do all last year’s fundraising success stories have in common?

Charlie Hulme | 9 January 2015

Answer: None of them started with fundraisers!

In all the reviews of 2014 fundraisers are raving about the spontaneous phenomena of the ‘No make-up selfie’ and the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. But in our wildest dreams do we believe these phenomenon would have happened on the scale they did if it had been up to fundraisers to deliver them?

Who would’ve been the first person to raise the health and safety issues about asking people to dunk a bucket of ice water over their heads? What would brand and comms have said about the moral, social and gender implications of asking women not to wear make-up?

Why, in the name of sanity, do we do it to ourselves? The causes we represent are so desperate for money and people are so willing to give it if we ask properly. The last I checked the Ice Bucket Challenge had raised over $100 million for the ALS Society. Quite a bump from the $2 million they raised the previous year! That extra $98 million didn’t come out of nowhere. It was always there, it just wasn’t always available to us. Why? Because we don’t make ourselves available.

There’s an enormous wall between us and the public. And we built it.

We’re restricted by a rigid set of ‘best’ practices that stop us doing any better. For all the talk of storytelling we hear we haven’t got any better at telling them. Certainly not if we’re judged on the almost non-existent growth our sectors seen compared to the commercial world in the last 40 years (40 years!)

Yet every now and then a fundraising ‘story’ explodes financially in a way that should shame us fundraisers. Look at Stephen Sutton; the teenager diagnosed with cancer whose JustGiving page raised £5 million of the £10 million that the Teenage Cancer Trust raised in a year.

Or look at the Manchester Dogs home fire. Public reaction to that ‘story’ raised more money in 22 hours than had been raised in the previous year!

Whenever one of these fundraising phenomena occur the talk is always about how can we best prepare for the next one, how should we respond and so on. All well and good. But what kind of financial strategy relies on waiting for a spontaneous phenomenon? It’s the same as a football manager whose strategy is to stand all 11 players in their own goal and rely on rebounds!

We should be asking ourselves what is it these ‘stories’ do that ours don’t?

Nothing radical happened in the case of Stephen Sutton and the Manchester Dogs home. Rather something radical didn’t happen; the truth was not suppressed. It wasn’t watered down, it wasn’t cleaned up, it wasn’t photo-shopped. It just stood there with dignity and asked to be heard.

Surely the Teenage Cancer Trust and the Manchester Dogs home had access to countless equally heart-breaking stories of tragedy and triumph, of love and loss before these things happened? Why weren’t they telling them in the same way? Can you imagine how many rounds of copy sign off Stephen would have had to go through to get approval for his JustGiving page? Was he ‘on brand’? If comms had to approve the way journalists reported on the Manchester Dogs Home fire, would they have been allowed to describe those poor animals as ‘suffering’ rather than ‘experiencing’ the fire?

I was creative director for a big international agency for years. Despite a combination of insisting and begging (with a handful of shining exceptions) almost never did I get a brief that told me something I couldn’t have got from Google. Almost never was I given access to the front line to report back. Almost never was I told anything about the audience beyond utterly useless transactional information about when they gave, how much they gave and by what channel. How can we inspire, connect and transform with that?!

If the person you hire cares more than you about connecting with your donors by telling the story truthfully something’s badly wrong. Big money is spent to deliver predictably unspectacular results when all the while there is precedent that the simple truth, told well, will deliver results beyond our wildest imagination.

The only thing that stops us from inspiring, connecting and transforming is us.

Charlie Hulme, Managing Director, Donor Voice 

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