The UK has had a strange fundraising summer. It started in May with the suicide of an elderly lady in Bristol. That sparked a tabloid newspaper storm led by the Daily Mail. The newspapers claimed that the lady had jumped to her death as the result of pressure from telephone and direct mail appeals from charities. The inquest held in Bristol in September was told by the family that this was not the case.
But the media were not to be restrained by the mere facts of the case. They continued to ride rough-shod over charities and fundraising. And then the Government – led by the party that had espoused “Big Society” – waded in. In July the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee announced an enquiry into fundraising. NCVO was asked to report, a Fundraising Preference Service was hurriedly assembled and even the normally sanguine Information Commissioner leapt into the fray with new rules on the use of the telephone.
This has not ended yet. There is to be a NCVO Summit on the future of fundraising regulation in December, and we can expect the tabloids to continue their fundraising feeding frenzy as Christmas approaches.
How should prospect researchers react? What is the best we can do for our colleagues and, above all, the people, places or causes we work for?
We know them
We prospect researchers know our donors better than almost anyone else in our organisation. We have spent time learning about their motivations and the stuff they don’t like – their objections. These may include objections to the way we manage our relationship with them. It is time to apply that knowledge answer objections that may have been inflamed by the media firestorm.
We are members of the team that is managing our relationship with our donor. Right now some of our donors will be feeling a little bruised, so it is more important than ever to engage the skills of prospect researchers in cautious relationship management. Time too to remember a primary skill in research – listening to the donor.
Researchers stay longer in post then their fundraising colleagues. So we often become the repository of our organisation’s memory. Old Mrs Smith who does not want to hear ever again from our boss – they fell out 5 years ago. Or John who is having an affair with Peter who is married to Rachel in Accounts. We can’t keep that stuff in a database but we ain’t going to forget it either.
You are a Protocologist
Prospect researchers are above all people of systems. Now is the time to ensure that our systems work… for everyone. Time to review protocols and policies to make sure that they are clear to all of our stakeholders, donors included. We can be proud of our protocols because now – in the difficult moments – is when they really will make a difference, for the good.
Just About Managing
This is a new more challenging fundraising environment. It is a time for critical decisions by management, for the creation of new strategies and new models. Those big decisions have one basic need – information. Who is best placed in the organisation to uncover, analyse and transmit that information?
Yes, the prospect researcher.
Prospect research has always been a place for ethical debate. We have to live in the grey, foggy frontier between the donor and our organisation, a place where personal values, organisational values and sometimes the law can easily be lost. That’s why we have codes of practice, and full, frank debate in our online forums and meetings. We are decent honest people doing good and we are right to question our ethics all of the time. We can apply this careful, thoughtful process of developing ethics to help our colleagues.
Data rules are probably the slipperiest part of our job. They are not evolving as fast as the Internet, and so the net is full of contradictions. Prospect researchers have a clear guardian duty on behalf of the donors and supporters whose data we hold. Now, when the use of data is being questioned (ironically, by a media that survives by selling personal data…) the steady hand of the prospect research guardian is more vital than ever.
Risk and Reputation Savers
These media and Westminster attacks on our sector represent a risk. Adrian Sargeant, in a paper published this month, quantifies that as £2 billion in lost income by 2020. Charity reputations are on the line. These themes of risk and reputation are central to prospect research. We know how to do reputational research. We measure risk whenever we assess a prospect. Now we have to apply those skills to help our own organisations to reduce risk and safeguard reputation.
And Research, Of Course
In these shifting sands – it is not at all clear that there is a policy behind any of these rushed reforms – your colleagues need your research skills more than ever. Not to write another profile – although that as well – but to track what is happening in the sector, in the media, and in the Government so that your organisations can be ahead of the curve. Or at least ahead of the Mail.
In the end this summer’s discontent with fundraising is about trust, as is so much in our non-profit sector. We prospect researchers can rebuild trust one donor at a time by explaining our systems and our methods with honesty and transparency. In the end that transparency and honesty will win over the sensationalism of the press and the knee-jerk tabloid policies of Westminster. Remember that according to Mori research only one person in five trusts a journalist to tell the truth and just one in six trust a politician.
Prospect researchers are central in rebuilding trust in non-profits. We are a central link in the chain between a donor who wants to do good and a beneficiary who needs that help. We’ve got a job to do. Let’s do it.
[This blog is based on the talk I gave, 23rd November 2015, to the Researchers in Fundraising annual conference. My presentation is at http://prezi.com/b78cxodq30it/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share ]
1. Fundraisers’ perceptions of fundraising regulation reform and the Fundraising Preference Service, Results of a survey conducted by the Plymouth Charity Lab, Prof Adrian Sargeant, Rogare/Plymouth University, Nov 2015.
2. Ipsos Mori, Trust in the Professions, 2015.